Friday, July 10, 2009

Mad science: Capturing the Imp of the Perverse.

In 1845, Poe published the short work "The Imp of the Perverse" in Graham's Magazine, the magazine that famously published Poe's "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" and, later, infamously passed over the opportunity to publish "The Raven."

The nearly plotless tale begins with a seemingly objective – but clearly first-person – description of the concept of the "Imp of the Perverse." The "imp" in question is a primitive, illogical, unproductive impulse that the narrator believes is innate to the human mind. From the tale:

Induction, a posteriori, would have brought phrenology to admit, as an innate and primitive principle of human action, a paradoxical something, which we may call perverseness, for want of a more characteristic term. In the sense I intend, it is, in fact, a mobile without motive, a motive not motivirt. Through its promptings we act without comprehensible object; or, if this shall be understood as a contradiction in terms, we may so far modify the proposition as to say, that through its promptings we act, for the reason that we should not. In theory, 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 that 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 impels 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, a primitive impulse-elementary. It will be said, I am aware, that when we persist in acts because we feel we should not persist in them, our conduct is but a modification of that which ordinarily springs from the combativeness of phrenology. But a glance will show the fallacy of this idea. The phrenological combativeness has for its essence, the necessity of self-defence. It is our safeguard against injury. Its principle regards our well-being; and thus the desire to be well is excited simultaneously with its development. It follows, that the desire to be well must be excited simultaneously with any principle which shall be merely a modification of combativeness, but in the case of that something which I term perverseness, the desire to be well is not only not aroused, but a strongly antagonistical sentiment exists.

After quite a bit of similarly thick philosophy, Poe's narrator then explains how he is a victim of the "Imp" himself. The narrator confesses that he murdered a man (using a poisonous candle, like you do) and got away with the crime. However, the impulse to turn himself in to the cops nags at him and, eventually, compels him to work against his best interests and his sense of self-preservation. He confesses to the authorities, is tried, and relates this tale shortly before he's to be taken to the gallows.

The work's form is, in itself, a bit perverse. "The Imp" is an example of Poe's idiosyncratic mini-genre the "essay that turns into a fictional story." What makes these works (his "Premature Burial" is another example of the odd form) weird is that they are self-subverting. In "The Imp," the work seems to advance a theory and then provide exemplary anecdotal evidence in support of that theory. However, the evidence is faked up. The murder and confession are, we know, just an invention of Poe's. Does this mean the theory itself is also just a narrative contrivance? Are we supposed to understand that the first half of the tale presents a sincere observation of human nature or do we put it down as the self-justification of a killer who is trying to convince himself that anybody could commit murder if they'd just been put in his place?

Curiously, some have suggested that the whole thing is a weird justification for what literary historians now dub the "Longfellow War." As part of a larger New York versus Boston culture clash that shaped the direction of American letters in pre-Civil War America (and, as a bizarre side effect, definitely split clam chowder into Manhattan and New England styles – but that's another story), Poe and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow had a long-running and nasty public feud. At the time, Poe's star sank and Longfellow's rose partially due to Poe's repeated and seemingly inexplicable public attempts at career suicide, including near hysterical diatribes about imagined conspiracies of Boston literary culture and public readings in which he deliberately alienated his audience (most infamously, after promising a Boston audience a new poem, Poe read his interminable and absurdly obscure early work "Al Araaf," then declared that Boston audiences didn't deserve new works, and then stormed off stage). As a manifesto for flushing one's career down the tubes, "The Imp" more than suffices.

Regardless of the sincerity of Poe's concept and despite his statement that the Imp will not "admit of analysis," the NY Times reports that modern psychologists are attempting to capture the Imp. From the article:

“There are all kinds of pitfalls in social life, everywhere we look; not just errors but worst possible errors come to mind, and they come to mind easily,” said the paper’s author, Daniel M. Wegner, a psychologist at Harvard. “And having the worst thing come to mind, in some circumstances, might increase the likelihood that it will happen.”

The exploration of perverse urges has a rich history (how could it not?), running through the stories of Poe and the Marquis de Sade to Freud’s repressed desires and Darwin’s observation that many actions are performed “in direct opposition to our conscious will.” In the past decade, social psychologists have documented how common such contrary urges are — and when they are most likely to alter people’s behavior.

In a recent paper, Wegner proposes that the actions of the Imp, which the good doctor dubs "ironic errors," are a byproduct of the process of error and taboo avoidance:

At a fundamental level, functioning socially means mastering one’s impulses. The adult brain expends at least as much energy on inhibition as on action, some studies suggest, and mental health relies on abiding strategies to ignore or suppress deeply disturbing thoughts — of one’s own inevitable death, for example. These strategies are general, subconscious or semiconscious psychological programs that usually run on automatic pilot.

Perverse impulses seem to arise when people focus intensely on avoiding specific errors or taboos. The theory is straightforward: to avoid blurting out that a colleague is a raging hypocrite, the brain must first imagine just that; the very presence of that catastrophic insult, in turn, increases the odds that the brain will spit it out.

Interestingly enough, even when it isn't causing overt errors, the Imp can apparently distort our perceptions:

Efforts to be politically correct can be particularly treacherous. In one study, researchers at Northwestern and Lehigh Universities had 73 students read a vignette about a fictional peer, Donald, a black male. The students saw a picture of him and read a narrative about his visit to a mall with a friend.

In the crowded parking lot, Donald would not park in a handicap space, even though he was driving his grandmother’s car, which had a pass, but he did butt in front of another driver to snag a nonhandicap space. He snubbed a person collecting money for a heart fund, while his friend contributed some change. And so on. The story purposely portrayed the protagonist in an ambiguous way.

The researchers had about half the students try to suppress bad stereotypes of black males as they read and, later, judged Donald’s character on measures like honesty, hostility and laziness. These students rated Donald as significantly more hostile — but also more honest — than did students who were not trying to suppress stereotypes.

In short, the attempt to banish biased thoughts worked, to some extent. But the study also provided “a strong demonstration that stereotype suppression leads stereotypes to become hyperaccessible,” the authors concluded.

Photo credit: Jason.


zoe said...

fascinating stuff, thanks..
and that photo-- !

Brint Montgomery said...

Hi, you might enjoy my 21st cent. update of Poe's work, The Imp of the Perverse. It's here:

CRwM said...


Well done.

Sasquatchan said...

Guess it's too much to ask the Times (or Wagner) to put a reference to Paul's thorn in the flesh, eh ?

CRwM said...

Screamin' Sassy,

You can't have it all. Where would you put it?

Brian said...

I think most people recognize this impulse in themselves, sometimes feeling guilty for their thoughts.

I wonder if the most successful antidote to acting-out is having a friend or two with whom one can say anything, take things a little too far and indulge un-p.c.language while admitting (in every sense) the "Imp. A kind of invocation/exorcism rolled into one. Works for me, often to the point of a cathartic hilarity.

I've always admired Poe's understanding of human psychology. Too bad understanding alone isn't enough as his life amply demonstrates.