Text: Eugene R. Kanjo, “ ‘The Imp of the Perverse’: Poe’s Dark Comedy of Art and Death,” Poe Newsletter­, October 1969, Vol. II, No. 3, 2:41-44


[page 41, column 1:]

“The Imp of the Perverse”:
Poe’s Dark Comedy of Art and Death

University of Retlands

Critics often use Poe’s idea of the perverse as a means of interpreting his canon and character; yet none carefully examines the tale most expressly concerned with illustrating this theme, “The Imp of the Perverse,” published late in Poe’s career, July 1845, in Graham’s Magazine (1). The tale defines perverseness as “a paradoxical something” through whose “promptings we act, for the reason that we should not. ” On the surface, the tale simply relates how the narrator-protagonist falls a victim to the Imp of the Perverse, a satanic kink inherent in all men. Yet, though the perverse is a common propensity, “with certain minds, under certain conditions, it becomes absolutely irresistible.” This distinction guides us toward an implicit meaning that has been little noted: the tale is as much about the creative mechanism in man as it is about the destructive — indeed, the tale is typically Romantic in its conception of the paradoxically intertwined relationship of the creative and the destructive (2). If we take “certain minds” as a reference to creative artists and “certain conditions” as moments of the creative impulse, we find, underneath the surface story, a complex Romantic allegory of the creative process with a special Poe twist: the artistic consciousness watches its creative impulses with wry, even comic, detachment as it creates an elaborate work of art based on the destructive impulse.

The narrator speaks, for the first three paragraphs, in the discursive manner of the essayist. Using grandiloquent language to swell up these paragraphs, he argues that only humble empiricism can reveal perverseness as a basic impulse to be reckoned with, since arrogant reason overlooks it “through want of belief” in the power of the senses. This essay-like introduction is not a failure of craft, as one critic contends (3), but a measure of Poe’s craftiness. For the ratiocinative introduction contrasts with the melodramatic ending, but, at the same time, the opening and the conclusion parallel each other in the extravagant diction of the one and in the sensationalism of the other. Actually, the story’s general plan is an example of apriority. It begins at the top of the logical ladder, so to speak, with a hypothesis concerning the nature of the perverse, then descends, one comic rung at a time, toward the narrator’s particular experience of the Imp. Yet, with a poker face that Mark Twain might envy, the narrator practices deduction even as he makes a case against it in favor of induction.

What must be called the narrator’s intellectual impishness persists in the next section, as he steps down one rung [column 2:] of the ladder. He offers three illustrations of the perverse, indicating that he is not yet ready to operate from his own real experience. Ostensibly, their aim is to show that the heart has reasons which the mind cannot fathom: “An appeal to one’s 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.” Once again, the narrator’s self-mockery becomes evident. Though “the sophistry just noticed” alludes directly to phrenology (”concocted á priori “), it refers indirectly to the comic game he has been playing with deductive and inductive reason. Now he leaves such logic behind in his desire to prove the “radicalness” of perverseness. The heart and the soul, he tells us, are more satisfactory than the intellect in this matter. Yet, the illustrations are not based on logic, observation, or anyone’s real experience. Presumably, the illustrations are made up. But in light of the narrator’s impish wit, they might well be disguised incidents taken from his own life. Even if they are not partially suppressed personal experiences, the imagination is shown to be a more effective means than the intellect for disclosing the perverse, because it creates episodes which seem true to everyone’s experience.

When we turn to the three illustrations, we notice an increasing intensity of anxiety from the first one to the last. This anxiety pattern also appears within each example, reflecting the tale’s emotional structure, from its dispassionate opening to its frenetic conclusion. The first example deals with circumlocution as a form of the perverse:

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. (VI, 148)

The imagined speaker’s emotions rise to a pitch greater than the situation warrants, and for this reason the example is a comic mockery of circumlocution. At first, the speaker is consciously circumlocutory. But only for a while, until circumlocution gets out of hand and overcomes him. At this moment, it becomes a metaphor for the creative process, which is part conscious and part unconscious. The “impulse” which the speaker “indulges” is really the desire to create a literary piece — to combine concise and brilliant language, “struggling for utterance upon his tongue,” with an appropriate kind of structure or method (”involutions [page 42:] and parentheses”), in order to achieve a particular effect in his listener (”anger”), which recalls Poe’s critical dictum that a literary artist should always proceed from a preconceived effect. Later on, the narrator defends his circumlocutory manner: “Had I not been thus prolix, you might either have misunderstood me altogether, or, with the rabble, have fancied me mad” (VI, 150). In calling our attention to prolixity, he asks us to see, ultimately, that such writing not only disguises the creative consciousness, but also issues in the story itself. There is method in his madness.

An important word or idea in the first example is “dread.” Its function is psychological, as it denotes the speaker’s fear of the listener’s anger that he wishes to arouse. In the second example, which has to do with procrastination, the sense of dread intensifies into a metaphysical quality:

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 istoo late! (VI, 148-149)

The narrator-as-artist draws a parable about a mood he dreads — “a nameless, a positively fearful, because unfathomable, craving for delay.” The “important crisis” that calls, “trumpet-tongued,” is the moment of inspiration to which an artist must respond “speedily,” if he would not lose sight of it. The “task” that lies before him is unmistakable, but procrastination perverts his will to creative action. He plays a game with the very impulse that would lead to a “glorious result,” the creation of an artistic work, and loses. He is so caught up in observing the motion of creativity within himself that he dissipates its energy. Here, at any rate, he cannot both trace this motion and act upon it, as the speaker in the first example could. As he watches this “indefinite” motion, a clock strikes, and he thinks it knells his welfare, for it shocks him out of his state of inner turmoil, apparently freeing him to commence work. But, at the same time, the clock, symbolizing the temporal or “definite” world of time, drives away the “shadow” (”the ghost that has so long overawed” him), whose origin is the “indefinite” world of eternity — the source of creative inspiration. Ironically, when the “old energy” (conscious energy) returns, the “shadow” (unconscious energy) flees. The irony becomes comic, because the “shadow” itself is the Imp that generates the artist’s perverse mood. The clock’s striking relieves the artist’s anxiety but sounds the death knell of the creative impulse. But the tale’s narrator, unlike the artist in the parable, creates his own story, even after everything has [column 2:] happened, because he can balance the indefinite with the definite, the substance with the shadow. Out of such balance, art triumphs over life. But first the artist must believe in his feelings, an idea that ironically recalls the narrator’s earlier satirical view of theorists, all of whom lack belief in the feelings. Poe is not averse to poking fun at the artist or the artist’s role.

The third example intensifies the anxiety involved in the creative force into the terror of self-destruction:

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 unnameable 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 demonically 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 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. (VI, 149-150)

Now the narrator moves into the region of dark comedy, as he pits the creative impulse against nothingness. The urge to leap “into the abyss” — a desire to be rid of the anxiety of existence — measures the depth of the urge to undergo the creative process. Here the risk is more terrifying and absolute because it involves suicide, not simply circumlocution and procrastination. He translates the terror of annihilation into an abstract image, “a cloud of unnameable feeling,” one that simultaneously possesses a creative and destructive spirit. As the “cloud” assumes a palpable shape, it “chills” him “with the fierceness of the delight of its horror,” which is, surely, the pleasure principle with a vengeance. The ultimate dread — death — is at once the ultimate delight — creativity. For to meditate a plunge into nothingness constitutes the very ground of creative power. In this kind of reverie on death, the narrator vicariously experiences nothingness, which he expresses in the image of the “cloud,” thus saving himself from an actual leap into an actual abyss. Yet he makes a symbolic leap, not like Kierkegaard into religious faith, but a leap of faith in the creative process, a leap that is as absurd as Kierkegaard’s.

The narrator, having concluded his illustrations, states that the Imp of the Perverse is the harbinger both of creative and destructive force. “Examine these and similar actions as we will, we shall find them resulting solely from the spirit of the Perverse. We perpetrate them merely because we feel we should not. Beyond or behind this, there is no intelligible principle: and we might, indeed, deem this perverseness a direct instigation of the [page 43:] arch-fiend, were it not occasionally known to operate in furtherance of good” (VI, 150). Human action arises from the perverse, a force within; but the perverse is visited upon man seemingly from without, and can operate for both good and evil. This dual role in which the Imp acts as devil and angel recalls Goethe’s Mephistopheles in Faust, I. In The Prologue in Heaven, God grants Mephistopheles a free hand in trying to divert Faust from good to evil. When Faust asks Mephistopheles, in The Study scene, to identify himself, he replies that he is “Part of that power which operates/ Ever in evil, yet good creates” (4). He goes on to say that he is “part of that part which was Absolute,/ A part of that Darkness which gave birth to Light” (p. 51). The Imp is to the narrator as Mephistopheles is to Faust. The Imp compels the narrator to commit an evil action — murder, yet instigates two good actions, one moral — the narrator’s confession, and one esthetic — the story itself.

Now we discover the narrator is in a prison cell, apparently confessing his crime to a priest (as in “The Cask of Amontillado”). This means that he has been speaking from experience all along. He recounts very briefly his preparations for murdering the victim whose estate he will inherit:

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.” (VI, 150-151)

This passage is also an implicit account of making “The Imp of the Perverse.” Here, the narrator avoids prolixity, or vexing us “with impertinent details.” To tell us about his “thousand schemes” would only lead to more prolixity, an idea which he has already treated. Harrison reveals that the tale’s “earliest state shows extensive variations from the text. In fact the whole tale was subjected to a most careful and minute verbal correction, without change of incidents and ideas” (VI, 287). The narrator’s efforts to perfect his murderous plan parallels Poe’s scrupulous verbal revisions. As the narrator’s final scheme is “wrought with a more thorough deliberation,” so Poe’s final text is refined to achieve a desired effect. The narrator is an artificer who imitates in order to destroy, in that he mimics a French memoir’s account of how Madame Pilau is poisoned. And Poe is an artificer who imitates in order to create, in that he re-creates the “idea” of the perverse as it has “struck” his “fancy.” “Death by the visitation of God” is satirical here — the victim’s death is, after all, no mystery to us — because the Coroner’s verdict is wrong. Yet, ironically, there has been a “visitation,” if not by God, then by the Imp who, like Mephistopheles, is God’s secret agent.

Though having inherited his victim’s estate and thinking himself absolutely secure from detection, the narrator [column 2:] begins to repeat, “in a low under-tone, the phrase, ‘I am safe. ’ “ This signals the tale’s dénouement, a comic satire of the narrator’s confession:

One day, while sauntering along the streets, I arrested myself in the act of murmuring, half aloud, these customary syllables. In a fit of petulance, I re-modelled 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? (VI, 151-153)

Here the act of confessing describes an emotional pattern that begins on an even pitch, rises gradually to a peak of intensity, falls off in the narrator’s “swoon,” and ends on a quizzical note. Within this pattern, confession takes on several meanings. In repeating “safe,” the narrator is playing on the word “saved” in its religious sense of salvation, which implies that his confession expresses a moral compulsion to make a clean breast of things. But confession is also a form of perversity, since the narrator wishes to purge his soul of his crime against humanity, even if this means his capture and execution. On the one hand, he looks upon the “rabble” with contempt; on the other, in his open confession among the populace, he symbolically pursues the people, even as they pursue him. Although confession serves as a device for closing the tale, in a wider sense, it mirrors the creative process. It begins as a “haunting and harassing thought,” becomes a “murmuring, half aloud,” of “syllables,” grows into a “desire to shriek aloud,” until it emerges, with “a distinct enunciation, but with marked emphasis and passionate hurry,” in “brief but pregnant sentences” — by contrast, a clear reference to circumlocution and procrastination before. The structure of the tale comes full circle from circumlocution as a harmless perversity to a perverse perception of Nothingness. At the end of the tale, the narrator comes to a perverse thought, or possibility, that leads once more to a state of intense anxiety. In the very moment of anticipating his release from whatever torment or fetters that now bind him, his perverse streak leads him to think that he [page 44:] does not know where he shall be after his execution — perhaps, a dread of Nothingness — which by implication suggests new agonies of perverse speculation for him.



(1)  Parenthetically enclosed volume and page numbers refer to The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe, ed. James A. Harrison (New York, 1902). Charles Baudelaire, in “New Notes on Edgar Poe,” trans. Lois and Francis Hyslop, The Recognition of Edgar Allan Poe, ed. Eric W. Carlson (Ann Arbor, 1966), pp. 43-60, asserts that the perverse concerns original sin. Patrick F. Quinn, in The French Face of Edgar Poe (Carbondale, 1957), states that perversity for Poe “was psychological only” (p. 131). For other illuminating comments about the perverse, see Allen Tate, “The Angelic Imagination: Poe and the Power of Words,” Kenyon Review, XIV, 455-475 (Summer 1952); Richard Wilbur, “The House of Poe,” Recognition, pp. 255-277; Terence Martin “The Imagination at Play,” Kenyon Review, XXVIII, 194-209 (March 1966); James M. Cox, “Edgar Poe: Style as Pose,” Virginia Quarterly Review, XLIV, 67-89 (Winter 1968); Joseph J. Moldenhauer, “Murder as a Fine Art: Basic Connections between Poe’s Aesthetics, Psychology, and Moral Vision,” PMLA, LXXXIII, 284-297 (May 1968).

(2)  See Edward H. Davidson, Poe: A Critical Study (Cambridge 1957) on Romantic self-absorption and allegory.

(3)  Edward Wagenknecht, Edgar Allan Poe (New York, 1963), p. 154

(4)  Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Faust: A Tragedy, Part One, trans. Alice Raphael (New York, 1963).


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[S:1 - PSDR, 1969]