"The Imp of Perverse"; or, On the Nature and Dystopia of Man?

Jared Schumacher


Recently upon a midnight dreary / I somewhat stumbled, weak and weary / across some old lines of prose / none other than Edgar Allen Poe's / called "The Imp of the Perverse"/ (as said I, in prose, not verse). 

Therein, Poe adopts l'allure academicienne to criticize various idealistic conceptions of human nature, particularly those which paint it in a glowing light, by interjecting into the anthropological discussion a quintessentially Poe-ian gloom.  As he (or at least, his narrator) sees matters, there are not just rainbows and butterflies dancing in the heart of man, but also something approaching darkness, an "imp of the perverse."  Whereas "phrenologists" of his day were teaching that man 'does everything for a reason', the narrator – arguing from induction – shows to the contrary that we do many things precisely "for the reason that we should not." He offers himself as a practical example.

The fascinating thing about the story, as we learn halfway through, is that the narrator has not been academically pontificating as we initially thought, but rather has been responding to a fellow cellmate's question about why he is consigned to the hangman's noose.  This is not academic declaration, but deathbed confession; only it is not a confession at all, at least not in the classical sense.  The academic bit is pretext.  What it served to accomplish for Poe was to usher in the well-reasoned thought of (un)principled (un)thinking.  The ironic juxtaposition Poe creates in this literary turn is dramatic.  Here is a man, fully possessed of his rational faculties, expounding with lucidity and prolixity upon the dark, (il)logical, (ir)rational nature of man, his own murderous nature.  

What furthers the play-on-thought is the fact that, while the "the imp" is revealed as the reason for the narrator's fate, it is not the reason for the reason that his listeners are tempted to think.  Though guilty of the crime of murder, the narrator is not so much blaming the imp for his perverse homicide (though this reading is also possible), but is rather – in the final reveal – blaming it as the cause of his own needless confession of the crime.  He had gotten away with the murder, a murder which had been planned out in full detail, with every contingency foreseen and calculated. It was a rational crime (done for money), calculated rationally.  There was no proof or witness, only his conscience.  And this impish conscience eats him into acting against his own rational self-interest, confessing to the point of condemnation.  Confession here is a manifestation of the perversion of humanity.  Conscience is a sign of the imp of the perverse in man.

Poe's narrator has proven his case:  there are times when men act irrationally with reason, when they are motivated without motive.  Man is a contradiction to (a word-against) himself.

Poe concludes with epigrammatic, enigmatic, and ultimately apophatic, resignation: 

But why shall I say more? Today I wear these chains, and am here!

Tomorrow I shall be fetterless!-but where?

The "imp" is clearly Poe's (un)Romantic statement against an all-too-rational conception of human being: it is romantic in its appeal to a human nature beyond the confines of reason, but unromantic in its gothic (grotesque) depiction of man as perverse in that nature-beyond-reason.  His is an (anti)humanism.  There are many human delights, many human actions, which remain unaccounted for in a terminal calculus of the logical.  As the narrator makes clear along the way, beginning to think, in some ways, brings death to the delights of experience.  And man cannot live without these delights.  His actions are motivated by them.  But these delights, these irrational "sentiments" and perverse fascinations also bring death to man, as the narrator's confession shows.  Poe is wrestling with a fundamentally human paradox: the battle between reason and (perverse) desire in accounting for human action.  

The impishness of human action is notoriously difficult to articulate in part because the romantic critique of reason can only be reasonably argued.  But it can be easily enough felt.  To get a sense of what Poe means by the imp, watch Steve Cutt's recent and rather perverse depiction of "Man":  

Watching this video's tacit critique of late-modern capitalism – more broadly, human nature as it is modeled for us today – it is difficult not to feel two complex emotions simultaneously: that it captures something profoundly true of the kind of animal man is, and that we are caught in a helpless feedback loop that reifies this envisioning of human nature, an image on which we gag.  No one wants this to be who we are; yet we are all living within its criticism.  We are, in some ways, cheering for the conclusion: we want to see "man" put in his place by some larger force, judged by the same perverse "impish" attitude which made man the king of the wasteland. We cheer as the aliens humble him, but only to keep from weeping at the fact that we are him.  And this contradiction between this feeling and our actions is precisely an indication of the effects of the imp of the perverse.

Poe's "imp" shares much in common with Christian theological thinking on the nature of man.  Augustine's famous pear-tree caper or St. Paul's longer discourse in Rom. 7 both account for human action that cannot be made accountable:  

14 We know that the law is spiritual; but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin. 15 I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. 16 And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. 17 As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me.  18 For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. 19 For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. 

It is tempting, as certain (Calvinistic) strands of theology might do, to read Paul's passage and the imp of the perverse into the nature of man itself.  But Paul is wise enough to see that such a 'reading-into' human nature of sin and perverseness are likely to produce either active nihilism or else passive fatalism, creating in one case, more harm, and in the other, helplessness.  He therefore finishes the above quote with the sentence:  

20 Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer "I" who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.

This is why he speaks of sin as a "second nature" to man, and why the tradition of Catholic theology argues vehemently for the original innocence of humanity:  not everything human is totally depraved.  Though there is original sin, this sin is neither originary, nor humanity's necessary destiny.   Death does not have the last word.  We do not need to end in the wasteland, whether that be of nihilism or fatalism.  

As Poe's auditors, we are fellow cellmates.  As Cutt's viewers, we are the image we despise.  But 'we' are not the 'imp' of the perverse, however grievously it has wounded who we truly are.  According to the Catholic faith, who we can be, who we will be, "is waiting to be revealed in the last days..."

... and those days are already, and not yet.