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

Friday, June 20, 2014

Give The Devil His Due

The devil in the guise of a somewhat shabby but still distinguished gentleman, tells Ivan Karamazov that human beings need him, otherwise life would be very boring indeed.  If there were nothing but love, sweetness and light, and eternal perfection, the human race would collectively fall asleep and never bother to wake up.

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 (Brothers Karamazov, Part 4, Book XI, Chapter 9)

Ivan is hallucinating and his conversation with the devil is completely internal, but his convictions are no less compelling that in the story he tells to Alyosha in the Grand Inquisitor. In that story he, Ivan, is the devil, challenging Christ for giving false promise to mankind, denying them food while offering future salvation and setting the stage for a millennium of manipulation, spiritual extortion, and autocracy by the Church.

Dostoyevsky questions why Christ was necessary, or why, if indeed he was God, why he made such a terrible mistake.  In this story, Ivan is the devil, and Dostoyevsky is taking up the refrain of Milton in Paradise Lost. The world needs the devil, they both say, and no one seems to get it. 

Why am I, of all creatures in the world, doomed to be cursed by all decent people and even to be kicked, for if I put on mortal form I am bound to take such consequences sometimes? I know, of course, there's a secret in it, but they won't tell me the secret for anything, for then perhaps, seeing the meaning of it, I might bawl hosanna, and the indispensable minus would disappear at once, and good sense would reign supreme throughout the whole world. And that, of course, would mean the end of everything, even of magazines and newspapers, for who would take them in?

Milton’s devil tempts Adam and Eve out of the narrow confines of the Garden of Eden and invites them to Hell which is far more interesting place.  He asks them to consider why God has planted the Tree of Knowledge in Eden and yet warned them not to taste its fruit.  The Devil knows that Man can never be happy within narrow limitations.  Staying in the Garden of Eden is all well and good, he tells them, but soon enough it will get tedious.  Too much of a good thing.  With knowledge everything becomes interesting.  You will have free will and freedom of choice, he says, and find out what God has been withholding from you.  God says that you will know pain, suffering, and death, but the journey will be worth it. Most importantly, you will know both good and evil, choose between them with your own free will, and become as powerful as he who made you.

Father Murphy gave great sermons.  His tales of miracles were embellished with his own imagination, and olives and figs got added to loaves and fishes.  Saints were raised from the dead, cured lepers, and ascended back into heaven on brilliant rays of sun. Great waters came and went many times after The Flood, called and recalled by Moses who stood on Mt. Ararat and gave another Ten Commandments.  Father Murphy’s parables were pure invention, picked out of his imagination, and offered to the congregation as his Sunday spiritual soupe du jour.  No one at St. Maurice’s had ever read the Bible.  Catholic bishops rarely referred to it, preferring to rely more on apostolic tradition, a practice which opened both theology and doctrine to a lot of interpretation.  In other words Father Murphy, feeling he was operating well within Vatican prescription, cooked up whatever he wanted, Bible or not, as long as his stories had some relevance to Jesus Christ.

Father Murphy, however, excelled at sin, especially fornication, adultery, and masturbation.  He ranted and raved every Sunday at 9:00 Mass about sin and how everyone was a sinner, dangling over the fiery pit of Hell by a thread, drawing ever closer to the licking flames with every dereliction.

Father Murphy liked to single out one particular sinner every Sunday, drill into him with his burning eyes, lacerate him with his fierce tongue, and beat him into holy submission.  We all figured that Father Murphy took notes in confession, and kept a notebook tabbed with bad sins confessed by parishioners; because when he went after someone, they hung their heads in shame and embarrassment, busted, caught and called out.

Everyone waited for his sermon and wondered who would be the target.  Families had informal lotteries based on small town gossip. People knew that Mr. Perkins was a drunk, Mrs. Falter had sex with the sixth grade teacher every Thursday afternoon, and Mr. Barney, the owner of Barney’s Great Suits was a liar and a cheat.  Men walked out of Barney’s looking like clowns with floppy trousers and oversized jackets because in addition to being an artful con man, George Barney had a silver tongue. Customers walked out of his store thinking they looked like Clark Gable.

Father Murphy strode regally to the podium after completing his ablutions and prayers at the altar.  He smoothed his white silk chasuble, shot his cuffs, straightened his clerical collar and began.  “You! Sinner!”.  Here he pointed at his chosen target, held his pose like a Setter, relaxed, and swept his hand across the entire congregation.  “You are all sinners”, he shouted.  “Do you smell the sulfur and the carbide?  Do you feel the flames of Hell licking up your thighs?  Do you smell your burning, charred flesh?  Do you feel your eyeballs melting and dripping down onto your scorched face?”

Again he paused and looked out over the parishioners were as quiet as the dead.  “You are all bound for an eternity of hellfire”, he spat.  “Not for a decade, not for a century, not for a millennium, but for all eternity you will suffer pain, agony, and torment.  The searing flames will never cease.  The awful cries and moans of your fellow sinners will never end.  You will spend forever in this horrible, stinking, agonizing place.”

Father Murphy was able to conjure up the most horrible images of the devil that we had ever heard or even imagined.  He was sometimes red, but also green.  He had fangs that dripped with sinners’ blood and a whipping, stinging tail that poisoned and decapitated.  He vomited stinking acid bile, belched sulfurous clouds of biting flies, had scales and claws or else was covered with suppurating sores and leprous lesions.

Here he paused again, mopped his brow, and composed himself.  “Unless of course you repent, give up your sinful ways, and return to Our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ”.  He went on with a positive take on religion for a few minutes, but his heart was not in it.  He love to preach about sin, despair, perdition, and torment; and the good side of God didn’t interest him at all.

No matter how much we may protest, we all would rather hear stories about malevolent, diabolical creatures than about saints.  Shakespeare’s most famous characters were very bad people.  Cornwall at the urging of Regan, Lear’s daughter, plucks out Gloucester’s eye; but not satisfied with this half-hearted cruelty, Regan tells her husband to pluck out the other.  “Out, vile jelly”, she yells in demonic triumph.

Tamora, Queen of the Goths, has her two sons rape Titus Andronicus’s daughter, Lavinia; then cut out her tongue and chop off her hands so that she cannot incriminate them.  Macbeth doesn’t stop at killing Duncan, but does away with Banquo, and then slaughters Macduff’s wife and children.  If the three weird sisters had not worked some black magic with their eye of newt and toe of frog, he would have killed a lot more.

Richard III kills everyone who has even the remotest link to the throne, and does away with them with glee, especially the two sweet princes in the tower.  Dionyza, jealous of Marina, daughter of Pericles, arranges to have her murdered and thrown into the sea.  Iago is the evilest of all, plotting not only to bring a good man down but to do so slowly, enjoying Othello’s suffering with each new innuendo and remark.

There are only a few good people in Shakespeare, Ophelia and Desdemona being perhaps the best examples, but they are naïve, ingénue, and innocent rather than good.  Shakespeare needed to fill seats and good, clean heroes definitely did not do the trick.

Although the great villains of literature are unforgettable because their evil character has been drawn by a master like Shakespeare or Marlowe, modern pop culture does very well indeed. 

A number of years ago Masters of the Universe figures were all the rage for young boys. There was one good figure, He-Man, but he sold so poorly that Mattel had to cut back on production.  However, the demonic creatures flew off the shelves.

Hundreds of movies are made each year featuring zombies, vampires, demonic flesh-eaters, and creatures from Hell.  Al Pacino played a great devil in Devil’s Advocate and Peter Stormare was elegantly evil as the devil in Constantine.

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Anyone older than 50 grew up on Grimm’s macabre fairy tales.  A wicked witch kidnaps Hansel and Gretel and tries to fatten Hansel up so that she can eat him.  Hansel tricks the witch, escapes from his cage, and cooks her in her oven.  The wolf in Little Red Riding Hood eats the little old grandmother, dresses up like her, and tries to fool Little Red Riding Hood so that he can eat her too.

No one is interested in reading about or watching good, saintly characters.  Alyosha Karamazov is nowhere near as interesting as his complex brothers Ivan, Dmitri, and Smerdyakov, all of whom were capable of killing their old reprobate father.  Ivan is particularly fascinating because he is the logician, the religious rebel who challenges the whole idea of Christ, but also the closet passionate romantic desperately pursuing Katarina. Alyosha is a good man to whom everyone turns for advice, solace, and spiritual guidance; but for the reader he is predictable and although the hero of Dostoyevsky’s work, doesn’t seem to excite the author either.

Even St. Augustine when grappling with the eternal conundrum – how could a beneficent, all-knowing, and all-good God create evil in the world – decided that there really was no such thing as evil, but an absence of good.   In other words he tried to explain away the evil in God’s kingdom by denying that it existed.  Augustine, however, was just a sophist who needed to justify God’s goodness.  Plenty of nastiness existed in the 13th Century.

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So both Dostoyevsky and Milton were definitely on to something when they created their devils.  Milton’s Satan is a defiant, heroic rebel who tells Eve when tempting her with an apple from the Tree of Knowledge, that God was simply trying to keep all the goodies to himself.  He created her but didn’t trust her.  He made her flesh and blood but denied her spirit.  What kind of a God is that? Sin, suffering, and death are expected prices to be paid for knowledge and courage.  Dostoyevsky’s devil is a slightly shopworn gentleman with a sense of humor who knows that the world cannot do without him.

Who would you rather be for Halloween? God or the Devil?


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