Home > Current Affairs, History, Literature, Politics > The Masque of the Red, White, and Blue Death: Edgar Allan Poe, Donald Trump, and the Plague of the American Elite

The Masque of the Red, White, and Blue Death: Edgar Allan Poe, Donald Trump, and the Plague of the American Elite

First published in Graham’s Lady’s and Gentlemen’s Magazine in 1842, Edgar Allan Poe’s Gothic horror story The Masque of the Red Death tells a simple but richly evocative tale of an unfathomably wealthy and fashionably eccentric medieval duke who seals himself and a thousand fellow privileged nobility and entertainers in a magnificent abbey to safely revel away the hours while the titular deadly plague ravages the surrounding countryside. But death, like time, is not hindered by the walls of class privilege, and a masked figure personifying the Red Death brings the inevitable terror of mortality with it into the duke’s multichromatic halls. The duke falls dead attempting to confront the figure, and his guests follow suit in rapid succession. Poe’s final sentence makes the story’s pitch-black conclusion starkly evident: “And Darkness and Decay and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all.”

Like this personage of the Red Death, The Masque of the Red Death casts a long and ominous shadow for a literary apparition of such brevity and simplicity. The story is a mere 2,417 words long (this essay is just a bit longer!), distributed across 14 paragraphs; now in the public domain, you can read it for free as an e-text on Project Gutenberg in the space of 15 minutes or so. Its meanings and textual implications are clear: death comes for us all, regardless of class, wealth, privilege, or bold defiance of its absolute dictates. Although the story’s obvious allegorical meanings have sometimes been de-emphasized by scholars of Poe’s works on the grounds that the influential American horror writer disdained didactic literature, its symbolism is on the nose enough to be taught in grade school English Lit class.

The duke Prospero – who is the only named character in the text, his moniker a very literal marker of his prosperity as well as a reference to the lead character of William Shakespeare’s The Tempest, a powerful lord who rules over a superficial paradise that conceals a darker reality – has arranged and decorated the seven halls of his abbey refuge in a horseshoe pattern and decorated each in a dominant colour scheme illuminated by brazier light filtered through similarly-hued stained glass Gothic windows: the rooms progress from blue to purple to green to orange to white to violet and finally to a room of velvet-black whose light is filtered through scarlet panes. In this last room, which due to its creepy red-black ambience is avoided by the revelers like the plague, there is also a large ebony clock which rings out every hour on the hour like a resonant grave-bell, halting the light-spirited music and conversation in the other halls and spreading a ponderous silence as it rings out its undeniable herald of the inexorable advance of time. One can quibble with authorial allegorical intent if one wishes (Poe did ridicule the works of the contemporaneous Transcendentalists as “metaphor gone mad”, preferring meaning as an undercurrent just below the surface), but there’s little doubt what this is signifying, especially when Poe capitalizes Time in reference to the clock’s resonant reminders. Prospero meets his final fate before the clock and the Red Death personage in this velvet room, the definitive symbolic thrust.

It’s no stretch to extend Poe’s generalized themes of the “illimitable dominion” of mortality to class critiques, given that the upper-class privilege of Prospero and his lavish courtiers fails to protect them from the Red Death that they consider to be an affliction of the mere rabble to which they are, by their lofty social position, effectively immune. Edgar Allan Poe, for his part, is one of the common models for the popular archetype of the struggling artist, the starving underappreciated genius toiling in his cage of poverty, the literal poet in his garret. It is true that Poe had a difficult life which afforded him little comfort, marked by illness, alcoholism, and consistent penury, receiving little recognition or reward for his fictional output (he was somewhat known as an acerbic and uncompromising critic, which is cold comfort, believe me) during his lifetime. Indeed, his total earnings for The Masque of the Red Death, now one of the best-known short stories in the English language, added up to $12. Socialist political movements seeking to equalize the inequitous distribution of wealth and power of societies in Europe and the Americas were becoming active in both intellectual circles and on the streets during Poe’s life, and his work has often been understood by scholars through the lens of capitalist critiques. But his Gothic horror stories in particular used wealth and privilege as a pedestal of august heights from which his characters might plunge all the further into darkness, madness, and death. Trangression of class privilege is not a political project to Edgar Allan Poe so much as an aesthetic and symbolic tool to amplify his work’s dark implications about the human spirit.

The class politics potentialities of a story like The Masque of the Red Death have burst to the surface in light of the current COVID-19 pandemic, however. Poe’s story has joined literary works like Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year and Max Brooks’ zombie apocalypse novel World War Z and previously discussed Hollywood movies like Contagion and Outbreak as epidemic texts that have drawn wider interest from readers and viewers in the time of global viral crisis. The Masque of the Red Death in particular has very recently presented as extremely relevant to the latest COVID-19-related developments in the United States, as noted in a tweet by Canadian writer and queer scholar Anthony Oliveira that largely inspired this essay (a similar analogy was drawn in a Los Angeles Times op-ed by David L. Ulin). The news that broke in the early morning hours of October 2nd that U.S. President Donald Trump had tested positive for COVID-19 was stunning but not precisely surprising, given his consistent downplaying of the threat posed by the virus, his undermining and even outright mockery of precautionary measures such as mask usage and social distancing, and the blanket response of the federal government (as well as of American capitalist society in general) to the pandemic that has prioritized the preservation and even expansion of the political and economic elite’s wealth and privilege at the very literal expense of the lives of ordinary American citizens. After a brief period of limited circle-the-wagons crisis unity when the virus first burst out of China and across the world in the early spring, the response of America’s powerful has settled back into avaricious self-interested crisis capitalism. Collective action will only be marshaled in the service of class solidarity. To quote Poe in Masque: “The external world could take care of itself. In the meantime it was folly to grieve, or to think.”

The event that has emerged as a particularly perverse and resonant echo of The Masque of the Red Death, like the eerie tolling of the ebony clock in the velvet room, is the one that Oliveira tweeted out in comparison: the ceremony held in the Rose Garden of the White House on Saturday, September 26th to announce conservative judge Amy Coney Barrett as President Trump’s latest nomination to the Supreme Court in the wake of the death of iconic liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg on September 18th. Despite a looming election that, just four years ago, Trump’s Senate-controlling Republican Party used as justification for refusing to hold hearings or a vote on then-President Barack Obama’s liberal SCOTUS nominee Merrick Garland, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and the rest of the GOP and conservative movement did not hesitate at all before steaming full-speed ahead on replacing the Democrat-appointed Ginsburg with Trump’s third conservative Supreme Court appointee, intending to hold Senate confirmation hearings and seat Barrett before the election in less than a month’s time. Reading the polls that show Trump being demolished by Democratic nominee Joe Biden in the coming presidential election (a recent poll taken after Trump’s disastrously belligerent debate showing but before his COVID diagnosis had him down by 14 points nationally), the GOP has seized on the chance to give themselves a 6-3 majority of conservative justices as a bulwark against a potential Democratic takeover of the White House and Congress, allowing them to potentially strike down the Affordable Care Act, Roe v. Wade, and any other left-leaning legislation passed into law by Democrats in the event of their opponents defeating them at the polls, and even to rule on installing Trump back into the White House in the case of a contested election which, with the President’s dishonest voter fraud rhetoric and the party’s full-court-press assault on voting rights, mailed ballot validity, and dissenting protest, they seem determined to force.

Despite the scandal-prone clusterfuckery of the past four years of the Trump-ruled GOP and above all the continuing, consistently-downplayed pandemic, the Republican elite could not help but bask and gloat in their apparently imminent and unstoppable triumph over the enemy in the decades-long struggle for America’s final, unelected, seated-for-life arbiters of the law (there are remedies, but whether the Democratic Party has the spine for the fight to administer them is an open question). The September 26th Barrett announcement was attended by Trump family members, Cabinet officials, Republican Senators and Congressmen, religious leaders, conservative legal grandees, and even the President of the University of Notre Dame, where the extremist arch-Catholic Barrett (who has been paid to speak to a homophobic hate group on five separate occasions, to give an idea of her views) teaches. As detailed in Kevin Liptak’s CNN article on the event linked above, coronavirus precautions were in place but largely for show: not-fully-reliable rapid tests were administered to guests who were admitted to the ceremony with a negative result and told that they could remove their masks, those unlikely symbols for a recklessly unwise right-wing culture war on public health measures (in The Masque of the Red Death, the infuriated duke likewise demands that the party-crashing figure of the Red Death be seized and unmasked). Photos and video of the event show well-dressed Republicans sitting closely together, chatting without social distancing, shaking hands, even hugging each other. For Americans who have not been able to safely interact with friends and family for months, even if those friends or family members were dying alone in a hospital, the implications of these visuals alone had to be infuriating.

But they became all the more infuriating and alarming when positive COVID-19 tests began to cascade across the ceremony attendees in the week that followed. First presidential advisor Hope Hicks, then Trump and his wife Melania, and then numerous Republican Senators and White House advisors and staff and the President of Notre Dame were confirmed to have contracted COVID-19. As speculation and recrimination flew through the press and social media about when Trump knew he was COVID-positive and how many events he attended and how many people he exposed before (and after) being airlifted to hospital this past Friday, the Barrett announcement event became instantly infamous as a presidentially-run superspreader event, emblematic of the administration’s shambolic and blithely unconcerned pandemic response and the American elite’s arrogant assumption that their wealth, power, and privilege would make them immune to the plague that was disproportionately killing America’s poorest and most disadvantaged minorities.

In The Masque of the Red Death, Prospero’s abbey is ringed by a “strong and lofty wall”, “girded with iron”. Poe continues:

The courtiers, having entered, brought furnaces and massy hammers and welded the bolts. They resolved to leave means neither of ingress nor egress to the sudden impulses of despair or of frenzy from within. The abbey was amply provisioned. With such precautions the courtiers might bid defiance to contagion. The external world could take care of itself. In the meantime it was folly to grieve, or to think. The prince had provided all the appliances of pleasure. There were buffoons, there were improvisatori, there were ballet-dancers, there were musicians, there was Beauty, there was wine. All these and security were within. Without was the “Red Death”.

In the same manner that Poe intended his meanings to be evident just below the surface of the text like a looming, plankton-skimming whale, the implications of the right-wing American elite’s pompous sense of invincibility and privilege-girded security while death raged outside the walls are so clear as to barely be subtextual at all. That the coronavirus raged through them (though has felled none of them as of yet) as they fêted the coming undemocratic generational dominance of their fortress-of-greed power structures and did so specifically because of their personal disregard for pandemic precautions after months of undermining them in order to preserve the flow of profit in defiance of public health and safety for the country at large, well… that’s Irony discernable even in at a high-school English essay level of critical analysis. Edgar Allan Poe as a literary critic and theorist would find much to grimly appreciate in our blunt age of political and cultural subtext becoming inescapably bare text.

American power elites are hardly alone in their soulless disregard for pandemic precautions and mitigating sacrifices and the unrelenting emphasis of capitalist profit over more communal social health and economic security. Closer to home, as COVID cases rise in urban Ontario in general and Toronto in particular, the Conservative provincial government of Premier Doug Ford stubbornly bowed to its business lobby donor class and refused to meaningfully roll back the restaurant, bar, retail, and school openings that most likely led to the rise in cases in the first place, while Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberal federal government has likewise bowed to corporate interests in ending the CERB benefit payments that have kept the Canadian economy afloat since the pandemic closures began in March. The capitalist-democratic order of the neoliberal West is ever at its most rickety in the midst of crisis, and even if COVID-19 is yet to deal a decisive blow to that system and its overblown inequities, it has laid many of its core destabilizing contradictions as bare as they can be, to the point where even the Pope feels the need to point out that they cannot feasibly or morally continue. But the conduct of the courtiers of that opulent trickle-down order, welding the bolts that they might bid defiance to contagion while the external world fends for itself, is increasingly untenable and becomes ever more difficult to forget for those locked out (and locked down).

As The Masque of the Red Death makes painfully clear, however, it will not even protect the elites who wall themselves off from the rest of the world in manners figurative or literal. The coronavirus, its vesture dabbled in blood, stalks their magnificent halls and awaits them before the ebony clock of Time. Whether a literal personification of the COVID-19 illness or a figurative representation of the unpredictable social, political, cultural, and economic forces that may yet cascade irrevocably in its wake, the Red Death may still hold illimitable dominion over all, not matter their net worth or position of power and privilege.

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