Saturday, April 16, 2011

Pondering the Imp of the Perverse

Lest anyone get too excited, I refer to what Poe described in his charming story, The Imp of the Perverse (I think most of Poe's work is charming, even those stories and poems that seem macabre, because they fascinate and so charm the reader as a snake may be charmed).

The imp is that urge or tendency which seems to compel us to do something self-destructive though we know it to be self-destructive and even, perhaps, because we know it will destroy us.  It is one of those things about us which seem to dispute if not disprove the claim that we are all motivated solely by our own self-interest.  It is probably one of those things about us which delight those who maintain that we are fundamentally irrational.  I suppose certain of the religious-minded may believe this to be a part of the original sin they assert, sometimes with too much satisfaction, taints us all immediately as we come into existence--our unworthiness is a sort of a priori part of our nature (perhaps I should say "our being").

In his story, Poe makes use of some fairly extreme examples of the work of the imp, as may be expected.  But there are more mundane examples.  Among them I think is the tendency to acknowledge an error and then perpetuate it, rather than admitting the error and acting to rectify it, despite the fact that we know it will eventually come to light.  This may not be quite the work of the imp of the perverse; there may be a different, maybe a lesser, imp at work in those cases.  Another instance of imps at work or play may be that which induces some of us to make much of an error we make, to flaunt it in a sense.

Perhaps we all have such an imp, a kind of reverse (perverse?) guardian angel.  It's interesting to consider that some of the great, even spectacular, figures of history who destroyed themselves or are considered monsters may have given their imps full reign.  For example, Alexander after the death of Hephaestion, Gaius Caligula, Nero in ancient history; Napoleon perhaps more recently.  Such figures have a certain fascination, or charm.

Does the imp feed on our desire to control our lives?  We are certainly in control and are perhaps never more in control than when we destroy ourselves.  But when we destroy ourselves we seem to do it in response to things we can't control.

Things in our control, things out of our control; the distinction made by the Stoics has value, and may help save us from the imps of our nature, who/which may be the opposite of the "better angels" Lincoln conjured up.

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