Harry Reid and the Imp of the Perverse

A news story that appeared last Friday made me and a lot of other people chuckle. But it also made me pause for thought. In CNN online, it was entitled: “Reid casts wrong vote on health care for second time.”

Believe it or not — on the floor of the US Senate — the majority leader Harry Reid, voted against the healthcare bill. After his fellow senators burst into laughter, Senator Reid realized his mistake. He then quickly changed his vote to “Yes,” affirming that he was in favor of the healthcare bill.

It’s doubtful that Senator Reid made a simple mistake — once in December and again the other day — for there was too much at stake for him. What could have prompted his error? There is something akin to a Freudian slip at play here. More specifically, it is a strange psychological force called “TheImp of the Perverse.”

In his famous essay, Edgar Allan Poe explores this odd phenomenon. As Poe describes it, the Imp of the Perverse consists of a certain self-destructive impulse. He employs the image of a person standing before a dangerous precipice:

“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… And because our reason violently deters us from the brink, therefore, do we the more impetuously approach it. There is no passion in nature so demoniacally impatient, as that of him, who shuddering upon the edge of a precipice, thus meditates a plunge… If there be no friendly arm to check us, or if we fail in a sudden effort to prostrate ourselves backward from the abyss, we plunge, and are destroyed.” (“The Imp of the Perverse,” by Edgar Allan Poe)Justas a personhas a desire to plunge into the abyss, so it is that he may feel compelled to say exactly what heknows one shouldn’t. Poe offers the example of a man who commits the perfect murder, but then some inner demon compels him to blurt out a confession. Why does the murderer make this confession? Out of guilt? Out of a desire for punishment? A need to brag about his crime? An inability to keep a secret? A longing for self-destruction? Maybe all of the above, but maybe something else as well. There is certainly a certain obsessive-compulsive quality dimension to performing the very action that we know we shouldn’t perform. But that still leaves us wondering as to the cause of these compulsions.

poe.jpgThe Roots of Self-Destruction
I suspect, that at the root of this self-destructive compulsion, lies a mad desire for freedom and wholeness, a desire to demolish anything that appears before one as a limit. So strong is this desire that the one thing that appears to be an obstacle to freedom, namely oneself, must be obliterated.

The desire to violate limits, even if its means one’s own doom, is as old as the story of Genesis, from the Bible. As soon as God prohibits eating from a certain tree, there arises a desire to eat from that very tree. Thus do Adam and Eve fall to their doom.

Sexuality also comes to mind as an example of an instinct that is simultaneously creative and destructive. Indeed, all forms of self-transcendence involve a certain self-destruction, for if that self-destruction wasn’t there, nothing new could emerge. In the case of sexuality, what of course emerges is a baby. One’s ego interests are negated to further the development of another being. So it is that Thanatos, the death instinct, is inseparably blended with Eros, the life instinct.

Another example of this blend is capitalism, which the economist Joseph Schumpeter called “creative self-destruction.” So is that the dying of one industry makes possible the emergence of new industries.

That form of Tourette’s Syndrome, in which a person feels compelled to blurt out foul and obscene curses, may also be an example of this self-destructive compulsion. Here, again, it consists of a desire to violate limits, in this case one’s that feel socially imposed.

Harry Has a Fleeting Moment of Conscience
Could it be that an unsettling thought emerged from the shallow recesses of Senator Reid’s mind? Might he have entertained the notion, if only for a fleeing second, that he may be wrong about imposing — upon the unwilling American public — the particular version of universal health care that was up for a vote? It would be hard to believe that his act of political hubris didn’t cause at least the shadow of a self-doubt.

Perhaps Senator Reid had a brief moment of clarity and conscience, a moment of lucidity in which he looked in the mirror and saw himself, in all his arrogant wretchedness. And so, it came to pass that the Imp of the Perverse got a hold of Senator Reid causing him to plunge into the abyss. I.E., the imp made him blurt out the truth of the matter, which he voiced, before the Senate, as a “Nay.”

But no sooner had the imp or the doppelganger spoken then Senator Reid recovered his insanity. And so, he corrected himself, voted “Yea,” and gave voice to a lie.

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