Posts Tagged ‘the devil’

“It is astounding that this century’s two most lucid observers of the incomparable horror that surrounded them – Kafka and Walser – both present us with a world from which evil in its traditional supreme expression, the demonic, has disappeared. Neither Klamm nor the Count nor Kafka’s clerks and judges, nor even less Walser’s creatures, despite their ambiguity, would ever figure in a demonological catalogue. If something like a demonic element survives in the world of these two authors, it is rather in the form Spinoza may have had in mind when he wrote that the devil is only the weakest of creatures and the most distant from God; as such – that is, insofar as the devil is essentially impotent – not only can it not do us harm, but on the contrary it is what most needs
our help and our prayers. It is, in every being that exists, the possibility of
not-being that silently calls for our help (or, if you wish, the devil is nothing other than divine impotence or the power of not-being in God). Evil is only our inadequate reaction when faced with this demonic element, our fearful retreat from it in order to exercise-founding ourselves in this flight-some power of being. Impotence or the power to not-be is the root of evil only in this secondary sense. 

Fleeing from our own impotence, or rather trying to adopt it as a weapon, we construct the malevolent power that oppresses those who show us their weakness; and failing our innermost possibility of not-being, we fall away from the only thing that makes love possible. Creation – or existence – is not the victorious struggle of a power to be against a power to not-be; it is rather the impotence of God with respect to his own impotence, his allowing-being able to not not-be-a contingency to be. Or rather: It is the birth in God of love.

This is why it is not so much the natural innocence of creatures that Kafka and Walser allow to prevail against divine omnipotence as the natural innocence of temptation. Their demon is not a tempter, but a being infinitely susceptible to being tempted. Eichmann, an absolutely banal man who was tempted to evil precisely by the powers of right and law, is the terrible confirmation through which our era has revenged itself on their diagnosis.”

– Giorgio Agamben, “Demonic” in The Coming Community. Translated by Michael Hardt. Theory Out Of Bounds, Vol 1. University of Minnesota Press, 1993. pp. 32-33.

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“Possession! The word alone was terrifying. I’d heard of such a thing in church, and read of it in scripture, but here it was onscreen, in color. How did it work? Did he enter through the mouth? The skin? And work you like a puppet? Did he make you do things you would normally never do? Maybe whatever bad things I had done before, or whatever terrible things I would ever do, might be blamed on him. It seems I was not rid of the Devil, after all, because apparently he could enter me at will.

The first possession I’d ever heard of came from the Book of Matthew, the famous account of Jesus casting spirits out of two men “possessed with devils” and into a “herd of swine.” Pigs. And more famously, those same pigs then ran off a high cliff into the sea, and perished. It’s a story attractive to many Protestant Christians. I’ve always had the impression this has mostly to do with iconography. Protestant symbology tends to privilege the cross over the crucifix (the Catholic favorite), which is to say a Christ resurrected, and alive, implied by his absence on the cross.

The story of the swineherd, too, provides a fitting picture of the Devil without having to show his face. It suggests a living and ubiquitous presence, by way of absence. There is no “Devil,” per se, only his spirit within the bodies of the animals. Whereas anthropomorphic representations of the Devil himself, drawings or paintings of his pitchfork, horns, and tail, no matter how classic or modern, date immediately upon viewing, are always insufficient, and die in the imagination. Ultimately, they are not believable. Not to mention, what more just fate for the Devil than to be depicted as a bunch of unclean pigs falling off a cliff and drowning? Not a shred of dignity is granted.

I’ve always had questions about this story, serious theological and moral questions: What does it say of spirit? Can it separate? Can it concentrate? If the Devil was everywhere, then he was not just in those poor pigs, but in the people watching, too, even the writer of the Gospel… In me? How much? I turned to a minister in my church. He said to stop asking so many questions.

My first encounter with human possession happened when I was sixteen. It was a Saturday, which I remember because it was my family’s turn to lead the cleaning of our church, or Kingdom Hall, so called in the Witness tradition. A Witness hall is a modest place, lots of white, beige, and mauve. They’re usually carpeted. There are no statues, crosses, or candles. And so cleaning them was a lot like cleaning your home. Get out the vacuum, Windex, and spray polish.

That Saturday morning we arrived early, my family and about ten friends from the congregation. The morning service and prayer for the house-to-house ministry (when the Witnesses come knocking on your door) was still in full swing. There were scenarios, questions about possible “conversation-stoppers,” and then a brief sharing of recent positive experiences. This usually meant comments like: Well, I had a great talk about the Bible with a stranger on the subway and we planned to meet for a coffee and talk again soon, etc. Until one woman told a story of how just last week she’d visited her sister who was extremely alcoholic and also dealing with a husband who hit her. In this woman’s presence the alcoholic sister was suddenly filled with a rage so visible and extraordinary it was clear she’d been possessed by a demon—later she would admit that in fact she had been. She erupted in the kitchen, screaming obscenities, utensils flying about the room of their own accord, and when the violent husband came home and the alcoholic sister attacked him—she actually flew, she raised up in the air, floated about the room, as pots and pans, spatulas and spoons, all orbited about her—the non-alcoholic sister, the one telling the story, shouted out and commanded the demon to leave the woman in the name of Jesus Christ and our heavenly father Jehovah. I was entranced by this story, and thrilled, and scared, and thankful I was hearing it within a House of God because, who knows, maybe even hearing such a thing might invite possession. The entire audience felt the same, I’m sure. There were tears, and there was that laughter of relief that often follows tears. There was applause for the sister who cast the demon out.

That same year we moved to Georgia, a place steeped in the lore of its own American Devil, a trickster who challenged souls to fiddle competitions, a wager with eternal and cosmic odds, remembered in country song, and animated by laser on the Confederate bas-relief face of Stone Mountain, followed by hands-on-hearts and fireworks. I now encountered possessions pretty much all the time. And when I say “human possession,” really I mean people either claiming to have been possessed (rare), or people claiming to have witnessed human possession (weekly). It was a new life for me, and a new Devil. One summer, I attended a bonfire church party in a cornfield. We roasted ears of corn in their husks on the fire and peeled them after they cooled. We made s’mores. There was no beer. And then the fire stories started, typical stuff, ghosts, and monsters, and haunted houses, but with a Southern Christian spin. The ghosts were demons, and all the haunted houses were demonic, under Satan’s control.

It seemed I could not go a week without hearing of someone under possession, or, the more polite version, that someone’s behavior was demonic. It was often used to describe some wildly and obviously wrong criminal act—like murder (“That Jeffrey Dahmer is so demonic”). But it was also used with regard to regular people, to neighbors, who happened to disagree with our Christian perspective. I can’t tell you how many times we knocked on someone’s door, Bible in hand, and found there someone different, someone “strange,” an atheist, a Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, Sikh, or Jewish person (all of these having healthy representation in the South), or some other kind of Christian, a Catholic, or a student of philosophy, who passionately and smartly disagreed, and sometimes asked us not to come back, maybe even got annoyed, or angry, or perhaps, even worse, politely invited us in, to talk, I mean really talk, about the complex human need for making meaning, and how, afterward, this person was referred to as “demonic.”

What I should have learned back then, but did not, and in fact took at least another twenty years to fully learn, is that such claims are not at all about “demonic power,” “demonic possession,” or even “the Devil,” but are actually about demonization. I learned instead to no longer only imagine evil as contained in a physical thing, like a book, but rather as a colonizing alien presence that could displace human consciousness, free will, the soul. Those kitchen utensils had not been thrown, and the alcohol was not responsible for that woman’s rage. Nor was her husband for his violence. Nor were the atheist, Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, Sikh, Catholic, or Jewish persons simply expressing other facets of human experience. They were strange, and sounded different, they acted different, looked different. Their skin and clothes were not like ours, and their houses smelled of different spices. Their prophets and gods were strange—the bearded swarthy prophet Muhammad, the dark elephant-faced Ganesha of Hindus, the godless black-hole void of the atheist. It was all the Devil’s work, they were under his control, and so they were not wholly human.

I had learned to dehumanize.”

– Scott Cheshire, “Yo Soy el Diablo – Religion in America: The Devil as part of a rather American tradition.” Guernica. December 15, 2014.

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Jaroslav Panuška, Devil Carves A Child. Charcoal on Paper, 1907.  

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“The Ultimate In Torture,” Montreal Gazette, August 8, 1952. Page 8 – editorials. Cartoon by John Collins.  The devil in hell calls deceased leaders of Axis ‘pikers’ – because I guess Russia lied about germ warfare in Korea? 

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