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The Poetics of Perversity

A famous admonition advises us not to seek to remove the speck in our neighbor’s eye, but to attend to the beam in our own. The idea is to mind your own business, improve yourself, not others. The same counsel was given Cain when he envied God’s preference for his brother Abel’s offering. Watch yourself not your brother said the god, you don’t have to be angry and envious, you can subdue your demon. Cain, notably, receiving this word straight from the god, went out and killed his brother. Human beings are often perverse.

Perversity is an important concept. It not only shows deviation, it conjures correctness. It is the heart of much art. Blake wrote “Poetry is to excuse Vice & shew its reason and necessary purgation.”

Perversity is a way to think of our fallen governor in New York. The story Boccaccio might make of him is the case of the great man-De Casibus Virorum Illustrium. Those on a pinnacle of power and prestige plunge with a turn of fortune’s wheel to shame and dishonor. Boccaccio begins with Adam and comes up to his own 14th-century day, cataloguing fifty-six famous figures of excess and comeuppance. People say we love such stories for complicated reasons-we’re not caught and our envy abates at the fall of the mighty. We see money and power and potency fail to insulate the famous fallen and we’re happy with our smaller lives.

But it’s not only that. Perversity satisfies a deeper desire to explore. And because the story is someone else’s we explore it, like literature, without danger. We’re free unless we follow and imitate the perversity, as Francesca da Rimini tells Dante in the Circle of the Lustful in Inferno. She and her brother-in-law read of Lancelot and Guinivere and then copied their forbidden romance. The book was a pander she says, showing them the wrong thing to do, bringing them death at the hands of her husband and hell for eternal quittance of lust.

So when a governor of wealthy background, excellent education and loving family patronizes prostitutes at The Emperor’s Club, and is exposed and pilloried and plummets, how do we read his story? Like poetry.

DIANE CHRISTIAN is SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor at University at Buffalo and author of the new book Blood Sacrifice. She can be reached at:








More articles by:

DIANE CHRISTIAN is SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor at University at Buffalo and author of the new book Blood Sacrifice. She can be reached at:

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