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Edgar Allen Poe (part I, the beginning)

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Edgar Allen Poe
An Archetypal approach to his writings
by: Ashish Basuray

Throughout Edgar Allen Poe's life, many factors have contributed and influenced his writing style. He lived a difficult life, because he was raised in a dysfunctional household. This is not the main factor to his intriguing writing style, but it is a main factor in the understanding of Poe. He was by a step-father who did not love him, or he dictated his Victorian values so exhaustively that it warped young Allen's impressionable mind. But the final product of Edgar Allen Poe's mind is printed in his short stories and poems. Edgar Allen Poe’s stories all have similar motifs and composition that would suggest suppressed emotions from life experiences are being discharged through his writings. Three main motifs that can be related back to his psyche are: the old man/father figure, his obsessions on an object, and his relations to death. Throughout his life he strove to not be like his stepfather, and to be a better person than his stepfather. In the least, he wanted all memories of him and his ways out of his life. Therefore, he oppressed the memories and when the sub-conscience part of his mind is working on writing, this motif appears. The father figure usually appears as an old man, or someone with some sagacity. This old man is not derived from Joseph Campbell's archetype of an old-man figure. The old man figure in Joseph Campbell's interpretation is one who is close to omnipotence. Since the old man is close to death, it gives him a different outlook on life. This different outlook usually has perspicacity behind it from all the experience throughout a lifetime. Similarly, in Poe's writing, the old man figure may retain knowledge but he is far different than the contemporary definition of the old man archetype. Poe relates the old man figure as one that has a certain type of evil that is inside of him. As in the case of "The Tell Tale Heart" the narrator doesn't hate the man that he's going to kill, he hates the fake eye. The eye represents evil, and Poe converts everything to black and white. If a part of the kind man is evil, then the whole man is evil, hence, he kills him. And Poe doesn't see the act of killing bad, but a cleansing action, ridding the world of one more evil. In "The Descent into the Maelstrom" the captain was the old man / father figure. Guiding the people in the boat closet to the edge of existence, into the maelstrom. And Poe makes it the captain’s fault that they are caught in the outer ring of the maelstrom and are coming closer to the center. But he shows his optimistic side as the vessel escapes the whirlpool, and breaks free. However, I do not believe it was Poe's intention to credit .

The captain with the escape, but rather luck perhaps, or the perseverance of the crew. Likewise in the Black Cat, the husband in the story was particularly cruel and unjust to the cats. The cats were probably representing Poe when he was defenseless and young. And the temper that his stepfather would act out on Poe, was the same temper that the "cat-killer" would kill the cat and his wife. It is no doubt that Poe's traumatic childhood played a key factor exposing the "evil-old man" figure. Poe was not inebriated when he wrote his work, and therefore has a certain level of consciousness when portraying a character such as the old man figure.

Most of Poe's stories have a continual motif of obsessive-compulsive behavior. This would be expected of Poe when taking a look at his life. He was kicked out of West Point for gambling, a clearly addictive, form of recreation. He would have this personality trait from deprivation of a certain element during his childhood. This characteristic also present in Poe's writing; the obsessive attitude the narrator has towards many things. It sounds as neurotic as Nurse Ratchet in "Over The Cuckoo's Nest." Weather Poe is trying to sound like that, is up to debate, but one can speculate That he was a neurotic person, tacit and introverted but on the inside he is quite active. For instance, on the "Tell Tale Heart" he was obsessed with " the beating of the hideous heart!" Or in the "Black Cat" he was obsessed with the killing the cat. And in both of those stories he was not afraid of the police, but their presence there pushed him over the edge. Like in "Crime and Punishment" Raskolnikov thought that he had committed the perfect murder, but it turns out that he deteriorates until he has to confess. Likewise, the narrator thinks that he has made such an immaculate job in cleaning up the body that nobody will find him, but he never considers the "x-factor." That is characteristic of someone that is extremely compulsive; they will act without thinking about the variables in the "equation." In the Masque of Red Death he is obsessed with the "Red Death."

May of his stories have this attribute, making it more common, hence, less noticeable.

Yet, this obsessive/compulsive attitude is part of Poe's personality, and therefore is expressed through his writing. The most prominent feature of Edgar Allen Poe's writing is his obsession with death. He is afraid to die, and yet he does not think highly of his lifetime. While people strive from the lowest places to the highest places (i.e. Frederick Douglas), he maintains his place in life as if it were to be constant. Poe does not do much under his own guidance, as if he was a child throughout his life. He is always looking to authorities or ultimatums (i.e. death, the police). That leads to the fact that he may have a superiority complex, and therefore feels inadequate throughout life. He does not demonstrate that He lives life; he writes to survive, and that was his motive for survival. Poe was always under the domineering control of his stepfather, and when he was independent, he did not know what to do. As in the case of children burnouts, they work excessively hard to get into college, and then, when they are independent of their parents’ supervision, they do not know what to do, therefore drink and do drugs. Relating this point back to Poe, he needs structure in his life and does not receive adequate structure; therefore, he does not spend his life meaningfully. And the only thing that Poe obsesses about in his stories is about death, and facing death, because even though he wants to evade it, subconsciously that is all he has to wait for. So, needless to say, every story contains either a direct Mention of death or a tacit one, but it is there. "Descent into a Maelstrom" is one of the few stories that a death does not happen and as said earlier, this was one of his more optimistic stories. Even in "The Bells", Poe talks about all bells, a journey through life, until "the sound of those retched Bells!" haunt him as does his imminent death. There is even a story called, "The Premature Burial," which shows one the extent of his obsessive behavior towards death. Poe’s writing does more than entertain the reader. It can be an insight into the dark and somber world of Edgar Allen Poe. One does not understand the meaning of Poe if one reads at the superficial level. One has to read into Poe, and understand the hardships of his life and how he maintained them that way. He knew that death was an inevitable part of life, it is the price of life, but he tried to fight it as if it was an unnatural part of life. He was an extremely intriguing man from all viewpoints, and he was and is, the dark side of all of us.

Eureka represents what Poe believed were unalterable truths, which govern the material and spiritual universe. How, then, can a reader of Eureka, himself a denizen of the universe, resist attributing the same consistencies and truths to material and spiritual man, who, according to Poe, exists as a God-like reflection of Poe's grand cosmic scheme. The obvious answer? He can't resist, for Poe knew that every aspect of man's being is indentured to the Divine Will. This essay, the second of the series, will discuss the psychological implications of Poe's universal constants.

In Eureka we find Poe's explanation that our universe has spun from unity to diversity, that all of creation has been thrown into the "unnatural" condition of multiform particulars. In my first essay, Poe is credited for postulating what science later tagged the "Big Bang" theory of creation. But Poe's description is decidedly oriented to his own spirituality; for example, he states that all spiritual and material manifestations of the universe are but individuations emanating from the unity of the Godhead, and that these spiritual and material individuations long for, and eventually return to, that Divine Unity, which Poe believed to be the "natural" condition of the universe. Upon reunification, God recreates the universe in another horrendous explosion, initiating the next expansion sequence. Poe called this compression and expansion of the universe the heartbeat of God.

It is important for readers of this essay to note Poe's belief that only in dissolution, in death, can the longing for unity imprinted on all matter and spirit be satisfied. In extension of this premise, this essay focuses intently upon perverseness, that impetus of mind, which describes Poe's obsession, the longing of everything to rejoin within the Godhead, the tendency of all, including humanity, to seek its demise. And what could be more perverse than a personal quest for dissolution?

Moralists and philosophers who precurse Poe well understood that humans possess creative intelligence. Volume upon volume regarding the sources and substance of creative genius populate the libraries of literary and philosophical theory. As humans, we might even revel in the notion that we are supremely creative among all creatures. Yet how comparatively few, before or since Poe's time, have examined the countervailing coercion of man--the perverse, that primal instinct which betrays creative genius, that seed of annihilation, which Poe believed, is secreted in every material and spiritual filament of the cosmos. Interestingly, Poe's belief in the perverse caused him to transcend traditional morality, instead, searching out this radical impulse, which he believed rules the dark side of human behavior.

Important distinctions must be drawn here, distinctions required by our living in a culture with an ethic steeped in morality. When Poe speaks of perverseness, he does not intend narrower denotations of the various forms of the word. He does not mean, "perverted," as in sexual miscreance. Though such deviancy may be perverse, it bears little resemblance to the examples of perversity, which Poe elucidated in his tales.

In addition, it is useful to consider Poe's singular contribution to transcendental thought. Himself lukewarm to Emersonian transcendentalism, Poe was careful not to reject the philosophy outright. Such a rejection would have required intellectual ingestion of a prodigious hypocrisy pill, since Poe himself professed a fervent desire to transcend the folly of the flesh to the realm of pure spirit. In Eureka Poe revealed that he also intended transcendence of all a priori and a posteriori thought, to the realm of imagination, where pure spirit dwells free of mortal encumbrance.

If I could dwell
Where Israfel
Hath dwelt, and he where I,
He might not sing so wildly well
A mortal melody, while a bolder
Note than this might swell
From my lyre in the sky.
(Poe 742-43)

Thus, in Poe, we have perhaps the most profound of transcendentalists, albeit the optimism of most British and American proponents of the philosophy. In stark contrast, Poe burned with a spiritual quest, which would not be satisfied by transcendentalism's fleeting epiphanies. Poe sought not glimpses, but total dwelling in this spirit realm. Thus his characters wage war against their "mortal coils." Only when they throw away their lives can they achieve the ultimate transcendence--death.

As one might expect, Poe himself eschewed conventional morality, which he believed stems from man's attempts to dictate the purposes of God. Poe saw God more as process than purpose. He believed that moralists derive their beliefs, and thus, the resultant behavioral patterns, from a priori knowledge. In Eureka, we find that Poe shunned such artifices of mind, systems that, he professed, have no basis in reality. Yet Poe employed in his writing the diction of the moral tome, which causes confusion for readers immersed in this tradition. Daniel Hoffman reiterates Allan Tate's position that, aside from his atavistic employment of moral terminology, Poe writes as though "Christianity had never been invented." (Hoffman 171)

Poe did offer to posterity one tale with a moral. Written in 1841 at the dawn of Poe's most creative period, Poe delivers to his readers a satirical spoof, a literary Bronx cheer to writers of moralistic fiction, and to critics who expressed disapprobation at finding no discernible moral in his works. The tale "Never Bet the Devil Your Head: A Tale with a Moral" presents Poe's "way of staying execution" (Poe 487) for his transgressions against the didactics. The story's main character is Toby Dammit, who from infanthood had been flogged left-handed, which, since the world revolves right to left, causes evil propensities to be driven home rather than driven out. The narrator relates that by the age of seven months, Toby was chasing down and kissing the female babies, that by eight months he had flatly refused to sign the Temperance Pledge, and that by the end of his first year, he'd taken to "wearing moustaches, but had contracted a propensity for cursing and swearing, and for backing his assertions with bets." (Poe 488)

As Toby reaches manhood, the narrator finally accepts that his young friend is incorrigible. By this time, Toby utters scarcely a sentence without oaths, his favorite of which is to bet the devil his head that he can accomplish whatever challenge lays before him.

One day as the narrator accompanies Toby Dammit on a route which requires the crossing of a covered bridge, Toby bets the devil his head that he can leap over a bridge stile, pigeon winging as he performs the feat. Unexpectedly a "little lame old gentleman of venerable aspect" (Poe 491) interrupts with an emphatic "ahem" to take Toby up on his bet. The elderly gentleman wears a "a full suit of black, but his shirt was perfectly clean and the collar turned very neatly down over a white cravat." Oddly, his eyes are "carefully rolled up into the top of his head," (491) and he wears a black silk apron.

After he takes charge of Toby, allowing him a running start, the elderly interloper takes his position just behind the stile. The narrator awaits the gentleman's "One--two--three--and--away," when Toby initiates his running leap. To all appearances, the young reprobate is destined to clear the stile easily, pigeon-winging as he flies, when abruptly his progress is arrested, and the luckless Toby falls flat on his back on his side of the stile. The elderly gentleman is indistinctly seen wrapping a bulky object in his apron, and taking his leave of them. When the narrator throws open an adjacent window, he sees that Toby has been deprived of his head by a sharp, heretofore unnoticed cross-support located directly above the stile. Stated so that the targets of Poe's ridicule cannot miss it, the moral of his tale is its title. Yet the moral of the tale is not its theme. Poe purposes ridicule of those who presume to judge him, and of their small-mindedness. This ridicule is his theme.

His rendering of this riotous spoof illustrates that Poe believed he had more important things to do than pass moral judgment in his tales. Poe instead opted to depict what occurred to him as the natural order of man's behavior, rather than to engage in baseless speculation concerning what God intended for the individual. Appropriately, Poe asks, "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." (Poe 280-81) Instead, Poe's work penetrated to the truths, which govern the universe. How petty the moralists of his day must have seemed to him!

Poe became enchanted with forces, oft-mistaken by the pedants of his and our time, as moral evil, but which Poe saw differently. Rather, he explored the counterpart to creativity, insisting that humans are also predisposed towards the perverse, that radical impulse described for us by the narrator of "The Imp of the Perverse," who declares that

No reason can be more unreasonable; but in fact, there is none more strong. With certain minds, under certain conditions, it becomes absolutely irresistible. I am not more certain than I breathe, than that the assurance of the wrong or error of any action is often the one unconquerable force, which impels us, and alone compels us to its prosecution. Nor will this overwhelming tendency to do wrong for the wrong's sake, admit of analysis, or resolution into ulterior elements. It is a radical, primitive impulse--elementary. (281)

The culturally conditioned can easily miss Poe's point here if moral connotations of the word "wrong" override Poe's intent. In Poe, wrong is wrong because it is perverse, not because the Bible told him so. Wrong is wrong because it is damaging to the personality who initiates the action. When Roderick in "The Fall of the House of Usher" speaks of "a constitutional evil," many assume that he has committed some monstrous act which is so morally hideous that he cannot recover, missing entirely Poe's archetypal portrayal of perversity, which with "certain minds, under certain conditions, ...becomes irresistible." But more of Roderick's plight in another essay.

Poe did not find it sufficient that he essay his theory of perversity in one story only. Perhaps his most lucid portrayal of perversity resides in his masterfully told tale "The Black Cat."

That work's narrator owns a black cat named Pluto, which he dearly loves. However, the cat's owner takes to drinking, and one day, in a tantrum, he is seized by perverse impulses beyond his control. He captures the unfortunate creature, and with his penknife, removes one of its eyes. This is but the beginning of the narrator's sorrows. He recognizes that it

Was this unfathomable longing of the soul to vex itself--to offer violence to own nature--to do wrong for the wrong's sake only--that urged me to continue and finally to consummate the injury I had inflicted upon the unoffending brute. One morning, in cold blood, I slipped a noose about its neck and hung it to the limb of a tree;--hung it with tears streaming from my eyes, and with the bitterest remorse at my heart;--hung it because I knew it had loved me, and because I felt it had given me no offence;--hung it because I knew that in doing so I was committing a sin--a deadly sin that would jeopardize my immortal soul as to place it--if such a thing were possible--even beyond the reach of the infinite mercy of the Most Merciful and Most Terrible God. (Poe, "The Black Cat" 225)

Again, Poe employs language, which can send a traditional moralist howling about the wages of sin. But catch the subjunctive, "if such a thing were possible." Poe makes it clear, even in this extreme set of circumstances, that he does not believe it possible to be beyond the reach of God. In Eureka we saw why. In that work, Poe portrayed God as manifest in the works of his own creation. We saw him further declare that all things of the universe contain "the germ of their inevitable annihilation." Speaking through his narrators," Poe illustrates perversity as the "germ" of annihilation as it resides in the human psyche. But, for now, let us return to the story to witness perversity wreak its havoc.

The night of the day he hanged Pluto, a fire swept through the narrator's house. He, his wife, and the servant escaped. Although the conflagration had completely destroyed the house, one wall had not fallen. Upon visiting the ruin, the narrator witnessed in the standing wall, "as if graven in bas relief upon the white surface, the figure of a gigantic cat...There was a rope about the animal's neck." (Poe 66) The image of the cat detailed in what had been a freshly plastered wall profoundly affects the fancies of the narrator. As if to atone for his actions, the narrator begins a search to adopt a similar cat, which he finally locates "in a den of more than infamy...reposing on the head of one of the immense hogsheads of Gin, or of Rum." (66) The new cat is completely black except for an indefinite white splotch on its chest. It follows him home. At first he likes the cat, for it is quite affectionate. But his attitude changes; tension builds anew. The tension grows to hatred, caused in part by the narrator's discovery that, like Pluto, the new cat has been deprived of an eye.

The narrator, only because of his terrors about his first cat, restrains himself from doing the new cat harm. But to his horror, the white patch of fur on his new cat's chest gradually assumes the shape of the gallows. The narrator begins to fancy the cat as the tormentor of his heart, its hot breath in his face. Perversely, the narrator succumbs entirely to evil thoughts, "hatred of all things and of all mankind." (Poe 68)

Finally, one day as the narrator and his wife descend the steps into their cellar, the cat causes the narrator to lose his footing. In turn, the narrator flies into a rage and tries to axe the cat. The wife, trying to save the life of the cat, catches hold of the axe. Then entirely out of his mind, the narrator plants the axe in her skull. To avoid detection in his crime, he bricks his wife into a cellar wall. But the luckless narrator accidentally bricks the cat into the wall as well. After searching for the dreaded cat, the narrator concludes that the beast has "in terror, fled the premises forever." However, the fourth day, the police arrive to thoroughly examine the house. They leave no "nook or corner unexplored." (Poe 60) Even upon their third or fourth visit to the cellar, the narrator remains sublimely calm. Finally satisfied, and preparing to quit the search, the police are interrupted in their ascension of the stairs by the triumphant voice of the narrator.

"Gentleman," I said at last..., I delight to have allayed your suspicions. I wish you all health, and a little more courtesy. Bye the bye, gentleman, this--this is a very well constructed house." [In the rabid desire to say something easily, I scarcely knew what I uttered at all.]--"I may say an excellently constructed house. The walls--are you going, gentlemen?--these walls are solidly put together;" and here, through the mere phrenzy of bravado, I rapped heavily, with a cane which I held in my hand, upon that very portion of the brick-work behind which stood the corpse of the wife of my bosom. (69)

No sooner had the reverberations of the striking of the cane died away, than there issued forth the howl, "a wailing shriek, half of horror and half of triumph..., such as might have arisen...from the throats of the damned in their agony and of the demons that exult in the damnation." (70) The cat had completed its conquest, revealing the location of the corpse and consigning the wretch to the gallows.

The final horror of the narrator, his crowning act of perversity, is reminiscent of the crazed killer of the old man in "The Tell-Tale Heart," who had succeeded in hiding his atrocity, only to betray himself in direst effect, again to the police. Later, we shall see a similar psychological immolation performed by the narrator on himself in "The Imp of the Perverse."

"The Black Cat" illustrates many manifestations and vehicles, which the perverse can assume. First the narrator succumbs to alcohol; then the narrator’s spirit of perversity, given a foothold in his psyche, causes the eventual decline in his temperament. As the story progresses, the narrator reaches the point which Poe describes: "With certain minds, under certain conditions, it [perversity] becomes absolutely irresistible...radical...primitive...." (Poe, "The Imp of the Perverse" 272) Alas, the hapless narrator cannot help himself.

As mentioned previously, a traditional moralist will always be tempted to overlay his own principles on Poe's tales, in this story, expostulating the evils of drink, perhaps. And understandably, when such tenets reside at the core of one's belief structure, the temptation to perform moral judgment can be preemptory; yet Poe's system of mind deserves our efforts to comprehend his system. Certainly Poe recognized the lure of alcohol; yet he chose to examine the primitive cause of the urge, rather than submit to the prescriptions of the moralists of his time. So let us, too, seek to discern Poe's intentions.

And what of this flailing narrator who possesses seemingly so little command of his life? He knows that he has violated his own vitality by removing Pluto's eye, and by later hanging the cat in the tree. He displays regret for his actions, a conscience. But what can his conscience constitute in Poe's system of morality? And for that matter, what is morality when one leaves God's intentions for man out of the picture?

In Poe's fiction morality is the tension played out between the assertive, creative vitality of his narrators and the perverse, betraying, impulse to self-ruination. When a character commits evil in Poe, he has not violated God; he has violated his own spirit. In violating his own spirit, he has acted from impulses that he could not control, since his very being, as all cosmic material, has been implanted with the seed of its own annihilation. Though he acts for the reason that he should not act, he can no more defy those actions than can he defy gravity. Yet he regrets.

Regret in Poe is spoken by the conscience, perhaps the author's least understood disquisition. Conscience speaks in the conclusions of "The Imp of the Perverse," "The Black Cat," "The Cask of Amontillado," "William Wilson," and "Berenice." It is disguised within the plots of "Ligeia" and "The Tell-Tale Heart." It's confession withheld from the reader, it tautens "The Man of the Crowd." So what is conscience in Poe? It is the betrayal of the self in deepest consequence, Poe's most powerful agent of the perverse. Why most powerful? Because conscience reveals the deep secret. It is the telltale heart that marks the ruination of many of Poe's narrators. Even when the heart will not tell, as in "The Man of the Crowd," the man is still shattered by the burden of conscience. "What is conscience, after all, but that part of the ego which regards the rest as an object which it can judge" (Hoffman 212); and in judging, what can conscience represent if not the imp of the perverse, this same aspect of ego. Since mortal man, perversely, violates his own higher spirit, conscience, also perversely, becomes the adjudicator for his violations. Thus, for many of Poe's characters, perverseness is double, violating both their higher nature and their folly.

According to Poe, people wreck their lives because of impulses beyond their control. This thesis flies in the face of the moral view, which states that a conscious choice has been made by the individual to defy the will of God. But one must remember that Poe believed perversity, which corresponds to the maelstromic collapse phase of God's individuation, is so integral to human experience, that it serves as the radical cause of the events which the religious call sin. Poe would say that sin is always committed against the self, and that the commission of sin cannot always be resisted because the perverse impulse is primal. This brings to mind William Blake's assertion in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell that those who control their own energies are enabled to succeed only if those energies are weak enough to be controlled by their rational powers. But in Poe, even the rational mind becomes diseased, as his deranged narrators explain so succinctly what brings them to their own ruin.

Yet not all instances of perversity are so dire as those encountered by Poe's narrators. Consider the following testimonial written by a graduate student:

I have a masters' thesis to write; it must be written to further my welfare, to help me better serve my fellow man, and to allow me better access to the broad highways of good fortune. The topic of the thesis interests me more than any topic I have pondered, for it involves the very centrality of existence. Assuredly, this is the day to commence, but I procrastinate. I throw a Frisbee, I open a beer, I get into my car and drive away, promising myself that I will, without fail, begin writing the thesis tomorrow.

Tomorrow arrives, and with it, my desires rush to the fore to begin writing at once. But in addition, my passion for delay increases proportionately. Again I find something other than thesis writing to occupy my time. I put on a symphony, pet the neighbor's cat, visit friends, telling them of all my ideas concerning the topic of my thesis, but alas, I write nothing.

The pattern continues for two years. I begin to doubt that I can even write the thesis. I give myself pep talks to awaken my initiatives; but even these, to no avail.

But one day I am fortunate to learn through the example of a friend that I possess the ability to direct segments of my own life. Everything comes vividly into focus. I had relinquished to the Imp of the perverse areas of my life over which I must exert more control.

I plan a Western vacation with another friend, but I will allow myself to go only if the thesis has been completed. First I must help him paint his parents' house so that we can afford to go. All day in the East Texas heat, we paint. All night I type. This goes on for five days. We finish the house; I complete the thesis with practically no sleep. The thesis goes to the Major professor with the ridiculous suggestion that maybe it's good enough to go to the other readers just like it is. The Major professor says we'll wait and see about that. In three days he concurs, and the Western vacation begins.

What cause for celebration! In procrastination, I fall victim to perversity, another self that stymies my efforts to move forward. In creating my way out of the trap, I indulge in the illusion that I have advanced myself. Meanwhile, the Imp of the Perverse shifts to other areas of my life. Not conquered, just momentarily subverted.

This illustration conveyed by the graduate student completely paralyzed in his attempts to begin his thesis, seems diminutive when set beside the dilemmas of the protagonists of Poe's tales. Most of his characters cannot learn from recognition scenes because they are locked into circumstances beyond the control that can be exerted by the individual will. They do reflect on the calamities, which befall them; only they are so alienated from themselves that they actually forfeit their self-control. Again, many of Poe's characters are extensions of the author's own struggles. Poe felt himself victimized by the world. It had, after all, taken away from him every important woman in his life; it had robbed him of identity with parents, and of his share of the estate of John Allan. How ironic that this genius, who could so masterfully arrange his short stories, invented characters who could not bring order to their own lives!

Poe's story "The Imp of the Perverse" opens in the style of an essay, describing "the prima mobilia of the human soul," a propensity, which has been ignored by phrenologists and moralists, "although obviously existing as a radical, primitive, irreducible sentiment." (Poe 271) The sentiment thus described as "perverseness" is subsequently delineated in three examples:

The first involves a speaker's tantalizing an audience by circumlocution, fully aware that he displeases, and though intending to please, he opts to indulge the "uncontrollable longing" to displease. (272-73) After its July, 1945 publication of "The Imp...," Poe spoke to open the Lyceum season on October 16. One cannot help wondering whether Poe's self-effacing introduction and his reading of the whole of "Al Aaraaf" to an audience of Bostonians did not represent enactment of this episode from his story. (Silverman 267)

The second example is much like that of the graduate student cited earlier. Procrastination as an agency of the perverse also seems to have plagued Poe before the Lyceum reading, since he had promised to read a new poem, which he never wrote, then disappointed with the lengthy and unsuccessful poem from his youth. In contrast to the success of the graduate student in overcoming his perverse inclination, the "chanticleer-ghost" petrifies the victim in Poe's illustration, until the striking of the hour designating that alas, "it is too late." (Poe 273)

The third example places the victim on the brink of a precipice, where he begins to yearn for the "delight" in the horror of a "rushing annihilation" from such a height. What "would be our sensations?" (273) The narrator points out that it is the very loathsomeness and ghastliness of such a death, which causes one to most vividly desire it. "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." (Poe 274) A similar account can be found on the Isle of Tsalal in Poe's novel, the Narrative of A. Gordon Pym, when the narrator is saved from a fall from a steep cliff only by the arms of Peters.

Next, the reader discovers that he reads not an essay, but a tale of horror from a young man who has fallen victim to the spirit of perverseness he had so well portrayed. One might also wonder if Poe had John Allan in mind when he formulated the plot for this episode. The narrator devises a scheme that will secure his fortune from his benefactor-to-be. He poisons the wax of a candle and exchanges it for the candle at his benefactor's bedside. Of course the benefactor suffocates; the evidence burns away; the taper is disposed of. The scheme is a success, as the crime goes undetected.

For a number of years the narrator enjoys his good fortune. But he begins to mutter to himself, "I am safe," and finally, "I am safe--I am safe--if I be not fool enough to make open confession." At this suggestion, the narrator confronts his own double, his perverse self who reveals him "as the very ghost of him I had murdered...." (Poe 275) The narrator feels the pangs of suffocation, as if it were he who is now being poisoned. Finally, completely dominated by his perverse spirit, the narrator rushes madly through the heavily populated avenues to confess his crime to the authorities. He relates all that is needed to convict him of his crime, then falls "prostrate in a swoon." (275)

Those whom Poe satirizes in "Never Bet the Devil Your Head: A Tale with a Moral" would likely find a moral in "The Imp..." They would avow that the narrator's guilt caused the confession. He was a bad egg, and, sonny boy, if you don't want to end up like him, you won't kill people. Moralists would completely ignore the narrator's explicit explanation of perversity at the story's outset, to insist that Poe tells herein a tale entailing traditional morality. It seems to this writer that we must give Poe credit for knowing what he was doing. If he presents a narrative in illustration of human perversity, the reader should take him at his word.

But what of his confession? Is this not the voice of his conscience? Yes, assuredly, his confession is the utterance of conscience, but it is conscience in Poe's scheme, an agent of the perverse, revealing the "deep secret," the seed of annihilation residing in the human breast. It is not conscience, which brings the individual into submission to a moral code.


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Oscar Wilde (1854-1900)

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