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The Precipice

On "The Imp of the Perverse" (1845) By Edgar Allan Poe

By Tom BakerPublished 13 days ago Updated 12 days ago 6 min read
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Do you have a demon?

Do you at times find yourself acting in ways completely the opposite of what you might regard as being "in your best interest"?

Have you ever walked across the ledge of a tall building, stopped to look down into the sickening drop below, and found yourself with the almost irresistible urge to fling yourself into the chasm below? To extinguish this life, in one exultant if mystifying moment, to disappear into the blackness of your bloody collision with the pavement below? Parachutists who have miraculously survived their chute NOT opening have described that, far from losing consciousness out of sheer terror, they were completely conscious the entire way down.

You might in that case feel the earth come up to crush the life from you, crack and splinter of sickening bone pop as your brains splatter across the piss-stained pavement, the homeless, the hopeless, and the Just Plain Folks staring at you like an exhibit from Ripley's.

Perverse. Your demon. The monkey riding your back. Perhaps you can't shake the fantasy of having sex with your friend's wife. No matter how hard you try (no pun), she's there, in your dreams and desires, splayed open like a two-dollar whore in a bad pulp novelette, the fantasies of a third-rung author. You have to fight the urge to write her obscenities. You begin, darkly, to wish the husband, your "friend", would somehow, someway (and let's be frank: you aren't too particular how it should occur), would just... "disappear."

And maybe, well...

Is it because she is unattainable that you want her? Does her forbidden or sacrosanct aspect lend her a desirability all that more enticing for the simple fact that to dip your toe into that particular water, is to transgress boundaries the crossing of which, like the precipice of the putative suicide, promise both ecstasy and release, as well as the thrilling rush of danger and pain, all in one fell swoop? And then, oblivion? Which might be sweet, yes?

Poe's "Imp of the Perverse" is a study of the demon, the Monkey on ALL of our backs. What drives a man to procrastinate he asks, mildly? We all do it, to some degree. When a thing MUST be done, it somehow becomes the very thing we least of all want to accomplish. Why is that? Is it born from a fear of failure, perhaps?

Poe offers little transition between the concept of mere procrastination and the sudden, inexplicable, burning urge toward self-destruction. What of people like doomed actress Simone Mareuil, from Bunuel's famous film (made with Salvador Dali), Un Chien Andalou ("An Andalusian Dog"), who marched dutifully and inexplicably into the town square of her town of Périgueux, in France, and, dousing herself with petrol, died by self-immolation. (Not, one supposes, unlike a Buddhist monk.)

What demon? Really?

We all walk the precipice of rationality and irrationality, Poe seems to be saying. We could fall off on either side of the fence, or down the rabbit hole to a life of regret. Remorse. But some will feel, as a popular heavy metal song intones, "no remorse, no repent..."

What evil have you lurking inside yourself? What demon? What "Imp"? What perversity.

Unlike Poe, Sade celebrated his own Imp, his Devil, the perversity that drove him to commit crimes against Jane Testard, Rose Keller, and others--flogging, torture, poisoning, blasphemous imprecations, and sexual deviance the likes of which polite society was unprepared to deal with. Sade was imprisoned, confined, nearly executed; burned in effigy. He took it in stride, as the price he paid for keeping such a demanding familiar, his intercession with the forces of Black; those powers that were teaching him and instructing his philosophy of Nature; i.e. the idea that in Nature's brutal abundance, there was no room for petty remorse, moral qualms, or squabbling over what was, inherently, born from within, the molecular or atomic fabric of man, constituted naturally toward avaricious criminality, sadism (taken from his name), and the will to enact the destruction that is as wholesale a part of the natural order as the lightning and the sun.

Illumination and destruction. Max Stirner rejected all moral dogma and appeals to "humanity" that originated outside of himself. Yet, what if What Lives Within would destroy that self? Every junkie on the street with a monkey on their back has a "sob story"; are they flawed on some deeply internal level, wherein self-destruction is programmed into the fabric of their being, hardwired into their DNA? The Imp laughs from his Void beyond, and that Void is within you, staring back with a dead black gaze.

Poe writes:

It would have been wiser, it would have been safer, to classify (if classify we must) upon the basis of what man usually or occasionally did, and was always occasionally doing, rather than upon the basis of what we took it for granted the Deity intended him to do. If we cannot comprehend God in his visible works, how then in his inconceivable thoughts, that call the works into being? If we cannot understand him in his objective creatures, how then in his substantive moods and phases of creation?

In some way this echoes Sade's introduction to Justine, wherein he relates that it would be the "supreme end of philosophy" to divine for Man the capricious and inscrutable mechanisms by which Providence has devised for him a pathway through existence, all the better to deliver "the unfortunate biped" from the caprices and "slings and arrows of outrageous fortune" (as the Bard put it) tossed at him from a seemingly careless yet omnipotent God. Or some such.

Poe's jarringly obtuse, verbose, and erratic "Imp" then switches abruptly to a narrative wherein a homicidal candlemaker (who gleaned the idea of poisoning candles from some "scrofulous French novels," as Thomas Hardy might have put it), poisons a friend unaccountably. We are never appraised of exactly why he does this. The Imp titters like a fiend from a Lovecraft story.

He completely and utterly escapes justice. What demon, again, I ask?

Above and beyond suspicion, he walks the streets like a man in a daze, his guilt, like Poe's guilt, for which this is a fictional or literary substitute, a morbid scapegoat for the sins of the author who married a close relative that was also a literal child, that guilt I say, ringing in his ears. Poe's feckless, self-destructive nature offered skin in a mental sense. So here is his alter-ego, the man driven mad by his Imp, and here that Imp mocks him.

Having driven him to murder, he shall now drive him to confess that guilt.

Faces peer at him from the madness of the crowd, Pointing, mocking, chasing him through the labyrinthine alleyways of his haunted consciousness. Finally, as if in a dream, being the Observer and What is Observed, he freely confesses his guilt. He is, to use the Victorian slang, "collared," and sentenced to hang.

He relates his tale. Now he is awaiting the coming of the dawn and the precipice yawns below. Tomorrow, he will step out into the Infinite, unknowing. He will be pushed into the yawning abyss below. But, not, as it were, by the Imp of the Perverse.

"The Imp of the Perverse" by Edgar Allan Poe


About the Creator

Tom Baker

Author of Haunted Indianapolis, Indiana Ghost Folklore, Midwest Maniacs, Midwest UFOs and Beyond, Scary Urban Legends, 50 Famous Fables and Folk Tales, and Notorious Crimes of the Upper Midwest.: http://tombakerbooks.weebly.com

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  • Randy Wayne Jellison-Knock13 days ago

    Excellent article, commentary & review, Tom.

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