"The Core of Evil": Edgar Allan Poe Updated for the 21st Century
"The Core of Evil": Edgar Allan Poe Updated for the 21st Century
(Audio version) Because the English language, like all languages, evolves over time, sometimes even the best-written works can slowly become inaccessible to modern readers. Advances in science and technology give even well-attested words different connotations. Add to this the challenge of reading Victorian Era prose (1837-1901), and some works by classic authors can appear especially opaque. In this close paraphrase, I have made only a minimum number of changes necessary to bring the author's meaning forward into today's categories of thought. Where a change is made, it is to make the original thought more engaging, and thereby more accessible, to today's basic world-view than it could otherwise be when given the original work. Ultimately, the deepest and most insightful writers about the human condition take only the slightest tweaks to bring their positions back with a vengeance.
As a Philosopher of Mind, I was immediately struck that Poe is offering something like an analysis of consciousness in his The Imp of the Perverse, an essay which initially addresses psychology-like themes but which then transitions into a short-story. It appears that freewill, non-conscious (or, perhaps, sub-conscious) processing, and personal identity issues seemingly all make appearances within this work. In Poe's time, the relationship between mind and brain was not understood, and it is only haphazardly understood even today, if at all, and with many controversies at immediate issue for anyone who cares to skim the literature. Phrenology, transcendentalism, and various strains of religious metaphysics all melded together into victorian folk-views of mind, which persons would have been perfectly comfortable talking about ghosts, spirits, and other such (to our minds) Halloween-appropriate entities.
-- B. Montgomery 7/9/2009 ]
III. "The Core of Evil"
In the consideration of the mental faculties and neuro- impulses -- of the basic movements within the human "soul," to use an antique term, the popular notions of psychology have failed to make room for a propensity which, although obviously existing as a radical, primitive, irreducible emotion, has been equally overlooked by all the religious advisors and ethics counsellors who have preceded such psychologists. In our pure intoxication with science, we have indeed all overlooked it. Even so-called intellectuals have suffered its existence to escape their senses, solely through want of belief -- of faith; -- whether it be faith in God-imparted revelations, or faith in the seemingly magical properties of Quantum theory or String cosmology. The idea of this propensity has never occurred to us, simply because of what it demands of us to confront. We saw no need to account for something apparently outright extraneous. We could not understand, that is to say, we could not have understood, had the notion of this basic movement within ever imposed itself; -- we could not have understood in what manner it might be made to further the technological advancement of greater society or its individual citizens, either immediately or at some distant, space-colonized future.
It cannot be denied that the popular views of the human mind and, in great measure, all transcendental mumbo-jumbo about the human soul has been concocted by means of arm-chair speculation. The intellectual or logical person, as contrasted with the understanding or observant one, set himself to imagine essential designs -- as if to dictate purposes to God Almighty. Having thus fathomed, to his satisfaction, the intentions of Deity Itself, out of these intentions the arm-chair speculator built innumerable systems about what is this thing called Mind. In the matter of common sense thinking, for example, we first determined, naturally enough, that it was the design of God that humans should eat. We then assigned to every human a neural structure, or brain module, perhaps; and this tiny, electro-chemical sub-section of neurons becomes the scourge with which God compels humans, whether dieting or not, into eating. Secondly, having settled it to be God's will that humans should continue the species, we discovered all sorts of brain structures consistent with our expectations.
And so as with equally aggressive ideals about how the mind works,--so too, in short, with any other pet psychological theory about ethics or creativity we happen to come up with. And in these arrangements of some Grand Theory of human action, psychologists, whether right or wrong, in part, or upon the whole, have but followed, in principle, the footsteps of their predecessors: deducing and establishing every thing from their preconceived notions of humanity, and upon the ground of the objects of God, if they are pious; or of the more mysterious fathoms of physics theories, if they are not.
It would have been wiser, it would have been safer, to classify (if classify we must) upon the basis of what humans usually or occasionally did, and was always occasionally doing, rather than upon the basis of what we took it for granted God intended them to do. If we cannot comprehend God in his visible works, how then in God's inconceivable thoughts by which God put all of reality together? If we cannot understand God by studying the concrete examples of biological creatures, how then in God's metaphysical relations which were brought to bear in designing it all?
Induction -- that is, straight-forward observation should have brought popular psychology to admit, as an innate and primitive principle of human action, a paradoxical something, which we may call perverseness, for want of a more nuanced, scientific term. In the sense I intend, it is, in fact, an instinctive drive with no accompanying evolutionary goal. Through its promptings we act without comprehensible object; or, if this shall be understood as a biological contradiction in terms, we may so far modify the claim 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 irresistible action. Nor will this overwhelming tendency to do wrong for the wrong's sake, admit of philosophical analysis, or scientific resolution into ulterior elements. It is a radical, a primitive impulse-elementary part of human nature.
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 defensiveness of popular views of the mind. But a glance will show the error of this idea. The defensiveness of what we might dub, 'folk psychology' has for its essence, the necessity of rationalizing our own behaviors. It is our safeguard against injury to our self-concept. Its principle regards our psychological well-being; and thus the desire to be well is coordinated simultaneously with its development. It follows, that the desire to be well-adjusted individuals must be balanced simultaneously with any principle which shall be merely a modification of animal-like aggression toward others, but in the case of that something which I term 'perverseness', the desire to be well-adjusted individuals is not only not aroused, but a strongly antagonistical sentiment, a primitive self-destructive combative emotional disposition exists in every human being, everywhere.
An appeal to one's own heart is, after all, the best reply to the kind of deceptive, folk-psychology bullshit in currency today. No one who trustingly consults and thoroughly questions his own inner-self, will be disposed to deny the entire radicalness of the propensity in question. It is a more obvious truth about human nature even than it is paradoxical fact about the mind. There lives no person who at some period has not been tormented, for example, by an earnest desire to tantalize a listener by subtly evasive talk. The speaker is aware that he displeases; still, he has every intention to please, such a person might usually be curt, precise, and clear, the most concise and illuminating language is struggling for utterance upon his tongue, it is only with difficulty that he restrains himself from giving it flow; he dreads and deprecates the anger of him whom he addresses; yet, the thought strikes the speaker, that by certain intricacies and complexities and by little additions now and then this anger of the listener may be carefully stocked. That tiny seed of a thought toward evasiveness in the speaker is enough. The impulse increases to a wish, the wish to a desire, the desire to an uncontrollable longing, and the longing (to the deep regret and embarrassment of the speaker, and in defiance of all consequences) is then indulged.
Or again, suppose we have a task before us which is of some urgency to be performed. We know that it will be ruinous to make delay. Maybe even the most important crisis of our life calls, trumpet-tongued, for immediate energy and action. We glow, we are consumed with eagerness to commence the work, with the anticipation of whose glorious result our whole mind is begging to take on the task. It must, it shall be undertaken today, and yet we put it off until tomorrow, and why? There is no answer, except that we feel perverse, obstinately persisting in the error of our own fault; wrongly self-willed or stubborn, and without our even being aware of it. Tomorrow arrives, and with it a more impatient anxiety to do that to which we've committed ourselves so strongly, but with this very increase of anxiety arrives, also, a nameless, a positively fearful, because unfathomable, craving for delay. This craving gathers strength as the moments tick by. The last hour for action is at hand. We tremble with the violence of the conflict within us, -- of the definite with the indefinite -- of the substance with the shadow. But, if the wrestling with ourselves proceeded thus far, it is the shadow which prevails, -- we struggle in vain. The clock strikes, and is an ominous sound for our happiness. At the same time, this odd and irrational delay on our part is a funeral song, somber notes to the ghost that has so long overawed us. But then it suddenly flies away at the last possible second -- it disappears -- we are free. The old energy returns. We will labor now surely! Alas, by that time it is however, by far, too late for action!
We now stand upon the brink of a precipice. We peer into the abyss -- we grow sick and dizzy. Our first impulse is to shrink from the danger. Unaccountably we remain. By slow degrees our sickness and dizziness and horror become merged in a cloud of unnamable feeling. By gradations, still more imperceptible, this cloud assumes shape, as did the vapor from the bottle out of which arose the genie in the Arabian Nights. But out of this our cloud upon the precipice's edge, there grows into palpability, a shape, far more terrible than any genie or any demon of a fairy-tale, and yet it is but a thought, although a fearful one, and one which electrifies the very marrow of our bones with the fierceness of the delight of its horror. It is equal to the idea of what would be our sensations during the first few seconds of a fall from a great height. And this fall -- this rushing annihilation- for the very reason that it involves that one most despicable and loathsome of all the most despicable and loathsome images of death and torture which have ever presented themselves to our imagination -- for this horrid, contemplated act do we now most vividly desire, we both loathe it and yet lust for it. And because our reason violently claws us away from this brink, therefore we want it all the more so. There is no passion in nature so demoniacally impatient, as that of a person who, shuddering upon the edge of a precipice, thus meditates a jump to his own doom. To indulge, just for a moment, in any attempt at the thought, is to be inevitably lost; for even a tiny bit of reflection would urge us to halt such an insane commitment to act, and therefore it is, I claim, that we cannot halt it. If there be no friendly arm to check us, or if we fail in a sudden effort to drag ourselves backward from the abyss, we will plunge, and be destroyed by our own now fragmented will.
Examine these similar actions as much as we will; nevertheless, we shall find them resulting solely from the spirit of the perverse. We perpetrate them because we feel that we should not. Beyond or behind this there is no reasoned motivation nor rational goal; and we might, indeed, deem this perverseness a direct instigation of some unholy, medieval demon, were it not occasionally for the blind luck of random chance allowing people to occasionally live through such horrid acts.
I have brought up this whole issue, that in some measure I may answer your question, that I may explain to you why I am here as I am now, that I may assign to you something that shall have at least the faint aspect of a cause for my wearing these orange coveralls, and for my tenanting this cell on death row. Had I not been so careful to expand on the issue, you might either have misunderstood me altogether, or, like other slack-jawed ignoramuses, have fancied me insane. As it is, you will easily perceive that I am one of the many uncounted victims of this perversity, this Seed of Evil found in every human being.
It is impossible that any one's deed could have been wrought with a more thorough deliberation. For weeks, for months, I pondered upon the means of the murder. I rejected a thousand schemes, because their accomplishment involved a chance of detection. At length, in reading some french memoirs, I found an account of a nearly fatal illness that occurred to Madame Pilau, through the agency of a scented candle accidentally poisoned. The idea struck my fancy at once. I knew my victim's habit of reading in bed. I knew, too, that his apartment was narrow and ill-ventilated. But I need not irritate you with impertinent details. I need not describe the easy artifices by which I substituted, in his bed-room night-stand, a cotton wick of my own making for the one which I there found. The next morning he was discovered dead in his bed, and The Coroner's verdict was -- "Death by accidental aerosol poisoning."
Having inherited his estate, all went well with me for years. The idea of detection never once entered my brain. Of the remains of the fatal wick I had myself carefully disposed. I had left no shadow of a clue by which it would be possible to convict, or even to suspect me of the crime. It is inconceivable how rich a feeling of satisfaction arose in my heart as I reflected upon my absolute security from detection. For a very long period of time I was accustomed to revel in this feeling. It afforded me more real delight than all the mere financial advantages accruing from my dastardly deed. But there arrived at length a barely discernible moment, from which the pleasurable feeling grew, by scarcely perceptible gradations, into a haunting and harassing thought. It harassed because it haunted. I could scarcely get rid of it for an instant. It is quite a common thing to be thus annoyed with the recurrence in our ears, or rather in our memories, of the burden of some ordinary song, or some unimpressive snatches from an advertisement repeated ad nauseam on the radio or TV. Nor will we be the less tormented if the song in itself happens to be good, or the music's style to be our preferred. In this manner, at last, I would perpetually catch myself pondering upon my security from detection, and repeating, in a low undertone, the phrase, "I am safe."
One day, while sauntering around a mall, I caught myself up short in the act of murmuring, half aloud, certain customary words. But in a fit of irritability, I now said them thus; "I am safe -- I am safe- yes -- if I'm not fool enough to make open confession!"
No sooner had I spoken these words, than I felt an electric chill creep toward my heart. I had had some experience in these fits of perversity, (whose nature I earlier took some trouble to explain), and I remembered well that in no instance had I ever successfully resisted their attacks. And now my own casual self-suggestion that I might possibly be fool enough to confess the murder of which I had been guilty, confronted me, as if it were the very ghost of him whom I had murdered -- and beckoned me on to death.
At first, I made an effort to shake off these nightmarish thoughts. I walked vigorously -- faster -- still faster -- at length I ran. I felt a maddening desire to shriek aloud. Every succeeding wave of thought overwhelmed me with new terror, for, alas! I well, too well understood that merely to think such, in my situation, was to be lost. I still more quickened my pace. I bounded like a madman through the crowded stores, stumbling down escalators, racing through the expansive mall-ways. At length, people took alarm, and security took pursuit. I felt then the consummation of my fate. If I could have torn out my tongue, I would have done it, but a rough voice resounded in my ears -- a rougher grasp seized me by the shoulder. I turned -- I gasped for breath. For a moment I experienced all the pangs of suffocation; I became blind, and deaf, and giddy; and then some invisible fiend, I thought, struck me with his broad palm upon the back. The long imprisoned secret burst forth from some deepest, hidden part of my mind.
They say that I spoke with a distinct enunciation, but with marked emphasis and passionate hurry, as if in dread of interruption before concluding the brief, but pregnant sentences that consigned me to the injection chamber and to hell.
Having related all that was necessary for the fullest judicial conviction, I collapsed into blackness.
But why shall I say more? Today I wear this orange, and sit alone in a steel and concrete cell, and am here! Tomorrow I shall be cell-less! -- but where?
[ * ] Poe's original (p. 1845/46) story can be found here:
Edgar Allan Poe "The Imp of the Perverse" Classic Literature About.com (Accessed July 7, 2009)
[ * ] I was motivated to do an updated translation of Poe's essay by an article I recently read in The New York times:
Benedict Carey "Why the Imp in Your Brain Gets Out" New York Times July 6, 2009.
[ * ] Mr. Carey's story relies on the following recently published scientific paper:
Daniel M. Wegner, "How to Think, Say, or Do Precisely the Worst Thing for Any Occasion" Science 3 July 3 2009:Vol. 325. no. 5936, pp. 48 - 50. DOI: 10.1126/science.1167346
[ * ] If you enjoyed this paraphrase, and can think other Victorian Era English essays which might be effectively translated into 21st century concepts, I hope you'll take the time to link them by means of your comments. -- B.A.M.