Who’s Right to Refuse?

No one who trustingly consults his own soul will be disposed to deny the entire radicalness of the propensity in question.

     —Edgar Allan Poe, The Imp of the Perverse

     I have long enjoyed the eerie and obscure writing of Edgar Allan Poe. He had an uncanny ability to internalize the dissent of his characters in such a way that, despite their degree of moral depravity, readers empathize with their predicament, and sympathize with their discomposure. Take, for instance, Roderick Usher, who succumbs to a fit of madness and buries alive his twin sister. Usher is fully cognizant of the hereditary illness that plagues his family, he is aware that leaving his home could circumvent his decay, he even knows—only moments after sealing the vault’s massive iron closure—that he has consigned his twin to her grave still living. Yet he cannot resist, he cannot refuse and will not escape. No matter how painful his behavior—how utterly agonized and agonizing—Usher has not the sinew to look to himself, to challenge this substance, his substance, and to say “no.” The thoughts that penetrate Usher, that persuade and coax him, are stray. They are foreign to him, but exude from him. They are the sinister doppelgangers of his own sentience, they are skilled in distraction, they are illusions.

     Anyone suffering even the slightest impulse of obsessive compulsion is likely to be unsettlingly familiar with the inability to turn down the volume, to ignore the endless drip of one’s unreasonable desire. At worst, it convinces a man to scrub his face raw, red from searing water in unrelenting attempts to decontaminate the skin that he sees teeming with filth. It fetters a young woman to an abhorrently abusive infatuate, it gnaws away the tissues of a teenager as the fruit of an eating disorder.

     It urges me, frenetically, to scour every inch of my home at the sight of an ant on my porch; to lie awake for hours—days—agonized by a friend’s text message that I perceive as indifferent. What did I say to upset them? I should be more social.

     I make plans for the weekend. Then Friday comes around and it argues in favor of the comforts of home, citing the angst—my angst—that social situations evoke, and extolling the virtues of routine—my routine. I fold. And as I chew on the idiocy of my makeshift excuse, it rolls and crests as disquieting worry that I’ve broken my own friendships. It raps endlessly on the keys of the calculators that add up my dwindling finances, the minutes until work or until my next paper is due, the calories I’ve consumed today, and those that I’ve expended. When I ask it—when I ask me—to stop, its emphatic “no” reverberates in pulsating fits of nervous fidgeting. I take “no” for an answer, and I have no return. When it tells me to take another look at the mirror, to make sure this new tattoo isn’t too crooked, that five minutes ago it looked alright, but the light changed and I didn’t look that hard. My “no” falls on deaf ears.

     My “no” is lost in the tangled roots of thorny misery, whose seeds were sewn too long ago. My “no” is the meager sigh of a yes-man mumbling “no” in the undertone of his dejected consent. My “no” bounces off a wall of “no’s” and echoes back with thundering ferocity that I dare even think to tell myself “no.”

     What the hell am I trying to refuse, and why. Where is it in me? Why is it so loud, why is it right when I know, really, that I am. I am, that’s why. It’s me. It steals and writhes as I breathe. It entered me, or entered with me.

     I am the faintest whispering, an imperceptible whiff that fails even to register, that wafts past unnoticed and settles, and soon swells beyond reason. I bellow absurdity. I weave myself through every nerve of my body and, using the anxious response that I’m sure was once adaptive, jar myself into submission. I cannot bring myself to refuse. I haven’t the grit. Satisfied—satiated—this needling sliver of myself returns to quiet. I am left bobbing in a wake of shame and disgust, and defeat that I could smell from a mile away but had no hope of avoiding. No voice for my “no.” Or is it that the voice is there but it’s drowning, stifled by a deluge of security and comfort, and resignation. Maybe I’m not treading water as the victim of my own disturbed breakers, but drifting well below the surface, and swallowing my own poisonous thinking in silencing gulps.

     I’m not irrational. That’s precisely why the torment is so caustic. I stand outside myself, I look and see the fault—the error that is so simple to forestall—and I am inert. No.

And because our reason violently deters us from the brink, therefore do we the most impetuously approach it.

     —Edgar Allan Poe, The Imp of the Perverse

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