The Imp Of The Perverse by Edgar Allan Poe


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1850
THE IMP OF THE PERVERSE
by Edgar Allan Poe

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 the 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 every thing from the
preconceived destiny of man, and upon the ground of the objects of his
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 we 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 a 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 not 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 have 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 labor 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 vapor 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 similar actions as we will, we shall find them
resulting solely from the spirit of the Perverse. We perpetrate them
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
clew by which it would be possible to convict, or even to 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 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 undertone, 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 remodelled 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?
THE END

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