Live & Learn

Wrestling with the Imp of the Perverse

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There are doubtless few, if any, high school graduates of the past 50 or more years who were not exposed to the macabre writings of Edgar Allan Poe. Could any 15-year-old have failed to feel his or her own heart thumping in sync with "The Tell-Tale Heart?" Didn't we all shiver just a bit when the teacher read aloud those sonorous words, "Quoth the Raven, nevermore?"

One of Poe's strangest short stories was omitted from school curriculums, however. I heard about it in college from another English major, who was pretty strange himself. It was the mid-'60s, and he was tripping regularly with LSD, so it wasn't surprising that he took up with Poe in a major way.

The obscure story he had discovered was "The Imp of the Perverse." It starts off like a scholarly psychological treatise about "a paradoxical something, which we may call perverseness, for want of a more characteristic term," as Poe put it. The story rattles on and on in nearly incomprehensible language (at least to those of us today whose vocabularies have been horrifically 'dumbed down'), then segues into the first-person account of a man who commits the perfect murder. As Poe builds suspense, as only he could, the reader slowly begins to comprehend, with horror of course, just what this perverseness means.

The man revels in his success for many years, feeling absolutely sure he will never be caught for his crime, often saying to himself, "I am safe." Then one day, inexplicably, he says, "In a fit of petulance, I remodeled the words 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 beckoned me on to death."

The final paragraphs of the story move swiftly toward just what the reader now knows will happen. The man struggles in vain to resist the Imp. Ultimately, he blurts out his guilt on the street to all who can hear, is tried and convicted to hang.

So what prompted me to recall this story? Actually, I've often had reason to remember it. Like Poe's miserable character, I've encountered the Imp many times. Once was when I walked one night alone on the sidewalk of a busy street that crossed high above a Los Angeles freeway. I felt drawn suddenly to stop and peer down at the traffic below. Unbidden, the thought began to grow like a cancer in my mind: Jump! I fought the Imp for perhaps two or three minutes before pulling back, and walking on, thoroughly shaken.

The Imp usually appears at much less dramatic moments. Like the other day when I made a firm commitment to get back on Dr. Atkins' diet, and lose 10 pounds. All was well until the Imp suddenly infiltrated my mind with a mad craving for a hot fudge sundae. There was no appeasing him. I cursed the Imp, but I loved eating my sundae.

Haven't we all dealt with the Imp now and then? I sort of like having him to blame for my occasional minor but irrational acts of self-destruction. And maybe, having met him through Mr. Poe long ago, I've been able to head him off at the pass a few times. He's not so scary once you've unmasked him.

Oh, yes, that stoned college student who introduced him to me? The last I heard, he had earned a Ph.D. in English literature and was a respected university professor, having successfully fought off the Imp, I assume.

Vivian Taylor can be contacted at 474-1386 or online at viv@cybertrails.com.

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