Junior Ganymede
We endeavor to give satisfaction

Diabolic Fiction

May 06th, 2011 by G.

As you know, I’m interested in TF (theo-fiction), stories like C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce that take the angels and devils of the old folk tales as their properties just as fantasy takes the fairies and dwarfs. First Things has just put up a a very interesting TF discussion about devils in fiction.

The linked piece specifically discusses the problem of making the devil a readable character without making him attractively Promethean like Milton’s Satan is said to be or attractively urbane and cosmopolitan like Mephistopheles. The author eventually concludes that writers should portray the devil as “a merciless real estate developer whose largest projects are all casinos,” or, in other words, as a lightly disguised Donald Trump.

I agree with some of the responses in the comments that C.S. Lewis succeeded in portraying the devil well but unattractively in Perelandra and in That Hideous Strength. That devil is powerful and malicious and childish, even idiotic in the technical sense. (The devil of the Screwtape Letters is equally well-done, but very different).

My current conception of devils as a characters in fiction owes something to Lewis but probably more to the Gospels. In the Gospels, devils possess people and make them go mad. We understand the possession, since we understand that flesh is a blessing and lack of flesh the curse God put on the satanic hosts when He cast them out. Naturally the devils want to taste the blessing and defy God. But why madness? To the extent we Mormons think about it at all, we portray the madness as a kind of maliciousness. The devils hate the people whose bodies they possess so they torment their minds and force them to abuse their flesh. Plausible enough, really. But its even more plausible to me that the devils are themselves insane. Of course modern prophets consistently warn us that Devil and his angels are clever and patient in their temptation. But the mad can be cunning and determined, while still being mad.

No real portrayal of the devil as a character emerges from Mormon scripture. This is a good thing. Curiousity about the personality of the devil is about the last thing scripture should encourage. However, the story of the pre-mortal counsel probably shows a character trait of a desire to control, while at the same time showing that he is cowardly (the devil and his angels were unwilling to risk a mortality where they could fail). Coupled with his traits in the Temple story, including petty delusions of grandeur, vindictiveness, and considerable self-satisfaction, Mormonism actually has a pretty complex picture of the devil.

Comments (10)
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May 06th, 2011 10:27:03
10 comments

Wm
May 6, 2011

It seems to me that the form of narrative itself resists the true diabolic in that, aside from the most insistently static narratives, all stories show progression and, to a lesser or greater extend, either growth or document decline/descent.


Vader
May 6, 2011

Then there’s Dante’s Satan, who is essentially demented.

Insane works for me.


Adam G.
May 6, 2011

Oh, duh, Dante’s Satan.

WM, doctrinally I don’t think its clear that the devil is static instead of declining. Its possible that he’s getting worse and worse off. That said, I’ve read some modern lit fic that struck me as pretty darn insistently static.


Sgarff
May 6, 2011

Also, don’t forget Bulgakov’s Devil who is so attractive that he is practically a hero.


Vader
May 6, 2011

There was a (fairly badly written) science fiction novel that came out back when I was finishing up at the Jedi Temple called To Rule in Hell, or something like that. It cast Jehovah as the bad guy and Michael as his toady, with Lucifer the hero. A roommate left it where I was sure to find it as a deliberate provocation. I didn’t bother.

“Oh, duh, Dante’s Satan. ”

Duh. Heh.


Wm
May 6, 2011

Adam: No argument on some of the modern lit fic. But I’d be interested to hear on why you think he might be declining.

Sgarff:

Woland is an interesting case. I’m not sure that he’s that attractive — there are all sorts of little details that show that he really isn’t (the limp, for one). But he is clever and subversive. Of course, that comes from a very different doctrinal understanding of the devil, and in the end a devil that is still rather pathetic and can really only operate because of and even somewhat on the errand of Christ.


Adam G.
May 6, 2011

WM,

1. Every good thing comes from Christ.
2. The qualities that Satan has that make him an effective tempter (intelligence, patience, even self-love, even existence) are good things.
3. In his continued rebellion against Christ, Satan will eventually lose these things and/or have them removed.

That would be one argument. It would fit pretty well with the doctrine taught by some in the 19th C. that Satan’s eventual fate is extinction.

I also like the argument that judgment is a question not of determining who you are but of determing what your trajectory is: calculus, not arithmetic. So you could say that at the first judgment when Satan and his kind were cast out, Satan and his kind were not necessarily bad but had determined on a course that would make them bad in time. That course being what we would call decline or descent.

IMO, its an open question.

Postscript:
Satan is also declining every time a soul dies without having become of perdition, since it appears the infernal hosts have power over mortality that they lose afterwards. But I take it that the decline we are referring to is internal, not external. Some might say that you can’t separate the two, but I probably disagree.


Sgarff
May 7, 2011

Wm:
Yeah, I see your point about the details for Woland. The way I read Bulgakov is that Woland is something of a Christ figure himself, in the role that he plays in the redemption the title characters.

Plus he really knows how to party.


Zen
May 7, 2011

I think the point made earlier on a different thread, that even when Christ gave the devils pigs bodies, they immediately destroyed the gift they have been given.

What I take from this is, God has given up on Satan BECAUSE he can not be benefited. God’s ability to bless is infinite, but it still requires a little of us and Satan has put himself in a position that no blessing from God can help him. He really is a lost cause. He is a several thousand (million?) year trainwreck happening in slow motion.

Two of the most picturesque images in the Scriptures, concerning The Father of Lies, are where he stands accusing his brethren day and night, (Rev 12:10) and where his very hands palsy and tremble at the deeds he has committed (or set in motion). (D&C 123:10)

Satan might portray himself in any of a thousand guises as an angel of light/hero, but underneath, he is pitiful rambling trainwreck, gradually losing even the ‘good’ traits that make him good at his job.


Adam G.
May 7, 2011

Zen,
that is well put.

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