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Tarbox, R. (1967). Blank Hallucinations in the Fiction of Poe and Hemingway. Am. Imago, 24(4):312-343.

(1967). American Imago, 24(4):312-343

Blank Hallucinations in the Fiction of Poe and Hemingway

Raymond Tarbox

When the heroes of Edgar Allan Poe and Ernest Hemingway find themselves in situations of great stress and frustration, they often try to ‘contact’ the hallucinatory core of certain sleep and half-sleep states. One reason they do so is to prevent an ego-dissolving regression—the kind of regression suggested by Poe's “dread of some impending doom,’ and the Hemingway hero's morbid fear of a death that does not go well. In clinical reconstructions and in literature of the depressive position, the core element of these hallucinatory states often resembles an amorphous mass or a white (blank) screen. These core phenomena, whether they be derived from primitive memory traces of the approaching breast of the nursing mother (13, 21); or whether they be derived from a composite experience of the approaching face of the mother and percepts involving sensations within the “oral cavity,” are best thought of as “code symbols” for the totality of early oral experience (27, 28). These core phenomena may be experienced as either ‘bad’—painful and terrifying; or’ good’—tension-reducing and blissfully satisfying, or some combination of both bad and good. In Poe's story, “MS. Found in a Bottle,” the hero's appeal for protection and security is directed to an hallucinatory “mass,” the core or predominant feature of the half-sleep (hypnagogic) state described and analyzed by Otto Isakower (13). In Hemingway's story, “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” the Isakower mass appears but, as is usually the case, fails to assuage the hero's mental and physical distress. The hero then contacts an elaborated representation of what B. D. Lewin refers to as the “dream screen” (21). This screen or its equivalent is often hallucinated when the subject is in a light sleep; and, unlike the Isakower experience, it often provides the kind of quiescent relief the hero is seeking.


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