four Imps, one demon, and fiends

Edgar Allan Poe’s “Imp of the Perverse” (1845) induces from contrapurposive action “a paradoxical something, which we may call perverseness.” Induction thus parts ways with the deductive logic of phrenology, which can only make up “organs” (of e.g. “alimentiveness” or “amativeness”) to account for actions that “further the objects of humanity.” What phrenology’s deductive logic cannot account for is, however, that sphere of action for which no “necessity” — no drive toward an “object” — can be said to initiate or sustain the action. Indeed, the “primitive impulse” this rejoinder insists on is actually one that goes against necessity or against what should be done.

Narrativizing this impulse means, oddly, deducing it: from the above theory of perverseness, a narrating instance emerges. Voicing the theory is a man awaiting trial for murder. As the voice takes on a body, it retroactively grounds the preceding discourse in an explanatory purpose — to “explain to you why I am here,” or to “assign to you something that shall have at least the faint aspect of a cause for me wearing these fetters.” What makes this shift from bodiless theory to fettered explanation deductive is the sense that the latter is a case of the former, and hence exemplifies its laws. And yet, insofar as the personification of the voice bears retroactive force, it would also seem that we should read back from the scene of confession to inductively reason from that instance to the theory of perverseness.

“An imp of ink” – in 1896 used to describe “The Gargoyle” in Gobolinks: or, Shadow Pictures. That same year The Dial quotes this phrase in a review:

The Somethings created by Mrs. Ruth McEnery Stuart and Mr. Albert Bigelow Paine out of the imp of inkare often surprising and sometimes not inartistic. Gargoyles, prehistoric animals, and many unclassified creatures which the authors term Gobolinks,” have been collected for the amusement of children. To these pictured gobolinks are attached some quaint rhymes, which some times have a sort of Emily Dickinson brevity and freshness.


It is the “typesetting machine” that suffers from “heterophemy” in “The Imp of the Press: His Doings and Undoings As the Reviser Sees Them” (1898).

In The Booklover and His Books (1917), Harry Lyman Koopman returns to the scene of printing set up in #3, writing

The Imp of the Perverse, when he descends upon the printing office, sometimes becomes the Imp of the Perverted. Here his achievements will not bear reproducing. Suffice it to say that in point of indecency he displays the same superhuman ingenuity as in his more innocent pranks. His indecencies are all, indeed, in print, but fortunately scattered, and it wold be a groveling nature that should seek to collect them; yet the absence of this chapter from the world’s book of humor means the omission of a comic strain that neither Aristophanes nor Rabelais has surpassed. Even as I write, a newspaper misprint assures me that typesetting machines are no protection against the Imp of the Perverted. Perhaps we may be pardoned the reproduction of one of the mildest of these naughtinesses. A French woman novelist had written: “To know truly what love is, we most go out of ourselves” (sortir de soi). The addition of a single letter transformed this eminently respectable sentiment into the feline confession: “To know truly what love is, we must go out nights” (sortir de soir).

James Clerk Maxwell’s thought experiment in Theory of Heat (1871), usually metonymized as “Maxwell’s demon,” imagines an entity not unlike these imps:

One of the best established facts in thermodynamics is that it is impossible in a system enclosed in an envelope which permits neither change of volume nor passage of heat, and in which both the temperature and the pressure are every where the same, to produce any inequality of temperature or of pressure without the expenditure of work. This is the second law of thermodynamics, and it is undoubtedly true as long as we can deal with bodies only in mass, and have no power of perceiving or handling the separate molecules of which they are made up. But if we conceive a being whose faculties are so sharpened that he can follow every molecule in its course, such a being, whose attributes are still as essentially finite as our own, would be able to do what at present impossible to us. For we have seen that the molecules in a vessel full of air at uniform temperature are moving with velocities by no means uniform, though the mean velocity of any great number of them, arbitrarily selected, is almost exactly uniform. Now let us suppose that such a vessel is divided into two portions, a and n, by a division in which there is a small hole, and that a being, who can see the individual molecules, opens and closes this hole, so as to allow only the swifter molecules to pass from a to b, and only the slower ones to pass from B to A. H e will thus, without expenditure of work, raise the temperature of B and lower that of A, in contradiction to the second law of thermodynamics.

This is only one of the instances in which conclusions which we have drawn from our experience of bodies consisting of an immense number of molecules may be found not to be applicable to the more delicate observations and experiments which we may suppose made by one who can perceive and handle the individual molecules which we deal with only in large masses.

How does the imp’s agency lend consistency both to the confession of a crime (by Poe’s narrator) and to the French woman novelist’s inadvertent “feline confession” of desire?

Maybe the imp of the perverse names something as simple as “the unconscious”: what’s repressed won’t stay back; it has to interpose itself for the very reason it’s kept back.

What this account fails to tell us, though, is anything about the cosmology (or demonology) that displaces “perverseness” outside the confessional subject or subject of linguistic action (but outside in the way a parasite is) before sexology implants “perversion” or “inversion” in subjects of sexual desire.

Maxwell’s ad hoc cosmology — serving only to figure a theoretical problem — suggests that the demon would break the Second Law of Thermodynamics if it could only perceive matter out quickly enough. It breaks the law by not letting matter diffuse evenly. That is, it circumvents the entropic drift of gas molecules between chamber A and B by discerning their trajectories. It thereby creates an order. Maybe the imp of the perverse, or even more saliently the imp of the press, does something similar: that is, instead of letting signifiers do their work, it turns on their drive dimension — or, perhaps, their autopoietic capacities.

And I’ll note finally too that Maxwell’s scenario models a form of attention to the series of “just noticeable differences” that make up (in aggregate) what Nicholas Dames calls “discontinuous form.” Just noticeable difference is a technical term developed by the German psychophysicist E.H. Weberin the mid 1860s.

Note too the racialization of drug use via the figure of the “fiend”; see this Atlas Obscura article about the “cigarette fiend”  and the aggressive fantasy of this ad for “Topsy Tobacco”  (n.d. as far as I’ve searched, but clearly post-1852).


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