Please Allow Me To Introduce Myself…
By Darran Anderson.
On the Kola Peninsula in northwest Russia, scientists drilled a borehole over seven miles into the earth’s crust. When the site was shut down in the 1990’s, it was rumoured they’d inadvertently broken through to a chamber of hell. Recording equipment had reportedly picked up the screams of millions of souls in torment. Locals recounted how they’d even seen a fiery winged form arcing across the night-sky. The episode is, of course, a figment of overactive imaginations but it does highlight the attraction that such superstitions still hold, however sceptical we may otherwise be. It also demonstrates how the devil gives rise to fiction and has even altered the nature of storytelling.
In Christianity, the basic characteristics of the devil derived from earlier religions, often from the demonization of competing deities; Lucifer from the Canaanite God Shaher, Satan from the revered Egyptian serpent Sata and Beelzebub from Ba’al-zebub the Philistine divinity. In the Old Testament, the devil was often not the embodiment of evil but rather a loyal archangel employed on God’s more covert operations such as testing the faithful by offering them temptation. With the establishment of the Church, it was deemed necessary to reinvent the devil as the antithesis to Christ. For all the iconography it gave us, the need for a convenient Other would be a costly one in terms of human suffering.
The first major literary work in which the devil featured was Dante’s Inferno. The entire structure of the subterranean setting (conical and descending in concentric circles) is down to Satan or rather his trajectory. For the crime of treason, this once-trusted angel was hurled from the heavens, plummeting into the bowels of the earth. Led by Virgil, Dante descends past souls suffering the most imaginatively brutal forms of poetic justice (flatterers mired in excrement for example). At the bottom, Dante finds the devil frozen in a lake of ice, under which the wraiths of traitors are eternally trapped. Taking the form of a colossal beast, the devil has vast bat-like wings that flap creating the freezing winds that scour the surroundings. In mockery of the Holy Trinity, he has three weeping faces and in each mouth he gnaws at one of the three great betrayers: Brutus, Cassius and Judas. In the midst of his kingdom, the devil appears mute, non-sentient and powerless. Is there a human mind trapped within that monstrous form? Or has God reduced him to the cognition of an animal? And if the devil is a prisoner, who’s in control?
One way in which writers have tried to reconcile, or at least evade, the irreconcilable issues of an all-benevolent, omnipotent God with the existence of evil is to introduce a shape-shifting trickster devil. Given free will and culpability, he’s merely a means to an end. All of the inhabitants of Dante’s Inferno are there because they willingly transgressed. The devil can only encourage a person to lead themselves to ruin. He does this, or rather we do this, in the secrecy of our minds, often represented in print by the solitude of night. “The night is the devil’s black book, wherein he recordeth all our transgressions” wrote Thomas Nashe in his extraordinary forgotten The Terrors of the Night. The desires Satan exploits, and which the night awakens, are those which make virtually all story-telling interesting.
There’s lust for a start. On medieval woodcuts, we see the familiar image of the horned, cloven-hoofed devil which is a corruption of the faun Pan from Greek mythology, a figure associated with sexual freedom. Pan would become the embodiment of all that was unholy to a Church which preached purity, original sin and penitence. Rather than a bucolic life-affirming character, we have Satan as seducer, related in lurid accounts, down to his anatomical measurements, at the trials of ‘witches’. In Huysmans’ Là-Bas, we have this sensational link reiterated, “Lechery is the wet nurse of Demonism” and “the invocation of Beelzebub is a prelibation of carnality.” In I, Lucifer, Glen Duncan has the devil boast of his many titles culminating in the claim, “without a doubt Best Fuck in the Seen and Unseen Universe (ask Eve, that minx)…” If the Church was trying to make the dark arts look unappealing by association with sexuality (and vice versa), they knew less about humanity than they thought.
Ambition, vanity and greed are the most prevalent routes the literary devil takes to a person’s soul. In Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, we have the protagonist sell his soul for extravagant whims, “I’ll have them fly to India for gold / ransack the ocean for orient pearl… wall all Germany with brass… fill the public schools with silk”. He deals not directly with the devil but his emissary Mephistophilis. The devil watches proceedings from the sidelines. For sport, he gives Faustus several chances to repent, as when he parades the Seven Deadly Sins before him, the first being notably Pride. Intoxicated with arrogance, Faustus ignores them and we are left with the unforgettable scene of the doctor pleading for midnight not to strike and the demons to collect what they’re owed.
From this would come the Faustian Pact of otherworldly powers in exchange for eternal damnation. It’s been a recurring literary device from Don Juan to Robert Bloch’s That Hell-Bound Train. It’s also been an accusation levelled at writers from freethinkers like John Toland to libertines like Byron. A certain moral equilibrium was at first maintained. The Faustian character must be punished. Writers began however to see the charisma of the dastardly rake who can even outwit the ‘prince of lies’ and exploit the tension of an escapologist ending.
Crucially it began to be recognised that much of the Faustian myth was a conservative reaction against progress as alchemists evolved into scientists. The sins for which Faust, and indeed Satan, were punished were increasingly seen as strengths. I question therefore I am was the split nucleus of the coming Enlightenment. The church had persecuted those revealing universal truths, even one of their own Giordano Bruno. If this was God then, let us have Satan some surmised. We find this in the charismatic figure of Milton’s Satan. Fiercely Republican, John Milton had defended the beheading of King Charles. By the time he came to write Paradise Lost, the monarchy had been restored and he was blind and grief-stricken. Though he had adapted his beliefs to survive, Milton’s creation suggested his views were as radical as ever. He portrayed not just a sympathetic devil but an alluring one, “The strongest and the fiercest spirit / That fought in heaven, now fiercer by despair.” This was a character that was majestic and yet an underdog, handsome and proud in his defiance, “Incens’d with indignation Satan stood / Unterrify’d, and like a comet burn’d.” Milton tried to backtrack but it was too late. The modern anti-hero had escaped.
Satan became the ally for every literary rebel and cursed poet. “It would be difficult for me not to conclude” wrote Baudelaire, “that the most perfect type of masculine beauty is Milton’s Satan.” He serenaded in Les Fleurs du mal, “O Prince of Exile, you who have been wronged…” in a profane subversion of the Catholic mass. Lautréamont evoked the devil in his “poison-soaked” Les Chants de Maldoror. Lord Byron declared, “The devil was the first democrat” whilst Arthur Rimbaud spent A Season in Hell revelling in “idolatry and love of sacrilege.” For Blake, the devil was part of an essential Gnostic dualism, writing Proverbs of Hell as a riposte to the Biblical Proverbs. In Inno a Satana, Giosuè Carducci saluted Satan the “monarch of the feast” in “a challenge to the god / of wicked pontiffs / bloody kings.” When Carducci won the Nobel Prize, the Committee excused, “The poet clearly means to imply a Lucifer in the literal sense of the word – the carrier of light, the herald of free thought and culture.”
With the Age of Reason, Satan has seemingly been in decline. Outflanked by man’s inhumanity to man, we see him no longer reviled but washed up and redundant as in James Robertson’s The Testament of Gideon Mack or Alfred Noyes’ The Devil Takes A Holiday. He’s been reduced to camp self-parody in schlock horrors and occult fiction and aroused sympathy in Brecht (“what a strain it is to be evil”) and Herbert (“his horns… don’t grow outward… but inward, into the brain”) with the implication he’s beneath us. And yet we underestimate him at our peril as Baudelaire warns (via The Usual Suspects), “It is the greatest art of the devil to convince us he does not exist.”
Perhaps it was not God who created the devil but humanity. In Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, we encounter Judge Holden, the devil seemingly writ large, not just in malevolence (raping and slaughtering across the Wild West) but in ambition which is cosmological in scale. “Whatever in creation exists without my knowledge” he declares, “exists without my consent… nothing must be permitted to occur upon [the earth] save by my dispensation.” The Expressionist poet Georg Heym prophesised a ‘Demon of the Skies,’ raining hellfire down on cityscapes. Thomas Mann encapsulated the modern Faust in the syphilitic composer Adrian Leverkühn. Yet these were not devils but allegorical deeds of man; US Manifest Destiny, aerial bombardment, the German acceptance of the Third Reich. “Every war results from the struggle for markets…” wrote Robert Anton Wilson, “sold to the public by professional liars and… religious maniacs, as a Holy Crusade to save God and Goodness from Satan and Evil.” If Satan did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him, not as the ultimate villain but the ultimate scapegoat.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Darran Anderson is an Irish writer currently living in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. His critical study of the works of Jack Kerouac will be published by Reaktion Books in 2013. His hobbies include whiskey, rum, gin and regret. Photo courtesy of Nic McGuffog.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, July 16th, 2012.