... and maybe if she'd stayed lonely she might have made something of herself, even if something really dumb and superfluous, like a tax attorney, or a poet, and that would have been nice, to be able to say what one was ...
—from Atmospheric Disturbances, by Rivka Galchen (2008)
One perverse choice I made early on was that I wanted to write poetry. Even to myself, a young kid in Brooklyn, it seemed weird: I didn't know anyone who read it, or even liked it, but I'd spend countless night hours carried away by Louis Untermeyer's anthologies — the only poetry in the house besides Whitman's Leaves of Grass. It was like deciding to study Mandarin Chinese and move to Beijing (then called Peiping, which I also never heard of). In school, I'd fall asleep at my desk, the proverbial under-achiever (then called Punkinhead by my teacher).
There's a story by Edgar Allan Poe, called "The Imp of the Perverse," in which he discusses the common desire to do exactly the wrong thing at a given time. For example, during these years of night-reading poetry, I was a regular attendee at our nearby Lutheran Church. Sitting toward the back in my corduroy knickers, socks slipping around my ankles, I repeatedly had vivid urges to leap from row to row along the tops of the pews, right up to the pulpit (where, I suppose, I would turn and bow to the astounded congregation). I'd peer around me, fearful that the grown-ups could somehow read what I was thinking.
In regular life, people who give in to impulses can face dire consequences — flunked out of school, fired from jobs, divorced, lost elections. How many of us took up smoking, even though we called cigarettes "coffin nails?" "What, me worry?" George W's predecessor, Alfred E. Neuman, used to say in Mad Magazine's heyday.
Poe claimed perversity is a fundamental force which permeates humanity, especially Democrats — well, I added that last part, though only perversity could have made any Democrat vote Republican this year (I'm writing this just before Election Day). In the same way that some politicians — Clinton, Edwards, Spitzer, Craig, Foley, Mahoney, ad nauseam — give in to the sexual "imp of the perverse," men like Bush and McCain have more disturbing impulses. What was George Bush thinking when he invaded Iraq? As we read about 9/11 and his administration's decisions, it seems that it was some inexplicable impulse — something to do with his daddy, maybe, or those smart kids he envied at Yale.
McCain, too, twitches before thinking: "On to Baghdad!" or "Bomb bomb bomb Iran!" For these leaders, protected by power and wealth, there's no feeling for the complexity of situations or the possible disasters that could follow. After all, they'll be fine. The debacles of the last eight years — the war, the financial breakdown, were not the result of some unlucky accident but specific choices (Invade! Deregulate!) by the Bush/McCain party.
Whatever Obama's faults may be, it's hard to imagine him succumbing to the imp of the perverse. When one thinks of the choosing of Senator Biden or Governor Palin, however regarded, it seems clear which was a considered choice and which was impulsive.
In Poe's story, the man confesses to a hidden murder. In Bush's case, he's already beaten the smart ones, including his daddy and younger brother, by winning his elections; but like Poe's narrator, he has to keep pushing more and more perversely — until even his own party catches on and turns against him. McCain, too, can go along smoothly for a while, until suddenly he cancels his campaign or starts slinging shameless and clearly false insults. (Education helps: Obama's more likely to have read George Bernard Shaw's dictum, "Never wrestle with a pig. You get dirty, and besides, the pig likes it.")
Maybe people give in to impulses because they're unhappy; they need something to make them feel good now. Although I wasn't outwardly a morose child, I was drawn to the idea of loneliness. Over and over, I'd read Poe's poem that begins "From childhood's hour I have not been/ As others were; I have not seen/ As other saw ...", lying in bed, by the dim little lamp with its copper sailboat and thinking, Yes, yes! That's me!
I didn't discover until years later that everyone feels this way.
And by the time you read this, we'll have discovered how perverse — or not — America has decided to be.
From Peter Meinke's high school yearbook, Class of 1950: "Wants to be: Writer./ Probably will be: Censored." His latest, only slightly censored, book is Unheard Music, a collection of perverse stories.