Gnostic Myth and Enlightenment: On the Perversity of Institutional Promise/Misspeaking (Versprechen)

How can we see the discourse about ‘Gnosis’ in a contemporary light or how can we perceive it at all? Christian Zolles approaches this topic based on new interpretations of Edgar Allan Poe’s short story The Imp of the Perverse and of Jacob Taubes’ reflections on The Uneasiness with the Institution.

For the German version of this article, click here.

I. The Imp of the Perverse

Edgar Allan Poe’s short story The Imp of the Perverse, written in 1845, is about the unacknowledged human urge to follow a true inner impulse and do the wrong thing in crucial situations. The story begins as follows:

In the consideration of the faculties and impulses—of the prima mobilia of the human soul, the phrenologists have failed to make room for a propensity which, although obviously existing as a radical, primitive, irreducible sentiment, has been equally overlooked by all the moralists who have preceded them. In the pure arrogance of the reason, we have all overlooked it. We have suffered its existence to escape our senses, solely through want of belief—of faith;—whether it be faith in Revelation, or faith in the Kabbalah. […] The intellectual or logical man, rather than the understanding or observant man, set himself to imagine designs—to dictate purposes to God. Having thus fathomed to his satisfaction the intentions of Jehovah, out of these intentions he built his innumerable systems of mind.[1]

It is “a radical, a primitive impulse—elementary,” craving “to do wrong for the wrong’s sake,”[2] that cannot be traced back to a deeper motif. As a direct counterforce to the power of reason, it can only be perceived a posteriori: ironically, this impulse emerges in a flood of words in a situation that would normally demand prudent behaviour; in the constant postponement of a task that has to be done urgently or, if not, would entail ruinous consequences; or in the fascination that an abyss can exude the more insistently reason warns against approaching it. Between ratio and impulse there exists a “conflict within us—of the definite with the indefinite—of the substance with the shadow”,[3] as if these two forces were in direct opposition to each other, and as if, deep down, one would rather surrender to complete ruin rthan allow reason a final triumph. It is an irresistible feeling thatanticipates complete freedom and promises the ultimate moment of an irrational release while suppressing all thought of any devastating consequences.

II. From false personal identification to true social irritation

In tune with contemporary reading habits, Poe embedded the theoretical explanations of this ‘perverse’ impulse into a narrative framework: He tells of a prisoner on death row who explains how, after having committed a perfect murder, he was increasingly urged from deep inside to throw caution to the wind and make a public confession. In this story, the important element is not the carefully plotted murder itself but the murderer’s subsequent fixation on the moment of tremendous danger—and it is precisely this fascination with disclosing a secret and being willingly pushed to one’s own limits that allows a parallel to be drawn between the ‘imp of the perverse’ and the faith in Revelation or in the Kabbalah.

Poe’s theory may seem paradox: wrongs actions based on the suppression of the voice of reason bring a truth to light that would otherwise have remained hidden ‘from the world’. The central element seems to be the incitement to complete self-abandonment, which pulls like a maelstrom and leads to the greatest possible inner tension while ultimately promising absolute psychic relief (of the conscience). The unconfessed then ceases to be a compulsive compelling component of personal identification and is released into the public sphere.

Although the inner relief displayed may appear oblique and twisted (‘perverse’) at first glance, it seems as if the individual is thereby gradually freed of all the disguises he has imposed upon himself. A previously unperceived part of the individual comes to light, something invisible suddenly becomes visible, something unspeakable becomes sayable, something unheard-of becomes audible. When the hitherto repressed part is unveiled, the person’s present appears in a different light and the traditional tendency to put past experiences to rest, to distance oneself chronologically from them, is questioned. Poe’s demonstration of a power of pure release—of a heretofore undiscovered physical quantity within man—ultimately shows the fragility of social identity and the banishing power of language directly related to it.

III. A gnostic trace

The ‘perverse’ drive, hence, should not simply be understood as a reversal of Paul of Tarsus’ remark: “For the good that I will to do, I do not do; but the evil I will not to do, that I practice.”[4] The impulse described by Poe, after all, does not refer directly to the deed but to the irrepressible urge to relinquish something. Neither should it be directly associated with Sigmund Freud’s theory of death or destructive drive.[5] The matter seems to be more complex and cannot be fully apprehended by focusing only on the human psyche;rather the functional context of the individual’s social setting (the ‘symbolic order’ according to Jacques Lacan) has to be taken into account equally. Thus, the ‘personal conversion’ is always of essential social significance.

This line of thought brings us to a point at which, according to the Judaist and philosopher of religion Jacob Taubes, an approach to examining the ‘Gnostic myth’ opens up. Forone would similarly have to think quite ‘differently’, namely from the state of alienation, in order to come to a deeper understanding of Abrahamic faith. The connection between personal salvation and a sense of community only becomes evident in the ‘gnostic’ principle of equality, which implies that “men are all brothers, because they are all alien to the world.”[6] In line with the previous reflections, one can deduce that the ‘imp of the perverse—this deep urge to put an end to any rational pretence and to reveal oneself, as if following a cosmic- law—comes to light in a collective sense in ‘gnostic’ or ‘apocalyptic’ situations. In the instant when one is also able to recognise the everyday ‘wrong’ actions and the hidden ‘true’ self of another human being, a new genuine form of linguistic agreement and de-hierarchised communality could emerge. These thoughts led Taubes to the following interpretation of the history of religion, which he considered in typical fashion to be universally applicable

The fundamental unity of all Gnostic language is to be seen through the Gnostic idea of man. […] There is, according to Gnostic anthropology, a “spark” in man (identical in all men), that is strange to the world—men share their deep solitude in an estranged cosmos, in an alienated world. […] It was not the natural communities, families and tribes, that were man’s home, but the “church”, a brotherhood of those who had experienced the strangeness of the world and discovered themselves as selves in their alienation from it. The new community was a supernatural community, not in any sense of a magical hocuspocus, but in the fundamental sense that all natural bonds were defied and surpassed and a new non-natural communion between man and man was established—a new pneumatic We was born.[7]                    

On the one hand, these sentences demonstrate Taubes’ acumen in the field of religious studies; on the other hand, they also reveal the danger in dealing with ‘Gnosis’ as a concept: it encourages a tendency to generalise features of human consciousness, to merge different temporal and spatial spheres and to ignore specific contemporary contexts and conditionalities. Thus it is also important to emphasise at this point that the matter is much more complex and defies overly simplified interpretations.

IV. The task of the Enlightenment

According to Taubes, such a feeling of absolute alienation—or, to follow Poe, the concept of an urgeto nullify the status of alienation regardless of the consequences, recalling the teachings of Revelation and the Kabbalah—is responsible for a general Uneasiness with the Institution. In a homonymously entitled essay, he attempted to explore the deep mistrust of those forces which, in the course of history, had shaped the subject according toabsolutist governance practices. His reflections lead up to the present day, since he argued that it can be assumed that even after the political emancipation of the bourgeoisie hierarchies bearing resemblance to feudal structures were established in a modern age scarred  by the industrial revolution.

Taubes believed that resistance to authoritarian power structures, justified from the perspective of those ‘below’, should be seenas a historical factor and be used productively. “The regression of the consciousness is incarnated in the study of the institutions”:[8] The lesson that can be learnt from the experience of alienation needs to be subjected to  the socio-psychological analyses of institutional history in order for us to recognise “where the battleground of emancipation has shifted to today”.[9] Moreover, a re-evaluation of old confrontations could help to shake off the “mythical claim of the institutions” and lead to a “new identity of the human being as a competent individual and to a new identity of institutions as associations of free people”.[10]

This task, utopian of course in the ambitions associated with it,  , does not involvea relapse into an irrational (or even ontological) mythology—this, on the contrary, poses one of the greatest dangers in the technologised modernity. It is, without qualification,  only the arduous work of the Enlightenment that  will , on the one hand, allow  social developments and changes to be kept up with and, on the other, act as a corrective for society, guiding “the technological understanding toward reason” in “the process of demystification” as Taubes explained in an analysis about the task of intellectuals and university.[11]

Hence, the examination of the ‘gnostic myth’ also leads to a skewed conclusion: it is not by embracing a dark irrational force but by uncovering the conditions that give irrationality its dark force that the status of alienation can be revealed. Accordingly, it seems necessary to align with an Enlightenment movement that is aware of both the democratic promise and the democratic deficit of the institutions and their discourses, and to an extent skirts their limits, knowing to include the (esoterically) excluded and to open up the (exoterically) included. In doing so, we should follow the emancipatory force that Ernst Cassirer lucidly described in view of the newly emerging mythologems of the Weimar Republic in 1932:

The thought of the Enlightenment again and again breaks through the rigid barriers of system and tries, especially among its greatest and most original minds, to escape this strict systematic discipline. The true nature of Enlightenment thinking cannot be seen in its purest and clearest form where it is formulated into particular doctrines, axioms, and theorems; but rather where it is in process, where it is doubting and seeking, tearing down and building up.[12]

V. On the perversity of institutional promise/misspeaking (Versprechen)

“[W]e might, indeed, deem the perverseness a direct instigation of the arch-fiend, were it not occasionally known to operate in furtherance of good.”[13] The positive effect of the ‘imp of the perverse’ in bringing out the truth in absolutely wrong actions shall finally be illustrated by a thought experiment. This example refers to Taubes’ conclusion that modern public institutions are defined by a democratic promise but are, at the same time, shaped by power relations that appear absolutist, which continues to foster the ‘uneasiness with the institution’. Let us imagine a well-attended event at a doctoral academy, where one member, who is under constant strain, starts to deviate more and more from their original topic and cannot stop themselves from addressing the following: the precarious working situation of their colleagues, the great personal sacrifices they have made concerning their private lives and families, the struggles for resources fought out on their backs, the ignorance of new and, above all, collectively developed research results, the years of effort it takes to be heard officially, the apparent tendency towards a refeudalisation of the university in the name of economisation, etc.

While this performative misspeaking brings up unheard-of constraints, fears and humiliations that diametrically oppose the humanist promise of the freedom of the educational system and are often a concealed part of university practice, the doctoral student frees themselves from the burden of the institutional imprint imposed on them. Through inappropriate externalisation, they at the same time attain an unheard-of truth that irritates the social structure. Giving  in to this powerful, quasi physical urge to the point of no self-awareness—they are faced with the loss of professional identity and of all future prospects, precisely at the moment when they have freed themselves from all inhibitions. This is the truly perverse aspect.


[1] Edgar Allan Poe: The Imp of the Perverse. In: The Short Fiction of Edgar Allan Poe: An Annotated Edition, ed. by Stuart and Susan Levine, vol. 1: Tales, 268–71, at 268.

[2] Ibid., 269.

[3] Ibid., 270.

[4] As indicated in the German Wikipedia entry: (last accessed 2021.22.09).

[5] Cf. Sigmund Freud: Beyond the Pleasure Principle (The Standard Edition), trans. by James Strachey. New York 1961.

[6] Jacob Taubes: The Gnostic Idea of Man. In: The Cambridge Review 1/2 (1955), 86–94, at 93.

[7] Ibid., 94.

[8] Jacob Taubes: Das Unbehagen an der Institution. In: Apokalypse und Politik. Aufsätze, Kritiken und kleinere Schriften, ed. by Herbert Kopp-Oberstebrink and Martin Treml. München 2017, 218–235, at 223 (trans. C.Z.).

[9] Ibid., 229 (trans. C.Z.).

[10] Ibid (trans. C.Z.).

[11] Jacob Taubes: The Intellectuals and the University. In: From Cult to Culture: Fragments towards a Critique of Historical Reason, ed. by Elisheva Fonrobert and Amir Engel. Stanford, CA 2010, 282–301, at 300.

[12] Ernst Cassirer: The Philosophy of the Enlightenment, trans. Fritz C. A. Koelln and James P. Pettegrove. Princeton/Oxford 2009, XV.

[13] Poe, The Imp of the Perverse, 270.

Picture source: Arthur Rackham, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

RaT-Blog Nr. 04/2022

  • Christian Zolles ist Assistent am Institut für Germanistik der Universität Wien und assoziiertes Mitglied des RaT-Clusters „Soteriologische Transformationen: Millenarismus“. Im Erscheinen: From Heaven above and Hell below: On the Social Scientific Task of Translating ‘Gnosis’. In: Herbert Kopp Oberstebrink, Hartmut von Sass (Hg.): Depeche Mode. Jacob Taubes between Politics, Philosophy, and Religion. Leiden: Brill 2022 (special issue of The Journal of Jewish Thought and Philosophy 32); sowie: Von poetischen Katastrophen. In: Narthex – Heft für radikales Denken 7 (2021).

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