Friday, May 6, 2011

Giving the Devil His Due

The inimitable David Bentley Hart has some interesting musings about the difficulties of portraying Satan in literature. It is a familiar issue and the problem is summed up by Simone Weil, according to a commenter who quotes her thus:
Imaginary evil is romantic and varied; real evil is gloomy, monotonous, barren, boring. Imaginary good is boring; real good is always new, marvelous, intoxicating.
The challenge, in other words, is how to be truthful in art without being boring, to show both the exhiliration of Satan's defiant non serviam ("I will not serve") and its ultimately boring, self-absorbed pitifulness.

It was the great challenge Milton faced in Paradise Lost. As Hart aptly notes,
His Satan appears at the beginning of Paradise Lost as a kind of Prometheus, so dauntlessly defiant of heaven’s laws that his damnation seems at first immeasurably more exhilarating than the staid beatitude of Milton’s heaven.

The effect is so startling that many have concurred with Blake’s verdict in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (though usually without Blake’s irony): “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!” True, as has often been pointed out, our last glimpses of Satan in the epic are in the forms of a toad and a serpent, but that is not how we tend to remember him. All readers of the poem recall his magnificent entrance onto the stage; few recall his final exit.

What makes Hart's piece a particular delight is not these observations, nor the little piece of dialog Hart quotes from Max Beerbohm, which Hart finds hilarious but which to me was, as a teen might say, so funny I forgot to laugh. The post is memorable above all for the author's reflections on the response he got from a friend to the question of how one should portray the prince of darkness, namely as “a merciless real estate developer whose largest projects are all casinos.”

Hart notes in a classic assessment of the Donald:

And recalling this exchange brought Donald Trump to mind. You know the fellow: developer, speculator, television personality, hotelier, political dilettante, conspiracy theorist, and grand croupier—the one with that canopy of hennaed hair jutting out over his eyes like a shelf of limestone.

In particular, I recalled how, back in 1993, when Trump decided he wanted to build special limousine parking lots around his Atlantic City casino and hotel, he had used all his influence to get the state of New Jersey to steal the home of an elderly widow named Vera Coking by declaring “eminent domain” over her property, as well as over a nearby pawn shop and a small family-run Italian restaurant.

She had declined to sell, having lived there for thirty-five years. Moreover, the state offered her only one-fourth what she had been offered for the same house some years before, and Trump could then buy it at a bargain rate. The affair involved the poor woman in an exhausting legal battle, which, happily, she won, with the assistance of the Institute for Justice.

How obvious it seems to me now. Cold, grasping, bleak, graceless, and dull; unctuous, sleek, pitiless, and crass; a pallid vulgarian floating through life on clouds of acrid cologne and trailed by a vanguard of fawning divorce lawyers, the devil is probably eerily similar to Donald Trump—though perhaps just a little nicer.

Read David Bentley Hart's whole essay at First Things -

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