Saturday, September 22, 2012

Thinking about 'The Imp of the Perverse'

Yesterday, I posted an excerpt from Edgar Allan Poe's The Imp of the Perverse and when I did, I expected to move on to whatever inspired me today. Well, it turns out that today, I'm still inspired and engaged with that strange piece of writing. Before yesterday, I hadn't thought about it for years, probably since when I studying the story at university. When you're an English Major you have to deal with lot of various styles of genres of writing being referenced and analyzed, and if you're lucky, some of it ends up actually being worth reading. I'll admit it, in my days as a student, if I wasn't intrigued or excited about an assigned text, chances are I didn't read it. This says more about my own preferences than the quality of the writing I avoided, I'm sure I missed out on some great stories along the way. But I'll always be grateful for the amazing stories that I wouldn't have known existed if it weren't for some creative professor's reading list (Morvern Callar, Candide, and Three Day Road, to name a few).

Also on that list would be Edgar Allan Poe's The Imp of the Perverse, a combination essay/character study/murder mystery piece of short fiction that came up in a '19th Century American Lit' class that was required for my major. Anyone that follows this blog or knows me in person probably knows that I prefer modern writing, that's where I seem to find the most enjoyment, but that doesn't mean I can't appreciate classic literature if it hits me in my brain spots. My first experience with Poe's work, besides a billion pop culture references to his various classics, and besides the 'For Young Adults' version ofThe Pit and the Pendulum, was in that American Lit class. Other thanImp, we also readThe Masque of Red Death, which is a subject for a whole other blog post.

The first creative aspect of The Imp of the Perverse that struck me was the format, a mix of academic essay and character study, with a nameless narrator who first discusses the notion that we all have an impulse to do things we know are wrong, then goes on to tell his story. The Narrator admits, even brags, that he used a poison candle to murder a man whose property he wanted. It was a perfect crime, and for years he would comfort himself with the idea that he's safe from ever being caught, if only he can control the urge to tell someone. If only. What starts as a nagging itch turns into a full blown confession and our Narrator has found himself sentenced to death. They never would have known if he didn't sabotage himself, so why did he? That's the question of the story.

With that plot set-up alone, I'd be curious about the story and likely would have enjoyed it. But the technique that Poe decided to go with, where he treats the piece like a psychological essay about the human condition, adds so many other levels of analysis and interpretation. It's a master strategy of introducing a thesis, prying into the reader's subconsciousness, get them either agreeing or arguing with you, and then following up with an anecdote that not only entertains the audience but also acts as evidence for the original point. So why did the Narrator betray himself and give into his self destructive impulse? According to the Narrator, who may or may not represent Poe's own views, argues that every human being is born with the ability to do evil, with the inborne urge to destroy or self-destruct, sometimes in really small ways, sometimes in huge ways. That being said, the Narrator isn't remorseful about committing murder, he's proud of himself, but he's terribly guilty for telling anyone about it.

During the first half of the story, where the Narrator is laying out the human race as he sees it, he offers three examples of the sort of impulse he's talking about. The title of the story, specifically the wordPerverse, has the common reader expecting something sexual or depraved, but this story works with a somewhat different definition of the word. Here are the examples:

1) The first one is a bit more complicated than the other two, but it basically describes the urge to be coy, to tease a listener when you have information that you know they want. The term Poe uses is 'circumlocution', which means to say too many words for a concise idea. As a result, your listener feels a tiny form of torture, as they can sense that you're not telling them something. This is one way that we, according to the Narrator, give in to the imp of the perverse.

2) I think every person that's about to read this second one can probably relate: procrastination. Turns out, even back in 1845, people left things until the last possible minute. The Narrator describes this impulse in a sort of cat and mouse game with yourself, where you know that you'll be screwed in the end, but you can't resist holding off progress just a little while longer. And while others may be affected by your procrastination, this impulse is interesting because you're consciously torturing yourself. If you just did the work in the first place, you wouldn't get the nervous sweats around deadline time.

3) The third example of humanity's uncontrollable impulses is the one that I quoted before this post. This one talks about a very specific and personal feeling that we may all get, but probably nobody shares too often. You're standing on a bridge, a rooftop, the edge of a cliff, and you don't necessarily want to jump right off, but for a moment, maybe you fantasize about it. Maybe you play a little 'what if' game with yourself, think about what the sensation of falling might be like. And since lately I've been finding a way to bring every topic back to Louie CK's stand-up or tv show, this particular impulse reminds me of a scene in the 'Daddy's Girlfriend (Part 2)' where Louie and Liz (played by Parker Posey) are on a super high rooftop and she's urging him to come to the edge, but he's terrified. This turns her off big time, but just before that, she accuses Louie of not being afraid of the fall, but being afraid that he might give in to the temptation to just jump. That's the impulse of the perverse.

And if you ever needed any proof that Edgar Allan Poe is a masterful writer, compare my description of the third impulse to the quote before this post, where he describes it. There's poetry, imagery, psychology, and philosophy all wrapped up in one paragraph, that's more than words on a page, that's an experience. And at the time I originally read this story, I was swamped in some really dense and confusing 'Literary Criticism' writing, so I very much appreciated Poe's fresh (albeit 1845) take on the scholarly essay, elevating it to a genre-bending masterpiece of both academic and entertainment value. And it'll always interest and overwhelm me to think about the fact that over 150 years later, a story likeThe Imp of the Perversecan have a guy like me flipped upside down with thought about the human condition, relating my own experience to words and ideas that were presented over a century ago.

I find myself agreeing with most of the Narrator's ideas, I do find that we can be self-destructive in the weirdest psychological ways and that most of the time, you're contending with yourself. In the case of The Narrator, I believe that he knew exactly what he was doing when he started his confession, there was no supernatural urge from deep within, it was basic human vanity. He couldn't stand that he had pulled off this amazing scheme, (which even by today's standards, a poisonous candle is pretty genius), and no one would ever pay him recognition for it. He knew that confessing his crime would land him on death row, but after years of assuring himself that he was 'safe' in his anonymity, he'd rather die known for something than having lived a safe and boring life.

The Imp of the Perverse by Edgar Allan Poe is a fairly quick read, but as you can probably tell, it is in no way a light read. This is the sort of writing that really sneaks past your guards and gets the core of however it is you feel, it isn't just escapism or something to do when you're bored, this is the type of writing that gets people thinking and talking and maybe even changing. That's writing I can appreciate.

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