Academic journal article Studies in Short Fiction

Death and Telling in Poe's "The Imp of the Perverse." (Edgar Allan Poe)

Academic journal article Studies in Short Fiction

Death and Telling in Poe's "The Imp of the Perverse." (Edgar Allan Poe)

Article excerpt

In her essay, "Henry James: Madness and the Risks of Practice (Turning the Screw of Interpretation)," Shoshana Felman identifies "literality" as "that which is essentially impermeable to analysis and to interpretation, that which necessarily remains unaccounted for, that which, with respect to what interpretation does account for, constitutes no less than all the rest . . ." (246). If we are concerned with "all the rest," that is, not with interpreting a tale as if from a position outside of it but with seeing and recounting the way we are forced into a tale, made to participate in that which we cannot know, then we must admit to a kind of perverseness in our criticism. There is no way to write about the nature of a tale's essence as literature without plunging further into what cannot be written.

"We stand upon the brink of a precipice," states the narrator of Poe's "The Imp of the Perverse."

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. . . . It is merely the idea of what would be our sensations during the sweeping precipitancy of a fall from such a height. . . . And because our reason violently deters us from the brink, therefore, do we the more impetuously approach it. . . . Examine these and similar actions as we will, we shall find them resulting solely from the spirit of the Perverse. (829)

Poe's task is always the same as our own - to tell what cannot, or should not, be told.

What forces us to the brink of the precipice in Poe's tales is our fascination with death, not only with the disguises of death - the murders and premature burials out of which Poe constructs his most memorable plots - but with the literal performance of death itself. In literature, death becomes an indestructible, if not a living, force. It is that which prevents closure, the principle of substitution in the act of naming, of absence in the act of imagining, and of displacement in the transferal of narrative from speaker to listener. Moreover, as silence, it can be seen as the very principle of "literality."

A tale of a murderer's confession gives us two deaths - the victim's and the murderer's - both inextricable from the act of telling. Or to turn it around, confession is a literary act inextricable from the act of killing. A murderer's confession materializes the action of language. "Of course my language does not kill anyone," Maurice Blanchot writes.

And yet: when I say, "This woman," ream death has been announced and is already present in my language; my language means that this person, who is here right now, can be detached from herself, removed from her existence and her presence and suddenly plunged into a nothingness in which there is no existence or presence; my language essentially signifies the possibility of this destruction; it is a constant, bold allusion to such an event. (42)

Confession dramatizes the announcement of death in language - the displacement of both the murder victim and the self.

"The Imp of the Perverse" is the story of a confession - a tale of a telling. The unnamed narrator tells us, or an imagined listener with him in his cell, that having committed an undetectable murder and feeling himself perfectly secure for years, he felt a sudden compulsion one day to confess his crime and thus destroy himself - an action he can attribute only to the spirit of the "perverse." It is a word that never appears in the story without calling attention to itself, and that the narrator says he uses "with no comprehension of the principle" (828). It signifies the existence of the incomprehensible, the meaningless, the unreasonable, that reveals itself in human actions.

"I am safe - I am safe - yes - if I be not fool enough to make open confession": with that thought the narrator is condemned to condemning himself. …

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