"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

The Devil–Without Him ‘Life Would Be Holy But Tedious’

So much has been made of the Devil, the incarnation of Evil, ruler of the Netherworld, the guardian of the fiery pits of Hell.  Satan is the stealer of souls.  He is behind all cruelty, blind rage, inhumanity, sinful neglect of God and an arrogant rejection of him. He is our worst nightmare – a winged scaly, demonic creature with glowing yellow eyes and a tail.

Father Brophy invoked the Devil every Sunday. The Devil fit well into his grand guignol melodramatic sermons and gave a demonic face to the sins he preached about.

You wake up one morning and you smell a strange odor in the house – a sulfurous, acrid smell that burns your throat.  You see a strange red light that illuminates your bedroom.  It flickers like fire and yet it suffuses the room with a thick menacing color.  You hear faint cries from outside the window, cries which become louder, more agonizing, and more persistent.  As you get out of bed the cries become shrieks, the horrible smell now fills the room and you begin to cough and choke.  The flickering, fire-like light becomes brighter and horrified you see the curtains catch fire, and then walls, the carpet, and the furniture.  In minutes you have caught fire, your bedclothes consumed by flames.  You stand naked and burning.  Your skin blisters and boils.  Your breath sears your lungs.  You let out a long, pitiful, horrendous cry.  You are in Hell and you will be there for all Eternity.

You could hear a pin drop in the church.  Children clung to their parents.  Old people woke up.  It was a magnificent performance. Every Sunday Father Brophy varied the story, but the painful scenes of burning, eternal torture, and the licking flames of Hellfire always remained.

Father Brophy was of the old fire and brimstone school.  There were no modern nuances to his stories – the Devil disguised as an ordinary Joe working his evil through subterfuge and deceit or appeals to vanity, arrogance, cowardice, or spineless, craven deceit. The priest preferred the obvious and the tried and true. Satan had been depicted as a reptilian creature presiding over a raging pit of fire and brimstone; and there was enough dramatic material in that scenario to hold the attention of his flock for a month of Sundays.

The Biblical Devil who tempted Christ in the desert is depicted as much more reasonable. Tempting mortal men is one thing, but tempting the Son of God would require persuasive logic, impossibly alluring rewards, and a silver tongue.  He tries three gambits, the first quite simple and direct.  “You are the Living Christ”, the Devil says, “so turn these stones into bread to relieve your hunger.”  Christ refuses, and says that the true miracle of God is in the afterlife, an eternity of harmony and bliss where the faithful will see his face.

The Devil then offers Christ a second opportunity – free himself from the pinnacle on which he is caught by jumping and relying on his angels to catch him and break his fall.

"If thou be the Son of God, cast thyself down from hence: For it is written, He shall give his angels charge over thee, to keep thee: And in their hands they shall bear thee up, lest at any time thou dash thy foot against a stone." (Luke 4:9-13) citing Psalms 91:12.

Once more, Jesus maintained his integrity and responded by quoting scripture, saying, "Again it is written, 'You shall not put the Lord, your God, to the test.'" (Matthew 4:7) from Deuteronomy 6:16) The Devil ups the ante and plays his final card.  He says to Jesus, “All these things I will give you if you fall down and do an act of worship to me.” But Jesus is not moved and replies, “Get away, Satan!.  It is written: The Lord, your God shall you worship and him alone shall you serve (referencing Deuteronomy 10:20).

Dostoyevsky reprises this encounter between Devil and Christ in his Chapter ‘The Grand Inquisitor’ in The Brothers Karamazov. The Inquisitor challenges Christ and says that his answers to the Devil in the desert provided only false promise to the billions of people who followed him.  By promising only celestial rewards, he enabled the foundation of a corrupt, manipulative Church, established on the specious claims of immortality.  By performing the miracle of turning stones into bread, he could have fed the hungry world.

By giving Man the free will to choose between right and wrong, Christ condemned him to frustration and failure.  Man is weak, said the Grand Inquisitor, and would trade comfort, security, and happiness for free will all the time.  Don’t put God to the test, said Christ to the Devil in the desert.  Accept his will, authority, and rules. Christ’s answer to this temptation further consolidated the Church’s power, gave it the authority to speak for God and to rule over his minions – a venal corruption of God’s word.

Christ’s rejection of the Devil’s third temptation echoed the First Commandment, the most important of all ten because it established the primacy of God and his Church, creating a virtual religious gulag.

The Grand Inquisitor tells Christ to go back where he came from because if he returns to Earth and starts performing miracles, he will destroy the very foundation of the Church, delegitimize it, and send everyone into a whirlwind of confusion and doubt.

Just as Christ has returned to Earth in the 15th Century – according to the story spun by Ivan Karamazov – so the Devil returned as the Grand Inquisitor to once more challenge him.

Milton’s Devil is heroic.  Against overwhelming odds he challenges God, defies Christ, and rather than lament his exile from Heaven revels in his exile, for he has more power than God.  He will enjoy his work and in his many forms and lives he will devise new and ever more ingenious ways of corrupting Man.

In ‘The Devil - Ivan’s Nightmare’ Chapter of The Brothers Karamazov Dostoyevsky creates a very different kind of Devil, one dressed in the slightly shabby clothes of a diminished aristocrat; one with a sense of humor, irony, even vaudeville.  Where would you all be without me, the Devil, asks.  Life would be a bloody bore, wouldn’t it?

God preserve me from it, but one can't help complaining sometimes. I am a slandered man. You upbraid me every moment with being stupid. One can see you are young. My dear fellow, intelligence isn't the only thing! I have naturally a kind and merry heart. ‘I also write vaudevilles of all sorts.’

Without criticism [life] would be nothing but one ‘hosannah.’ But nothing but hosannah is not enough for life, the hosannah must be tried in the crucible of doubt and so on, in the same style. But I don't meddle in that, I didn't create it, I am not answerable for it. Well, they've chosen their scapegoat, they've made me write the column of criticism and so life was made possible. We understand that comedy; I, for instance, simply ask for annihilation. No, live, I am told, for there'd be nothing without you. If everything in the universe were sensible, nothing would happen. There would be no events without you, and there must be events.

So against the grain I serve to produce events and do what's irrational because I am commanded to. For all their indisputable intelligence, men take this farce as something serious, and that is their tragedy. They suffer, of course ... but then they live, they live a real life, not a fantastic one, for suffering is life. Without suffering what would be the pleasure of it? It would be transformed into an endless church service; it would be holy, but tedious.

“Life would be holy, but tedious”, the Devil says echoing the words of Ivan who has hallucinated the scene, created it in delirium no differently than he wrote his short story of The Grand Inquisitor. Ivan tells Alyosha, his Christ-like younger brother that morality would not exist without immortality.  Immortality is the fiction created by Christ and promulgated by the Church, so ‘everything is permitted’.  Ivan’s illegitimate half-brother Smerdyakov, has murdered their father because of this rule, he says. He is a Russian Iago who committed the crime not for the 3000 rubles, nor to get rid of the father all the boys hated, but because he could.  He is ‘beyond good and evil’, acting in a purposeless and meaningless universe.

So Dostoyevsky’s Devil has much more modest designs on man – peccadilloes, silly indiscretions, bald-faced lies, minor deceptions and deceits. 

The Devil tells Ivan to lighten up.  You ascribe far too much value to intelligence, he says. I am capricious, with a good sense of the comic, and enjoy myself in the role and world I have been given.  You should do the same.

But what about me? I suffer, but still, I don't live. I am x in an indeterminate equation. I am a sort of phantom in life who has lost all beginning and end, and who has even forgotten his own name. You are laughing— no, you are not laughing, you are angry again. You are for ever angry, all you care about is intelligence, but I repeat again that I would give away all this super-stellar life, all the ranks and honors, simply to be transformed into the soul of a merchant's wife weighing eighteen stone and set candles at God's shrine.

In his memoir A Confession Dostoyevsky recounts his epiphany.  After years of torturous study, research, and investigation he still hasn’t found the meaning of life, or at least been able to explain its meaninglessness.  On the one hand science does not account for imponderables; and on the other subjective contemplation (religion) ignores the facts. At the end of his memoir, Dostoyevsky realizes and accepts what millions now and before have understood.  Faith, irrational, subjective, all-accepting faith is the anodyne everyone is looking for.  It alone can calm the nerves and the restless mind.

Dostoyevsky was not returning to the Orthodox Church of his younger years; and remained as skeptical if not as cynical as his character Ivan of organized religion; but faith and subjective belief was another issue altogether.

The Brothers Karamazov was written after A Confession, so it is clear that the matter was never settled in Dostoyevsky’s mind.  He created a Christ figure in one brother, Alyosha – a naïve, innocent, and otherworldly character; a doubter in Ivan; and a guilt-ridden eldest, Dmitri who is much like Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment also written later.

The idea of the Devil as mischief-maker, vaudevillian, and prankster amusing himself in a jolly way as each of us, one by one, inevitably and surly fall off the golden path is very appealing.  Ivan’s vision of an amoral world where anything goes corroborates Nietzsche’s – the only validation of life in a meaningless world is to rise above the herd, to be a Superman who expresses his unique, indomitable will.

In that sense, ‘all things are lawful’ for [man]. What's more, even if this period never comes to pass, since there is anyway no God and no immortality, the new man may well become the man-god, even if he is the only one in the whole world, and promoted to his new position, he may lightheartedly overstep all the barriers of the old morality of the old slave-man, if necessary. There is no law for God. Where God stands, the place is holy. Where I stand will be at once the foremost place ... ‘all things are lawful’ and that's the end of it! That's all very charming; but if you want to swindle why do you want a moral sanction for doing it? But that's our modern Russian all over. He can't bring himself to swindle without a moral sanction. He is so in love with truth—”

Both Smerdyakov and Iago go to the gallows with equanimity and resolve.  Iago refuses to repent for his crime, and Smerdyakov writes a suicide note saying only that he alone is responsible for his demise.  Hedda Gabler, another heroic figure, also takes her own life in a decisive, courageous act after her expressions of pure Will have failed.

Aristotle, Aquinas, Augustine, and Kierkegaard among others have pondered the nature of evil and how it can exist in a world created by a beneficent God.  Dostoyevsky, Nietzsche, Ibsen, and Strindberg among other writers have accepted that ‘evil’ as a concept does exist, but it is inconsequential.  Immortality, a construct necessary for the existence of a moral code, is not a religious one but a very human one. 

 

Yet after reading about the Devil and Evil in Dostoyevsky, Nietzsche, Aquinas, Milton, and the Bible, what I remember most are the sermons of Father Brophy and his words,

Do you smell it now? Well do you?  It’s the smell of Hell, fire and brimstone, a fiery, sulfurous, burning stench. Do you want to open the windows and let in a little fresh air?  You can’t.  You are living in a world of eternal torture and misery where the Devil is your master.

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