Poe and Optics

Modern Optic Theory.


How does current knowledge on optics compare to the perception of optics in Poe's writings?

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Poe’s theories on the behavior and perception of light were based not just on his considerable secondary knowledge on the subject, but also his intuitive assessment of these phenomenon, which he considered equal, if not superior to, actual experimental observation. Most of Poe’s theories were dismissed as devices for enhancing the appeal of his work to the uninformed public. Others were, however, given some consideration as serious models. 

One wonders, though, how these proposals stack up against accepted modern theories. 

Poe theories were largely shaped by the surge of scientific curiosity that was both a cause and an effect of the Industrial Revolution. This was a time when science was predominantly research-oriented; scientists were primarily engaged in unraveling natural phenomenon, on a macro as well as micro scale. This period completely revolutionized many medical fields, like ophthalmology, or the study of ocular phenomenon. In The History of Ophthalmology, the author Daniel M. Albert elucidates the changes that took place in ophthalmology in this period. He states that “….by the middle of the 19th century, areas of research and teaching began separating at a greater pace into distinct disciplines, physiology among them. Individual scientists, academic institutions, and professional organizations all pushed toward greater recognition and autonomy for their respective specialties….ophthalmology both contributed to and benefited from these developments, as seen in 19th century studies using the microscope and the ophthalmoscope. During this century, ophthalmology did not quickly leave behind its notions and therapeutics dating to antiquity. It did, however, begin to emerge as a separate and increasingly respected specialty within medicine, thanks in part to physiological studies….”

In the 17th and 18th centuries ophthalmology was mainly concerned with the detection and correction of ocular problems; however during the 18th century there emerged slowly a fascination with the actual working of the eye as well as the various idiosyncrasies that the properties of the eye exhibited.

Poe believed that the eye was more than just a biological device to perceive light. He believed that the eyes actually enhanced the perception of the world, and hence they were just as much a source of as they were a means of perceiving light. In “Poe: Optics, Hysteria, and Aesthetic Theory”, the author Rae Beth Gordon addresses the source of this belief. She states that “optical illusions or fallacies in vision are in fact subtle variations on a problem that occupied psychiatrists, psychologists, and philosophers throughout the 19th century; the problem of distinguishing the senses from the hallucinations…. The very uncertainty surrounding some laws of optics as well as the advances in the field were responsible for this keen interest. Poe’s familiarity with the work of Sir David Brewsterauthor of Letter on Natural Magic (1832), A Treatise on Optics (1835, published in America in 1843)…is well documented.” Modern science has, however, completely dismissed this theory. Advanced study of the eye has revealed the inner machinery to be just a source of conveying information to the brain via the optic nerve, which is where the processing actually takes place. There is no indication of the eye supplementing information to the brain. 

However, the optical illusions mentioned in the article are widely recognized, analyzed and used in modern times. Poe himself used optical illusions in his works, such as in his work “A Tale of the Ragged Mountains”, where the protagonist “experiences” events from “a past life.” This “experience”, however, might just have been a result of perception rather than some unexplainable time travel. Optical illusions both fascinated and baffled the ophthalmologists in Poe’s era. 

Another common theme in Poe’s work is the belief that looking at objects in direct focus results in the loss of accuracy of the minute details. This is evident in works which feature C.  Auguste Dupin, Poe’s memorable detective. This is discussed in greater detail in the accompanying article, “Poe’s use of an Idea about Perception”, by Walter Shear. Modern observation suggests, however, that vision beyond the focus of the eye, or “peripheral vision”, is weaker than focal vision in humans, and is generally not used by humans a lot in daily life. It can be refined though, through special training and is especially worked on by athletes who desire that extra edge.

Hence, while Poe has been vindicated in some of his beliefs, most of them have been condemned to the realm of “fictional pseudo-science”.