- Paul Anthony Jones
Imp of the perverse
(n.) an urge to do the wrong thing in a given situation just because it’s possible to do it
There is an expression in French, l’appel du vide, referring to a fleeting destructive impulse felt by some people when they stand on a cliff edge, a high bridge, a rooftop, or some other dizzying precipice. L’appel du vide literally means “the call of the void”—and the impulse it describes is the impulse to jump.
Why do otherwise perfectly sane and rational people—with no actual intention of jumping or otherwise ending their lives—hear this call? Psychologists aren’t sure, but at least one theory suggests that these seemingly self-destructive thoughts are actually misinterpreted safety signals: your brain wants to warn you that the situation is dangerous, and so conjures up an image or idea of jumping or falling as if to prove the point. Yet in the tangle of signals that your brain is producing and processing every second—not least with a healthy dose of adrenaline thrown in for good measure—that message becomes muddled and misconstrued. So although it may not feel like it, by seemingly contemplating jumping from the cliff edge, your brain is actually effectively telling you not to. And it’s for that same reason that, despite these thoughts being so insidious, we never actually act on them.
English speakers have our own term for this sensation but, alas English being not quite so eloquent as French when it comes to concocting names for phenomena like these, we somewhat mundanely call it the “high-places phenomenon”, or HPP. But with a little digging around in the dictionary (and with more than a little help from Edgar Allan Poe) there is a more imaginative synonym, which first popped up on Haggard Hawks a few years ago: the imp of the perverse.
The Imp of the Perverse was the title of a short story Poe published in 1845. In typically macabre fashion, the tale is told from the point of view of an unnamed narrator who we discover has murdered a man, using a candle that emitted a poisonous vapour as it burned. With the man now dead, the narrator has inherited his vast estate, and has for many years lived alone—yet wholly content—with his guilty conscience.
While walking through town one day, however, a thought crosses his mind: he will only remain free from suspicion so long as he and he alone is not foolish enough to confess to the crime himself. With that idea now planted in his head, the narrator finds himself inextricably drawn towards an urge to blurt out a confession in public, and as he tries to escape the thought by whistling, laughing, and finally walking faster and faster through the town, he only succeeds in drawing ever more and more attention to himself. Finally, a passer-by grabs his arm in an attempt to calm him down, but thinking that he has felt “some invisible fiend” strike him across his back, the man explains how “the long-imprisoned secret burst forth from my soul.”
Poe’s narrator—who, we eventually discover, is relating his tale from his prison cell—refers to this desire to do something inadvisable as “perverseness”, and draws a clear parallel with the self-destructive thoughts of someone standing on a clifftop:
We 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 unnameable feeling. By gradations, still more imperceptible, this cloud assumes shape … But out of this our cloud upon the precipice’s edge, there grows into palpability … a thought, although a fearful one, and one which chills the very marrow of our bones with the fierceness of the delight of its horror. It is merely the idea of what would be our sensations during the sweeping precipitancy of a fall from such a height. And this fall—this rushing annihilation—for the very reason that it involves that one most ghastly and loathsome of all the most ghastly and loathsome images of death and suffering which have ever presented themselves to our imagination—for this very cause do we now the most impetuously desire it. And because our reason strenuously deters us from the brink, therefore do we the more unhesitatingly approach it. There is no passion in Nature of so demoniac an impatience as that of him, who shuddering upon the edge of a precipice, thus meditates a plunge.
Poe’s extraordinary tale is the origin of the expression imp of the perverse—the “imp” being the voice inside our heads that seemingly compels us to do something, even though we know it would unwise or destructive to do it. Happily, it is a voice that our more rational thoughts tend to be able to shut down.