According to a recent Gallup poll, 52 percent of people say they believe in the Devil. One can imagine that this slim majority is not good news for the Devil, who after all is not running for public office. In the Christian tradition he is utterly insatiable and wants it all. But he may be more successful than Gallup’s statistics indicate if we take into account Baudelaire’s remark that “the Devil’s cleverest wile is to convince us that he does not exist.” Feed this possibility into the Gallup computer and one implication is that 48 percent of the people have been thoroughly conned and are thus wonderfully vulnerable to diabolic mischief-making.
Gallup does not tell us what in particular that 52 percent believe about the Devil. No doubt to many of them he is, as Denis De Rougemont puts it in The Devil’s Share, “a leering and horned demon skulking in the dark, animated by the worst intentions.” This Devil gets less attention than he did in less sophisticated times when St. Peter’s image of the roaring lion that “walketh about, seeking whom he may devour” still had canonical force. It is clear, nevertheless, that the media have been reluctant to let this old-fashioned Devil go. He continues to appear in lurid accounts of ritual human and animal killings, sacramental cannibalism and blood-drinking—to say nothing of the Halloween antics of pseudo-religious groups like Anton LaVey’s First Church of Satan, once dignified in a Time cover story (June 19, 1972). Then there is the romance with the satanic as we have seen it in the rock music world of Prince and the Rolling Stones, especially as the latter are presented in Stanley Booth’s Dance with the Devil and Philip Norman’s Symphony for the Devil. Predictably, the supermarket tabloids have heated up this romance. Not long ago one of them reported that the Devil had emerged from a hole being drilled in Alaska and in his rage at this invasion of his privacy had killed a number of the workmen. Indeed, one might say that the tabloids have judged the nonexistence of the Devil to be shockingly unacceptable. Who would be more upset than the National Enquirer if the Church decided that the Devil was now so securely confined in Hell that he could be ignored?
Mark Twain, especially in his later and very disaffected years, was one of that 48 percent who did not believe in Satan. Nor did he believe in Shakespeare (he was a Baconian) or the Old Testament God, whose sadistic cruelty was exemplified for Twain in the creation of the housefly. Satan, however, becomes the cool and utterly reliable inside-dopester who, in Twain’s posthumously published Letters from the Earth, visits Earth and reports back to his celestial friends Michael and Gabriel about the stupidities, inconsistencies, and malevolence of what Twain elsewhere calls “the damned human race.” It is noteworthy that even in Heaven this Satan had found the Deity’s dictatorial conduct morally offensive and was known for his subtle sarcasms about “certain of the Creator’s sparkling industries,” so that in celestial circles he was something of a First Amendment hero. Indeed, his “flexible tongue” had already earned him temporary banishments. Obviously, such a turned-off observer does not have to waste any of his time on Earth as a corrupter. Through no fault of his own, things there are already bad enough. His main problem, one might say, is to maintain his own integrity as a truth-teller in such a corrupting environment. In fact, Twain’s Satan comes on like a Calvinist who has lost faith in an omniscient and omnipotent Deity and thus may be a reflection of Twain’s own distaste for the Calvinist strain in American Protestantism.
Twain’s Satan, in fact, is the intransigent moralist that for a long time now we have expected the post-enlightenment intellectual to be. It is likely that the latter no more believes in Satan than Twain did, and it is likely too that he is less concerned with improving the damned human race than with undermining its pieties with a hermeneutic of suspicion, perhaps employing a flexible tongue to anatomize its absurd claim to be superior among creatures. We expect from him, and even, as they nowadays say, privilege, his uncompromising adversary voice, particularly if it attacks bourgeois, consumerist democracy. Lionel Trilling once observed that in Flaubert’s novel Bouvard and Pecuchet “bourgeois democracy merely affords the setting for a situation in which it becomes possible to reject culture itself.” In this perspective, irreverence toward the rituals and symbols of established culture becomes (as it did for Twain’s Satan, if not for Twain himself) the higher reverence. The adversarial intellectual is in the service to an implied ideal order to which he has the unmediated access that Emerson had to the Oversoul, or that the Gnostics of the early Christian centuries had to the true God. Such an idealist, again like Twain’s Satan, is constitutionally suspicious of all accumulations of power—so much so that he often seems to define virtue as a condition of absolute nonbeing.
This Satan, both when Twain wrote and now, has the advantage of being a moral simplifier. His first postulate is that doing good is nothing more than avoiding evil, while his second is that in a Demiurge-ruled universe there is always available to an elite a trustworthy perspective in which anyone and everything at any time can be seen as nothing but evil. As Hans Jonas, scholar of Gnosticism, points out, such a morality is a liberating release from the burdens of charity, prudence, and casuistry that always complicate moral choosing for the non-elite. Twain’s Satan and his kind can pose as intransigent haters of evil only if they can command the perspectives of choosing. One of their problems is to keep us from seeing that their moral outrage with damnable human conduct is not consistent with a theodicy committed to the belief that the human race is no more damnable than one would expect it to be given the irresistible ill will of its Creator. Another of their problems is to keep us from discovering that their disgust with the damned human race is only a reflection of the self-disgust that Twain confessed he shared with Byron. To discover this is to suspect that their moral outrage is at bottom a sentimental indulgence in which doing good had been confused with feeling good in adversarial circumstances.
In any event, such an adversarial voice has no alternative to rejecting culture, just as Harold Bloom in his recent The American Religion has no alternative to rejecting Christianity, Judaism, and the Bible. The ultimate adversary in this view is the Gnostic’s evil Demiurge who rules not only the world but who in order to do so must disguise himself as the Judeo-Christian God. If such a metaphysical reversal tends to spread confusion, disgust, and despair among the damned human race—at the same time blurring the distinction between malevolent and benevolent adversaries—it is still possible for toughened optimists to believe that this is only the destruction that precedes fresh creation. In this perspective (shared by such bold French reversers as Georges Bataille, the Marquis de Sade, E. M. Cioran, and Antonin Artaud), Twain’s moral rigorist becomes a necessary Devil who, like Wallace Stevens’ necessary angel in “Angel Surrounded by Paysans,” helps us see the earth as it truly is.
But there are other necessary Devils. There is, for instance, the Entertainer Devil who finds boredom not only absolutely intolerable but morally offensive as well. Twain’s Satan, in fact, sees the sadism of the Old Testament God as an escape from a universe that would otherwise have bored Him with its unrelieved sweetness and light. This Entertainer Devil is a darling of the tabloids and rock bands, a merry prankster in the tradition of the German Till Eulenspiegel, whose knaveries directed against notables of the establishment inspire the belly laughs of schadenfreude that make the boringly oppressive human condition more tolerable. Like the trick-or-treat goblins you open the door to on Halloween or the spooky carnivalesque of LaVey’s First Church of Satan, he abolishes the humdrum, if only momentarily. We can imagine that Twain’s cool and unillusioned Satan would be disgusted with such palpable sentimentalities. But at the same time he is shrewd enough to realize that if he really were the traditional Christians’ Devil he would have to be an entertainer to make his case that without him the alternative is boredom without end. He would have to recognize that in sentimentality there is not only an escape from boredom but the divorce of feeling from responsibility that serves him by making no end of trouble for humans.
But the Entertainer Devil is no harder to believe in and no more necessary than his alter ego, the Liberator Devil. When he appears to Eve in Paradise Lost, Milton’s Satan is the consummate flatterer who beguiles “our credulous Mother” into believing that she is one “who shouldst be seen/ A Goddess among Gods, ador’d and serv’d / By Angels numberless, thy daily Train.” Note that shouldst: the Liberator Devil, like Twain’s Satan, is always a severe moralist, indignant with whatever victimizing forces deny us the personal fulfillment to which we are entitled. He is both New Age facilitator and anarchist. He knows that, deep down, humans, especially the young, don’t want to be civilized. They only want to be happy, and their cruel fate is that in the process of trying only to be happy against the grain of established culture they manage, more or less, to get civilized. To the Liberator Devil it is an appalling state of affairs. Who would better understand Harold Bloom’s fear that “we are on the verge of being governed by a nationally established religion”?
Such a religion, starved for lack of creative misreadings, would be all life-denying interdictions. The Liberator Devil would agree with Milton’s Satan that “the mind is its own place, and in itself / Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n.” So he models that freedom from the interdictions associated with the conventional Heaven that keep one from realizing one’s full potential as a social critic. He helps us put in its proper context the conduct that society has conditioned us to disapprove of—acts that range from the sexual libertinism of the Marquis de Sade to the minor sadisms of the Rolling Stones: urinating in public against a service station wall, trashing the hotel rooms in which they stayed, distributing their semen with indiscriminate generosity to avid groupies. Such exuberant practices might be delinquent in the eyes of the uptight establishment, but they celebrate a condition of liberated empowerment in opposition to the traditional family’s tendency to subordinate the natural, and often enough creative, delinquency of the young to the needs of social order. This, of course, is the order of the illiberal Demiurge, who in the interest of thwarting the Liberator Devil will even go to the extreme of endorsing the efforts of Tipper Gore and her kind to clean up rap and rock lyrics.
The Liberator Devil is on the side of those who have the courage not to be deflected from their moral obligation to put self-fulfillment first. This is why he encourages those rituals of desecration that counter a worshipful self-abasement to authority, whether human or divine. Historically, his most dramatic ritual has been the black mass; but he is nothing if not au courant and probably recognizes that black masses are as cultishly old-fashioned and limited in their appeal as the old Latin mass is to most Catholics. Besides, as a result of its ritualistic formalities, the black mass is insufficiently liberated from the traditional mass. The Liberator Devil therefore encourages more democratic forms of desecration that combine moral outrage with entertainment, as is the case with rap artists like Ice-T or the rock singer G. G. Allin, who, in an expression of artistic freedom, once defecated on stage and threw the feces at the audience.
Most likely Allin did not know that he was only doing in a small way what Flaubert once confessed to Turgenev that he longed to do before he died: empty “a few more buckets of sh** on the head of my fellow men.” The Liberator Devil puts such violations of bourgeois toilet training in a context both heroic and aesthetic, encouraging the conviction that the true artist will always dare to offend the etiolated sensibilities of the overcivilized. Perhaps, being a radical revisionist, he would prefer a new and Flaubertian ending to the story of Hercules’ sixth labor, the cleansing of the Augean stables by diverting through them the rivers Alpheus and Peneus. When King Augeas refused to pay for this work, the morally outraged Hercules should not have killed the king outright but retrieved the flushed-out ordure and smothered the king under it.
We can believe at the same time that the Liberator Devil is not a fanatic about these matters. No doubt, like Milton’s Satan, he would have preferred the entrancing aroma of the earthly Paradise to the stench of Augean cattle droppings. Besides, the latter means houseflies, and it is likely that he finds them as obnoxious as Twain and his Satan did. But there is a larger issue here so that the end justifies the odoriferous means. What this Devil needs to encourage is the human tendency to identify as liberating the reduction of any aspiration, however seemingly noble or virtuous, to bodily wastes, as if he were an ardent press agent for the scatological mysticism of the French writer Georges Bataille. Ultimately, this is to make a virtue of self-disgust, a form of inverse transcendence that can issue creatively in the higher forms of desecration. When that caca rocker G. G. Allin threw his feces at the audience he was acting in the tradition of exposé writers, ancient and modern: forcing the audience to confront the dirty truth behind the sentimental illusions that structure its life. The Milwaukee jury’s refusal to accept his argument that he was only exercising his artistic freedom simply highlighted the hypocrisy of the damned human race that so appalled Twain’s Satan and such of his epigones as the late Lenny Bruce—whose scatological humor, as the late Ralph Gleason once pointed out in Rolling Stone, “challenged society at its very roots.”
In another and necessary guise the Liberator Devil is the Prince of Cynics who knows how serious a threat sentimentality is to anyone’s aspiration to autonomy. He knows how easily humans in their affective attachments can be carried off in directions dangerous to his interests, how perverse is their capacity to transmute sentimentality and cliche into self-abnegating commitments. To prevent such defections from his own hard-won orthodoxy, the Liberator Devil models himself as the cool hipster ironically detached from whoever and whatever threatens the individual’s solitary integrity with sentimental interdictions. The sentimentalist, for all his easy evasions, remains precariously rooted in the moil of history, vulnerable to unpredictable infusions of grace, and may at any moment be persuaded to give something of himself away. The Liberator Devil, wanting it all, wants none of this and counsels the surefire simplifications of cynical detachment. Being a good psychologist, he probably knows that the awareness of being so superiorly detached in a roiling world can give great sentimental pleasure. One may even sense this kind of sentimentality in the self-congratulatory irony of Twain’s Satan, who no doubt enjoys the exercise of his flexible tongue as much as Twain himself did.
And of course there is the palpable sentimentality of the romance of the satanic, exemplified in the designation of a microphone-eater like Mick Jagger as the Prince of Darkness—a beatification that might be creatively misread by skeptics as a desecrating burlesque of whatever Devils there are. But here any Devil worthy of the name would recognize that such an adolescent charade should not only be permitted but encouraged, as chauvinistic excesses are in wartime, since the cause they cannot help but serve is generous enough in scope to bend them to its purpose. In the perspective of the Liberator Devil, in any event, the sentimentality of the cynic is expected to be safely beyond all naivete and false consciousness so that it is ultimately the higher sentimentality, just as the irreverence of desecration is the higher reverence. The self-indulgent pleasures of cynicism are thus less a defect than a bonus granted to the right people on the right side.
In the meantime, and given the roil and moil of the world, it is likely that among Gallup’s 52 percent who believe in the Devil are many who also believe that he is so much in command of the situation that to go with him is to go with a sure winner. Indeed, whatever his disguise, he can project for those who need it the commanding and challenging image of one who has taken the hard way and stayed the course—who, like Milton’s Satan, will always choose heroic autonomy over “ignoble ease,” and who, like Twain’s Satan and Lenny Bruce, knows bullshit when he sees it. In an epistemologically scrambled world he appeals to a need to believe that life can be grounded on an absolute so solid and singular that nothing of oneself will ever have to be given away to a counter-absolute.
Still, it is plain that the Devil’s lot is not an easy one. Charity, however contaminated by sentimentality, continues to be operant in the world. As a moralist, the Devil is a perfectionist who must encourage the belief that all power is evil—except, of course, the power that makes it possible to take and propagandize that position. Nevertheless, some people continue to do the “good” things he disapproves of, often at great personal expense and against all odds, even as they enjoy the use of power to do so. It is not surprising, then, that other people (Gallup does not say how many, but the third-century theologian Origen was thought by some of his contemporaries to belong in this category) not only have sympathy for the Devil but believe that in the fullness of time, when the tents of the Apocalypse have been struck, the Devil himself will be saved—having proven to be as dialectically necessary to a final grand unity as in the Marxian view selfish bourgeois capitalists will prove to have been to the final triumph of the proletariat.
Here, in fact, we may be in the presence of one of the most necessary of all Devils: the Ecumenical Unifier, champion of all efforts to remove invidious distinctions between nature and nurture, body and spirit, interdiction and impulse, time and eternity, individual and community, male and female, Hell and Heaven—and ultimately, of course, between man and God. The Rolling Stones themselves once announced their commitment to such a transcendent vision in a Hyde Park concert, when after a release of five thousand butterflies Mick Jagger recited two stanzas from Shelley’s “Adonais”: “The One remains, the many change and pass; / Heaven’s light forever shines, Earth’s shadows fly . . . ” It is unlikely that the Devil in any of his disguises would find life in such a Neoplatonic wonderland anything but boring—though like Twain’s Satan, he might find butterflies an improvement over houseflies. He would recognize it immediately as democracy carried to the extreme of anarchic levelling where cliche and sentimentality are safe from all opposition: in short, as nothing more than the prescription for self-diminishment that Heaven was to begin with. Nevertheless, he continues to tantalize humans with a vision of absolute harmony shrewdly calculated to foster the Gnostic disgust with the inharmonious human condition that fires the imaginations of writers like Juvenal, Swift, and Twain.
There is no point in wasting sympathy on this Devil. He does not want to be saved. He wants to scramble those “signals of transcendence” (Peter Berger’s fine term) which if unscrambled speak to a yearning for a kind of salvation that to him is damnation. When in his disguise as an intransigent truth-teller he identifies this yearning as nothing more than a failure of nerve, he is not only being quite honest but is saying what he must if he is to keep up his own nerve in the touchiest of situations. As a professional bullshit detector, his only course is to expose as fraudulent the enchantments that have always kept the damned human race in thrall to his grand Adversary, but he must do this while striving to re-enchant it in his own darkly romantic terms. So he is caught between a rock and a hard place: he cannot succeed without fostering in humans that boundless appetite for enchantment that has always made them susceptible to the unscrambled signals of transcendence. If this Devil wants to be saved from anything it is from the exigencies of the ego-diminishing role he must play in a metaphysical drama he longs to revise.
One might say that the Devil’s continuing success depends not only on a shrewdly chosen assortment of disguises but on his principled rejection of the Pelagian position that evil is separable from the human condition. Having, like Milton’s Satan, elected evil as his good, he has a conservative’s suspicion of a theodicy that threatens to reverse his reversal and put him out of business: after all, he has a stake in the reality of evil, however much he may encourage an empowering nihilism among his victims. An effective Devil must have the absolute moral certainty that Twain’s Satan has, otherwise some skeptics will say he is only playing a game and secretly hopes to be saved in the end. Fortunately, being a subtle postmodernist, he is able to bend Pelagianism’s dim view of the doctrine of original sin to his own purpose. So he becomes a stalwart defender of the trustworthiness of natural impulse against the life-denying interdictions of a society that in the interests of its own survival continues to give lip service to an Augustinian anti-Pelagianism.
The Devil’s determination to keep the faith should be seen as a comfort to all those who cannot imagine a life that is not illumined, enfranchised, and empowered by his many disguises. But if they have to believe at the same time that he will be saved in a universal amnesty at the end of history they may themselves be demoralized in history: condemned to playing walk-on parts in a drama the foreknown conclusion of which mocks their life-enhancing transgressive efforts. Against this fearful possibility the Devil’s neatest trick may be his creation of a state of dependency between himself and his victims—so that they are united with him in an implicit community that is fashioning its own salvation as it goes along.
Such a community, liberated from all traditional structuring and self-diminishing dogmas, would appear to be anything but the national religion that Harold Bloom fears, however Gnostic it might be in its commitment to a grand counter-dogma for an elite. Under the Liberator Devil’s tutelage such a community might, in fact, reach back for support to those Gnostic libertines who were in effect the Rolling Stones of the early Christian centuries. In them, says Hans Jonas, “we find sometimes the freedom to do everything turned into a positive obligation to perform every kind of action, with the idea of rendering to nature its own and thereby exhausting its powers.” Surely the covertly anti-Pelagian Devil is smart enough to see that such a hubristic Gnosticism is on his side. With its assistance he can afford to relax a bit and let nature take its course, even at the risk of putting himself on the slippery slope to ignoble ease.
John P. Sisk, a frequent contributor to First Things, is Professor Emeritus of English at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington, and author, most recently, of The Tyrannies of Virtue.