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Poe on Terror

Boyd Professor Gerald Kennedy discusses Poe’s relevance in the “Age of Terror”

Ever considered Edgar Allan Poe as an anti-terrorism expert?

Professor Gerald Kennedy seems to think Poe would be perfect for such a job.

Kennedy, one of the newest Boyd Professors at LSU, recently gave a lecture entitled “Poe’s War on Terror,” kicking off the Honors College Faculty Research Series for the fall semester.

One of the most prolific authors of the 19th century, Edgar Allan Poe specialized in bringing the macabre and grotesque to life, and his stories of terror never cease to shock and enthrall in their dark glory. In his lecture, Kennedy argued that in this “Age of Terror,” Poe is the best source for helping us understand how we deal with terror in everyday life.

“In addition to sort of exploiting the idea of terror in his own writing, Poe was also interested in helping us manage terror,” Kennedy said.

Kennedy began by speaking about the recent anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, and how Poe would have responded to the situation of fear that seems to pervade American culture. According to Kennedy, Poe’s qualifications for a good horror story depend on a unity of details within the writing.

“[This] totalizing effect formed the objective of Poe’s literary aesthetics,” he said. “He aimed to overwhelm; he wanted nothing less than the soul of the reader.”

Kennedy also proposed that this unification of written elements can be applied to terrorist attacks and the mindset of a terrorist bent on creating maximum mental damage.

“What Poe understood, and what the orchestrators of 9/11 figured out as well, is that an action terrifying enough to control the soul of a reader or a nation must be both shockingly unexpected and symbolically coherent — an action whose unifying preconceived design becomes apparent only in the aftermath of an unimaginative horror,” he said.

At the heart of Poe’s tales of horror is the struggle with the denial of death. Kennedy explained that, in Poe’s eyes, fear is nothing more than the fear of mortality. This terror, inherent in the human psyche, drives humanity to conquer death through the pursuit of immortality by creating something lasting.

“Terrorism — the use of lethal, unexpected, and remorseless violence to exact revenge or intimidate a population — works because it shatters the psychological defenses that shield individuals from the fear of death,” said Kennedy.

However, this terror that so infiltrates our culture also existed in Poe’s America, argued Kennedy. Poe’s own fear of death permeated his own consciousness, prompting his gruesome stories, and Kennedy’s lecture focused on how inexplicable terrors such as contagion in the form of cholera, slave rebellions, Indian attacks, mob violence, and Jacksonian era government control dominated Poe’s life. 

“Poe created some of his greatest tales by exploring his private anxieties rather than denying them,” Kennedy said.

Kennedy said Poe managed terror in his own life through exploiting his own fears on paper and working through them with reason. By unifying the details of his stories and becoming master rather than victim of the plot, Poe controlled his own anxiety.

According to Kennedy, there is much work to be done to manage terror and terrorism in the global community today.

“The real task is how to change the socioeconomic conditions that dispose people to terrorist acts. We need to improve the living conditions of those who feel they have nothing to lose by dying,” he said. “The challenge lies in finding rational constructive ways to curb the practices that give purchase to bigotry.”

Finally, when in doubt, turn to humor.

“Poe understood that humor is a good way to keep our mortal fear in perspective,” Kennedy said. “By refusing to worry about unrealities or to inflate death into a hideous monster, we wage the real war on terror.”

Dr. Kennedy’s lecture was the first of this semester's three Research Series events. The second event will be held Thursday night from 6 - 7 p.m. in the West Laville Study as Engineering Professor Todd Monroe presents "Biomedical Engineering at Small Scales: Photoactivated Therapeutics and Lab-On-A-Chip Diagnostics.”

The Honors Research Series showcases and promotes research in the LSU Honors College, demonstrating the processes of, stimulating conversation about, and contributing to a culture of research.  The Research Series continues through the fall semester.

Story by Jacqueline DeRobertis, LSU Honors College

For more information, contact the Honors College at 225-578-8831.