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

Thursday, January 22, 2015

The Devil Made Me Do It

Frondy Philips was, according to his mother, a wild, uncontrollable child. “What are we going to do with him?”, she asked her husband after the boy looked her in the eye, picked up Grandma Eloise’s Victorian vase, and broke it into a hundred blue shards on the linoleum floor. “The devil’s got hold of him.  There’s no doubt about it.”

It is true that Frondy Philips was a willful child with a mind of his own and a seemingly devilish spirit.  He did things that other children did not do, deliberately malicious things like dropping Grandma’s vase or hooking up bullfrogs to his electric train transformer to see their legs twitch.  “Let me do it, Daddy”, he asked his father. Every June when the Japanese beetles invaded the rose bushes of New Brighton, Frondy’s father prepared a bucket full of soapy water and tossed in the beetles he had caught. “I love to watch them twitch and squirm”, said Frondy.

“Boys will be boys”, said Ermine Philips’ sister. “He will grow out of it”; but while Frondy’s friends had the usual tussles, rock fights, and adventures hunting rabbits and squirrels in the woods of Meriden Mountain, he put cherry bombs in ant colonies, laid snares for ground birds and watched them flop and flap until they died.

“Do you think he needs help?”, Ermine asked her husband, Alfred. “You’re goddam right he needs help”, he said, “and this will do the trick.” He held out his leather razor strop handed down to him by his father and grandfather before him.  Only recently had he bought a safety razor, and for years shaved with a straight razor honed to a fine edge on the seasoned leather strop,. Whenever he had gotten out of line, Alfred’s father had unhooked the strop from its metal hasp in the bathroom, folded it in two, and whacked it on his palm. Just the sight of the strop was enough to keep Alfred in line for at least a week. Only once – when Alfred was caught by the neighbor peeping at his wife through the basement window did he get the beating that had long been threatened. 

Alfred’s father laid on the strop with particular energy because he wanted to see Rose Hibbert’s soft, full breasts and was jealous of his son for having beaten him to the punch. “Good morning, Rose”, Alfred’s father would say every Sunday morning as he met Rose outside the door of the church. “You’re looking mighty fine today”. Although no one could ever accuse Rose Hibbert of dressing inappropriately or provocatively, she was as beautiful as Marilyn Monroe and as ‘womanly’.  She filled every inch of the white silk dresses she wore in the Spring.

Times were changing and Alfred doubted that he could actually muster up what it would take to give his devilish son ten whacks with the strop. “What if the neighbors heard?”, he thought to himself on good days, but “Who cares what they think?” on bad ones.

The thing of it all was that Frondy was not really a bad boy.  He minded his manners, was polite to adults, and did well in school.  If it weren’t for his willful disobedience and his torture of animals, he would have been a boy like any other.

His mother wanted him to talk to a priest.  It was not that she had any ideas about possession; only that Frondy’s disobedience was so….Here she paused.  She was an uneducated woman who had difficulty finding the right words…malevolent…”That’s it.  Malevolent.”

Father Mullins had been at St. Anthony’s parish for over 50 years and was exactly the right person to have a talk with Frondy.  He loved children, and despite his frightening depictions of the eternal hellfire that awaited all sinners, he was kind and understanding.

With Frondy, however, he couldn’t help himself. For decades he had presided over a parish of modest burghers, devout and faithful Catholics and model citizens, whose sins were predictably routine.  He yawned in confession at the banality of New Brighton sins.  He knew that the real adulterers and fornicators never came to confession, and if they did they disguised or hid their transgressions.  He was a good pastor overall, shepherded his flock like Jesus would have done, and now in his later years looked forward to spending eternity with Him.

Yet Father Mullins had to admit to himself that he was intrigued by Frondy Philips.  Maybe there was something demonic in the boy.  After all the Devil does work in strange ways, possesses the weak and the strong, and is ceaseless in his mission to corrupt the world.

The old priest had no experience in this particular aberrant behavior.  His talks, urged by the parents of young boys, usually focused on self-abuse. “He does I all the time”, said one exasperated mother. “Even at the dinner table when he thinks we aren’t looking.”

Frondy on the other hand never exhibited any of the usual pre-pubescent sexual interest with which Mullins was familiar.  Nor did he break God’s Commandments and was particularly obedient to his parents. Except for the incident of his grandmother’s vase; or when he defiantly stood before his mother and urinated on the old daguerreotype of his great uncle Filmore, staining the 18th century Irish side table that was once her great aunt’s; or the willful, unprovoked, and entirely unnecessary torture of animals.

“Perhaps the boy’s resentment of his mother is so virulent”, the priest thought to himself, “that he’s indirectly taking it out on her family.” Freudian thought had just begun to percolate into the Catholic ministry, and although the Church considered it a deformed interpretation of God’s plan, it was not a totally hermetic institution. “And the cruelty to animals is a displaced rage at his father.”

In any case, Father Mullins was seriously biased by the time young Frondy came to see him in his quarters.  He was prepared to see evidence of the Fiend in the boy, enough at least to justify dusting off the tomes on medieval exorcism which had for so long been shelved in the basement of the church.  Sure enough, Father Mullins felt a chill when Frondy walked into the room.  He shuddered, buttoned his jacket and pulled the drapes to let in more sunlight. “How are you, Frondy?”, asked the priest.

“I am fine, Father Mullins.  And you?”

Mullins was not expecting such adult politeness.  He was used to the deferential respect he got from his parishioners, but this old-fashioned courtesy was surprising in a boy so young. “What did it mean?”, the priest asked himself.

Over a series of five meetings, and relying on ancient texts, recent Church teaching, Freud, and good common sense, Father Mullins probed for evil.  He could find none, although, as he told Frondy’s mother, “The boy bears watching.”

Childhood experiences, Freud himself tells us, form much of our adult lives.  Mothers, fathers, priests, playground friends, teachers, all determine who we are and what we will become.  In Frondy’s case, he became obsessed with the Devil.  So many people thought that he had at least a few strands of demonic material in his makeup that perhaps it was true.  Perhaps there was indeed a Devil who selected unsuspecting children and twisted them to his ends.

When Frondy looked back on the so-called ‘devilish’ events of his childhood, he remembered that they were nothing of the sort. His father had repeatedly said that he hated Grandma’s Victorian vase.  How many times had he heard him say, “Ermine, if you don’t get rid of that monstrosity, I’m going to toss it out the attic window and watch it explode”.  As for pissing on Uncle Fillmore's  picture? He hated Uncle Dave who looked like Filmore. Uncle Dave belched after he ate, scratched his balls when he stood up, and smelled like cat.  He never tortured animals but experimented on them.

Yet the devil moniker stuck. Word had spread throughout St. Anthony’s that he was suspected of possession.  He was taunted and teased on the playground; and he even noticed that his father was strangely more respectful to him.  Maybe there was something to it.

St. Paul was himself unsure about the devil.  In some of his writings he said that the devil was ‘the collection of all sins’, a symbol of Man’s perfidy and rejection of God.  In others the Devil was a ravaging lion, predatory, and insatiable. In others he was as personified as a Fallen Angel, created in God’s image, thrown out of heaven and reincarnated as the leader of the forces of Evil.

The Satan of the Old Testament was wily, canny, and insidiously adept at manipulation. After seeing the only two human beings ever created by God, he knew of their natural, inbred, innate pride, deceit, and willfulness. To Milton Satan was a hero, a defiant rebel who rejected the autocracy of heaven, who understood the illogic and injustice of a God who created Man to be tempted and then created a devil to carry out his work.

God needed the Devil’s help in testing and torturing Job who rebelled and demanded justice. What recourse do I have? he asked, railing as much against the injustice of his fate as against the perpetrators of it. 

Dostoevsky’s Devil is urbane and ironic.  A vaudevillian, he says, providing the world with a bit of fun.  Where would you all be without me, he asks Ivan? A world where there is only good would be a very dull place indeed.

Frondy was never evil, nor malevolent as his mother had called him.  He grew up to be a thoughtful, considerate man who had only one quirk – an obsession, actually, that was quite understandable given his upbringing.  “Is there evil in the world?”, he asked himself. “I have to know.”

The easy answer was yes, of course. Hitler, Stalin, and Pol Pot alone were responsible for over a hundred million murders. Bernie bilked trusting, believing Jews out of tens of millions.  Muslim extremists blow up little children.

Ivan Karamazov as the Grand Inquisitor says to the returned Christ that he might understand his offer of mystery, redemption, and salvation if it weren’t for the suffering of little children.  They are too young to be tested or to prove their worth. Deliberate torture at the hands of their parents is unforgiveable. You, the Grand Inquisitor, says to Christ, could have prevented this; but in your arrogance did not.

Augustine and Aquinas, grappling with theodicy, concluded that an all-beneficent God could not possibly have created evil.  Evil does not exist, only the absence of good.

Tolstoy and Shakespeare were nihilists.  Nothing happens for a reason.  History is no more than random billiard balls clacking against each other randomly.  The cue ball is human nature – inherent, unchangeable, and inexhaustible.  Nietzsche said that the only validation of the individual in the face of a meaningless, amoral world is to act willfully, beyond good and evil.

Tolstoy emerged from his lifelong nihilism when he had his own epiphany.  In A Confession he described his decades-long struggle with faith and reason and was satisfied with neither.  Slavish logic could not possibly answer metaphysical questions; and unthinking faith denied the existence of human rationality. He simply woke up one morning, realized that millions of people all over the world believed in God; and that billions before him had as well, so why not?  At the very least it was a release and relief from obsession.

Ivan Karamazov said “I am a Euclidian” and can therefore see the world in only one, limited geometrical way.  It therefore seems to me that God created the universe according to Euclidian law, but he may well not have. The possibilities are infinite.”

Ivan, after confronting the Devil in a hallucination, succumbs to mental illness.  His struggles with faith, reason, good and evil have given him brain fever. The Brothers Karamazov ends with the possibility but not certainty of hope.  Ivan may indeed recover and regain his equilibrium.  Dmitri who for his whole life has been consumed by feelings of guilt and sinfulness may, after his exile in Siberia may also be redeemed; and both brothers can join their Christ-like brother, Alyosha in a less troubled and more settled family.

Frondy Philips took all this to heart; but like Ivan, Dmitri, and Job ended up simply befuddled. Paul worked his way through thorny theological questions and for better or worse established the principles of the Christian Church.  Tolstoy found faith, but a very tepid one – a faith he backed into rather than embraced; and Dostoevsky, despite his many doubts, remained a devout believer.  None of them were convinced.  Too Euclidian.

Frondy always wondered what he would have become if he had not pissed on the photograph of Uncle Filmore, broken Grandma’s Victorian vase, or snared robins. His mother would never have suspected anything out of the ordinary, he would never have had to be interrogated by Father Mullins, and would have played dodge ball happily on the playground.  However, it was not to be.

Frondy simply woke up one morning and let go. At breakfast when his wife warned his daughter to ‘watch your edges’, she replied, “Whatever, Mom. Whatever.”

Silly as that was, it was no sillier than when Tolstoy woke up and realized that billions of people had believed in God, so why shouldn’t he?

Not much is made of the Devil these days. No one blames him for ISIS, and the butchery of Boko Haram. They, like Genghis Khan, the Crusaders, or Henry V simply want something very badly will do anything to get it. Evil? “I doubt it”, said Frondy, and finished his cornflakes.

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