Terrible Freedom

Yesterday’s Ferd’nand strip:

Ferd'nand, 16 March 2010

I wrote something here several weeks ago remarking on a tendency I’ve observed in myself.  I’ve often thought that the reason I’m more relaxed outdoors in a natural setting than inside my apartment or my office is that when I’m in a space that belongs to me, my eye constantly lights on things I might control, or that I have controlled, or that I should control.  There’s the computer; I might control that, and do any number of things.  There’s a bookcase; I bought those books and put them into order on the shelves.  There’s a pile of papers; I should file them in an orderly way.  Outdoors, I see the trees, the soil, the sky; they get along quite all right without my control.  I’m glad to see I’m not the only one who is bothered by an urge to take control of my environment, to put things in order.   

Here’s an xkcd from a couple of weeks ago:

xkcd 706

This also reminds me of something I’ve observed in my own psychology.  Many years ago, I was in the dentist’s chair, having a cavity filled.  They didn’t give me one of those contour pillows that usually cradles your neck at the dentist’s.  I became aware that I could, if I wished, turn my head abruptly to one side or the other and cause myself great pain.  Not that I wanted to do that, of course, but the sensation of freedom, the realization that nothing was stopping me from doing that, was quite unsettling.  Back in 2007, Keith Knight did a whole cartoon about just this point:

Click for full size

One of our first posts on Los Thunderlads was a link to this strip.  That post is titled “The Imp of the Perverse,” a nod to Edgar Allan Poe’s story of the same name.  Poe’s story includes these paragraphs:

We have a task before us which must be speedily performed.  We know that it will be ruinous to make delay.  The most important crisis of our life calls, trumpet-tongued, for immediate energy and action.  We glow, we are consumed with eagerness to commence the work, with the anticipation of whose glorious result our whole souls are on fire.  It must, it shall be undertaken to-day, and yet we put it off until to-morrow; and why?  There is no answer, except that we feel perverse, using the word with no comprehension of the principle.  To-morrow arrives, and with it a more impatient anxiety to do our duty, but with this very increase of anxiety arrives, also, a nameless, a positively fearful, because unfathomable, craving for delay.  This craving gathers strength as the moments fly.  The last hour for action is at hand.  We tremble with the violence of the conflict within us, – of the definite with the indefinite – of the substance with the shadow.  But, if the contest has proceeded thus far, it is the shadow which prevails, – we struggle in vain.  The clock strikes, and is the knell of our welfare.  At the same time, it is the chanticleer-note to the ghost that has so long over-awed us.  It flies – it disappears – we are free.  The old energy returns.  We will labour now.  Alas, it is too late!

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, as did the vapor from the bottle out of which arose the genius in the Arabian Nights.  But out of this our cloud upon the precipice’s edge, there grows into palpability, a shape, far more terrible than any genius, or any demon of a tale, and yet it is but 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 vividly desire it.  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.  To indulge for a moment, in any attempt at thought, is to be inevitably lost; for reflection but urges us to forbear, and therefore it is, I say, that we cannot.  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.

Examine these and similar actions as we will, we shall find them resulting solely from the spirit of the Perverse.  We perpetrate them merely because we feel that we should not.  Beyond or behind this, there is no intelligible principle.  And we might, indeed, deem this perverseness a direct instigation of the Arch-Fiend, were it not occasionally known to operate in furtherance of good.

I’m no psychologist, but I wonder if there is a connection between the urge to take control of our environment that makes Ferd’nand unable to rest if he can see his unmowed grass and untrimmed hedge-row and the impulses Knight, Poe, and xkcd’s stick figures who enjoy math describe.  Seized by the imp of the perverse, we might find ourselves doing any of an endless list of things.  If we act “merely because we feel that we should not,” there is no telling what we might do.  Likewise, at the first moment we are seized by the urge to take control of our environment our subsequent behavior is highly unpredictable.   If we act merely because we feel that we should, we confront a list of possible actions that is just as endless as the list of things we should not do. 

Not only do the imp of the perverse and the urge to take control of our environment resemble each other in that we become unpredictable when we first succumb to either; they resemble each other also in their characteristic outcome, which is that we accomplish nothing.  Occasionally the imp of the perverse may lead us all the way off the precipice, all the way to punch the other person, all the way to scream from the audience during the stage play; but far more often we simply shift in our seat, uncomfortable to recognize such an urge in ourselves.  And occasionally the urge to take control of our environment will lead us to complete one task after another and put a space into good order; more often, I would say, it distracts us from each task, preventing us from completing anything satisfactorily.


  1. believer1

     /  March 19, 2010

    the second comic strip reminds me of a show I watched today. A women was in the hospital after a bomb went off on a bus. Her behavior was not normal. She suddenly had no impulse control. She kept coming on to her doctor, and her and her husband had sex in her hospital bed. the doctor found that she had something lodge in her brain. they said it could easily be removed. the couple said they did not want it removed, because before this happened she was suffering from a severe case of PPD. I thought it was interesting to think about.

  2. acilius

     /  March 19, 2010

    Gosh, that’s awful. I hope it was a fiction show!

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