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Life Arts    H4'ed 10/31/20

The Edgar Poe You Never Knew: a Mere Writer of Horror or a Humanist Master of the Mind

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Recall, that this is now after the narrator has committed the murder and inherited the victim's estate. He claims that he felt perfectly well for years after the act of murder, but gradually an unsettling desire was creeping into him and growing stronger--- the mad urge for confession! He goes on to describe these urges as fits of perversity and like an icy chill creeping into his heart. He adds that he had never fully resisted any of these attacks, but knew that he had to at all cost avoid the act of thinking, or be completely lost to these fits of perversity. Interestingly the narrator has described his urge for confession as the perverse impulse and not the act of murder itself! What is this icy chill in his heart? Could it be a sense of terrible wrong that he has committed?

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 my soul

But why shall I say more? Today I wear these chains, and am here! Tomorrow I shall be fetterless! -but where?

When the narrator finally does confess in public, he describes it as the feeling that some fiend (the imp) had struck him on the back and the words of confession just fell out of him. It was an impulse that he could not resist. The whole story has been the narrator talking from a prison cell, waiting for the "hangman's justice" the next morning.

So what are we to make of all of this? Well, interestingly Poe has described that the only impulse we really cannot deny and that we have no control over is aligned with morality and takes the form of conscience within our minds. What many readers misunderstand about The Imp of the Perverse, is that it is not about a ghoulish crime that the character cannot refrain from committing, but rather it is about the act of confession that its character is powerless in resisting.

The entire time that the narrator is desperately avoiding the acts of thought and reflection, he is actually avoiding his own conscience. Poe has actually flipped the whole discussion of what governs and motivates criminal behaviour; that the desire to commit a crime is not due to an external force or a pre-destined biological nature but rather due to a disconnect from one's conscience! This is very much from the same thread as when St. Augustine states that darkness can only exist in the absence of light, but light is independent of darkness and exists on its own. Thus, anyone is capable of committing heinous acts, if they break from this within themselves. It is a decision, it is your decision, as to what your relationship to your conscience is. If this seems to be a far stretch for you, look no further than A Tell Tale Heart, William Wilson, and The Black Cat which are three other short stories by Poe that are about the exact same theme, all three of the characters are undone at the end by their conscience, which they perceive as an outer body phenomenon, just as in The Imp of the Perverse. They have all become so detached from their own conscience that one perceives their conscience in the form of an imp, the other as the beating heart of the old man they murdered, another as a black cat that cannot be killed, and in William Wilson he sees it in the form of an imaginary twin.

So if the answer to these questions of the human mind could never be found with the sole use of either a priori or a posteriori lines of investigation, whose adherents Poe refers to as these so-called men of science who stand in opposition to the advancement of Art, than what is the right method? Well, it is not that a priori or a posteriori methods have no use, but rather that they were never meant to govern reason and certainly not our conscience. Whether we chose to operate entirely by faith on "self-evident truths" as in the case of a priori thought or depend on our "senses" to dictate to us a reality as in the case of a posteriori thought, we will never be able to discover a governing truth, which can only be known through the act of moral reason" otherwise it is like trying to hit a target in the dark. This act of moral reason is best described by Plato's discussion of the hypothesis of the higher hypothesis, and in Schiller's philosophical writings which I will go through in detail in an upcoming paper.

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Cynthia Chung is a lecturer, writer and co-founder and editor of the Rising Tide Foundation (Montreal, Canada).  She has lectured on the topics of Schiller's aesthetics, Shakespeare's tragedies, Roman history, the Florentine Renaissance among other subjects. She is a writer for (more...)

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