The Imp of the Perverse: what drives a man to his self-destruction?

The Imp of the Perverse is a short story written in nonfiction form by Edgar Allan Poe. We discuss the various self-destructive impulses that can come to take possession of man, all embodied as a symbolic metaphor of the so-called “ genius of perversion “: the narrator describes this sprite as the agent who tries to make people do something “simply because we think that we shouldn’t do it . “

This theory elaborated by Poe can be seen as an anticipation of the concepts of subconscious and repression theorized subsequently by Sigmund Freud.

The opposite impulse to the genius of perversion is represented by the character of C. August Dupin who manifests reasoning and profound analysis .

One of the first examples of the genius is found in the novel ” Story of Arthur Gordon Pym “: in one scene, in fact, the protagonist of the novel is overwhelmed by the overwhelming desire to let himself fall from a steep cliff.

The narrator tries to explain his own theory regarding the existence of the genius of perversion, which he believes induces people to commit acts against their own interest. The discussion is objectively presented in the form of an essay, even if the narrator himself admits that he is one of the countless victims of the genius , as we certainly could all admit …

The protagonist tells of having managed, after a long premeditation, to assassinate a man by replacing one of the candles that illuminated his bedroom with a poisoned candle. The judge, unable to find any valid explanation for the incident, had decided to attribute death to the divine will. The narrator, who thus escaped danger, finds himself inheriting the victim’s heritage. Years go by and the pleasant sensation of getting away with it starts to turn into an obsessive thought for the murderer. The genius of perversion comes knocking in his head when, walking on the street, he finds himself thinking that the only way to bring to light his crimes is precisely an open confession. The thought becomes more and more pounding until, without even realizing it, he finds himself confessing all his guilt in front of the crowd in the street. The narrator will then be convicted of murder and die of hanging.

Perversion has an unequivocal seductive component.

Behind the disgust and aversion there are other silent presences lurking, which the rational and conscious man hardly recognizes to himself: irresistible attraction, curiosity, pleasure …

There is a scale of gradations concerning the same feeling or sensation: the protagonists of Poe certainly live in extreme situations, at the top of the scale, hovering on that last step that leads straight to madness or already irreparably crazy, but they speak directly to the multiplicity of other human beings who are in the middle of the ladder, who live the same moods on another level (- ” Who hasn’t been found, hundreds of times, etc etc … ?”).

In stories such as The Demon of Perversion , The Black Cat and The Revealing Heart, the protagonists reveal a further nuance of this ambivalence, difficult to explain in rational terms: the excitement caused by the risk. The exasperated terror of being discovered goes hand in hand with a display of bravado, almost a willingness to be discovered, leading to the emergence of an ambiguous intention: the pride in front of humanity of having managed to complete a similar operation , being able to openly say to the world “See? Here’s what I was able to do! “. Every slightest trace of repentance or remorse has been obliterated, the dehumanization process has ended brilliantly. It is no coincidence that the demon of the perversion to whom the story alludes is certainly not related to the crime perpetrated, the murder, as to the tendency to confession: this is unhealthy for the protagonist,

Not only does perversion contemplate a seductive component, as has been said, but also a constitutive component of disobedience, of intolerance, of opposition, without which it would not be what it is: as already taken up in The Black Cat , the theme also returns here:

– ” And since our reason violently distracts us from the edge of the abyss, therefore we approach it even more impetuously “.

Here too the protagonist is out of his mind, but speaks directly to the reader, to the man who is in the middle of the ladder, linking him with innocuous examples, where Poe genially uses the first plural person: “ We have a task to do that must be quickly fulfilled. We know it would be ruinous to delay it. The most important crisis of our life calls us, with the sound of a trumpet, to immediate energy and action. We are incandescent, consumed by the ardor of starting the work, whose anticipation of the glorious result our entire souls are on fire. It must be, it must be undertaken today and yet we postpone it until tomorrow; and why? “.

Any procrastinator of any rank would feel touched by these words.

But what, if not death, is the deepest abyss on which man faces? The most extreme experience by definition? Yet even on the edge of death it is probable that a strange, unprecedented upheaval will occur in the maze of our soul, a radical and unpredictable reversal. The narrator of The Descent into the Maelstrom , following a fatal exit to the sea with his brothers, who found himself in the middle of a gigantic marine vortex, honestly reports what happened at the point where he found himself in the jaws of death. From the state of pure terror, in which the whole body and mind tremble with authentic fear, he suddenly switches to a sort of ecstatic catalepsy: “Having decided not to hope anymore, I got rid of a great deal of the terror that had assailed me at the beginning. I suppose it was desperation that tended my nerves. It may sound vain – but what I’m telling you is the truth – I began to reflect on how wonderful it was to die in a similar way and how foolish in me to think of such a ridiculous thing as my individual life, compared to such a wonderful manifestation of divine power. “

Perhaps it is in William Wilson, an incomparable masterpiece on the double, on the identity crisis and on the will (note the play on words Will-I-am, Wil-son), that the theme of inner ambiguity is best developed. Here, too, a radical transformation of the protagonist is immediately brought to the reader: “ Men usually become despicable by degrees. From me, in an instant, all virtue slipped away materially like a cloak. “

It is never clearly aversion that Wilson feels towards his namesake, a boy who attends the same college, was born on the same day and likes to subtly provoke the protagonist.

A feeling that seems reciprocal ” there was some occasion in which I could not fail to observe, in a mixture of wonder, humiliation and spite, that he mixed with his insults, insults or contradictions, a certain extremely inappropriate and certainly unwanted affectionate manner “.

The bond between good and bad conscience is a bond of love-hate , of indispensable interdependence, where nothing is well delineated and chiaroscuro overshadow all the cracks.

Finally: Poe not only does not fear to probe situations to the limit, but he does not even stop going beyond the limits : The events of Arthur Gordon Pym, is a bloody and macabre descent into the hell of cruelty and human misery, a training novel with a negative sign, where only the enigmatic ending offers more an escape as a magic-dream suspension than a resolution. One of the most enchanting and ingenious scenes is the one in which the four shipwrecked, afflicted by atrocious hunger in the middle of the ocean, decide to resort to the most extreme and inhuman gesture for survival: cannibalism.

– ” Before someone condemns me for this apparent lack of heart, leave him in a situation exactly similar to mine “.

Left alone with Comrade Parker in the delusional race, Pym experiences a terrifying, horrible feeling towards his friend, under the pressure of a probable imminent death: “ At this moment, all the ferocity of the tiger took possession of me and I warned towards the poor creature, Comrade Parker, the most intense, the most diabolical hatred “…

At the end of this interpretative journey, it is natural to ask whether there is still something to be said about Poe and whether literary criticism has been able to solve its puzzles. The answer is no, because in reality the puzzles remain so for more than 150 years after his death. 
If not all that had to be said about Poe has been said, in what direction do we need to move to understand many dark points of his art and production?

The direction in which we turn our gaze is indicated to us by the writer himself, when he created themes and images that come from an ancient wisdom tradition.

In fact, the sensation one feels from reading the “Gordon Pym” and also from the fantastic stories, is that behind the literal plot of the novel there is a hidden message, that only a few people adequately “educated”, that is, in possession of occult and esoteric knowledge , they will really understand.

When we talk about esotericism we mean exactly this: a set of teachings and information hidden in a written text or in an oral speech that the author has deliberately inserted and that will be understandable only for a niche of people educated on this secret knowledge.

These teachings are opposed to the teachings and oterical ss which are instead addressed publicly to all those who read the text or listen to the speech. 
The distinction originates in ancient times from the organization assumed by the schools of philosophical thought that arose in ancient Greece, such as the Pythagorean school, in which a distinction was made between these two forms of teaching by the masters.

What is important to underline is that this ancient practice has also been transmitted to the literary culture of every age: so infinite examples of writings, even of a religious nature, which also include an esoteric interpretation can be reported …


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