Edgar Poe was one of

Edgar Poe was one of the seminal figures of modern literature, and it seems that his influence continues to grow. He invented both the horror story and the detective story; it is truly ironic, given the untold wealth that has been mined out of these genres by his successors, that he was dogged by poverty all his life. In addition, he was a first-rate literary critic and the leading theorist of the short story. But what I remember most about Poe is a lesser-known achievement: an essay titled “The Imp of the Perverse.” I read it many years ago and can’t remember whether it was pure essay or turned into a short story, but it is the clearest exposition I have read of the concept of perversity–the desire to do something simply because one shouldn’t. As articulated by Poe, perversity takes two forms; it can manifest itself as the impulse, familiar to us all, to do something because it is inimical to our interests. In primitive form this can appear as an urge to jump off a high place; more broadly, it encompasses the urge to self-destruction. (Without an appreciation of that impulse, it is impossible to understand a person like Bill Clinton.) The second form of perversity is the desire to do something purely because it is evil. In my opinion, this impulse underlies most of our horrific crimes, and much other more mundane misbehavior. These thoughts are prompted by the latest in a sickening series of abduction/murders, this one of a small girl in California. What motivates such crimes? I think it is the perverse desire to do evil. The impulse is known to us all and seems to be integral to human nature. But in some people it takes root and comes to overpower all other motivations. I have no evidence whatever to support this speculation, but I suspect that–notwithstanding the fact that horrible crimes have been committed throughout human history–in our era, more and more awful acts are required to satiate the urge to do evil. Contemporary Americans are hard to shock, and people can do things that would have been viewed as appalling in earlier times without suffering much–if any–condemnation. I doubt that anyone begins to satisfy the perverse desire to do evil by murdering small children, but that is where the impulse leads if it is unchecked. These are gloomy reflections that I can’t express particularly well, but I don’t think it is possible to understand human nature without allowing perversity a substantial role. Read Poe’s “The Imp of the Perverse.”


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