Albert Bigelow Paine, Animal House, Dream, Evil, graphic novel, Hell, I'm almost positive the song Tribute is the song they couldn't remember but I realize that's a controversial position, Individual Will, Jennings, John Milton, Literature, Loki, Mark Twain, Morpheus, myth, mythology, Neil Gaiman, No.44 The Mysterious Stranger, Norse Mythology, Novel, Paradise Lost, Personal Development, Personal Responsibility, Sandman, Sandman Vol 4. Season of Mist, Satan, Scapegoat, Scarface, Season of Mist, Sin, Tenacious D, Tenacious D and the Pick of Destiny, The Endless, The Mysterious Stranger, time, Tony Montana, trickster
Antonius Block: They say you have consorted with the devil?
Witch: Why do you ask that?
Antonius Block: It’s not out of curiosity, but because of utterly personal reasons. I would also like to meet him.
Antonius Block: I want to ask him about God. He must know. He, if anyone.
–The Seventh Seal, Ingmar Bergman
Satan is my favorite fictional character. This creates some obvious problems for me, because for the most part Satan is poorly represented in most fiction. Many writers and artists who attempt to convey Satan in contemporary art usually devolve the character down into a handsome, charming man in a suit who can do magic tricks or else turn him into cheap, con-man who always loses. The other alternative is actually sitting down and reading Milton’s Paradise Lost where the character not only plays a primary role but is the hero of the book. Hopefully the reader observes a conflict here as well: reading Milton. There are some pains that best expressed by characters in film, specifically Donald Sutherland’s character in Animal House:
Jennings: Don’t write this down, but I find Milton probably as boring as you find Milton. Mrs. Milton found him boring too. He’s a little bit long-winded, he doesn’t translate very well into our generation, and his jokes are terrible.
With one possible exception, apart from the one I’m dedicating this entire essay to, the only satisfying Satan I’ve ever seen in a film was the one played by Foo Fighters lead singer Dave Grohl in Tenacious D and the Pick of Destiny. His “Rock Masterpeice” which includes reference to buttfucking Kyle Gass, is still one of the best moments in all of Rock history and shall remain so until those guys remember the original song that Tribute was based on.
My memorized history of heavy metal aside though, I’m not being cute or coy when I write that Satan is my favorite character in fiction. I’m being honest. The reason for this adoration isn’t my atheism, nor is loyalty or admiration to the church of Satanism (they lost me at the word church), it’s largely because of Dr. Karen Sloan. While I was still attending UT Tyler and working on my masters I started talking more and more with my professor because my classes were online and I’m the kind of person who prefers to talk with someone face to face. Each person is different, but for my own intellectual needs I have to talk with someone and hear my thoughts bounce off of theirs for something to actually happen. Dr. Sloan was always happy to talk and one of our favorite topics was Mark Twain. She had a TIME magazine tacked to her wall with Twain’s face on the cover (a copy that I actually now own thanks to her) and we’d often point back to Twain and talk about his writing, his life, or his odd eccentricities. At some point during the talk the idea of Twain as an atheist came out and we both agreed Twain probably wasn’t one.
But, somewhere in the conversation Dr. Sloan made a statement that stuck with me. It went along the lines that Satan was Twain’s favorite character because there was a man who had had his story written for him before he could write his own. Because god is omnipotent he had written Satan’s narrative before Satan could decide his own fate. Satan is in fact a tragic character because the man never got a chance to make his own fate.
This idea fascinated me, partly because I grew up in the Christian church and therefore had received a pre-established figure of Satan. Satan was the boogeyman, Satan was Charles Mansion, Satan was often Democrats for some reason, Satan was the urge to masturbate, Satan was the urge to drink and gamble, Satan was the reason men beat their wives or women drowned their children, Satan was the reason women cheated on their husbands, Satan was the voice in your head that brought you to doom, Satan was the reason you hated yourself, Satan was sin, Satan was just, overall, a bad dude. And looking at this portrait I began to reflect more and more on a graphic novel I had read about that time which included, of all things, a sympathetic figure of Satan.
Season of Mist is the fourth volume in The Sandman series by Neil Gaiman and is, I would argue, the finest book in the entire series. The story involves the protagonist Dream being summoned to a family meeting by his Brother Destiny. The Endless, as they are called, are physical manifestions of the ideas and feelings which govern human reality: death, dream, destiny, desire, despair, destruction, and delirium (formerly delight). Dream during the meeting reflects on a woman he fell in love with and then damned to hell when she didn’t reflect her love back. Dream decides to go to Hell only to find it empty. There Dream encounters Satan who has emptied Hell because, as he says, he’s grown tired of running the place as he has also grown tired of being an excuse for the weaknesses of mankind.
During one exchange the man reflects on the way human beings think of him and his argument may strike a familiar ear:
Why do they blame me for all their failings? They use my name as if I spend my entire day sitting on their shoulders, forcing them to commit acts they would otherwise find repulsive.
“The devil made me do it.” I have never made any of them do anything. Never. They live their own lives. I do not live their lives for them. And then they die, and they come here(having transgressed against what they believed to be right), and expect us to fufill their desire for pain and retribution. I don’t make them come here.
They talk of me going around and buying souls, like a fishwife come market day, never stopping to ask themselves why. I need no souls. And how can anyone own a soul?
No. They belong to themselves…they just hate to have to face up to it.
Yes I rebelled. It was a long time ago. How long was I meant to pay for action?
This passage struck me not just for the visual of Watching Satan walking through the various rooms and valleys of Hell with dream and locking the gates, but because it was the kind of passage one reads and then immediately feels a kind of reawakening. I’m not trying to be dramatic as I write that out, this passage really stunned me because it was like seeing someone completely new for the first time while also recognizing that what they were saying is completely true. Humanity has, since the infancy of the species, looked for a way to outsource responsibility for errors and sins while at the same time looking constantly inward for signs of weakness. In ancient times it was customary for villages to send goats out into the wildness after performing a ceremony that would contain the “sins and offenses against the gods” into the animal before sending it out into the wild. This, for the record, is how the term “scape-goat” came enter the lexicon, and it also eventually explains the character of Satan.
As a figure Satan is a trickster, a figure of mischief, and an agent of chaos who relishes in corrupting human beings and causing them to destroy and distrust one another. Just about every religion, theology, and mythos has such a figure the most prominent being Loki from the Norse Mythology. Before Tom Hiddleston made the marvel incarnation a household name, and the bane of parents who couldn’t find the costume for their child and didn’t feel like making their own, Loki managed to be often associated with Satan allowing early church fathers the appropriation of the god for their own purposes. Reflecting on this connection, and re-reading Season of Mists I thought back to Gaiman’s Norse Mythology and looked up the brief character intro:
Loki is very handsome. He is plausible, convincing, likeable, and far and away the most wily, subtle, and shrewed of all the inhabitants of Asgard. It is a pity, then, that there is so much darkness inside him: so much anger, so much envy, so much lust. (24).
Anger, envy, and lust are all qualities that were assigned to the devil-horned costume character that was the devil. Yet looking at these qualities it’s become more and more obvious as I’ve aged that the people pasting these qualities onto Satan himself really ought to look in a mirror. What missing, or most troubling, about the image of Satan is the fact that the man is having his story told by others, rather than having his own opportunity to speak, and this cartoonization, this caricature reveals the larger issue which is that human beings need someone else to be held accountable for their actions. Rather assume personal responsibility for fucking up, human beings created this supernatural being which would explain horrors and atrocities. Why would a man gamble away his money and then beat his wife half to death? It could be that he suffers from some inner self-loathing due to an addiction and so he strikes his wife, or it could be a demon who wears red suits and tricks him into gambling. Why would anyone follow a dictator who eventually leads a massive genocide against a denomination of a reigion. It could be simple fear, or desire for there to be stability in government so they can return to real life, or else it could be a demon with long horns. Why would a woman cheat on her husband with multiple men rather than remaining faithful to him? It could be that she’s looking for something sexually that he is unable or unwilling to provide her, or perhaps she’s looking for some kind of emotional comfort that she’s not getting at home. Or, it could be a strange imp that plays fiddle against subpar country music singers.
My reader may object at this point and argue that I’m sugarcoating this issue. Satan is not a nice person, he’s not a lovely character, he’s a selfish prick who tried to become god and failed miserably and now his punishment is to rule hell for eternity. What’s redeemable in that?
This is a fair objection, but I note that my reader has made the same mistaker as previous storytellers. They’re relying on the religious imagery of Satan, the same cartoon character that belays any kind of real analysis of the character. Again, the problem with this I that it distracts the reader from digging into other versions and other narratives where Satan is not the cartoon villain bent on destroying humanity, he’s simply a man who’s been consigned to a role that he doesn’t identify with.
Looking at the best analysis of everything I’ve said so far I think back to Scarface when Tony Montana is high and drunk and yelling at the patrons of the resturaunt:
Tony Montana: What you lookin’ at? You all a bunch of fuckin’ assholes. You know why? You don’t have the guts to be what you wanna be? You need people like me. You need people like me so you can point your fuckin’ fingers and say, “That’s the bad guy.” So… what that make you? Good? You’re not good. You just know how to hide, how to lie. Me, I don’t have that problem. Me, I always tell the truth. Even when I lie. So say good night to the bad guy! Come on. The last time you gonna see a bad guy like this again, let me tell you. Come on. Make way for the bad guy. There’s a bad guy comin’ through! Better get outta his way!
The need for a villain is timeless, but in the rush to create such a villain it comes at the expense of the story. The reason why characters like Hannibal Lecter and Loki and Joker are the successful villains that they are is because their characters are complex. They have backgrounds and causes which led them on the path to being the repulsive people that they are. This complexity doesn’t redeem them, but it reminds the reader that the real monsters in society aren’t cartoon characters, they’re real people who fucked up or were fucked up by others. It’s easy to dismiss a figure like Satan as having any kind of redeemable qualities, but that impulse is dangerous because it creates a mindset where one doesn’t have to assume responsibility for one’s actions. It becomes somebody else’s fault.
Part of growing up is learning how to assume responsibility for one’s actions, and it’s the sign of an immature person who tries to hide behind excuses or outside influence.
Satan continues to interest me as a character because the man has, for too long, been a figure wrapped up in his caricature and given little opportunity to find out who he is, what he wants, and what his true character shall be. Though if I can offer one last image, there is hope for this character. In graduate school I had to take a Research & Methods course; it was a class designed to teach graduate students how to research material for papers that they would write as graduate students and how to find real, relevant information. The class was taught by Dr. Sloan, which was the reasons we began having discussions, and centered around one novel: No. 44, The Mysterious Stranger.
I could get into the textual conflict of this novel and it’s fascinating backstory, but I’m sure my reader is getting sick of me so I’ll cut to the chase. The novel tells the story of a young man named August who is a printer in Medieval Austria and when the book was originally published August met a strange man named Satan who, in this later edition, is named No. 44 and can perform all manner of tricks. No.44 is an agent of chaos who enjoys making fools of everyone but who forms a close bond with August. At the very end of the novel however No. 44 lifts the veil of reality and August is able to see that the world isn’t what it is, and alone in an empty space with No. 44 he discovers the truth, no-one is real but him, and 44 offers him a final counsel:
“It is true, that which I have revealed to you: there is no God, no universe, no human race, no earthly life, ho heaven, no hell. It is all a Dream, a grotesque and foolish dream. Nothing exists but You. And You are but a Thought—a vagrant Thought, a useless Thought, a homeless Thought, wandering forlorn among the empty eternities!”
He vanished, and left me appalled; for I knew, and realized, that all he had said was true. (187).
Satan’s name is technically Lucifer which roughly translates to “bearer or light” or “morning star” this last of which is sometimes attached as a kind of last name. Because of this Satan’s ultimate crime against humanity has been his revealing of knowledge to mankind. No. 44 reveals to August the knowledge of his own existence, and once he has become aware he is disgusted to find it’s absolutely true.
So looking back to Season of Mists, and it’s presentation of Satan as a man who has absolutely nothing to do with the sins of humanity, I’m sure there were many like me who were left appalled because what he had said was true. Though I wonder how many have actually taken it to heart.
All quotes from No. 44, The Mysterious Stranger were taken from the University of California Press authoritative edition care of the Mark Twain Library. All quotes from Season of Mist were taken from the VERTIGO paperback edition. All quotes taken from Animal House and Scarface were provided care of IMBD.