Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Horrible Sanity

The name of this blog is "Horrible Sanity." Its origin is a letter written by Edgar Allan Poe, hence the handsome feathered fellow in the title graphic.

Sidebar: Technically, that's a crow in the title graphic, not a raven. There is a difference, and you can read all about the technical disparities of the two birds at this fine Cornell University web page; however, they strike me as academic, as it were, and suggest no reason that I shouldn't employ a photo of a crow and assume that you will infer it to be a raven in homage to Mr. Poe. The photo, by the way, comes from the website publicdomainpictures.net, an excellent source of royalty-free bird and non-bird graphics.
So. Mr. Poe's quotation is most frequently rendered thus: "I became insane, with long intervals of horrible sanity." The sentiment clearly resonates with a lot of people in today's crazy mixed-up world - just Google it some time - but what exactly does it mean? A quick dive into context, that sworn enemy of sound-bite culture, reveals more than just a slogan for the friends of psychosis. In 1848, Poe wrote a letter to his friend George Evereth, in which he described the long illness that had culminated in his wife's death a year earlier. Virginia Clemm Poe suffered from tuberculosis - commonly referred to in those days as "consumption" and by Poe himself as a ruptured blood vessel in her throat. From 1842 until her death, Mrs. Poe endured steadily declining health, alternating periods of illness with brief respites when she "recovered partially...again - again - again & even once again at varying intervals," while her husband attended her during each episode. Poe wrote of this time:
Each time I felt all the agonies of her death - and at each accession of the disorder I loved her more dearly & clung to her life with more desperate pertinacity. But I am constitutionally sensitive - nervous in a very unusual degree. I became insane, with long intervals of horrible sanity.

I know how you feel, Edgar. Although, thankfully, my daily existence has only rarely approached the anguish of Poe's experience, I get what happens when crisis becomes the new normal. Whether dealing with economic adversity, relationship stress, or health concerns, a strange mutation occurs in your outlook when you find yourself spending more time on the precipice than on solid ground. Almost imperceptibly, your body and mind start to make adaptations that in better times might be considered extreme survival mechanisms. Only now they seem justified as simple concessions to an altered reality. When food is plentiful, or your job is secure, you may consider someone's offer of a plate of leftovers as unnecessary charity and dismiss it without a thought. But when circumstances change, and you're hungry more often than you're full, you'll not only accept that charity, you'll go looking through someone's trash in hope of finding something edible. And it will seem as natural to you in your hour of need as your refusal of charity seemed in your hour of plenty.

More than that, if you live with the alterations long enough, you find that they assume a new identity in your mind. When pain and anguish are all you know, they become companions, perhaps not pleasant but familiar, and more secure in their relationship to your current life than the previous conditions they replaced. In other words, burdens become comforts, and comforts burdens, so that it actually becomes harder to give them up, even when circumstances improve, than to continue living with them. Like Poe, you'd rather be immersed in a sea of familiar chaos than stranded on an island of fleeting normality.

My use of the phrase "horrible sanity" is an honest homage to E.A. Poe, but ironic (I hope) in its application. By appropriating it, I'm trying to define a healthy outlook for my blogging. I don't want sanity, no matter how rare or exotic a commodity it may sometimes seem, to be horrible; I don't want to become so "constitutionally sensitive" that I prefer to tread chaotic waters over setting down on solid ground when it presents itself. In other words, I don't want to rant for ranting's sake, and I don't want to navel-gaze because I can't see past my own consciousness, and I don't want to feel threatened by complexity or rationality of thought. Because I think it would be too easy for me, and too boring for you.

Poe's letter to George Evereth is quoted in A Historical Guide to Edgar Allan Poe, ed. J. Gerald Kennedy, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.


  1. Thank you for writing, Terry. Please do so every day. It is imperative.

  2. You are such a brilliant writer. As I read your description of "horrible sanity," I kept thinking that this absolutely could describe the state of our society these days--"crisis has become the new normal."


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