The Horror of the Inexpressible: Misophonia in Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher”
In Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher,” Roderick Usher is haunted by an unnamed mental illness. The story concerns the narrator’s recollection of events that followed a pleading letter from his childhood friend, Roderick Usher, who is suffering from a severe disorder of the mind and asks the narrator to visit the house. Usher is found in a state of extreme exhaustion, anxiety, and agitation with his ill sister in the crumbling family mansion. After the sister is believed to have passed, she is buried in a vault deep below the house, and the narrator begins to feel the effects of not only the gloom of the mansion but of the mental disorder that Roderick suffers from. Frantic, Usher confesses that they have buried his sister alive and she returns to smother him. The narrator flees the house and turns back to see the entire structure collapse. The narrator attempts to describe Usher’s severe anxiety but can merely say that he suffers an “intolerable agitation of the soul…[an] unnerved, pitiable condition” (Poe 115). This “pitiable condition” is without a name, and the “intolerable agitation of the soul” haunts and ultimately destroys Roderick. The horror of the story, one might argue, has much to do with the inability of the narrator to express the mental illness that Roderick is suffering from, an illness, ironically, that has not, until recently, been given a name–Misophonia. After years of research on the neurological condition, Misophonia was officially labeled in 2006 to mean “hatred of sound.” As Aage Møller explains in the Textbook of Tinnitus, Misophonia is a “phantom sensation” that is brought on by a hyper-sensitivity to specific sounds resulting in “automatic reactions of various kinds” (Moller 26). When the trigger sounds are present, the sufferer is immersed in severe anxiety, racing violent thoughts, rage, and fear. According to David Veale in Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education, over time, immense amounts of anxiety, fear, and isolation cloud the sufferer until his or her life is consumed by the mental agitation. Early signs and symptoms of the disorder begin in a person’s childhood—around the age of seven or eight (Veale). The symptoms of rage, aggression, and anxiety are most intense in regard to the sufferer’s loved ones, whether it is a lover, a family member, or in Roderick’s case, both.
Roderick’s hypersensitivity plagues his mind and subjects him to a life of anxiety, exhaustion, and angst-ridden isolation. Without being able to name his severe agitation and mental suffering, Roderick’s horror is amplified, demonstrating the fear we have of the unknown. A productive critical approach to Poe’s story is to analyze it through a Lacanian lens. According to Jacques Lacan’s theory in Critical Theory Today by Lois Tyson, Roderick, unable to understand his illness because there is no language to describe it, attempts to find solace and unity in creative outlets, but music and art fail to serve as a proper objet petit a, or a substitution for the absence of language and repressed desire for expression. Looking at the story with an assumed diagnosis of Misophonia, the reader can decipher Usher’s mysterious ailment and begin to understand his repression. In “The Fall of the House of Usher,” Poe fixates on the horror of the inexpressible; Usher represses a sense of lack due to his inability to find the language to express the unnamed horror that is now known as Misophonia.
The foundation of Roderick’s agitation is sound sensitivity and the severe anxiety and exhaustion that are by-products of Misophonia. Before entering the house, the narrator reflects: “as boys…[Roderick’s] reserve had been always excessive and habitual” (Poe 110). From an early age, Roderick was experiencing symptoms of the disorder because he isolated himself even then. The narrator also recalls that the mental ailment of his friend is genetic by saying that the “consequent undeviating transmission, from sire to son” has occurred for centuries (Poe 111). As David Veale has discovered through research, Misophonia emerges at a young age and recent research proves it to be genetic. Upon entering the house, he finds Roderick in a disordered, exhausted state that matches the symptoms of Misophonia almost perfectly. The narrator attempts to explain his ailment as follows: “He suffered much from a morbid acuteness of the senses…there were but peculiar sounds, and these from stringed instruments, which did not inspire him with horror” (Poe 115). The horror that Roderick experiences is elevated because the affliction that oppresses him is unnamed and therefore inexpressible; to comprehend his deepening madness, the reader must apply Lacan’s theory to the words and actions of Usher.
Without a name for the disorder, Roderick is crushed beneath the weight of its burden and the frustration of the lack of language to express his condition; in turn, he represses his angst which only deepens his suffering. As Jacques Lacan’s psychoanalytic theory states, “the use of language in general…implies a loss, a lack” (Tyson 29). The inability to find the “correct” words to express his fears, desires, and even the disorder itself results in an “absence” in the character of Roderick Usher. Applying Lacan’s theory, the reader can gain quite a bit of insight from Usher’s strained attempts to speak of his ailment. He says,
I must perish in this deplorable folly…I dread the events of the future, not in themselves, but in their results…I shudder at the thought of any, even the most trivial, incident, which may operate upon this intolerable agitation of the soul…In this unnerved, in this pitiable, condition I feel that the period will sooner or later arrive when I must abandon life and reason together, in some struggle with the grim phantasm, FEAR. (Poe 115)
Exhaustion, anxiety, and fear have clearly consumed Roderick and he can only express so much of his agitation in words. The narrator is correct when he refers to Usher as a “bounden slave;” he is a slave not only to his disordered mind and his isolation, but to the lack of expression for his innermost troubles, and is forced to believe that he has gone insane and must die (Poe 115). The reader should observe this lack of expression again when Roderick’s twin sister passes through the chamber but leaves abruptly. The narrator looks to Usher for a reaction “but he had buried his face in his hands, and I could only perceive that a far more than ordinary wanes had overspread the emaciated fingers through which trickled many passionate tears” (Poe 116). Taking into account his extraordinary love for his sister, the reader can see the disorder manifest itself even deeper into the mind of Roderick; for sufferers of Misophonia, the presence and actions of loved ones causes the most anguish. Therefore, Roderick cannot find words to express heart-wrenching sorrow mingled with fear that he experiences at the sight of his twin lover. After the first encounter with Usher, the reader should observe the severe repression of emotion due to the frustration with language and his acceptance of madness.
Consumed with repressed grief, anguish, and anxiety and exhausted by incessant agitation, Roderick turns to creative outlets such as music and art. Furthering Lacan’s theory, the reader can observe Roderick’s failed attempts at creative expression since verbal expression is simply not possible when the disorder is unnamed. Usher attempts to find a temporary objet petit a in music and art, but his desire for expression (even creatively) is unattainable. The narrator, upon his first scan of the chamber, is quick to point out the fact that “many books and musical instruments lay scattered about but failed to give any vitality to the scene” (Poe 113). Roderick is clearly surrounding himself with creative outlets in hopes of releasing some of his inexpressible anguish and finding symbolic unity in his desperate state of absence. By having the instruments fail to “give any vitality to the scene,” Poe wants the reader to feel the absence that is created by Usher’s inability to express his disorder and the creative outlets’ failure to supplement the lack or serve as a proper objet petit a. No matter the lengths Roderick goes to for relief, the narrator perceives “the futility of all attempt at cheering a mind from which darkness” (Poe 116). Though the creative outlets do not alleviate Roderick’s suffering, Poe uses art to try and express the condition and the severe repression to the reader. In particular, Poe draws attention to a particular image in one of Usher’s paintings. The narrator is careful to point out that it can “be shadowed forth, although feebly, in words” (Poe 117). Roderick’s painting depicts “the interior of…a vault or tunnel, with low walls, smooth, white, and without interruption or device…this excavation lay at an exceeding depth below the surface of the earth. No out let was observed in any portion of its vast extent” (Poe 117). The description of the painting is Poe’s attempt to express the isolation and deep disturbance surrounding the unnamed condition of Usher. The vault also represents the deep repression of the emotions that Roderick cannot express. His frustration only increases his agitation and carves the vault of repression even deeper into his tortured mind. After acknowledging the primary symptoms of Misophonia and the repression of emotion in Roderick, one can see the disorder grow from a mere sound sensitivity to an all-encompassing force of destruction.
Poe has Roderick bury his sister alive in order to express the hideously unimaginable side of Misophonia: the uncontrollable progression of violent thought. Though most sufferers of Misophonia never physically commit acts of violence, the immediate ascension of the desire of violent action and unbridled rage leaves the person agitated and exhausted due to the repression of such strong emotions. Roderick’s repression of his frustration with the lack of language leads him to physically repress his beloved sister into the vault. Poe wants readers to acknowledge that along with burying his sister alive, Roderick is re-creating the act of repressing emotions. The vault, in a sense, is the deepest part of the house and is therefore the deepest area of his mind. Before Usher’s confession, the narrator makes note of his anxious demeanor:
…I saw that his lips trembled as if he were murmuring inaudibly. His head had dropped upon his breast—yet I knew that he was not asleep, from the wide and rigid opening of the eye as I caught a glance of it in profile. The motion of his body, too, was at variance with this idea—for he rocked from side to side with a gentle yet constant and uniform sway. (Poe 126)
Here, Roderick is suffering an immeasurable amount of agitation, anxiety, and anguish. He is not only reflecting the burial of his sister, but he is traumatized by the sounds from the vault and is nearing nervous collapse. With racing thoughts and mounting anxiety consuming him, Roderick pours out the following confession:
Not hear it?—yes I hear it, and have heard it. Long—long—long—many minutes, many hours, many days, have I heard it—yet I dared not—oh, pity me, miserable wretch that I am!—I dared not—I dared not speak! We have put her living in the tomb! (Poe 127)
The description of the sounds in this passage is not unfamiliar to a sufferer of Misophonia. Roderick has been transfixed, obsessed, and driven mad by the sounds that he has heard incessantly for days. He acted on the violent thoughts that Misophonia provided him with and at this point he fully embodies the horror of the disorder. The reappearance of Usher’s sister from the tomb represents the inability to escape the repressed emotions. Fear of madness, the absence of language, and the mounting anguish return in the form of his buried sister and literally smother Usher to death.
Language, in Lacan’s theory, is structured like the unconscious, and is therefor
re represented by the House of Usher itself (Tyson). The portrayal of the symptoms of the disorder and its effects, the unfathomable act of violence, and the failed attempts at creative expression are all kept inside the daunting mansion, therefore representing the most devastating horror of the story: that the affliction of the mind is inescapable and inexpressible. The crumbling house must collapse on the remaining Usher to represent the mental devastation that results from the failed attempt to reach symbolic unity and the inability to express the mental affliction.
Møller, Aage R. “Misophonia, Phonophobia, And ‘Exploding Head’ Syndrome.” Textbook of tinnitus. 25-27. New York, NY US: Springer Science + Business Media, 2011. PsycINFO. Web. 11 Oct. 2012.
Tyson, Lois. Critical Theory Today. 2nd ed. Routledge: New York, 2006. Print.
Veale, David. “A Compelling Desire for Deafness.” Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education. 11.3 (2006): 169-372. PsycINFO. Web. 25 Oct 2012.