Tuesday, May 2, 2017

The Tell-Tale Heart ...

     From the secret place in our hearts, God’s Spirit compels us. When the Spirit moves us, it is because the Spirit is moving in us, and through our agency others are transformed as a result of His. The painlessness of this dynamic depends, of course, on how much we resist it. The power of the indwelling Holy Spirit can be as much of a burden as a gift, since the eye of the Witness in our hearts is all-seeing. (Psalm 139:23-24)  Imagine the sound of a ticking pocketwatch, wrapped in cotton. It’s the kind of sound only a man with superhuman hearing could detect. Or possibly an auditory hallucination of a man with deathwatch beetles chewing through the timbers of his mind. In Edgar Alan Poe’s short story “The Tell-Tale Heart” (1843) this sound heralds the Narrator’s nervous breakdown while being interviewed by police investigating a disturbance. There had been a blood-curdling scream in the night. The Old Man, who might have been the Narrator’s houseguest or landlord, had disappeared. We do not know for sure who the Old Man was or his relationship to the Narrator. We know that the Old Man had a cache of gold somewhere in the house, and that the Narrator by his own admission did not desire it. He loved the Old Man, or so he says. He does not seem to be a reliable narrator, whoever he is, and his retelling of events strikes us as a rather grotesque fever-dream. All that unpleasantness on account of a diseased, milky-blue vulture eye! According to the Narrator it was the Evil Eye staring unblinkingly into his soul from the pit of hell. The Narrator claims to have killed the Old Man in his bed on the eighth night, soon after the stroke of midnight. As we know from fairy stories, midnight is the witching hour. Not a drop of the victim’s blood was spilled in that room as he was dismembered, a tub having caught all. (If you’ve ever watched an episode of CSI: Las Vegas, you know how implausible this is.) How the Narrator disposed of the blood, he doesn’t say. Came there a trio of policemen, or perhaps a triune Judge? Why did the confession to murder tear itself out of the Narrator with such sudden, agonizing force? How might this intrapsychic conflict relate to anything in the real world outside his fever-dream? He has surely not destroyed God despite all his ferocity and guile, nor has he closed the heavenly gate opened deep within him.

     An intrapsychic conflict is a struggle at the center of the mind, fought by the mind against itself for reasons that may or may not be perfectly transparent. The center of the mind is the innermost sanctum we open to the Lord when He stands at its gate and knocks. It’s the final bulkhead between Him and us. This classic American horror story, which for my own purpose I present here as pure intrapsychic struggle, depicts a tortured soul writhing in the grip of the Great Physician into Whose care it has imperfectly placed itself. The Great Physician cannot do His work if the patient does not submit to Him in love. The symbolic meaning of the human eye includes perception, knowledge, and understanding. The “vulture eye” which gazed into the Narrator’s soul as he so vividly described, evokes for us the All-Seeing Eye of God, that esoteric “Eye of Providence” device on the American one-dollar bill. Being seen & known by the Living God is a terrible thing for anyone who does not wish to be fully known to anyone … including themselves. So in effect the Eye of God is, for many, closer to being the Eye of Sauron.
     Whose heart tells the tale, the Heart of God or the craven sinner’s heart? They both do, actually. The story they tell together is that of their encounter, and how the turbulent courtship leads to the terms of surrender being hashed out, and then finally to the sinner’s surrender itself. It is no triviality in my opinion that the final line of Poe’s story represents the last of the madman’s self-will withering into ash: “Villians! Dissemble no more! I admit the deed! --tear up the planks! here, here! --It is the beating of his hideous heart!"

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