The Imp of the Perverse

By Kevin F. Ryan, Esq.

Every fall, especially around Halloween, I get the impulse to read some classic, seasonal story. You know the sort: James’s “The Turn of the Screw,” or Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” or something from Edgar Allen Poe. This strand of my reading sometimes extends into the dark, short days after Halloween. There’s something appropriate about reading such stories when the wind is blowing, the temperatures are falling, and daylight ends before I get out of the office. So this year found me reading some of Poe’s stories as November bled into December, impotent to resist the horrors on which his tales turn: “the beating of that hideous heart” buried beneath the floor, the screeching of the black cat plastered inside the wall along with the body of the murdered wife, the nobleman imprisoned forever in the catacombs to work off a grudge.

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I suspect that, were we to meet Poe today, we would consider him, at the very least, odd – he doesn’t fit, his mind works in bizarre ways, his imagination is gruesome, unsavory, antisocial. But there’s something about that lack of fit that speaks to us: by showing us the odd, by confronting us with the impure, it opens a window into our souls. Reading Poe we gain some remarkable, indeed philosophical, insights into who we are and how we behave. He haunts us.

Take for instance what he calls, in the short story of that name, “The Imp of the Perverse.” This is the “radical, primitive, irreducible sentiment” or spirit that tempts us to do things merely because we should not – or not do things just because we should. Poe describes this psychological characteristic, this imp, this way:

We stand upon the brink of a precipice. We peer into the abyss – we grow sick and dizzy. Our first impulse is to shrink away from the danger. Unaccountably we remain … 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 … for this very cause do we now the most vividly desire it.

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This impulse, lurking at our back, whispering in our ear, overwhelming our reason, carries us away, leading us to thoughts and actions contrary to what we know we should think and do.

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.

Yes, he’s talking about you and me. Take procrastination. You need to make that phone call, have that serious conversation, or read that long, boring document, but you postpone it, pushing it aside minute by minute, hour by hour, day by day. Each time you push it off, the burden of it grows, until it becomes a weighty albatross around your neck. Did you ever find yourself, uncontrollably, saying or doing things, willy-nilly, precisely because you know you shouldn’t? In conversation, you catch (but can’t stop) yourself from embellishing, or making up out of whole cloth, a tale of excuse or heroism. You blurt out just the wrong thing to your spouse, boss, or judge. You reveal confidences because you can’t stop yourself. You find yourself impetuously doing the very things you have promised yourself (and others) that you would no longer do. Arguments and fights are like this: we are dragged along by the imp of the perverse, exaggerating injuries, escalating beyond reason, ending in shouts, blows, and tears. Later, we are embarrassed by what we said and did, saddened that we lost control. But we’ll do it again. The imp will make sure of that.

We’d like to think that we can govern our conduct by our reason or our finer feelings, that we are not controlled by evil demons – and indeed, we make fun of those who attribute their actions to such demons (“The devil made me do it”). But Poe rejects this wish as “the pure arrogance of the reason.” (Heeding the urging of my own imp, let me point out that there’s a nice contrast here – perhaps intentional – with the title of a work by the ultra-rationalist Immanuel Kant.) We aren’t always rational, we often shirk the touch of the better angels of our nature, impervious to their call – not by choice, but by necessity. It’s who we are.

As lawyers, we know the imp in our clients. We see it in our colleagues. We know that many ethical lapses spring from just this sort of perversity – they are not intentional, but impulsive and (virtually?) uncontrollable. We see it in our children, in our co-workers, in each other. We see it business, in politics, in religion – in all realms of our life together. And, all too often, we find it in ourselves. Perhaps Poe would tell us not to wall up the imp like the heart, the cat, and the nobleman – which were, or so the protagonists hoped, out of sight, out of mind. But, you see (Poe makes you see), they were not – they lived on, haunting those who had sought to banish them. Let us instead awaken to the imp within us and the world around us, acknowledge it, see it is within us, not only in them, and then engage with it. But now I’m waxing abstract . . . my own imp at work.

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