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Morbid Impulses - Harper's


"Please, sir, it's seven o'clock, and here's your hot wa'ar." I half awoke, reflected moodily on the unhappy destiny of early risers; and finally, after many turns and grunts, having decided upon defying all engagements and duties, I fell asleep once more. In an instant I was seated in the pit of Her Majesty's Theatre, gazing upon the curtain, and, in common with a large and brilliant audience, anxiously awaiting its arising, and the appearance of Duprez. The curtain does rise; the orchestra are active; Duprez has bowed her thanks to an applauding concourse; and the opera is half concluded: when, just as the theatre is hushed into death-like silence for the great aria which is to test Duprez's capacity and power, a mad impulse seizes hold of me. I have an intense desire to yell. I feel as if my life and my eternal happiness depend upon my emulating a wild Indian, or a London 'coster' boy. I look round on the audience; I see their solemn faces; I note the swelling bosom of the cantatrice, the rapt anxiety of the leader, and the dread silence of the whole assembly, and I speculate on the surprise and confusion a loud war-whoop yell would create; and though I foresee an ignominious expulsion, perhaps broken limbs and disgraceful exposure in the public prints, I can not resist the strange impulse; and throwing myself back in my stall, I raise a wild cry, such as a circus clown gives when he vaults into the arena, and ties himself up into a knot by way of introduction. I had not under-calculated the confusion, but I had under-calculated the indignation. In an instant all eyes are upon me—from the little piccolo-player in the corner of the orchestra, to the diamonded duchess in the private box; cries of "Shame! turn him out!" salute me on all sides; my neighbors seize me by the collar, and call for the police; and in five minutes, ashamed, bruised, and wretched, I am ejected into the Haymarket, and on my way to Bow-street.

"Please, sir, it's nine o'clock now; and Mr. Biggs has been, sir; and he couldn't wait, sir; and he'll come again at two."

I sit up in bed, rub my eyes, and awake to consciousness of two facts—namely, that I have not kept a very particular engagement, and that I have had a strange dream. I soon forgot the former, but the latter remains with me for a long time very vividly. It was a dream, I know; but still it was so true to what might have occurred, that I half fancy I shall recognize myself among the police intelligence in my daily paper; and when I have read the "Times" throughout, and find it was indeed a dream, the subject still haunts me, and I sit for a long time musing upon those singular morbid desires and impulses which all men more or less experience.

What are they? Do they belong strictly to the domain of physics or of metaphysics? How nearly are they allied to insanity? May there not be a species of spiritual intoxication created by immaterial alcohol, producing, through the medium of the mind, the same bodily absurdities as your fluid alcohol produces through the directer agency of the body itself? How far can they be urged as extenuating or even defending misdemeanors and crimes? To guide me in my speculations, I run over a few cases that I can call to mind at once.

There is a general fact, that no sooner have you mounted to a great eminence, than a mysterious impulse urges you to cast yourself over into space, and perish. Nearly all people feel this; nearly all conquer it in this particular; but some do not: and there may be a great doubt as to whether all who have perished from the tops of the monuments have been truly suicides. Then, again, with water: when you see the clear river sleeping beneath—when you see the green waves dancing round the prow—when you hear and see the roaring fury of a cataract—do you not as surely feel a desire to leap into it, and be absorbed in oblivion? What is that impulse but a perpetual calenture?—or may not the theory of calentures be all false, and the results they are reported to cause be in reality the results of morbid impulses? I have sat on the deck of a steamer, and looked upon the waters as they chafed under the perpetual scourging of the paddles; and I have been compelled to bind myself to the vessel by a rope, to prevent a victory to the morbid impulses that have come upon me. Are not Ulysses and the Sirens merely a poetic statement of this common feeling?

But one of the most singular instances of morbid impulses in connection with material things, exists in the case of a young man who not very long ago visited a large iron manufactory. He stood opposite a huge hammer, and watched with great interest its perfectly regular strokes. At first it was beating immense lumps of crimson metal into thin, black sheets; but the supply becoming exhausted, at last it only descended on the polished anvil. Still the young man gazed intently on its motion; then he followed its strokes with a corresponding motion of his head; then his left arm moved to the same tune; and finally, he deliberately placed his fist upon the anvil, and in a second it was smitten to a jelly. The only explanation he could afford was that he felt an impulse to do it; that he knew he should be disabled; that he saw all the consequences in a misty kind of manner; but that he still felt a power within, above sense and reason—a morbid impulse, in fact, to which he succumbed, and by which he lost a good right hand. This incident suggests many things, besides proving the peculiar nature and power of morbid impulses: such things, for instance, as a law of sympathy on a scale hitherto undreamt of, as well as a musical tune pervading all things.

But the action of morbid impulses and desires is far from being confined to things material. Witness the occurrence of my dream, which, though a dream, was true in spirit. More speeches, writings, and actions of humanity have their result in morbid impulse than we have an idea of. Their territory stretches from the broadest farce to the deepest tragedy. I remember spending an evening at Mrs. Cantaloupe's, and being seized with an impulse to say a very insolent thing. Mrs. Cantaloupe is the daughter of a small pork butcher, who, having married the scapegrace younger son of a rich man, by a sudden sweeping away of elder brethren, found herself at the head of a mansion in Belgravia, and of an ancient family. This lady's pride of place, and contempt for all beneath her, exceeds any thing I have ever yet seen or heard of; and, one evening, when she was canvassing the claims of a few parvenu families in her usual tranchant and haughty manner, an impulse urged me to cry, at the top of my voice: "Madam, your father was a little pork-butcher—you know he was!"

In vain I tried to forget the fact; in vain I held my hands over my mouth to prevent my shouting out these words. The more I struggled against it, the more powerful was the impulse; and I only escaped it by rushing headlong from the room and from the house. When I gained my own chambers, I was so thankful that I had avoided this gross impertinence that I could not sleep.

This strange thralldom to a morbid prompting not unfrequently has its outlet in crimes of the deepest dye. When Lord Byron was sailing from Greece to Constantinople, he was observed to stand over the sleeping body of an Albanian, with a poniard in his hand; and, after a little time, to turn away muttering, "I should like to know how a man feels who has committed a murder!" There can be no doubt that Lord Byron, urged by a morbid impulse, was on the very eve of knowing what he desired; and not a few crimes have their origin in a similar manner. The facts exist; the evidence is here in superabundance; but what to do with it? Can a theory be made out? I sit and reflect.

There are two contending parties in our constitution—mind and matter, spirit and body—which in their conflicts produce nearly all the ills that flesh is heir to. The body is the chief assailant, and generally gains the victory. Look how our writers are influenced by bile, by spleen, by indigestion; how families are ruined by a bodily ailment sapping the mental energy of their heads. But the spirit takes its revenge in a guerilla war, which is incessantly kept up by these morbid impulses—an ambuscade of them is ever lurking to betray the too-confident body. Let the body be unguarded for an instant, and the spirit shoots forth its morbid impulse; and if the body be not very alert, over it goes into the sea, into the house-tops, or into the streets and jails. In most wars the country where the fighting takes place suffers most: in this case man is the battle-ground; and he must and will suffer so long as mind and matter, spirit and body, do not co-operate amicably—so long as they fight together, and are foes. Fortunately, the remedy can be seen. If the body do not aggress, the spirit will not seek revenge. If you keep the body from irritating, and perturbing, and stultifying the mind through its bile, its spleen, its indigestion, its brain, the mind will most certainly never injure, stultify, or kill the body by its mischievous guerilla tactics, by its little, active, imp-like agents—morbid impulses. We thus find that there is a deep truth in utilitarianism, after all—the rose-color romancings of chameleon writers. To make a man a clear-judging member of society, doing wise actions in the present moment, and saying wise and beautiful things for all time, a great indispensable is—to see that the house that his spirit has received to dwell in be worthy the wants and capabilities of its noble occupant. Hence—Rat-tat-ta-tat!

"Please, sir, Mr. Biggs!"