Jeanne Matthews is the author of the Dinah Pelerin international mysteries published by Poisoned Pen Press. Like her amateur sleuth, Jeanne was born with a serious wanderlust. Originally from Georgia, she enjoys traveling the world and learning about other cultures and customs, which she incorporates into her novels. She currently lives in Renton, Washington with her husband who is a law professor. Where the Bones Are Buried, the fifth book in the series, is in bookstores now . You can learn more about Jeanne’s books at http://www.jeannematthews.com
The “imp of the perverse” is a metaphor for the self-destructive impulse to do something bad or reckless for the sole reason that it is possible. The phrase was coined by Edgar Allan Poe in a classic short story by the same name. His narrator gives an example of a man standing on the edge of a cliff. He peers into the abyss and feels a sudden, irrational urge to jump. It goes against his instinct for self-preservation. It goes against all logic and reason, but his mind has been infected by the thought. The spirit of the perverse nudges him, “Go ahead, do it. You can. What’s stopping you?”
Perversity is a germ that lives in the human psyche. Literature has made a feast of the human itch to do things we know are wrong, or not to do the things we know we should. Macbeth contemplates a number of compelling reasons why he should not kill the king, but he can’t stop himself. The witches have planted the idea in his head. While a belief in the auguries of witches has declined, every day we learn about some prominent and seemingly respectable individual who has committed an egregious, mortifying, or criminal act. Why, we ask. The person had everything to lose yet threw it all away with an outrageous tweet or an obscene photo or an unwelcome pinch.
Each of us has our own subversive imp-provocateur whispering in our ear. Most of the time we resist his self-sabotaging suggestions. We don’t dive off the cliff, we don’t kill the king, we don’t assault the editor with a meat ax, although the thought may have crossed our minds. But sometimes we spout off when we should keep our mouths shut. A friend of mine who is susceptible to contrary urges and inappropriate remarks calls it “social Tourette’s.” Indeed, the first references in literature to Tourette’s syndrome describe individuals believed to be possessed by the devil.
Before the faux pas comes the thought. You think to yourself, that so-and-so is a fool, a hypocrite, a blister on the backside of humanity. You don’t intend to say it out loud to his face, but the neurological consequence of the brain having thought it increases the likelihood that the mouth will spit it out. Psychologists have performed tests in which they try to train people to banish certain thoughts – don’t think about the monkey. But the monkey keeps returning. The mental labor required to repress an idea seems only to make it stronger and more persistent.
The narrator in Poe’s story committed murder and he blames the imp of the perverse for provoking the thought, which grows into a wish and the wish turns to desire. Ultimately the desire overwhelms him and he perpetrates the perfect murder. His method was undetectable and his execution flawless. No one suspected. He inherited his victim’s fortune and enjoyed a comfortable life for many years. He reassures himself that no one will ever know. He will be safe so long as he never confesses. But the instant the thought pops into his head – Confess! – the imp begins to egg him on. “Come on. Out with it.” Soon a compulsion takes hold of him and, though he would rather tear out his tongue than admit his crime, he can’t stop himself. Poe doesn’t ascribe any feelings of guilt to the murderer, only an irresistible impulse.
Writers call their self-destructive impulses demons, perhaps because demons sound more dramatic and dangerous than imps. We are always struggling against them – dipsomania, self-doubt, the haunting fear of inadequacy. “Why bother?” murmurs the demon. “It’s hopeless. You’ll never be any good.” Or maybe he says, “You’ll have more time to write next week, fewer interruptions and distractions. Clear your desk first, answer your emails, get organized. Better yet, sleep on it. Let the idea marinate for a while.”
No perversity is so frequently and so eloquently rationalized as procrastination. “We glow, we are consumed with eagerness to commence the work,” said Poe. “It must, it SHALL be undertaken today…and yet we put it off until tomorrow.”
The Sirens of Greek mythology enticed seamen with their sweet songs to such a maddening degree that the listeners forgot everything and starved to death in a state of enchantment. Ulysses was obliged to stuff his mariners’ ears with wax and lash himself to the mast in order to sail safely past the Sirens.
I look out my window and see that April has arrived, strewing her seductions. The sun is shining, the flowers are blooming, the birds are singing. “Leave that dreary manuscript with all its aggravating plot problems,” croons the demon. “Take a long, lovely walk and soak up the rays. Go ahead, do it. What’s stopping you?”
Lash yourselves to your computers, writers! It’s us against them.
Interesting post. Posts don’t normally have good endings (they’re just posts and don’t need to), but this one had a great ending.
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The devil made me do it, and the devil takes many forms: alcohol, oxy-meds, a sunlit morning. Turning the spotlight on the enticements chases them out of those dark, cob-webbed corners of our minds. Thank you.
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