.. xcellently constructed house. The walls–are you going, gentlemen?–these walls are solidly put together;” and here, through the mere phrenzy of bravado, I rapped heavily, with a cane which I held in my hand, upon that very portion of the brick-work behind which stood the corpse of the wife of my bosom. No sooner had the reverberations of the striking of the cane died away, than there issued forth the howl, “a wailing shriek, half of horror and half of triumph.., such as might have arisen..from the throats of the damned in their agony and of the demons that exult in the damnation.” The cat had completed its conquest, revealing the location of the corpse and consigning the wretch to the gallows. The final horror of the narrator, his crowning act of perversity, is reminiscent of the crazed killer of the old man in “The Tell-Tale Heart,” who had succeeded in hiding his atrocity, only to betray himself in direst effect, again to the police. Later, we shall see a similar psychological imolation performed by the narrator on himself in “The Imp of the Perverse.” “The Black Cat” illustrates many manifestations and vehicles which the perverse can assume.
First the narrator succumbs to alcohol; then the narrators spirit of perversity, given a foothold in his psyche, causes the eventual decline in his temperament. As the story progresses, the narrator reaches the point which Poe describes: “With certain minds, under certain conditions, it [perversity] becomes absolutely irresistible..radical..primitive…” Alas, the hapless narrator cannot help himself. As mentioned previously, a traditional moralist will always be tempted to overlay his own principles on Poe’s tales, in this story, expostulating the evils of drink, perhaps. And understandably, when such tenets reside at the core of one’s belief structure, the temptation to perform moral judgment can be preemptory; yet Poe’s system of mind deserves our efforts to comprehend his system. Certainly Poe recognized the lure of alcohol; yet he chose to examine the primitive cause for the urge, rather than submit to the prescriptions of the moralists of his time.
So let us, too, seek to discern Poe’s intentions. And what of this flailing narrator who possesses seemingly so little command of his life? He knows that he has violated his own vitality by removing Pluto’s eye, and by later hanging the cat in the tree. He displays regret for his actions, a conscience. But what can his conscience constitute in Poe’s system of morality? And for that matter, what is morality when one leaves God’s intention for man out of the picture? Poe’s pervesity is taken further with his story “The Imp of the Perverse” opens in the style of an essay, describing “the prima mobilia of the human soul,” a propensity which has been ignored by phrenologists and moralists, “although obviously existing as a radical, primitive, irreducible sentiment.” (Poe 271) The sentiment thus described as “perverseness is subsequently delineated in three examples: The first involves a speaker’s tantalizing an audience by circumlocution, fully aware that he displeases, and though intending to please, he opts to indulge the “uncontrollable longing” to displease. (272-73) After its July, 1945 publication of “The Imp..,” Poe spoke to open the Lyceum season on October 16.
One cannot help wondering whether Poe’s self-effacing introduction and his reading of the whole of “Al Aaraaf” to an audience of Bostonians did not represent enactment of this episode from his story. (Silverman 267) The second example is much like that of the graduate student cited earlier. Procrastination as an agency of the perverse also seems to have plagued Poe before the Lyceum reading, since he had promised to read a new poem, which he never wrote, then disappointed with the lengthy and unsuccessful poem from his youth. In contrast to the success of the graduate student in overcoming his perverse inclination, the “chanticleer-ghost” petrifies the victim in Poe’s illustration, until the striking of the hour designating that alas, “it is too late.” (Poe 273) The third example places the victim on the brink of a precipice, where he begins to yearn for the “delight” in the horror of a “rushing annihilation” from such a height. What “would be our sensations?” (273) The narrator points out that it is the very loathsomeness and ghastliness of such a death which causes one to most vividly desire it. “If there be no friendly arm to check us, or if we fail in a sudden effort to prostrate ourselves backward from the abyss, we plunge, and are destroyed.” (Poe 274) A similar account can be found on the Isle of Tsalal in Poe’s novel, the Narrative of A.
Gordon Pym, when the narrator is saved from a fall from a steep cliff only by the arms of Peters. Next, the reader discovers that he reads not an essay, but a tale of horror from a young man who has fallen victim to the spirit of perverseness he had so well portrayed. One can also bet that Poe had John Allan in mind when he formulated the plot for this episode. The narrator devises a scheme that will secure his fortune from his benefactor-to-be. He poisons the wax of a candle and exchanges it for the candle at his benefactor’s bedside.
Of course the benefactor suffocates; the evidence burns away; the taper is disposed of. The scheme is a success, as the crime goes undetected. For a number of years the narrator enjoys his good fortune. But he begins to mutter to himself, “I am safe,” and finally, “I am safe–I am safe–if I be not fool enough to make open confession.” At this suggestion, the narrator confronts his own double, his perverse self who reveals him “as the very ghost of him I had murdered…” (Poe 275) The narrator feels the pangs of suffocation, as if it were he who is now being poisoned. Finally, completely dominated by his perverse spirit, the narrator rushes madly through the heavily populated avenues to confess his crime to the authorities.
He relates all that is needed to convict him of his crime, then falls “prostrate in a swoon.” (275) Those whom Poe satirizes in “Never Bet the Devil Your Head: A Tale with a Moral” would likely find a moral in “The Imp..” They would avow that the narrator’s guilt caused the confession. He was a bad egg, and, sonny boy, if you don’t want to end up like him, you won’t kill people. Moralists would completely ignore the narrator’s explicit explanation of perversity at the story’s outset, to insist that Poe tells herein a moral tale. It seems to this writer that we must give Poe credit for knowing what he was doing. If he presents a narrative in illustration of human perversity, the reader should take him at his word.
But what of his confession? Is this not the voice of his conscience? Yes, assuredly, his confession is the utterance of conscience, but it is conscience in Poe’s scheme, an agent of the perverse, revealing the “deep secret,” the seed of annihilation residing in the human breast. It is not conscience which brings the individual into submission to a moral code. Perhaps the conditions which I described in the preceding paragraphs illustrate that creativity and perversity do, as Poe declared, walk hand-in-hand, just as do the attraction and repulsion motions of the universe. Consider the possibility that man’s prolific creative genius necessarily must be just as abundantly perverse. Certainly this antipodality of action and reaction seems to follow the basic laws of Newton, as well as the oscillations manifested throughout the universe. But what prevents the individual from recognizing his own perversity in Poe’s terms, as a primal force governing many of the activities of psyche? After Toby’s debacle, I would not bet the devil my head, but could it be our own cultural conditioning which blinds us to this truth which Poe proclaimed as self-evident? Must we deliberately shed the accouterments of convention to travel Poe’s intellect? Yes, yes, emphatically, yes.
It is also helpful to consider that Poe performed his search very much from the Romantic tradition and in the American spirit. He searched individually, passionately, but entirely alone. Yet his quest for transcendence to the unity of the godhead and his profound postulates governing the spiritual universe rarefied him from his literary and social compatriots, and even from many modern readers. Readers of Poe’s time and of ours have much to unlearn before they can hope to decode his macabre. In addition, Poe’s psychological theory, which represents the mind’s compulsion to kill the body, drew from the society of his time the author’s own imps of the perverse, most notably the Reverend Rufus W. Griswold , who believed Poe to be demented.
Yet how could Griswold be expected to grasp Poe’s belief in a spiritually governed universe where God is manifest in his own creation. How could he comprehend Poe’s psychic landscape, where the mind wars against the body to rejoin the spirit with God. Griswold recoiled. Though we disparage his onslaught of Poe’s reputation, his alteration of letters and other records of fact, we can also perceive the Reverend’s desperation. He was bright enough to see what Poe undertook, and was scared silly. So what is being undertaken here is a psychical study of man, an examination of the seasons of intellect, body and spirit, through which we all cycle.
Also attempted is a portrayal of Poe’s creative spirit. Though hyper-aware of his own tendency to perversity, what creative impetus must have been requisite for Edgar Poe to have penned poems and stories which so closely mirror the psychic patterns of his own mind! Bibliography Hoffman, Daniel. POE. Garden City, New York: Doubleday and Co. Inc.
1972. Poe, Edgar Allan. Complete Stories and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe. Garden City, New York: Doubleday and Co., Inc. 1966. Silverman, Kenneth. Edgar A. Poe: Mournful and Never-Ending Remembrance.
New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1991.