originally published March 7, 2012
So you’re looking for an excuse for why your life is the way it is. You’ve made sketchy choices, unconscionable decisions, slept with partners of questionable ethics and species. That’s okay, you’re not alone. As with any E-Z diagnosis (especially one on the internet, especially-especially one from this site), you are not responsible.
Blame the Imp. The Imp of the Perverse.
If you’ve ever thrown your Mountain Dew back into the drive-thru window like it was a concussion grenade, that was the Imp of the Perverse. If you’ve ever spit in the face of a juggler just to watch him drop a chainsaw, you can blame the Imp of the Perverse. If you’ve ever sprinted down an up-escalator in an incredibly busy mall on the Saturday before Christmas, you may have succumbed to the Imp of the Perverse.
Also, you might just be an asshole. This isn’t an exact science.
The term is a metaphor for the act of doing the exact wrong thing in any given situation. The excuse is not a lack of awareness or even necessarily a desire for negative attention. It’s just knowing that the wrong thing is there to be done. It’s staring at you, just daring you not to do it. It’s the song of the Imp; some people can’t refuse hitting the dance floor.
So why an imp?
If you’re not big into mythology, an imp is a lesser demon. They aren’t necessarily known for being evil, just mischievous. They’re kind of like the Allen Funts of the demon world, playing pranks and generally misleading human beings into doing stuff they wouldn’t normally do.
The term ‘Imp of the Perverse’ was popularized, and some believe it was coined by Edgar Allen Poe. Most notably, it shows up in his short story, “The Imp of the Perverse”. I know, who would have guessed?
The story is all about the spirit that tempts us into actions simply because we know we shouldn’t. Actually, the narrator character of the short story makes the bonehead who throws his Mountain Dew maliciously at a McEmployee seem like a pretty level-headed sort (if you can attribute that trait to anyone who can order Mountain Dew with a straight face).
Poe’s narrator tells how the Imp of the Perverse drove him to murder, stashing a poison-emitting candle in the room of a guy who loved to read by candle-light. Then, after inheriting the man’s estate, the Imp drives the killer to confess, just because he shouldn’t. He does so, then gets hanged for it.
Poe was fascinated by the Imp. Every writer has his or her curiosities about human nature, about what makes us behave in a certain way, or what drives us. Myself, I just want to see how often I can insert this picture into an article:
For Poe, the Imp is a recurring character, albeit a subliminal one, in a lot of his tales.
In “The Black Cat”, the protagonist comes home drunk, grabs his cat (who freaks out and bites him), then gouges the cat’s eye out with a knife. Later he gets seized by the Imp and hangs the cat from a tree. He gets another cat who almost trips him on the stairs, and the guy flies into another rage and tries to kill cat #2 with an ax. His wife stops him, so he butchers his wife instead.
You know, this may be where that fine line between “tempted by the Imp” and “just a dangerously perfect asshole” may be a little blurry.
In “The Tell-Tale Heart”, guilt overwhelms the narrator after he’d performed a calculated and grotesque murder. The victim had a ‘vulture-like eye’, which I guess was all the Imp needed to persuade the killer to act. That’s a touch superficial, killing someone because you aren’t fond of their appearance, but it was the 1800s. It was a different era.
The best metaphor for the metaphor is the notion of standing on the ledge of a building and having the urge to leap.
Any author that comes up with a fresh way of examining the human condition will, of course, have that very method applied to himself, provided he behaved like a proper writer and spent the appropriate amount of time battling his demons. And so scholars have speculated on Poe’s own Imp of the Perverse. And really, if ever there was someone who appeared guided by a supernatural Spirit of Assholery, it would have been Poe.
It might have been an irrational urge to light his metaphorical self on fire that led to his jealous feud with Longfellow. He poked and provoked his audiences, and generally behaved like an ass for much of his career. Luckily he had the talent chops to get away with it.
Poe may have given Freud a clue into what he would call the unconscious mind, a dumping ground for the bad ideas, nasty memories and painful emotional souvenirs that we keep at bay from our everyday thoughts though repression. Even the idea of the ‘Freudian Slip’ may be the Imp of the Perverse just nudging our brains into verbally spewing what it shouldn’t.
He may have even been predicting the New Age movement. When we fall asleep to a pre-recorded cassette of some mellow-voiced dude from Van Nuys, telling us to quit smoking, are we not just trying to urge our own Imp into betraying its natural tendencies and directing us to do the right thing? And shouldn’t we upgrade from a cassette deck already?
To take this one step further (because ‘off the deep end’ isn’t far enough for me), maybe Poe was foretelling the concept of binaural beats. These are repetitive electronic rhythms that people listen to on headphones in the dark because they can’t afford drugs and someone told them this will totally simulate ecstasy. These desperate poor stoners are programming their own Imp into tricking the brain into believing it’s high.
If we are all subject to the Imp of the Perverse, then hopefully the something on the other side is stronger. Self-destruction is seldom the productive route, unless your publicist can really spin it into some valuable tabloid real estate.