Monday, February 1, 2010

"The Philosophy of Furniture"

"Philosophy has its merits, and is applicable to an infinity of purposes."

"The Philosophy of Furniture," which first appeared in "Burton's Gentlemen's Magazine," in May 1840, is unquestionably one of Edgar Allan Poe's more eccentric works. Ostensibly, it is a detailed, high-handed disquisition on interior decorating, focusing on indignant condemnations of the "Yankee" style of home furnishings, which he dismisses as "preposterous."

Poe's tone was obviously playful and satiric, leading the essay to be largely dismissed as a mere light-hearted oddity. (It is hard to take seriously any work which states, "A judge at common law may be an ordinary man; a good judge of a carpet must be a genius.") However, Poe never published anything for no purpose. He was not a writer to throw words on paper for meaningless sport, or for a few easy dollars. "Furniture" utilizes Poe's penchant for codes, hoaxes, and double meanings to send a covert message. "There is reason," he wrote, "in the roasting of eggs, and there is philosophy even in furniture." Just so. The essay, in fact, makes an interesting companion-piece to two of his most esoteric short stories, "The Domain of Arnheim," and its sequel, "Landor's Cottage."

Under his bantering veneer, Poe connected vulgarity of furnishings with vulgarity of soul. "The corruption of taste is a portion or a pendant of the dollar-manufacture. As we grow rich, our ideas grow rusty," Poe declared, comparing the "offensive" American decor with the "spirituality of a British boudoir." This American failing, according to Poe, stems from his countrymen's obsession with wealth. "We have no aristocracy of blood," he noted, "and having therefore as a national, and indeed as an inevitable thing, fashioned for ourselves an aristocracy of dollars, the display of wealth has here to take the place and perform the office of the heraldic display in monarchical countries...we have brought to merge in simple show our notions of taste itself." In short, Poe asserted that Americans have confused mere material display for spiritual worth, to their great detriment as a people.

In "The Domain of Arnheim," Ellison created an ideal landscape that enabled visitors to get in touch with their highest spiritual capabilities. "Furniture" illustrated how, in contrast, the typical American's corruptive pursuit of mere material gain has its correspondent in a "corruption of taste." The resulting "perfect farrago of discordant and displeasing effects" is the antithesis of Arnheim, creating a degradation, rather than an exaltation, of soul.

As in "Arnheim," Poe closed with a long and lovingly detailed description of an ideal landscape--only here, his man-made Paradise is interior, not exterior. This "small and not ostentatious chamber" is described as a "parallelogram" (an important figure in Pythagorean mysticism) with two large windows of crimson glass, with outer curtains of silver tissue and inner of crimson silk, fringed with gold.

Crimson and gold predominates the room, appearing also in the thick carpet, the sofas, and the single Argand lamp. (The "silver grey tint" of the wallpaper is similar to that described in "Landor's Cottage.") The artwork consists of "landscapes of an imaginative cast," (another Arnheim connection,) and "three or four female heads, of an ethereal beauty (redolent of Arnheim's "earth angels.")

"Repose speaks in all" in the room, investing the inhabitant with a sense of "tranquil but magical radiance." As with "Domain of Arnheim," the outer surroundings, which follow the laws of Nature, have helped guide its inhabitants to spiritual peace. (It is notable that the room's one occupant is described as deeply and peacefully asleep--a virtual state of Nirvana.)

It is curious that this essay echoes the Chinese concept of "Feng Shui," which holds that one's outer surroundings influence the inner life. Crimson and gold--the dominant colors in Poe's dream room--are the classic Oriental "power colors," symbolizing good fortune and happiness. (It is an odd--coincidence?--that at one of Virginia Poe's last public appearances, at one of the New York literary soirees, she was described as wearing a crimson gown with gold lace trim.) Poe loathed straight lines, or even curved lines that are forced into "unpleasant uniformity." "Undue precision spoils the appearance of many a room." Feng Shui refers to such "undue precision" as "Sha," or negative energy--"poison arrows" that create inner tension and ill luck to the inhabitants of such surroundings.

In Feng Shui, it is considered highly important that the carpeting blends harmoniously and inconspicuously with the rest of the room. Poe called the carpet "the soul of the apartment" and railed against "bedizzened" "Kaleidoscope" carpeting, which he calls "the wicked invention of a race of time-servers and money-lovers."

To Poe, "Glare is a leading error," harsh gas lighting and an overabundance of sparkling glass "a perversion of taste," creating light that is "unequal, broken, and painful." Feng Shui also classifies glare as "Sha," and recommends soft, warm lights--Poe's "tranquil radiance"--to improve one's mood and energy.

One could go on, but the point is clear. As strange as it sounds, in 1840, Poe, in the guise of mere tongue-in-cheek prattle about American bad taste, wrote a serious treatise following an ancient Chinese belief system that only became publicized in the West in very recent years.

Poe's writings were often humorous, but never meaningless.