What is it about evil that we find so fascinating? We read about it excessively (Murder Mysteries are always popular). Every movie season the theaters are filled with the Horror Dreadfuls or mysteries, or stories about serial killers, or good men fight evil ones (as are the television boxes stuffed to the brim with the stuff).
When I was a kid, they stuffed me in a stiff and itchy formal dress every Sunday morning at the crack of dawn to go listen to how to avoid evil, how the fascination is bad. And as did many parishioners. Yet we all fell from Grace. We all read murder mysteries and watched shows about evil men in a horrified fascination as if going to a museum to gawk at the glass and explore from afar the thing we feared was deep within.
Are we studying up? Taking notes on what to avoid? Are they morality tales showing us what not to be? Or does some secret place in us revel in the camaraderie?
My opinion is that we want very badly to understand it. It could be because we can’t possibly fathom why anyone would do such horrible acts and we want some feeling of control, that in the end their actions were motivated by something logical.
But I also think that we also do it to understand that side of ourselves. It has been said that the unexplored life is not worth living, but there are some places in our personalities that we simply can’t or don’t have the psychological mechanisms to face, so we look to a safe place, to fiction, to explore them. We look at characters who carry faces much like our own, but allow us the distance to let the wisdom percolate in our minds.
I think that we want to connect with all parts of our personality, but most desperately to the parts that we fear to connect with. If we can understand us, find that unity, we know (we hope) that we will find a lasting peace with with this life.
Why write about the devil? In church, we only talk about the devil to conjure up his image and spit on it, to stomp him back down where he belongs. But there are many non-practicing Christians, and Atheists and Christians of a very different ilk who would find this practice hypocritical at the very best.
Satan as a character is an archetype. Just as Death as a walking skeleton represents the anthropomorphism of an idea. Satan is the embodiment of all evil in the world, but lets face it, when we say the world, we really mean all of humanity. He is the darkest of our dark side.
But how do we know this character? He is difficult to describe. If we distance ourselves from him, spit on him, claim that we have no part in his doings, then we flatten him out to a stock character: a red imp with a sharp tail, horns and goat feet. But if we search to find his real face, he becomes somewhat ineffable. We have to describe him according to what he has done: his rebellion, his temper, his decision to make the fiery under world (the place of shadows) his home away from God. These descriptions often do a better job of conjuring a physical description in our minds than actual physical descriptions as they tell us more about who he is. He’s that type.
And if we embrace this deeper look at the face of evil, we recognize some of ourselves in it. “Oh, yeah, I have a fiery temper, sometimes I’m quick to tantrum.” “Oh, yeah, sometimes I choose to smile at someone’s misfortune.” “Sometimes I can be prideful and brag in front of my well-meaning friends who only wish me good fortune.” “Sometimes it hurts to remember some of the horrible things I’ve done.” Or as the poet puts it, “[He is]Soaring through wider zones that pricked his scars.”
Sometimes these are good reminders that it actually hurts to be unkind, that a choice to be rebellious leaves us lonely and pining. Sometimes being good isn’t about following the rules and going to church and saying a couple of prayers. Sometimes it’s more of a state of being, a choice, a thought about repercussions, a thought about what others will go through when that action is completed. Identifying with a character makes us think differently about who we are and what we would look like if the people we know are ourselves as were slightly askew.
In this poem, the devil takes a brief tour of what he can never be a part of, of what he threw away, because he only thought about what he wanted at the moment. If you’re young, you’ll never have that moment, you’ll read this poem and think, “it’s pretty,” but it’s emotion will never touch you. But live a few extra years, make a few irredeemable mistakes, lose out on a few golden opportunities and make the wrong person mad at you (because they just CAN’T be right!) and you’ll understand his regret. You suddenly won’t be able to spit at the devil, as he gazes longingly at the vast array of shining stars, his heart aching at their beauty, and feeling remorse as he stares upon the innocence of those islands on the earth gone from him forever, then you’ll sympathize with him, then you’ll know something different about yourself.
Lucifer in Starlight
by George Meredith
On a starred night Prince Lucifer uprose,
Tired of his dark dominion, swung the fiend
Above the rolling ball in cloud part screened,
Where sinners hugged their specter of repose.
Poor prey to his hot fit of pride were those.
And now upon his western wing he leaned,
Now his huge bulk o’er Afric sands careened,
Now the black planet shadowed Arctic snows.
Soaring through wider zones that pricked his scars
With memory of the old revolt from Awe,
He reached a middle height, and at the stars,
Which are the brain of heaven, he looked and sank.
Around the ancient track marched, rank on rank,
The army of unalterable law.