Friday, January 15, 2010

"Instinct vs. Reason--A Black Cat"

"Instinct, so far from being an inferior reason, is perhaps the most exacted intellect of all. It will appear to the true philosopher as the divine mind itself acting immediately upon its creatures."

Edgar Allan Poe's short essay, "Instinct vs. Reason--A Black Cat," appeared in "Alexander's Weekly Messenger" for January 29, 1840. It is one of his more unnoticed and underrated works. This is surprising, as this seemingly innocuous musing about the antics of his pet cat, a "remarkable" animal "of a demure and sanctified demeanor," stands as an important precursor to the ideas he would later flesh out in "Eureka."

Poe begins by noting that such creatures as lion-ants, spiders, and beavers "have in them a wonderful analogy, or rather similarity, to the usual operations of the reason of man--but the instinct of some other creatures has no such analogy--and is referable only to the spirit of the Deity itself, acting directly, and through no corporeal organ, upon the volition of the animal." For instances, the coral-worm skillfully builds ramparts against the sea with not only precision, but with "prophecy," forseeing whatever accidents of nature might cause harm to his dwelling. Bees also build brilliantly engineered cells providing the greatest strength, space, and stability.

Bees and coral-worms act together as if with one mind; and, according to Poe, it is one mind--"the mind of the Creator."

Poe uses the ability of his black cat to open a latched kitchen door, a process requiring several sequential, well-timed actions, as another example of seemingly inexplicable although undeniable reasoning power. Poe obviously believed what Rosicrucians and other mystics before him felt, believed, and knew--that all that exists, every one and every thing that is, is intelligence; that one mind inhabits each sub-atomic particle, and needs only to be accessed to provide a manifestation of "the spirit of the Deity itself." What Poe calls "instinct" is of a higher level than "reason," because the former faculty is a revelation of this collective, universal intelligence, while the latter is merely an earthly, individual endeavor.

The soaring peroration of "Eureka" applies equally well to this essay: "Think that the sense of individual identity will be gradually merged in the general consciousness--that Man, for example, ceasing imperceptibly to feel himself Man, will at length attain that awfully triumphant epoch when he shall recognize his existence as that of Jehovah. In the meantime bear in mind that all is Life--Life--Life within Life--the less within the greater, and all within the Spirit Divine."

Edgar Allan Poe Aubrey Beardsley the Black Cat Instinct vs Reason