Forgive me for simply laying out a sequence of random thoughts (on a single theme) that occurred to me a few hours ago, as I was swimming around in my morning cistern of coffee; but it seems to be all I’m fit for just at the moment.
I remembered this morning that, a few weeks ago, I happened to mention here that I thought Max Beerbohm’s “Enoch Soames,” from his collection Seven Men, to be maybe the most amusing short story in English. If you have never read it (and, for that matter, even if you have), it is the tale of how an utterly talentless fin de siècle British “poet” who sells his soul to the devil in exchange for a quick journey one-hundred years into the future, to the reading room of the British Museum, where he hopes to find that his writings have at last been granted the appreciation denied them in his own time.
Every scene in the story is hilarious. My favorite is probably Beerbohm’s account of his first conversation with Soames, and my favorite exchange in that conversation is this:
Of “the older men,” as he called them, he seemed to like only Milton. “Milton,” he said, “wasn’t sentimental. Also, “Milton had a dark insight.” And again, “I can always read Milton in the reading-room.”
“Of the British Museum. I go there every day.”
“You do? I’ve only been there once. I’m afraid I found it rather a depressing place. It—it seemed to sap one’s vitality.”
“It does. That’s why I go there. The lower one’s vitality, the more sensitive one is to great art. I live near the museum. I have rooms in Dyott Street.”
“And you go round to the reading-room to read Milton?”
“Usually Milton.” He looked at me. “It was Milton,” he certificatively added, “who converted me to diabolism.”
“Diabolism? Oh, yes? Really?” said I, with that vague discomfort and that intense desire to be polite which one feels when a man speaks of his own religion. “You—worship the devil?”
Soames shook his head. “It’s not exactly worship,” he qualified, sipping his absinthe. “It’s more a matter of trusting and encouraging.”
“I see, yes. I had rather gathered from the preface to ‘Negations’ that you were a—a Catholic.”
“ Je l’etais a cette époque. In fact, I still am. I am a Catholic diabolist.”
Anyway, thinking about the story again this morning reminded me that my eldest brother wrote a rather darkly satirical novella last year, principally for his own amusement and enlightenment, called Confessions of the Antichrist. It is the first-person narrative of a man who discovers late in a very successful life that he has been chosen by the devil to play the role of the Great Beast.
When he wrote it, my brother had gone through the wars, so to speak, spiritual and emotional, and it has a wry, nightmarish intensity to it, run through by deep veins of both withering cynicism and luminous faith, that I found fascinating and rather disturbing.
I can imagine how some readers might take offense at some aspects of the story (the devil presents himself as a Catholic cardinal, for instance), but only if they forget that they are reading an intentionally fantastic fable. In the end, the tale is about spiritual temptation, institutional corruption, and the frequent incompatibility of Christian faith and “pragmatic” obligations.
In any event, my brother did not publish the book in print, but an acquaintance prevailed upon him to make a Kindle edition available , and so—if you care to—you can see what I mean for yourself.
Thinking of that, moreover, reminded me that, about six years ago, I too wrote a novella with a devil in it. (Let me emphasize: not the devil, but only a devil.) That tale is in fact supposed to appear in print, along with some other pieces, later this year, or thereabouts. It is more sedate than my brother’s story and not nearly as entertaining as Beerbohm’s. But I can say of my devil that he is, to my mind, a very gifted raconteur.
And thinking about all of these things reminded me of a conversation I had, not long ago, with my friend the inimitable Ambrose d’Arcangeli (what a marvelous name that man has) about literary depictions of Satan, and how attractive, witty, glamorous, or appealing they often make the devil seem.
“I doubt he’s even very interesting,” Ambrose observed. “I mean, to the extent that the devil has any personality to speak of at all—even if the story is true and he was once an archangel or something of that sort—he must by now be a pretty sordid, unimaginative, and dreary little fellow. He would have to be so monstrously self-absorbed: not a brilliant conversationalist, not a philosopher and wit, not a bon-vivant or perverted aesthete, but just some tedious little troll, full of spite and resentment. He’s probably a monomaniac who talks about nothing but his personal grievances and aims, and in the bluntest, most unrefined language imaginable—the sort of person you try your best to get away from at a party.”
Ambrose was right, of course. It is an old and delicate problem: How is any artist to make the diabolical appear diabolical without producing something merely boring and repellent? I made the rather trite observation that the supreme triumph or failure in this regard (depending how one sees the matter) is, of course, Milton’s. His Satan appears at the beginning of Paradise Lost as a kind of Prometheus, so dauntlessly defiant of heaven’s laws that his damnation seems at first immeasurably more exhilarating than the staid beatitude of Milton’s heaven.
The effect is so startling that many have concurred with Blake’s verdict in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (though usually without Blake’s irony): “The reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels & God, and at liberty when of Devils & Hell, is because he was a true Poet and of the Devil’s party without knowing it!” True, as has often been pointed out, our last glimpses of Satan in the epic are in the forms of a toad and a serpent, but that is not how we tend to remember him. All readers of the poem recall his magnificent entrance onto the stage; few recall his final exit.
“But even the post-Promethean, post-Romantic Satan is too engaging a character, too debonair” Ambrose continued. “Dostoevsky’s devil in The Brother’s Karamazov, for example, the one who appears to the fever-ridden Vanya, is a bit of an invertebrate and a sponge, who goes about in the threadbare guise of a member of the impoverished petty nobility; but he’s still an enchanting talker, with a sense of humor, and considerable urbanity. If nothing else, writers always imagine the devil as well-read and something of a cosmopolitan, who’s able to explain himself in terms of one or another perfectly coherent moral philosophy. But, of course, the devil is really just a thug.”
I had to admit that it would be rather unlikely that the devil would have retained any sense of style after so many countless millennia in such squalidly reduced circumstances. Perhaps at first, remembering the glorious raiments that adorned his limbs when he walked among the sons of God in the stones of fire, Samael or Hillel ben Shahar or Lucifer (call him what you will) might have made an effort to keep up appearances, and played the part of the dandy, and squandered his resources on well tailored suits, and spent hours a day posing before his pier glass.
But by now, surely, like all those children of privilege who lose everything irretrievably, he must have gone entirely to seed, and resigned himself to shapeless polyester-cotton blends and plastic shoes. How then, I asked Ambrose, should one portray the prince of darkness?
After a pensive moment, Ambrose replied, “A merciless real estate developer whose largest projects are all casinos.”
And recalling this exchange brought Donald Trump to mind. You know the fellow: developer, speculator, television personality, hotelier, political dilettante, conspiracy theorist, and grand croupier—the one with that canopy of hennaed hair jutting out over his eyes like a shelf of limestone.
In particular, I recalled how, back in 1993, when Trump decided he wanted to build special limousine parking lots around his Atlantic City casino and hotel, he had used all his influence to get the state of New Jersey to steal the home of an elderly widow named Vera Coking by declaring “eminent domain” over her property, as well as over a nearby pawn shop and a small family-run Italian restaurant.
She had declined to sell, having lived there for thirty-five years. Moreover, the state offered her only one-fourth what she had been offered for the same house some years before, and Trump could then buy it at a bargain rate. The affair involved the poor woman in an exhausting legal battle, which, happily, she won, with the assistance of the Institute for Justice.
How obvious it seems to me now. Cold, grasping, bleak, graceless, and dull; unctuous, sleek, pitiless, and crass; a pallid vulgarian floating through life on clouds of acrid cologne and trailed by a vanguard of fawning divorce lawyers, the devil is probably eerily similar to Donald Trump—though perhaps just a little nicer.
David Bentley Hart is contributing editor of First Things. His most recent book is Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies (Yale University Press). His other “On the Square” articles can be found here.
We launched the First Things 2023 Year-End Campaign to keep articles like the one you just read free of charge to everyone.
Measured in dollars and cents, this doesn't make sense. But consider who is able to read First Things: pastors and priests, college students and professors, young professionals and families. Last year, we had more than three million unique readers on firstthings.com.
Informing and inspiring these people is why First Things doesn't only think in terms of dollars and cents. And it's why we urgently need your year-end support.
Will you give today?