Storms in Nature and the Human Experience - Part 4 - The Connection to “A Descent into the Maelstrom” by Edgar Allen Poe


In previous entries, we have covered various aspects of the symbol and metaphor of the Storm, in Primary Scenes.

We saw that storms in nature, emerge as temporary forms of air and water, to dissipate massive amounts of energy. They appear seemingly out of nowhere, bringing their wonder and terror to the stage, only to vanish into the atmosphere, leaving hardly a trace behind.

We looked into the human experience, and saw that the storms of air and water, can say an awful lot, about the interplay of minds and muscles, in mankind.

We delved into the visual representation of the Storm, in Primary Scenes. We examined the unique aspects of the spiral, that make it a self grasping and self forming shape. We examined how the bug, of an imprecise drawing method, lead to the feature of the wobbling coils in the Storm symbol. These unplanned imperfections, communicated a crucial and subtle instability that was not appreciated, until it was observed accidentally. Lastly, we saw how the shifted perspective, the blue color, and the dark shade, make the Storm a unique and powerful symbol.

In this piece, we will explore a very specific influence and inspiration for the Storm symbol. A short story, by Edgar Allen Poe, called “A Descent into the Maelstrom”.

The Connection Between The Storm and “A Descent into the Maelstrom” by Edgar Allen Poe

If you exhaustively tried to catalogue the people, thoughts, books, movies, experiences etc., that lead you to any one particular idea or decision or creation, it would likely be impossible. The network of influences in the human experience is simply too complex and vast to enumerate, for all but the most elementary systems and interactions. Note, that some of the greatest minds, and most powerful computers, have been hamstrung by a mere “Three-body problem”1. Just ask Poincaré how that went.

It would be hard to cite what really lead to any thought, but perhaps even more so when the body of thought is so wide-ranging and all encompassing, as in the case of Primary Scenes.

So, here I need to make an important point, that is intended for this discussion of the Storm symbol in Primary Scenes, but applies much more generally to the whole of Primary Scenes. Furthermore, it extends to the thoughts and decisions in your own life. That is, most of what influences us, is not held within the spotlight of deliberative conscious awareness, but rather, it is the currents of backwaters, and hidden streams, that shape us overwhelmingly.

Every once and a while, you might catch a glimpse of the rare moment when the Cartesian theatre of the mind, is a little slow with dimming the lights. For an instant, you catch the characters of our symbolic thoughts, peeking out from behind the curtain of the subconscious. At first, both the audience and the actors feel they’ve been exposed, and that the show is ruined. For, once the characters in the play, are seen as regular people, and once the actors see the set as a stage and not the setting, the illusion is destroyed.

This is true to some extent, but it’s not the whole story. It’s like when children realize that Santa Claus is really just mom and dad, scurrying around to put gifts under the tree, in the wee hours of the morning. The magic of childish fantasy is gone, but in its place, one comes to know love, and, ceremony, and sacrifice. These are the gifts that really mattered most, but they can never be “given” from without, but only “grown” from within.

The part we miss about recognizing symbolism itself, is that although the one-sided illusion may be gone, and the relationship of the passive audience watching the active characters, is annulled, something grander can take its place. For an audience merely watches the performers, but a mind that knows it’s seeing symbols, can shift its perspective to see a different scene entirely. Suddenly, a whole new stage is revealed. One that has neither audience nor actors, but only a dance, with no lead but the moment of awareness itself.

This is how to live in a world of symbols.

Let’s see how reading “A Descent into the Maelstrom” by Edgar Allen Poe, with this perspective in mind, influenced the creation of Primary Scenes.

“A Descent into the Maelstrom” by Edgar Allen Poe

I cannot recall precisely why, when, or how, I came to first read the short story “A Decent into the Maelstrom” by Edgar Allan Poe. At some point, I must have encountered it and made a mental note for future reference. Somehow, I found my way back to this story, precisely when I was just beginning to create the body of work that would eventually become Primary Scenes.

Several times in life, it has been the case that following some significant loss, be it wits, money, housing etc., I have rebounded with a book that I fortuitously found, or dare I say, one that found me.

This particular work, by Edgar Allen Poe, helped me to really get a sense of what I wanted to represent with the Storm symbol, from am emotional and experiential standpoint. Furthermore, I think the timing of when I rediscovered it, may have made all the difference.

Main Plot Summary

The main plot is fairly simple. It is essentially the story of an older man retelling his near fatal encounter, with a terrifying whirlpool, called a “maelstrom”.

In the following passage, the older man from the story describes the location in some detail.

"…we are now close upon the Norwegian coast—in the sixty-eighth degree of latitude—in the great province of Nordland—and in the dreary district of Lofoden. The mountain upon whose top we sit is Helseggen, the Cloudy. Now raise yourself up a little higher—hold on to the grass if you feel giddy—so—and look out, beyond the belt of vapor beneath us, into the sea." — From the story “A Descent Into The Maelstrom” by Edgar Allen Poe

The older man recounts his tale of venturing out to sea, with his two brothers, to mine the abundant fish population that concentrates in that region.

The older man claims to have lost his two brothers to the vortex, during this perilous fishing trip.

It may not seem so by modern standards, but this story is actually considered to be an early example of “science fiction”. I find it interesting that depending on how you chose to interpret the story, it can have an entirely different meaning.

For example, the older man claims that he was not an old man before his encounter, but that it was the descent into the maelstrom itself, so to speak, that made him old.

Now, if you take this at face value, you get one kind of straightforward interpretation. Suppose the fisherman was literally years, or even decades older, following his brief encounter with the whirlpool. This transforms Poe’s tale into a much more obvious work of science fiction and fantasy. In this interpretation, this is more like an eyewitness account of some extreme and bizarre act of nature. In this case, it reads almost like the whirlpool, was actually a black hole, with time dilation effects similar to the movie “Interstellar”2. Crucially, such an interpretation does not suggest anything beyond the events themselves. In other words, this literal interpretation is like watching a movie or a play, as if all the characters and events in the plot, are like a window into another world with no function, meaning, or purpose beyond what is seen.

If, on the other hand, we do not take the story literally, but instead treat it like a play that we know is fictional, then things look very different. If we recognize the characters, the setting, and the events as symbols, something interesting happens. We can then discover a bounty much more fantastic than any literal account of a storm could offer, no matter how dramatic or extreme.

By knowing that we are seeing in symbols, we can find meaning, beyond the thing itself.

Metaphors and Symbolism

One of the more straightforward interpretations is to view the maelstrom as a metaphor for facing struggles in life. One could view the entire story as an allegory for surviving the terrors and troubles that can be a part of our human experience.

A more introspective and subtle interpretation of the whirlpool is, to see it as a metaphor for the struggle against the darkness inside the mind and body.

We can think of the older man as having faced desires, addictions, illnesses, etc., that scarred his mind and body in a way that both suggestively, and literally, weathered him with the weariness of aging.

Going even deeper, a still more subtle interpretation would be to view the story as an allegory about facing the darkness and emptiness of the self, i.e., of the “I” of the “Ego”.

We can consider this to be the fisherman finally facing and confronting his own essence, and finding it to be a terrifying vortex of evolutionary desires, and human symbolic narratives, with nothing substantial at the core.

This kind of self confrontation and existential dread, comes through if you consider this while reading the story.

One can even see an allegory for enlightenment, in this story about the maelstrom. When the fisherman is upon the precipice of being devoured by the maelstrom, and swallowed into the abyss, he realizes that as terrible and awful as the experience was, it was also beautiful, and majestic. The man came to peace with the dissolution of his narrative self. This happens just as he encounters the deeper funnel of the maelstrom. This symbolism is mirrored and amplified because the whirlpool is, itself, a form emerging from formless water, only to dissolve right back into the same formless sea, it came from.

"It may appear strange, but now, when we were in the very jaws of the gulf, I felt more composed than when we were only approaching it. Having made up my mind to hope no more, I got rid of a great deal of that terror which unmanned me at first. I suppose it was despair that strung my nerves.” — From the story “A Descent Into The Maelstrom” by Edgar Allen Poe

Notice how in the preceding passage, we find a sentiment that is often associated with the attainment of enlightenment in eastern traditions, and with the salvation of western traditions. That is this sense in which despair for the narrative self, gives way, to acceptance of a higher scale ebb and flow. At this point, one no longer has a need to grasp with hope, for the continuance of any individual existence, especially his or her own.

This kind of acquiescent transcendence seems to be the raison d'être, the main purpose at the very core, of both religions, and secular philosophies, across vast expanses of space, time, and culture.

“A singular change, too, had come over the heavens. Around in every direction it was still as black as pitch, but nearly overhead there burst out, all at once, a circular rift of clear sky—as clear as I ever saw—and of a deep bright blue—and through it there blazed forth the full moon with a lustre that I never before knew her to wear.” — From the story “A Descent Into The Maelstrom” by Edgar Allen Poe

We can even think of the man losing his brothers to the maelstrom, as a single man, losing different versions and aspects of himself, in the process of growth and personal evolution3.

The old man’s apparent age, as self-described in the story, can be interpreted as a metaphor for the trauma and suffering that weathered the mind and body of the man.

One smaller point that is worth noting, is the easy to overlook point, that the older man initially was lured near the region of the maelstrom because of incredibly prosperous fishing opportunities.

We can consider this to be the various desires of life, tempting the man to encroach into deadly waters.

Inspiration for the Storm in Primary Scenes

Conceptual Guidance

The story “A Decent into the Maelstrom” by Edgar Allan Poe, matched and enhanced the way I was thinking about the Storm, in the early days of creating Primary Scenes. This turned out to be really valuable because there are times, when the wet clay of thoughts are just starting to be nudged from an amorphous blob, into the first outlines of a recognizable form. It is in these times when it can be particularly important to have conceptual guidance, around the edges, at the very least.

There was something about the way that Edgar Allen Poe used the maelstrom as a symbolic metaphor, that naturally fit with what I was creating. He used an aspect of nature as a dynamic character, and that really resonated with what I wanted the Storm to represent. This clarified how I began to think about Primary Scenes as a whole.

“If you have never been at sea in a heavy gale, you can form no idea of the confusion of mind occasioned by the wind and spray together. They blind, deafen, and strangle you, and take away all power of action or reflection.” — From the story “A Descent Into The Maelstrom” by Edgar Allen Poe

When you are in that initial phase of creating the first form of an idea, it can be indispensable to find the right kind of conceptual guidance. It is like a kiln that begins to transform that unintelligible blob of clay, into a cup that can hold the substance of its own contents.

The Maelstrom – A Unique and Visual Kind of Storm

The maelstrom whirlpool is such a visceral and unique visual, that Poe’s masterful use of it really helped to cement the sense, that the Storm should be represented by a spiraling coiling symbol.

It may seem quite obvious in hindsight, but it is hard to represent a storm with a symbol. When we think of storms, particularly if we do not live in tornado prone regions, we seldomly get to visually make out the form of a storm, with our own eyes. We may feel the winds and rains of hurricanes, or witness the coastal devastation of cyclones and typhoons etc. That said, the forms of those storms, are generally so large as to only be discernible from space, or at the very least, by weather measuring aircraft, flying high above.

It is uniquely in the case of the sea born whirlpool, that emergence and dissolution of form can really be witnessed. Therefore, even though Poe exaggerates for dramatic effect, the phenomenon of the maelstrom, is based on real principles that can actually be visualized in reality.

Here in the following passage, Poe gives a masterclass on using the visual of the maelstrom, to communicate the terror and beauty that we confront in our brief human experience.

"Never shall I forget the sensations of awe, horror, and admiration with which I gazed about me. The boat appeared to be hanging, as if by magic, midway down, upon the interior surface of a funnel vast in circumference, prodigious in depth, and whose perfectly smooth sides might have been mistaken for ebony, but for the bewildering rapidity with which they spun around, and for the gleaming and ghastly radiance they shot forth, as the rays of the full moon, from that circular rift amid the clouds, which I have already described, streamed in a flood of golden glory along the black walls, and far away down into the inmost recesses of the abyss. — From the story “A Descent Into The Maelstrom” by Edgar Allen Poe

This really helped to imagine a visual depiction of a real life storm, that could be effectively a hole in the sea.

Dare I say, if you cannot find inspiration, from passages as visual and visceral, as these from Poe’s story, you may not be so human, after all.

Prime Example of Using Aspects of Nature to Represent the Human Experience

The way that Poe employs the natural landscape to evoke emotion and represent life’s struggles, helped to further cement the concept and depiction of the Inner Landscape Scene, of which the Storm is an essential element.

Although aspects of the story are exaggerated for dramatic and symbolic effect, the general locations and phenomena, do exist in the real world.

What is masterful, is how Edgar Allen Poe, uses landscapes and phenomena in nature, not merely as background settings, or static locations, but as dynamic characters, that are actually the true stars of the story.

Primary Scenes would come to adopt and greatly expand on this approach of using nature itself, to represent the dynamic characters, that are really the stars of our human experience, beneath the set dressing of our daily lives.

Closing Thoughts

In this piece, we looked into the short story “A Descent into the Maelstrom” by Edgar Allen Poe, and the ways in which it influenced and inspired aspects of Primary Scenes, in particular, the Storm.

We discussed some of the metaphors and symbolism, that were derived from the story. The focus was in viewing the whirlpool as a symbol for representing different levels of struggle within the human experience. From literal external struggles, to inner turmoil within the mind and body, to the innermost struggle to transcend the illusion of the self.

We delved into some of the incredible visual depictions of the whirlpool, that helped to direct the look and feel of the Storm symbol in Primary Scenes.

Moreover, we explored how the use of natural landscapes and phenomena, helped to solidify and accelerate the use of natural landscapes and elements, to represent dynamic characters that play their roles in our human experience.

Now that you have some familiarity with this short story, I encourage you to re-read it, or read it in full for the first time.

Aside from just the fact that it is a genuinely great short story, you may find particular value in seeing its influence, reverberate throughout Primary Scenes. In particular, you should look at the Inner Landscape Scene as a whole, and the Storm symbol specifically.

  1. The so called “Three-body Problem” (now generalized as the “n-body problem”) is a notorious example of deterministic chaos that emerges from seemingly dirt simple initial conditions. It involves trying to accurately calculate and predict the future trajectories of 3 gravitating bodies. At first it seems to be a trivial matter of applying Newton’s law of gravitation for each time step, and calling it a day. What happens in reality, is that seemingly out of nowhere, the simple behavior of the system explodes, and all kinds of wild loops, and slingshots, and crazy pinball type trajectories evolve. The strange thing is that these unexpected movements appear to come out of nowhere, though their generation from known starting points, suggests that they should be in some sense “in” the initial conditions themselves. The renowned mathematician Jules Henri Poincaré, tried famously to crack this conundrum and failed. He should not feel bad however, for even in this age of super computers and simulations, chaotic systems such as in the n-body problem, and particularly in fluid turbulence, are barely any more tractable and predictable, than they were hundreds of years ago. ↩︎
  2. It is interesting that Edgar Allen Poe’s story dates from 1841, as this preceded the well known H. G. Wells story “The Time Machine” which was published in 1895. Further, this idea that the proximity to some natural phenomenon, no less one that is a hole that sucks in all of its surroundings, can warp time, is quite prescient if taken literally. Einstein himself, had only published his General Relativity theory in 1915. It was GR that really brought this concept of warped spacetime, and time dilation effects due to the geometry of spacetime, into the world. Black holes are a set of solutions to Einstein’s equations, so they could not have been known to Edgar Allen Poe, when writing this story. It is likely just a fateful coincidence, but one can wonder if Poe may have rubbed elbows with people, or had been privy to writings, which may have had fragments of these ideas, long before Einstein made them precise. ↩︎
  3. Another good example of using multiple characters to portray different aspects of the same person, is in the movie “Adaptation”. Nicholas Cage plays the role of the screenwriter “Charlie Kauffman”, who in real life actually wrote the screen play for the movie “Adaptation”. Kauffman uses the twin brothers, both played by Cage, to visualize this multiple aspects of self, concept. ↩︎