Monday, 14 June 2010

"Which way I fly is Hell; myself am Hell"

The title of this week's post is line 76 of Book IV in John Milton's 17th century epic poem Paradise Lost, and the speaker is Milton's Satan. So, you may wonder, what is this all about? What's the topic of the post? Well, I have a confession to make. Gentle readers, I am a literary Satanist.

Now, before that mayhap controversial line gets twisted out of context, let me first off repeat it with some emphasis in the right places; that is, I am a literary Satanist. My approach here is purely secular and unrelated to faith, in fact focused rather on the metaphorical, perhaps mythical, and most certainly literary value of the figure of Satan. And in that context, there is a great value and a rich tradition as varied and wondrous as could be. Because the figure of Satan, the Devil, the Adversary, or the fallen angel – Samael, Iblis, Lucifer, the Lightbringer, the Morningstar, etc. – (many of which are merely repetitions of the same name or function in different languages) is pluralistic and pliable. Even the basic mythologies (if you will pardon that label) allow for varying literary interpretations.

The metaphysical rebellion against divine authority can be, and has been, envisioned as a righteous rebellion against an unjust authority (obviously then questioning the role of God for, at the very least, the duration of the story at hand); just as it can be, and has been, seen as an attempt to usurp righteous power. In some cases, as with Milton, this very question has been something of a controversial struggle between interpretations of the literary work itself. We need only remember William Blake's infamous line from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell:
Note: 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. (Plate 6)
Yet these two strands of interpretation and depiction (because let's face it, not all depictions are in and of themselves phrased so as to generate the Miltonic duality of interpretation seemingly inherent in Paradise Lost) are not the only ones. Myths, legends, religious and literary traditions offer an array of versions and interpretations of this struggle, and of the identity of Satan. The basic question that needs be asked is, of course: Why did he rebel?

Naturally, here we find the traditional notion of the old Biblical proverb "Pride goeth before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall" (Proverbs 16:18 (King James' Bible)), which is obviously a fitting one, but also one that many a poet and writer have challenged. After all, in some sense, God needs Lucifer's fall, needs an Adversary, for his conception of good and evil (and by extension free will itself) to work. Neil Gaiman draws upon this idea in his wonderful short story "Murder Mysteries" (found in Smoke and Mirrors and also beautifully adapted into a comic by P. Craig Russell), which points to this notion of divine necessity. Similarly, many years before Gaiman, the Swedish poet Karin Boye wrote the beautiful poem "Den fallande morgonstjärnan" (Eng. The Falling Morning Star (this link provides an, in my humble opinion, less than stellar translation, aesthetically speaking, of Boye's poem by David McDuff, but it does give those of you not versed in Swedish a chance to get the literal gist of what I am getting at here), which was published in her 1927 collection Härdarna (Eng. The Hearths). Boye's poem not only points to the divine necessity of Lucifer's fall, but the divine sacrifice involved. I have more than once conceptualised this myself, in purely fictional terms, as a first sacrifice later to be echoed in the image of the crucifixion of Christ.

Then there is a version found in Sufi tradition (one of the many of which I am particularly fond of myself, I confess), where God presents his newest creation, Man (i.e. Adam), to the Angelic host and commands them to bow down before it. Iblis refuses the command, but (in the version I most appreciate) this refusal is not prompted by either pride or an inherent contempt for Man, fleshly and material as Adam is (these versions exist too, of course); no, it is prompted by an extreme faith. Because surely God's command to the Angelic host to bow down before Adam is a form of idolatry and an offence against the first commandment as later given to Moses: "Thou shalt have no other gods before me" (Exodus 20:3). Here we have a paradox of sorts, obviously, since it could well be considered heresy to disobey a divine command (i.e. the command to bow down before Adam; hence, Iblis' fall would be justified as a violation of that command), but equally so to bow down before the non-divine (violating what at the very least will be the command of Exodus 20:3). As such, Iblis becomes a heretical preserver of divine law and (dare I say, at least in some sense, unjustly) punished for his firm faith in and strong love of the divine.

Naturally, these different depictions provide very different versions of the figure itself (righteous revolutionary, evil usurper, necessary sacrifice, heretical preserver of faith), all of which affects his relationship to us (i.e. human beings). We have the tempter, the pedlar in souls, the wheeler and dealer, but also the indifferent, sometimes even sad, observer of human behaviour and human nature (who in more than one case objects to being blamed for our own shortcomings). Most, if not all, of these open doors into a rich tradition of Satanic satire (e.g. C. S. Lewis' wickedly funny The Screwtape Letters); and especially the latter (i.e. the observer) is echoed in Ambrose Bierce's wonderful definition of Satan in The Devil's Dictionary:
SATAN, n. One of the Creator's lamentable mistakes, repented in sashcloth and axes. Being instated as an archangel, Satan made himself multifariously objectionable and was finally expelled from Heaven. Halfway in his descent he paused, bent his head in thought a moment and at last went back. "There is one favor that I should like to ask," said he.
"Name it."
"Man, I understand, is about to be created. He will need laws."
"What, wretch! you his appointed adversary, charged from the dawn of eternity with hatred of his soul — you ask for the right to make his laws?"
"Pardon; what I have to ask is that he be permitted to make them himself."
It was so ordered. (The Devil's Dictionary (online))

This notion of Satanic satire actually takes us to the roots of this post (because I am sure that at least some of you by now wonder what may have prompted this literary confessional); that is, the fact that I am currently reading Glen Duncan's I, Lucifer. The basic story of Duncan's novel (and thus far, over halfway through it, I love it) is this: Lucifer is offered to get a shot at redemption. All he needs to do is live out a mortal existence. He does not even have to decide all at once, but is given a trial month (with an option to renew the lease, as it were) in the recently and suicidally deceased author Declan Gunn (obviously a nice little anagram of Glen Duncan). Thus, the novel opens with a diabolical mission statement (from a Lucifer who has no intention of playing by the rules or accepting the offer permanently):
I, Lucifer, Fallen Angel, Prince of Darkness, Bringer of Light, Ruler of Hell, Lord of Flies, Father of Lies, Apostate Supreme, Tempter of Mankind, Old Serpent, Prince of This World, Seducer, Accuser, Tormentor, Blasphemer, and without doubt the Best Fuck in the Seen and Unseen Universe (ask Eve, that minx) have decided — oo-la-la! — to tell all.
What follows is a satirical review of humans and human nature, analyses of organised religion and questions of faith. Duncan's Lucifer is not necessarily what I would call nice (far from it), but nor do I think he is necessarily to blame for everything either. We (i.e. humans) are doing quite a good job all on our own (with a few nudges in the right, or perhaps more accurately wrong, direction), implying a less than perfect divinity (also pointing to some contradictions along the way). Even before having finished the novel, I recommend it warmly, partly because I like Duncan's way of writing (I will definitely be picking up more of his novels), but also because his take on the diabolical, and his wondrous Satanic ventriloquism, fascinates and engages me.

Incidentally, Duncan was not alone in paving the way for my writing this post. There are also related matters in my scholarly work at the moment which have brought these issues to the front and centre. And then, even more recently (apropos of the whole affair of the recent boarding of the Ship to Gaza flotilla), I stumbled upon the following, fantastic (in a double sense) comment on an on-line article:
I think the comment speaks quite clearly on its own, but would nevertheless like to stress my appreciation for it as very well-rendered and successful attempt at Satanic satire. The commenter (whoever he or she is) has managed ever so well to perform a similar act of ventriloquism to that of Duncan's, and its anonymous, yet simultaneously (in some sense) devilish, authorship fits perfectly into its satirical mission.

In short, as a literary Satanist, how could one not love this brief piece's sharpness and wit.

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