Poe’s Maelstrom and Plato’s Phaedo

Finally, lurking behind the roar of these romantic waters was that ancient pre-Socratic cosmology of the “waters under the earth”, the “vast sea…in the depths of the earth” (the phrases are Seneca’s). This subterranean sea was the source at once of all the world’s great rivers, and also of the circumambient Ocean, to which [source] they all return. (Eric Havelock, ‘Virgil’s Road to Xanadu’, 2: 6)1

In his 1946 essay ‘Footsteps in the Sands of Crime’, McLuhan began to use Poe’s Descent into the Maelstrom as a master image2 for the process of the genesis of human experience throughout its register from sense perception to high theory. It was also the year (as McLuhan may well have followed in the first months of what was to be his 35-year career in Toronto), that Eric Havelock began to publish his three-part essay on ‘Virgil’s Road to Xanadu’ in the then new UT classics journal, Phoenix.3

Havelock’s essay concludes with a consideration of Plato’s description of the waters of the earth from Phaedo 111c-112e.  This section of the Phaedo and Poe’s Maelstrom are mutually illuminating and together they supply an outline of what was even then beginning to unfold as McLuhan’s lifetime topic: the soul’s moment to moment (synchronic) katabasis into the fund of “human potentialities” (MB 3) and “potencies” (Innis letter).4  The fund-amental idea is that human beings are at every moment essentially exposed to different media, different basic forms of experience, and that this navigation among media in their plurality is what constitutes the significance, or message, of humans as humans. The medium is the massage is the message.

In Poe’s story, some authorities are said to hold that the Maelstrom is a kind of axis mundi about which all else turns:

Kircher and others imagine that in the centre of the channel of the Maelstrom is an abyss penetrating the globe

Something very similar from Plato (Phaedo 111e-112d) is cited in Havelock’s essay:

One of the earth-chasms, besides being the largest, is pierced right through the whole earth (…) Into it flow all the rivers in confluence, and out of it they issue again, each afterwards taking on the individual character of the territories through which they happen to flow. The reason for the inflow and outflow of the streams is that the liquid, having no bottom or fundament, hangs suspended in space and moves in tidal waves up and down, and the air and wind about it does the same thing (…) Some waters go right round the earth, coiling once or several times like serpents (…) and sink down as far as they can and come up again. (3:17)

The waters of the Maelstrom are, of course, also “coiling (…) like serpents” and it likewise “moves in tidal waves up and down” so that its “waters (…)  sink down as far as they can and [then] come up again“. Indeed, it is precisely this perpetual change in the horizontal and vertical motions of the Maelstrom (caused by the alteration of the ebb and flood tides driving it) that saves Poe’s mariner.5

At the extremes of the two tides, the Maelstrom is propelled violently into a circular motion (one direction with one of the tides, then its reverse with the other6), and it is this vorticular motion that drives the Maelstrom downward into the abyss like a screw:

As the old man spoke, I became aware of a loud and gradually increasing sound, like the moaning of a vast herd of buffaloes upon an American prairie; and at the same moment I perceived (…) the chopping character of the ocean beneath us, was rapidly changing into a current which set to the eastward. Even while I gazed, this current acquired a monstrous velocity. Each moment added to its speed — to its headlong impetuosity. In five minutes the whole sea (…) was lashed into ungovernable fury; (…) the vast bed of the waters, seamed and scarred into a thousand conflicting channels, burst suddenly into phrensied convulsion — heaving, boiling, hissing — gyrating in gigantic and innumerable vortices, and all whirling and plunging on to the eastward with a rapidity which water never elsewhere assumes except in precipitous descents.
In a few minutes more, there came over the scene another radical alteration. The general surface grew somewhat more smooth, and the whirlpools, one by one, disappeared, while prodigious streaks of foam became apparent where none had been seen before. These streaks, at length, spreading out to a great distance, and entering into combination, took unto themselves the gyratory motion of the subsided vortices, and seemed to form the germ of another more vast. Suddenly — very suddenly — this assumed a distinct and definite existence, in a circle of more than half a mile in diameter. The edge of the whirl was (…) the mouth of the terrific funnel, whose interior, as far as the eye could fathom it, was a smooth, shining, and jet-black wall of water, inclined to the horizon at an angle of some forty-five degrees, speeding dizzily round and round with a swaying and sweltering motion, and sending forth to the winds an appalling voice, half shriek, half roar, such as not even the mighty cataract of Niagara ever lifts up in its agony to Heaven.

When Poe ends his paragraphs here with “precipitous descents” and “the mighty cataract of Niagara”, his trope is directed to the kata-basis or going-down of the Maelstrom.

But after that tide (either ebb or flood, as the case may be) reaches its extreme and begins to subside — begins, that is, to reverse into the opposite tide — so does the violence of the Maelstrom subside with it. And the effect is to unscrew it out of the abyss and to initiate its ana-basis or going-up:

a great change took place in the character of the whirlpool. The slope of the sides of the vast funnel became momently less and less steep. The gyrations of the whirl grew gradually less and less violent. By degrees (…) the bottom of the gulf seemed slowly to uprise.

The general atmosphere is ameliorated as well:

The sky was clear, the winds had gone down…

Plato notes the same phenomenon:

the liquid (…) moves in tidal waves up and down, and the air and wind about it does the same thing…

Plato’s description of the physical state of the world in this section of the Phaedo is pointedly accompanied by a matching description of the state of the soul. And both immediately precede his execution.  They constitute his final testament.  Regarding the soul he says:

if the soul is immortal, we must care for it, not only in respect to this time, which we call life, but in respect to all time, and if we neglect it, the danger [we are in] now appears to be terrible. For if death were an escape from everything, it would be a boon to the wicked, for when they die they would be freed from the body and from their wickedness together with their souls. But now, since the soul is seen to be immortal, it cannot escape from evil or be saved in any other way than by becoming as good and wise [in this life] as possible. For the soul takes with it to the other world nothing but its ability to learn and to change [ἡ ψυχὴ ἔρχεται πλὴν τῆς παιδείας τε καὶ τροφῆς], and these are said to benefit or injure the departed greatly from the very beginning of his journey thither. And so it is said that after death, the tutelary genius7 of each person, to whom he had been allotted in life, leads him to a place where the dead are gathered together; then they are judged and depart to the other world with the guide whose task it is to conduct thither those who come from this world; (…) And the journey is not (…) a simple path [that] leads to the lower world, but I think the path is neither simple nor single, for if it were, there would be no need of guides, since no one could miss the way to any place if there were only one road. But really there seem to be many forks of the road and many windings; this I infer from [all] the [different] rites and ceremonies practiced here on earth. Now the orderly and wise soul follows its guide and understands its circumstances; but the soul that is desirous of the body (…) after much resistance and many sufferings is led away with violence. (Phaedo 107c-108b)

By bringing the state of the soul together with the state of the world Plato is indicating that the demand made on the soul is to follow the tropical ano-kato movement of the cosmos.

Poe’s sailor in “The Maelstrom” saved himself by cooperating with the action of the “strom” itself. (Mechanical Bride, 75)

It is the primitive fact and everything depends on whether this is recognized or not. 

Here again the parallel with Poe’s story is striking.  When the mariner and his brother are carried on their ship into the Maelstrom, the mariner gradually “understands its circumstances”, like Plato’s “wise soul” in its sojourn in the land of the dead, and is able to use this understanding to save himself. But his brother remains overcome with fear (too “desirous of the body”) and therefore, as Socrates recounts about the soul that is not wise, “after much resistance and many sufferings, is led away with violence” into the abyss.

Thus it is that the key to salvation in both accounts is what Plato calls παιδεία τε καὶ τροφή: the ability to learn and to change.  For “the soul (…) cannot escape from evil or be saved in any other way than by becoming [in its mortal life] as good and wise as possible”. Now becoming implicates change and the most important change required of the soul in this life, as Socrates shows in the tranquil manner of his death, is to value its immortal life more than its mortal one. And for this, as Poe’s mariner concretely demonstrates by daring to abandon ship in the midst of the Maelstrom, the necessity is to be able to learn and to change — radically.

In the utterly different circumstances of the other world, nothing from this life can aid the soul except such an ability to learn and to change because, as Socrates says, it must navigate a road there that has “many forks (…) and many windings” such that “one could miss the way” all too easily. This road “leads to the lower world” — from which ascension may be made to a place where the soul “finds gods for companions” (108c).  Missing the right way, however, leaves the soul, like the mariner’s brother, only down — missing, that is, the naturally correlated up.

Implicated in the requisite radical change is a complicated notion of time. Plato puts it in the following way: “if the soul is immortal, we must care for it, not only in respect to this time (τοῦ χρόνου), which we call life, but in respect to all time (τοῦ [χρόνου] παντός)”. There is the time of this mortal life and the time of immortality, both of which, despite their fundamental difference, may be termed a sort of χρόνος; and ‘at the same time’ there is also a third time of critical decision (κρίση) between these, which the Greeks termed καιρός — the decisive moment for learning and for radical change (παιδεία τε καὶ τροφή) which is always at hand.

Poe presents these three times in serial or chronological fashion in terms of the tides. (The etymology of ‘tide’ is ‘tid‘ = ‘time’.)8 There is the flood tide and the ebb tide and the “slack” between them when, so to say, time (tid) stands still. Everything depends on the relation of the soul to the in-between time of “the hour of the slack”.

For McLuhan, the Descent into the Maelstrom is the story of what never ceases to take place, recognized or unrecognized, in every moment of every human life: the moment of καιρός as a katabasis into the chaos of the multiple forms of potential experience — out of which in an anabasis we emerge with whatever form of experience we are ‘putting on’, that is, with whatever form of experience has first been ‘chosen’ there. Our experience is always a product or effect and McLuhan’s whole bent is to inquire backwards after what light it reflects of its prior formal cause.9

For McLuhan, then, what Plato describes as facing the soul between lives is always occurring between moments of experience:

And here, my dear Glaucon, is the supreme peril of our human state; and therefore the utmost care should be taken. Let each one of us leave every other kind of knowledge and seek and follow one thing only (…) to learn and discern between good and evil, and so to choose always and everywhere the better life as he has opportunity. (Republic 618)

this is the hour of agony and extremest conflict for the soul (Phaedrus 648a)

It is because all human perception and experience is generated through such katabasis-anabasis navigation of a labyrinthine vortex, McLuhan can claim: 

One major discovery of the symbolists (…) was their notion of the learning process as a labyrinth of the senses and faculties… (Letter to Innis, 1951)

Just as the mariner and his brother go down into the labyrinth of the Maelstrom, and learn there, or fail to learn there, what decides life or death, so every human soul is momentarily exposed to all the forms of potential experience, to all the possible formations “of the senses and faculties”. This represents the soul’s opportunity to learn and to change and is exactly what is exercised when the arts are practiced and when the various sciences are born. Hence McLuhan’s continuation of his sentence in the Innis letter:

One major discovery of the symbolists which had the greatest importance for subsequent investigation was their notion of the learning process as a labyrinth of the senses and faculties whose retracing provided the key to all arts and sciences.

Arts and sciences are born, this is to say, when the same sort of double-clutch or Gestalt-switch demonstrated by Poe’s mariner in the Maelstrom is exercised in regard to some new domain of nature or society (a domain that is suddenly illuminated only with the Gestalt-switch). A different vehicle or medium of experience (like the mariner’s cask) is adopted through which a new sort of investigation becomes possible. What remained, McLuhan perceived, was to exercise such a Gestalt-switch in regard to this Gestalt-switch process itself. The medium is the message — and is therefore what must at last become the message of new sciences of inquiry.

McLuhan would dedicate the remaining 35 years of his life, often in terrible health, to the attempt to dis-cover and to probe this possibility and great need.



  1. References to ‘Virgil’s Road to Xanadu’ are given to the three sections in which it was published in Phoenix in 1946-1947 (issues 1:1, 1:2 and 1:supplement of the journal), followed by the page number in the corresponding issue.
  2. See McLuhan on Poe’s Maelstrom.
  3. Havelock was the founding president of the Ontario (later: Canadian) Classical Association and a co-founder of Phoenix, the association’s journal.
  4. Both MB and the Innis letter date from early 1951 (although MB was, of course, written earlier).
  5. See “Great change” in Descent into the Maelstrom.
  6. Phaedo 112e: “Now these streams are many and great and of all sorts, but (…) the greatest and outermost of which is that called Oceanus, which flows round in a circle, and opposite this, flowing in the opposite direction, is Acheron…”
  7. Because the experiencing subject is the result of this process, it cannot construct or otherwise manage it itself. Hence the idea that every human being has a known or unknown “guide”, as Socrates says, a guardian angel, or birth day saint, who helps with the navigation of life — if it is acknowledged and attended.
  8. Poe nearly always broaches the “slack” in connection with time: “the fifteen minutes’ slack”, “time for slackwater”, “a minute or so behind or before the slack”, “slack water, which we knew would be at eight”, “the time of the slack”, “the hour of the slack”.
  9.  “I am not a ‘culture critic’ because I am not in any way interested in classifying cultural forms. I am a metaphysician, interested in the life of the forms and their surprising modalities.” (McLuhan letter to Joe Keogh, July 6, 1970, Letters 413)