Posts Tagged ‘The Imp of the Perverse’

Edgar Allan Poe (January 19, 1809 – October 7,1849)

In the consideration of the faculties and impulses — of the prima mobilia of the human soul, the phrenologists have failed to make room for a propensity which, although obviously existing as a radical, primitive, irreducible sentiment, has been equally overlooked by all the moralists who have preceded them. In the pure arrogance of the reason, we have all overlooked it. We have suffered its existence to escape our senses solely through want of belief — of faith; — whether it be faith in Revelation, or faith in the Kabbala. The idea of it has never occurred to us, simply because of its supererogation. We saw no need of impulse — for the propensity. We could not perceive its necessity. We could not understand, that is to say, we could not have understood, had the notion of this primum mobile ever obtruded itself; — we could not have understood in what manner it might be made to further the objects of humanity, either temporal or eternal. It cannot be denied that phrenology and, in great measure, all metaphysicianism have been concocted a priori. The intellectual or logical man, rather than the understanding or observant man, set himself to imagine designs — to dictate purposes to God. Having thus fathomed, to his satisfaction, the intentions of Jehovah, out of these intentions he built his innumerable systems of mind. In the matter of phrenology, for example, we first determined, naturally enough, that it was the design of the Deity that man should eat. We then assigned to man an organ of alimentiveness, and this organ is the scourge with which the Deity compels man, will-I nill-I, into eating. Secondly, having settled it to be God’s will that man should continue his species, we discovered an organ of amativeness, forthwith. And so with combativeness, with ideality, with causality, with constructiveness, — so, in short, with every organ, whether representing a propensity, a moral sentiment, or a faculty of the pure intellect. And in these arrangements of the principia of human action, the Spurzheimites, whether right or wrong, in part, or upon the whole, have but followed, in principle, the footsteps of their predecessors; deducing and establishing everything from the preconceived destiny of man, and upon the ground of the objects of this Creator.It would have been wiser, it would have been safer, to classify (if classify we must) upon the basis of what man usually or occasionally did, and was always occasionally doing, rather than upon the basis of what he took it for granted the Deity intended him to do. If we cannot comprehend God in his visible works, how then in his inconceivable thoughts, that call the works into being? If we cannot understand him in his objective creatures, how then in his substantive moods and phases of creation?Induction, a posteriori, would have brought phrenology to admit, as an innate and primitive principle of human action, a paradoxical something, which we may call perverseness, for want of a more characteristic term. In the sense I intend, it is, in fact, a mobile without motive, a motive not motivirt. Through its promptings we act without comprehensible object; or, if this shall be understood as a contradiction in terms, we may so far modify the proposition as to say, that through its promptings we act, for the reason that we should not. In theory, no reason can be more unreasonable; but, in fact, there is none more strong. With certain minds, under certain conditions it becomes absolutely irresistible. I am not more certain that I breathe, than that the assurance of the wrong or error of any action is often the one unconquerable force which impels us, and alone impels us to its prosecution. Nor will this overwhelming tendency to do wrong for the wrong’s sake, admit of analysis, or resolution into ulterior elements. It is radical, a primitive impulse — elementary. It will be said, I am aware, that when we persist in acts because we feel we should not persist in them, our conduct is but a modification of that which ordinarily springs from the combativeness of phrenology. But a glance will show the fallacy of this idea. The phrenological combativeness has, for its essence, the necessity of self-defence. It is our safeguard against injury. Its principle regards our well-being; and thus the desire to be well is excited simultaneously with its development. It follows, that the desire to be well must be excited simultaneously with any principle which shall be merely a modification of combativeness, but in the case of that something which I term perverseness, the desire to be well is not only aroused, but a strongly antagonistical sentiment exists.

An appeal to one’s own heart is, after all, the best reply to the sophistry just noticed. No one who trustingly consults and thoroughly questions his own soul, will be disposed to deny the entire radicalness of the propensity in question. It is not more incomprehensible than distinctive. There lives no man who at some period has not been tormented, for example, by an earnest desire to tantalize a listener by circumlocution. The speaker is aware that he displeases, he has every intention to please; he is usually curt, precise, and clear; the most laconic and luminous language is struggling for utterance upon his tongue; it is only with difficulty that he restrains himself from giving it flow; he dreads and deprecates the anger of him whom he addresses; yet, the thought strikes him, that by certain involutions and parentheses this anger may be engendered. That single thought is enough. The impulse increases to a wish, the wish to a desire, the desire to an uncontrollable longing, and the longing (to the deep regret and mortification of the speaker, and in defiance of all consequences) is indulged.

We have a task before us which must be speedily performed. We know that it will be ruinous to make delay. The most important crisis of our life calls, trumpet-tongued, for immediate energy and action. We glow, we are consumed with eagerness to commence the work, with the anticipation of whose glorious result our whole souls are on fire. It must, it shall be undertaken to-day, and yet we put it off until to-morrow; and why? There is no answer, except that we feel perverse, using the word with no comprehension of the principle. To-morrow arrives, and with it a more impatient anxiety to do our duty, but with this very increase of anxiety arrives, also, a nameless, a positively fearful, because unfathomable, craving for delay. This craving gathers strength as the moments fly. The last hour for action is at hand. We tremble with the violence of the conflict within us, — of the definite with the indefinite — of the substance with the shadow. But, if the contest has proceeded thus far, it is the shadow which prevails — we struggle in vain. The clock strikes, and is the knell of our welfare. At the same time, it is the chanticleer-note to the ghost that has so long overawed us. It flies — it disappears — we are free. The old energy returns. We will labour now. Alas, it is too late!

We stand upon the brink of a precipice. We peer into the abyss — we grow sick and dizzy. Our first impulse is to shrink from the danger. Unaccountably we remain. By slow degrees our sickness and dizziness and horror become merged in a cloud of unnamable feeling. By gradations, still more imperceptible, this cloud assumes shape, as did the vapour from the bottle out of which arose the genius in the Arabian Nights. But out of this our cloud upon the precipice’s edge, there grows into palpability, a shape, far more terrible than any genius or any demon of a tale, and yet it is but a thought, although a fearful one, and one which chills the very marrow of our bones with the fierceness of the delight of its horror. It is merely the idea of what would be our sensations during the sweeping precipitancy of a fall from such a height. And this fall — this rushing annihilation — for the very reason that it involves that one most ghastly and loathsome of all the most ghastly and loathsome images of death and suffering which have ever presented themselves to our imagination — for this very cause do we now the most vividly desire it. And because our reason violently deters us from the brink, therefore do we the most impetuously approach it. There is no passion in nature so demoniacally impatient as that of him who, shuddering upon the edge of a precipice, thus meditates a plunge. To indulge, for a moment, in any attempt at thought, is to be inevitably lost; for reflection but urges us to forbear, and therefore it is, I say, that we cannot. If there be no friendly arm to check us, or if we fail in a sudden effort to prostrate ourselves backward from the abyss, we plunge, and are destroyed.

Examine these and similar actions as we will, we shall find them resulting solely from the spirit of the Perverse. We perpetrate them merely because we feel that we should not Beyond or behind this there is no intelligible principle; and we might, indeed, deem this perverseness a direct instigation of the arch-fiend, were it not occasionally known to operate in furtherance of good.

I have said thus much, that in some measure I may answer your question — that I may explain to you why I am here — that I may assign to you something that shall have at least the faint aspect of a cause for my wearing these fetters, and for my tenanting this cell of the condemned. Had I not been thus prolix, you might either have misunderstood me altogether, or, with the rabble, have fancied me mad. As it is, you will easily perceive that I am one of the many uncounted victims of the Imp of the Perverse.

It is impossible that any deed could have been wrought with a more thorough deliberation. For weeks, for months, I pondered upon the means of the murder. I rejected a thousand schemes, because their accomplishment involved a chance of detection. At length, in reading some French memoirs, I found an account of a nearly fatal illness that occurred to Madame Pilau, through the agency of a candle accidentally poisoned. The idea struck my fancy at once. I knew my victim’s habit of reading in bed. I knew, too, that his apartment was narrow and ill-ventilated. But I need not vex you with impertinent details. I need not describe the easy artifices by which I substituted, in his bed-room candle stand, a wax-light of my own making for the one which I there found. The next morning he was discovered dead in his bed, and the coroner’s verdict was — ‘Death by the visitation of God.’

Having inherited his estate, all went well with me for years. The idea of detection never once entered my brain. Of the remains of the fatal taper I had myself carefully disposed. I had left no shadow of a clue by which it would be possible to convict, or even suspect, me of the crime. It is inconceivable how rich a sentiment of satisfaction arose in my bosom as I reflected upon my absolute security. For a very long period of time I was accustomed to revel in this sentiment. It afforded me more real delight than all the mere worldly advantages accruing from my sin. But there arrived at length an epoch, from which the pleasurable feeling grew, by scarcely perceptible gradations, into a haunting and harassing thought. It harassed me because it haunted. I could scarcely get rid of it for an instant. It is quite a common thing to be thus annoyed with the ringing in our ears, or rather in our memories, of the burthen of some ordinary song, or some unimpressive snatches from an opera. Nor will we be the less tormented if the song in itself be good, or the opera air meritorious. In this manner, at last, I would perpetually catch myself pondering upon my security, and repeating, in a low under-tone, the phrase, ‘I am safe.’

One day, whilst sauntering along the streets, I arrested myself in the act of murmuring, half aloud, these customary syllables. In a fit of petulance I re-modelled them thus: ‘I am safe — I am safe — yes — if I be not fool enough to make open confession.’

No sooner had I spoken these words, than I felt an icy chill creep to my heart. I had had some experience in these fits of perversity (whose nature I have been at some trouble to explain), and I remembered well that in no instance I had successfully resisted their attacks. And now my own casual self-suggestion, that I might possibly be fool enough to confess the murder of which I had been guilty, confronted me, as if the very ghost of him whom I had murdered — and beckoned me on to death.

At first, I made an effort to shake off this nightmare of the soul. I walked vigorously — faster — still faster — at length I ran. I felt a maddening desire to shriek aloud. Every succeeding wave of thought overwhelmed me with new terror, for, alas! I well, too well, understood that to think, in my situation, was to be lost. I still quickened my pace. I bounded like a madman through the crowded thoroughfares. At length, the populace took the alarm and pursued me. I felt then the consummation of my fate. Could I have torn out my tongue, I would have done it — but a rough voice resounded in my ears — a rougher grasp seized me by the shoulder. I turned — I gasped for breath. For a moment I experienced all the pangs of suffocation; I became blind, and deaf, and giddy; and then some invisible fiend, I thought, struck me with his broad palm upon the back. The long-imprisoned secret burst forth from my soul.

They say that I spoke with a distinct enunciation, but with marked emphasis and passionate hurry, as if in dread of interruption before concluding the brief but pregnant sentences that consigned me to the hangman and to hell.

Having related all that was necessary for the fullest judicial conviction, I fell prostrate in a swoon.

But why shall I say more? To-day I wear these chains, and am here! To-morrow I shall be fetterless! — but where?













Here is Vincent Price’s bravura performance of Poe’s best known works. His fiendish delight his malicious cackle, his overwrought enthusiasm, all make for a brilliantly manic display, which were he to have heard it, would be guaranteed to have made Poe proud.





Consistent in Poe’s writing, is a sense of chafing and straining against the restrictions of language in an effort to carry the mind into the unimpeded realm of the imagination. This is a mind which expresses itself in the images found beyond words, which is to say, the subconscious. His cataracts of vocables and torrents of words stress the supremacy of sound, through which an altered and modified sense is permitted. They compel hearing rather than sight to become the dominant faculty of the reading experience. His excesses serve an emphatically reiterative purpose, to subdue, on the one hand, the censorship of the conscious mind, and to liberate its counterpart, and leave it free to experience the chaotic fears and fantasies it usually indulges in during the hours of sleep.

When I read Poe last night, I was repeatedly reminded of Chopin: not his nocturnes, as I might have expected, but his etudes, with their persistently dark one-handed counterpoint to the progress of the melodic line. Poe’s dark romanticism seem to me to form a literary parallel to Chopin’s music – though in Poe’s hands the overtones and harmonics horrify even as they delight – if indeed one can be said to feel delight at something incontrovertibly ghastly.

Poe was undoubtedly a morbid fantasist, making excellent use of his familiarity with what we today call the subconscious. He dredged his own imagination for all the fears and horrors which he correctly surmised beset his reading public, and which fill us with dread even today – premature burial, immuration, sensory deprivation, claustrophobia, torture and imprisonment, and the ghoulishly supernatural.

Poe’s writing has never been considered to be in good taste, though to be fair to him, good taste might not at all have been high on his list of concerns. That epicene arbiter of literary epicureanism, Henry James, is quoted as saying “An enthusiasm for Poe is the mark of a decidedly primitive stage of reflection.” To give James his due, he has a point, but of course not the one he intended to make. The primitivism James so snootily and invidiously deplores, is the very thing that provides the occasional sign of life in his own ponderous novels – the hidden and ungovernable impulses which lie below the social sheen of finely parsed proprieties.  James, with his effete ways and his  heavy burden of upper-class pretensions, could not but be appalled by Poe’s brash sensationalism.  To my mind however, Poe is by far the greater genius, the more original thinker, and the superior innovator. If James was the staid anglophile, Poe was the typical American, full of new ideas, novel insights, and original perspectives.

Poe was an innovator. He invented the detective story and the science fiction story, and was the first to come up with the idea of ‘the big bang.’ He was a scathing literary critic himself, pronouncing Washington Irving as overrated and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow a plagiarist (he aimed his accusations of plagiarism at Henry Wadsworth Longfellow because of what he perceived as Longfellow’s servile aping of European poetical conventions.) Not satisfied with this, he also announced that the best thing about James Fenimore Cooper’s book was the bad paper on which it was printed.

Poe’s verbal exuberance prompted him to come up with words such as aeronaut, bewinged, bugaboo, cryptograph (Poe was a talented cryptographer) didacticisms, elocutionary, finicky, grotesquerie, hysteria, odorless, pants, and unclassifiable. Writers such as Sheridan le Fanu and Bram Stoker are his spiritual heirs, as are in a sense Baudelaire,  Duchamp, Dali, and  of course, Alfred Hitchcock.

It is natural to speculate about what could have given rise to such a fertile mind as Poe possessed, a mind, if one is to judge by his writing, fizzing and bubbling with fantastic speculations. The idea that Poe suffered from manic depression has been advanced by Kay Redfield Jamison. Many creative people suffer from this disorder, and such a condition might explain the headlong rush of Poe’s writing style. I tend to think that Poe was what Susan Sontag referred to as ‘a heroic depressive,’ which is someone who manages his or her depression by engaging in tasks which demand a high degree of attention and organisation.

Even had it not been clinical, Poe had serious and legitimate reasons for his depression. When his mother, a stage actress died, he was left orphaned at the age of three, separated from his siblings, and sent to live with a wealthy tobacco merchant, with whom he was never on the easiest of terms. His young wife (and cousin) Virginia Clemm, whom he married when he was aged 27 and she 13, died in 1847, aged 24. Though we might recoil at the thought of a 13 year- old marrying an adult man, it might be helpful to consider that Virginia was Poe’s cousin and she knew him well. Nor was she was forced to marry him. She never had to leave her mother Maria Clemm in order to live with Poe, and the three of them remained a close-knit and mutually supportive family for the rest of Virginia’s life. Poe loved Maria Clemm as a mother, and addressed her affectionately as “Muddy.”  Most importantly, Virginia  was not compelled to bear and raise children, and Poe provided as best he could for her, always seeing to it she had a piano or a harp in the home so she was never deprived of the pleasant and necessary to her pass-time of playing music.When she died, Poe was stricken, and he only survived her by two grief- filled and miserable years, during which time he would sometimes leave the house on sleepless nights in order to lie beside her grave.

Dogged by bad luck and poverty during most of his life – Poe was often too impoverished to procure the most basic necessities such as the money for heating his home or even to put food on the table. Nonetheless he struggled on, trying to make a living solely by the sale of his work. He received no royalties from the sale of his first book Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque, and the rights to his most famous work “The Raven” were sold for $15.00.  His story “The Tell-Tale Heart” was initially turned down for publication. However, Poe’s unique writing style as a morbid fantasist caught the imagination of his reading public, which must have cast an inexplicable spell of fascination upon their minds. Here was Poe spinning compelling tales which appealed to the part of the mind which we call the subconscious – something which would not be conceived of as a mental or psychological construct for another three quarters of a century.

The foundation of the gothic novel had been laid by Ann Radcliffe, (The Mysteries of Udolpho published in 1794) and  much later Mary Shelly (Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus published in 1823) but it was Poe who crisply and effectively adapted the characteristic elements of  baroque horror and morbid fantasy to the form of the short story. The themes which tend to fascinate and horrify us to this day, those of sensory deprivation, claustrophobia, premature burial, were Poe’s stock in trade. Ralph Waldo Emerson’s cruel ridicule of Poe in referring to him as “the jingle man” for his over-use of rhyme in poetry, and apparent lack of rigour: hepointed to Poe’s  seeming inability to hold back the glut of words –  but this was the very  device which drove Poe’s stories. His intentional use of the sound of words to speed up and slow down thought suggests to me that the rate at which the reader’s eyes perceive the words and the brain assimilates their meaning are meant to be kept in synch; the images that follow are calibrated with careful instinct to achieve the maximum effect. We seem to hear his words as the approach of heavy footsteps in the tenebrous gloom of a house we had hitherto thought to be unoccupied, and suddenly in the middle of a Poe story, we find ourselves transported from our world of reassuring daylight, right into the depths of ‘the dark side.’

In “The Imp of the Perverse”, a purely psychological rather than supernatural tale, we hear an echo of the fable of Midas and the secret he tried so hard to keep – that he had asses’ ears. In this story, the imp seems to play the part of conscience – the compulsion of the protagonist to confess to having committed an act of murder for pecuniary gain.

Though the whole preamble that introduces this very brief short story might sound suspiciously like mumbo-jumbo, note Poe’s explanation – in which he has very neatly defined our subconscious urgings:

“a paradoxical something, which we may call perverseness, for want of a more characteristic term. In the sense I intend, it is, in fact, a mobile without motive, a motive not motivirt. Through its promptings we act without comprehensible object; or, if this shall be understood as a contradiction in terms, we may so far modify the proposition as to say, that through its promptings we act, for the reason that we should not. In theory, no reason can be more unreasonable; but, in fact, there is none more strong.”

These implacable promptings, whether they are of our best or worst instincts, defy our attempts to repress them. Whether these impulses compel self-revelation in the form of creativity or confession, they cannot in the end be denied. In fact, what “The Imp of the Perverse” seems to be saying is “truth will out.” The man in this story has contrived to secure his financial well-being by means of murder. He has cannily accomplished this with malice aforethought, and fabricated a wax taper imbued with poison. He has removed and disposed of the evidence of his crime, and ensured his safety from possible discovery. He savours his exemption from punishment by whispering to himself the reassuring phrase of “I am safe, I am safe.” Unlike King Midas, he entrusts nothing or no one with his secret. But he has not counted on what Shelly might have referred to as the “Epipsychidion” – the little psychic self – which in this case propels him helplessly towards self-incrimination. He is the creature of his irresistible impulse  – though he is not at all aware of what he is saying, nor does he retain any memory of what he has said. A part of his mind has gone AWOL, and he cannot compel it back.

The force of ‘will beyond will’ which functions  in a manner that is punitive and inimical to his self-interest puts an end to the internal civil war between the ‘conniver self’ and the ‘social and moral justice seeking self.’ It has been lying dormant like a serpent ready to strike, until the moment of perfect susceptibility presented itself. The moment of madness held at bay, but barely, and only with the greatest effort, is a thing which in a moment shatters the claustrophobic bonds of its own repression.   The dungeons, prisons, walled-in graves, coffins etc of Poe’s other stories are all symbolic of a species of psychic repression from which we seek to escape. But the escapee is not always something – or someone –  familiar to us.

For most of his life, Poe was himself was himself a crumbling ruin, doomed from his earliest childhood. Abandoned by his father as an infant, orphaned at age three, he suffered many subsequent bereavements before the last and most devastating – the death of his young wife. Following this shattering loss, Poe desperately sought to remarry, courting Sarah Elmirah Royster who was then a widow. He proposed to Sarah in a cemetery, begging her to save him from himself. When his suit did not meet with success, the next year Poe managed to get himself engaged to Sarah Helen Whitman. The engagement only lasted a month, since it had been made on a condition stipulated by Whitman that Poe abstain from drinking. His predictable lapse and its unavoidable outcome was followed by a suicide attempt, when Poe took 60 times the ‘normal’ dose of laudanum. Poe survived the ordeal.  He then renewed his friendship with Royster, and was on his way to marry her when he took an unexpected ( and some say mistaken) detour to Baltimore where he died a few days later on October, 1849, aged 40 years.

Poe died a broken man, friendless and impoverished. He had endured grievous misfortune, several bereavements, poverty and loss. He had lived through two cholera epidemics. He suffered from a devastating degree of alcohol intolerance (a single glass of wine was said to inebriate him.) He obviously suffered from depression, and  admitted to at least one suicide attempt.  He said of himself in a letter “I became insane, with long intervals of horrible sanity. During these fits of absolute unconsciousness, I drank – God only knows how often or how much. As a matter of course, my enemies referred the insanity to drink, rather than the drink to insanity.”  The horror and damnation of a tormented psyche was a familiar thing to Poe as was “the keen collective calmness of despair” (“The Pit and the Pendulum.”)

There were only four mourners at Poe’s funeral. His memory was besmirched by the man (here to be nameless, since to mention his name alongside Poe’s would be to confer on it a dignity it does not deserve) who filled Poe’s obituary with scurrilous lies, and on account of these falsehoods, Poe is still thought of  by some as a souse and a dope fiend. He was in fact neither. Poe’s unforgettable poem “Annabelle Lee”, (which I learned in First form Elocution) was written in memory of his wife Virginia and was published posthumously ten days after his death.

Poe was interred on the grounds of Westminster Hall and Burying Ground, now part of the University of Maryland School of Law in Baltimore. In 1875, about 25 years later, his remains were exhumed and moved to their present location near an imposing monument.   As for Virginia’s remains, when the cemetery where she was buried was destroyed, Poe’s biographer William Fearing Gill retrieved her remains and for several years stored them in a box beneath his bed. Nearly 40 years after her death, Virginia’s remains, along with those of her mother Maria Clemm were re-buried on either side of Poe in 1885, and the little family of nephew and aunt, husband and wife, mother and daughter, were at last reunited to rest in peace together.

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