We say, we insist The Devil whispers horrible things in our ear and inspires our worst deeds
Whether what we call consciousness was born from what we refer to as imagination or whether it was the other way round, at the beginning of the human age we began telling stories to attempt to explain our existence, and we dreamt up a divine being, a magic word, a dragon, a tortoise, a collision of matter and antimatter to be our “once upon a time.” Pascal described this as the “little shove” kindly provided by a primordial creator; after that, stories could unfold on their own.
The stories we tell have their shadow: beginnings have endings like day has night and conscious life has sleep. Every plot has at least two readings, and every character is at least twofold. Above one of the doors of a small church in northern Quebec is the statue of a woman: if seen from the front, her appearance is comely, from the back can be seen a mass of worms and maggots crawling through her exposed innards and ribs. Everything we conceive has an underbelly.
The scandal effected by Judaism of reducing the many ancient gods to a single omnipresent and omniscient divinity must have felt too lopsided for a humanity accustomed to a Pythagorean binary universe. Very soon a second character was brought onto the scriptural stage. He too was omniscient and omnipresent, even if ultimately subject to the divine will, and yet sufficiently crafty to tempt even the Almighty, as in the cautionary tales of Job and Abraham. He was darkness to God’s light, a destructive force opposed to His creative energy, an alternative truth to the Truth. He was given many names, among them Satan, Lucifer, Mephistopheles,
Beelzebub, Mastema (in early rabbinical texts), Iblis (in the Quran) or simply the Devil (from the Greek diabolos meaning “slanderer”). In the Book of Jubilees (part of the Apocrypha) it is told that when Yehovah decided to expel the rebel angels after the flood and release humankind from temptation, the Devil pursuaded God to allow him to retain ten percent of the punished flock in order to continue to test the faith of humans. Because of the Devil's ability to deceive,
Jesus called him “the Father of Lies,” (which is also the definition of a novelist).
Not content with this absolute division between the Supreme Good and the Supreme
Bad, the Sufi poet Al-ghazali imagined an alibi for the Devil and wrote that when the angels, at the bidding of God, prostrated themselves in front of the newly created Adam, only the Devil refused, saying that God’s command was a test, because “Heaven forbid that anyone worship anyone except the One Almighty.” Al-ghazali doesn't say how God rewarded his faithful servant, but in other religions, the Devil continues to be the unrelenting enemy of humankind.
Augustine saw him as deliberately setting a bad example and argued that “when man lives according to man, not according to God, he is like the Devil.” Earlier, in the second century, Apelles said that the Devil was a demiurge who had inspired the Old Testament prophets. Dante wisely placed the Devil right in the centre of the Earth, where the most beautiful of angels fell after his rebellion, causing the lands of the Southern hemisphere to retreat in horror, leaving an aquatic world senza gente. Luther (like St. Anthony before him) saw the Devil as a tempting nuisance and famously threw an inkwell at him, leaving a stain on the wall of the study in Wartburg Castle that could still be seen a century ago. Milton imagined the Devil as a sort of Moëbius strip (“Which way I fly is Hell; myself am Hell”). Goethe, with a pinch of compassion, suggested that the Devil tempts humans because he is miserable and solamen miseris socios habuisse doloris (“misery seeks companions”).
No doubt the Devil is still among us. Up to this day, in Austria, Bavaria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovakia, Slovenia and parts of Northern Italy, the Devil (known in these regions as the Krampus) accompanies Father Christmas on his rounds, looking to shove naughty children into a sack and thrash them with bundles of birch. The Krampusdevil is an ugly horned creature that predates Christianity, and carries chains to show that now he is bound to the will of the Church. On other occasions the Devil has taken on the appearance of a poodle, a snake, a dragon or even a gentleman.
Dante (again) argued that everything in the universe is the fruit of God’s love, including sin. Following this idea, the Devil can be seen as the perverter or diverter of this divine projection, causing humans to love in excess (lust or avarice), or not enough (pride, envy, sloth and anger), or to direct their love toward inappropriate objects (covetousness and gluttony).
Saint Bonaventure wrote that our bewilderment when confronted with inexplicable suffering merely shows our lack of faith in the perfect justice of God, and stems from us not being aware of the whole story. We resort to the Devil to try to understand the infamous events that plague us daily, now and always. The Devil (we say) whispers horrible things in our ear and inspires our worst deeds. It is the Devil (we insist) who is responsible for disease, war, famine; for the rise to power of Caligula, Stalin, Hitler; for torture, murder and the abuse of children. The Devil is the hazy excuse for our nightmares and nightmarish actions, but unfortunately the argument for his responsibility is not ultimately convincing.
If the work of the Devil can be seen as the dark side of the labours of God, the all-pervading misery of the world might be understood as a certain dearth of divine energy, as the inconceivable exhaustion of the Almighty. The Hasidim tell the following story. In an obscure village in central Poland, there was a small synagogue. One night, when making his rounds, the Rabbi entered and saw God sitting in a dark corner. He fell upon his face and cried out: “Lord God, what art Thou doing here?” God answered him neither in thunder nor out of a whirlwind, but with a small voice: “I am tired, Rabbi, I am tired unto death.”
Alberto Manguel is the award-winning author of hundreds of works, most recently (in English) Packing My Library: An Elegy and Ten Digressions, All Men Are Liars and A History of Reading. He lives in Buenos Aires, Argentina, where he serves as director of the National Library. Read more of his work at alberto.manguel.com and geist.com.