The Perverse Imp of the Uncanny

Anyway, I was reminded of the Imp of the Perverse, both the concept and the Poe story, by my recent excursion to London. Basically, whenever I’m on a tube platform, I get really nervous, because I can always see myself jumping onto the rails. I just imagine it, or throwing someone nearby onto them. Or something totally wrong and dangerous (deadly even).I always have to walk slowly, and far away from the edge. I get the same with cliffs, but I don’t see them often, plus I’m scared of heights so there’s an added fear of petrification and keeling over, which is different.

But yeah, am I mad to get that? I mean, psychopathic.

Every time I’m on the platform I imagine myself jumping onto that third rail, electrocution, and then being smashed to tiny pieces by an oncoming train, or maybe even the other way round, depending on my timing.

It’s not a suicidal thing, that’s incredibly rare for me, I don’t want to die. I can just imagine myself doing it. I feel an urge to do the totally wrong and dangerous.

It’s my imp of the perverse.

It’s a great little story, so go read it.

Anyhow, in order to bulk up this rather brief post, find after the jump, one of my uni essays. It was unassessed, so it’s very ramshackle and vague and wandering. I could rewrite it, but I can’t be arsed. Read the story first, or it’ll ruin it. You may also want to read up on Freud’s Uncanny too. Though the wiki is a bit lacking in the literary dissection. Try the original if you don’t mind a bit of circuitous bafflement.

If you want to read more about this stuff, I can completely arrogantly recommend my own dissertation, elsewhere on the blog. I’m quite proud of the number of people who end up seeing it because they are looking for large penises. The fools. I also think there’s some great ideas in there. If it was done for anything other than school work, I would’ve ended up writing a book. As it is, the educative imperative just bled my enthusiasm dry.

Ah well.

The Perversity of the Imp of the Uncanny


We have a task before us which must be speedily performed. We know that it will be ruinous to make delay. 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 souls are on fire. It must, it shall be undertaken to-day, and yet we put it off until to-morrow; and why? There is no answer, except that we feel perverse, using the word with no comprehension of the principle.

-The Imp of the Perverse1


In Freud’s essay on the Uncanny, he quotes Jentsch’s summary of uncanny literary effects, noting that ‘in telling a story, one of the most successful devices for easily creating uncanny effects is to leave the reader in uncertainty…and to do it in such a way that his attention is not focused directly upon his uncertainty, so that he may not be led to go into the matter and clear it up immediately.’2 In order to create the uncanny in fiction it seems to be necessary to distract awareness away from the nature of the uncanny itself. It is similarly different to describe or find the uncanny in literature as the looking for it makes it harder to find. This concealed uncanny, that is a feeling induced by the discovering of the hidden and uncertain, is part of the strange power of the uncanny.

In Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘The Imp of the Perverse’, the narrator spends most of the tale describing, and providing examples of, the irresistible and perverse impulse to do harm to one’s self. A battery of examples are provided as explanation of this common yet irrational behaviour. This ‘demoniacally impatient’3 urge is the very ‘spirit of the Perverse.’(p395). It can be summed up as acts perpetrated ‘merely because we feel that we should not.‘ (p395) As the piece draws to an end, however, we find ourselves almost misdirected, as the narrator reveals that ‘Had I not been thus prolix, you might either have misunderstood me altogether, or, with the rabble, have fancied me mad.’ (p396) The narrator has drawn our attention away from his own situation in order to make us accept his unmotivated motive as an explanation. The narrator is revealed to be a murderer, who having escaped capture, is caught by the perverse notion to confess, and so does, and is now waiting for the gallows. The process of the story in itself is uncanny. We are wrapped up in the philosophical conjecture and persuasive technique of the explanation, until we are suddenly struck with a notion of what the narrative consists of. In fact, the narrator has attempted to explain by simply denying explanation, he talks long enough for us to believe that he has shown us something, when in fact little is revealed.

This lack of motivation, or perhaps the motivation to do something simply because the opposite seems the more sensible or correct, is similarly found in other texts. In Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,4 the titular seaman seems completely irrational in his shooting of the Albatross hailed as being of good omen. No explanation is afforded as to why this critical act, that perhaps creates the whole purpose of the narrative, occurs. The inexplicable yields a strong reaction, and there is an odd effect created by these unmotivated actions. Whether through demonic possession, hypnosis, drugs, madness or epilepsy, any loss of rational control in a human produces a remarkably eerie effect.

Returning to Poe’s Imp, it is also worth noting that another of the uncanny effects is from the almost threatening enigma of the last line: ‘ But why shall I say more? To-day I wear these chains, and am here! To-morrow I shall be fetterless! – but where?’5 This questioning ending is troubling, and defies explanation, whilst simultaneously providing many explanations. One almost imagines it is the imp speaking, that he will be free from its bonds and able to continue wreaking its perverse mischief. Perhaps the Imp is passed on, the fascination with doing that which should not be done can be transmitted through mere acknowledgement of the existence of the idea, and tomorrow I will find myself reaching the hour of the deadline to realise that ‘it is the shadow which prevails’ (p394) and will find myself able to complete this essay only once it is too late. The narrator sees hope beyond his condemnation. He knows he will die, but has a further perverse hope that he will survive to some new kind of freedom. As suggested this could be because he is the imp, and he believes himself to be passed on by the explanation and dissemination of the perverse idea, which will hopefully be carried on by the reader.

There is a mysterious nature to the narrative; on one level it could be read merely as a condemned man attempting to explain his situation, trying to justify his own bizarre choice of actions. He presents an argument to explain away his confession, to make it seem like something that could happen to anyone, a normal, if irrational, impulse. On the other hand it is a tale of contradiction. There is the contradiction between ‘the desire to be well’ (p393) and the ‘strongly antagonistical sentiment’ (p394) of the perverse. The contradiction between the rational and the irrational and the contradiction between what should remain secret, and what becomes uncovered.

Perhaps this last is where the uncanny becomes most clear, for the imp of the perverse forces the narrator to do exactly that which constitutes the uncanny. Early on in his investigation Freud identifies Schelling’s definition of the Uncanny as ‘the name for everything that ought to have remained…secret and hidden but has come to light’6. This is exactly what takes place in the tale of the Imp of the Perverse. The narrator is unable to keep concealed his guilt, despite the fact that he has committed a perfect murder. The Imp of the Perverse seems almost to be a drive to create the uncanny, an impulse towards contradictions of motive leading to the hidden coming to light. The whole tale performs this act, concealing its narrative drive until the last few pages and then proceeding to expose them in the uncanny procedure of revelation. The dual acts of revelation, the narrator’s confession and the narrator’s admittance of his position as the condemned are accompanied by the final obfuscation: the ultimate denial of consequence in the optimistic hope of freedom.

Tzetvan Todorov identifies the whole of Poe’s oeuvre as being not simply uncanny but being about the uncanny: meta-unanny.7 It is located on the borders of an understanding of the uncanny that cannot be achieved. The tale discusses the nature of the uncanny at the same time as it describes the perverse side of human nature. It deals with contradictions both in human behaviour, and human repression. It creates a feeling of the uncanny by refusing to define itself as uncanny, merely citing its meaning within a perverse rendering of human behaviour. The tale is uncanny and is about the uncanny and is about the impulse to create the uncanny as much as it is about the impulse to perversity. The feeling of contradiction is related as a process through which ‘by slow degrees our sickness and dizziness and horror become merged in a cloud of unnameable feeling.’8 Perhaps this unnamable is the uncanny itself, the very topic and origin of the whole piece. An indescribable feeling that becomes an impulse of contradiction, but can never reveal itself except cryptically.

A further relation can be made between Freud and the Imp if we assess it in terms of the ultimate repressed, the drive to death. In Beyond the Pleasure Principle Freud describes how ‘the aim of all life is death’9, and that all behaviour is secretly motivated by this drive towards a previous inanimate state. The rest of behaviour is merely a form of delay a number of ‘circuitous paths’ (p33) with each organism merely hoping to ‘follow its own path to death’ (p33). The Imp certainly takes this form, not least in the urge to hurl oneself off a cliff, or to confess to murder and condemn oneself. The spirit of the perverse becomes the drive towards stasis. It is the hidden desire to the end, and it is the revelation of this repressed drive that creates the uncanny effect. The imp desires death, which explains the optimism of the ending, for the narrator becomes free of the bonds of life that it has been striving to escape. All else is merely delay and prevarication, of the sort described in the quote at the head of this essay, except it is desirable to be too late, for the perverse is the correct, and the desired ending is the ending of death. The narrative achieves its fulfilment once sentencing is carried out after the end of the final sentence, when the Imp wins out and the drive is achieved. The imp, as life, finds its ending and resolution in death.

As we have seen Poe’s tale contains myriad forms of the uncanny. The, whole text reeks of the hidden, the contradictory, the revelatory, and the unsettling. It is uncanny in every understanding of the word, and in every reading of the text. Its narrative is as uncanny as it is about the nature of the uncanny. It provokes an uncanny response whilst hiding its uncanny nature, and exposing its uncanniness. It is prominently uncanny even as it attempts to conceal its uncanniness, and this is why it achieves such a success in relating an uncanny feeling. It fails to explain, and yet it seems simple in its deception. It eludes definition in the same way that the term uncanny does. It evades any attempt to pin it down, whilst at the same time constantly pulling revelatory rabbits out of imagined magicians hats. It is uncanny because it so explicitly deals with the nature of the uncanny, claiming to reveal it whilst keeping it hidden. The hidden must come to light, just as the imp drives us towards the perverse. The Perverse drives on and conceals itself within the uncanny, and the uncanny is concealed within the impulse of perversity.

1 Edgar Allen Poe in Tales of Mystery and Imagination (London: Everyman) p 394

2 Jentsch, quoted in Sigmund Freud ‘The ‘Uncanny’’ in Penguin Freud Library Volume 14: Art and Literature (London: Penguin 1990) p347-8

3 Imp of the Perverse p395

4 in Selected Poems (London: Orion 1996) p27-48

5 Imp of the Perverse p397

6 ‘The Uncanny’ p345

7 ‘The Uncanny and the Marvellous’ in The Fantastic: a structural approach to a literary genre (Case Western Reserve Univ. Press 1973) p48

8 ‘The Imp of the Perverse’ p395)

9 Beyond the Pleasure Principle Trans James Strachey (London: Hogarth 1971) p32

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