Poe’s Comet Cataclysm: End of the World 1839

Edgar Allen Poe’s The Conversation of Eiros and Charmion (1839)

Great_Comet_1861The word “apocalypse” not only means a cataclysm that ends the current world order, but also, from the word’s Greek root, a revelation of truth. Poe’s very short story about the End of the World is an apocalypse in both senses of the word. In this early instance of the cataclysmic-collision-with-celestial-object tale, Poe makes an odd mix of science and prophesy to capture the moment of “the speculative Future merged in the august and certain Present.” “Eiros and Charmion” shows us what happens when the unknown becomes the dramatically revealed known.

The story starts with Eiros waking up to the startling realization that the afterlife is real, and that he (or she — Poe doesn’t say) is in it. His old friend Charmion, who died ten years earlier, is there to welcome him, happy to see Eiros “looking life-like and rational.” Charmion informs Eiros that their earthly names have been discarded, and that tomorrow he’ll induct his friend “into the full joys and wonders of your novel existence.”

Welcome to the Afterlife
Eiros is overwhelmed to find himself confronting “the unknown now known.” His new state will take some getting used to, Charmion tells him, but first Eiros must relate how the world came to an end — because it did end, and that is why Eiros and all of the rest of humanity are now dead. “I remember aright,” Charmion says, “the calamity which overwhelmed you was utterly unanticipated. But, indeed, I knew little of the speculative philosophy of the day.”

With this exchange, Poe has set up the End of the World as a story about speculation versus truth. For Eiros, the afterlife is no longer a speculative idea but a fact, and he is about to tell a story in which the “speculative philosophy” of the 19th century encounters the unanticipated brute fact of the world’s extinction.

It all started when astronomers discovered a comet that is likely to pass dangerously close by Earth. But the scientists were confident that there was no cause for alarm. Thanks to science, comets had been “divested of the terrors of flame.” They were thought to be composed of a very light gas, and unable to do much damage to the planet. Here Poe is invoking an idea about comets that would persist in some form well to the end of the 19th century — the astronomer Camille Flammarion also wrote about an ethereal comet in his 1893 apocalypse novel Omega: The Last Days of the World. (Today we recognize that comets are “dirty snowballs,” comprised largely of rock and ice.)

That comets were not balls of fire and rock was supposed to be reassuring. Eiron says that “men had agreed to understand those passages in the most holy writings” that Earth would be destroyed by fire. Since they were composed of light gas, comets as “the agency of the threatened fiery destruction had been for many years considered an inadmissible idea.” Scripture says earth will be destroyed by fire, while science says that comets don’t threaten fiery destruction, therefore the world has nothing to fear, case closed. Only “a few of the ignorant” remain apprehensive, unwilling to let reason be their standard of truth.

For the most part, reason rules the day. “As if by some sudden convulsive exertion, reason had at once hurled superstition from her throne.” People discuss the comet’s anticipated mild effects: “slight geological disturbances” or “possible magnetic and electrical influences.”

Fiery Prophesy Fulfilled
But as the comet approaches, the world realizes that these reasoned ideas are about to be tested against the inevitable reality of the comet’s Earth-bound trajectory. What people think does not matter; it won’t alter the course of the future. “Human operations” are suspended, and even the bravest hearts now beat “violently.” Faced with the reality of the comet, with that point when our uncertain information about the future becomes the experienced present, people reach a point where reasoning becomes impossible:

We could no longer apply to the strange orb any accustomed thoughts. Its historical attributes had disappeared. It oppressed us with a hideous novelty of emotion. We saw it not as an astronomical phenomenon in the heavens, but as an incubus upon our hearts, and a shadow upon our brains.

As the Earth falls within the influence of the comet, vegetation begins to grow more lushly, people breathe easier, feelings are lighter. Scientists at last figure out what’s going on: the comet has sucked up all the nitrogen from the atmosphere, leaving only pure oxygen. It becomes clear what is going to happen: “A combustion irresistible, all-devouring, omni-prevalent, immediate;—the entire fulfilment, in all their minute and terrible details, of the fiery and horror-inspiring denunciations of the prophecies of the Holy Book.” The world goes up in flames after all.

One way to read this brief tale is as a sort of harmonization of religion and science: an ancient prophesy is fulfilled by natural, even scientifically explicable means. A better reading, one more characteristic of Poe, is to see this as a story about how the future — especially a cataclysmic one — is ultimately unknowable until we experience it. Reasoning about the future is no match for the experience of the “august and certain Present.” In a way, Poe was aiming for that “sense of wonder” so highly valued by later science fiction authors. The Conversation of Eiros and Charmion is very brief and told with minimal detail, but it’s an important forerunner of the awe-inspiring End of the World future histories by Wells (The Time Machine), Stapeldon (Last and First Men), Clarke (Childhood’s End), and their successors.

Read more entries in my post-apocalyptic science fiction series, and my other science fiction reviews.

Image credit: “The Great Comet 1861,” E. Weiss (via Wikipedia)

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