How dangerous is Satan



23.09.1999 12:11

The devil is in literature

Michael Seifert University communication
Eberhard Karls University of Tübingen

The devil has many faces. In the imagination of English writers from the 16th century to the present day, it has often changed: Sometimes the demon was ridiculed to the point of insignificance, then again it became a terrifying figure through "demonization". The Tübingen Anglicist Dr. Peter Paul Schnierer has examined the function of the devil in numerous works of English-language literature.

"Don't paint the devil on the wall", the saying goes, as if Satan were being challenged by dark considerations. However, this has not stopped numerous writers from writing about the devil or using him as a character in their plays. As the English scholar Dr. Peter Paul Schnierer found out in his research on the function of the devil in English literature from the 16th century to the present day that the devil is not always to be trifled with: "In English literature there was often a boomerang effect that The demonization of the fictional characters fell back on the author himself, "says the literary scholar. The author of the Dr. Faustus, Christopher Marlowe, stabbed to death under mysterious circumstances in 1593 and disparaged as "agent of the devil" after his death.

However, via a chain of demonization by writers via Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley and William Blake, the phenomenon is no stranger to our century either. Various musicians such as "Judas Priest" or the "Rolling Stones" were put on the same level as the devil because of alleged satanic lyrics. The latest example of demonization is Salman Rushdie with his book "The Satanic Verses". Not only Rushdie himself, but also his critics were accused of diabolical traits. "This is not a common effect. After reading Thomas Mann's 'Magic Mountain', no one would have come up with the idea of ​​conjuring up the return of tuberculosis," says Schnierer.

But not all devils are the same. Because although most people associate an idea with the demon, very different roles have been assigned to him over the centuries. "In addition to the classic, sulfur-smelling devil with horns and hooves, he appears in the Bible as an apocalyptic dragon, a snake or an annihilator, but later he is also seen as a gentleman and seducer of women," says Schnierer. In English literature, at the beginning of the 17th century, the devil gains in addition to his terrible comic traits, so that people can laugh at him sometimes. In the comedy "The devil is an ass" (1616) by Ben Jonson, the demonization of the devil is complete, through multiplication and impotence he is only a ridiculous figure.

But the devil is not that easy to extinguish. It reappears in the greatest English verse epic "Paradise lost" by John Milton (1667), but it no longer corresponds to the original, terrible picture, but rather has some positive features. "He is portrayed as a fighter who looks straight ahead of his downfall," explains the Anglicist. The upgrading of the devil's form continues with Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley and William Blake. They occupy the devil figure with properties that directly contradict the hateful or shocking Satan. "The demonization of the devil ends in the works of George Bernard Shaw at the beginning of our century," says Schnierer. Perhaps the devil would be happy that he still has space in our time: According to surveys in the 90s, around 60 percent of Americans and at least one in five Germans and Englishmen believe in demons. (3333 characters)

Of terrible demons and cute devils

The role of the devil has changed dramatically in English literature

Those who associate the devil with the Middle Ages underestimate the demons. According to various surveys in the 1990s, around 60 percent of Americans and around one in five British and Germans believe in the existence of Satan. Certainly not all of them have the classic image of a black, sulfur-smelling figure with horns, a long tail and hooves in their heads. "There have always been very different ideas about the devil. In the Bible he appears as an apocalyptic dragon, as a serpent or annihilator, but later he is also seen as a gentleman and seducer of women", describes the English scholar Dr. Peter Paul Schnierer, who wrote his habilitation thesis on the role of the devil in English literature from the 16th century to the present day.

For a long time there was consensus in the Christian view of the world about the existence of the devil, despite different faiths. At first, the devil was above all terrifying, but in the course of the 17th century he also acquired comical traits. "People could laugh at the devil, but at the same time he triggered fear. The devil had two faces," says Schnierer. The literary scholar therefore does not interpret this development as a sign of the Enlightenment, but now the devil has been de-demonized: The devil has been pardoned, viewed satirically and belittled. "In German literature there were harem pants, drinking and tobacco devils. The multiplication made the devil look ridiculous," says Schnierer. These devils were also intended to educate the public. In English literature, the devil had a more complex role, he embodied the counterpart to an angel or god. This idea persisted into the 20th century, for example in the picture that every person invisibly carries an angel and a devil on his shoulders, who whisper to him when he makes his decisions. "In Christopher Marlowe's Dr. Faustus, there are a few good angels and an old man facing an army of devils," explains the literary scholar.

The devil becomes a ridiculous figure in Ben Jonson's English literature. In the comedy "The devil is an ass", written in 1616, the devil is multiplied so that the boss Satan has a dozen sub-devils in hell. Satan sends the little sub-devil Pug to London to capture souls there. Pug fails and is only ridiculed for introducing himself as the devil. He behaves so clumsily with a merchant that he is thrown into prison and even sentenced to death. "That doesn't kill the devil, but the embarrassment is perfect when Satan has to save Pug," says Schnierer. In Jonson's work, this was Hell's last attempt to interfere with earthly life. "The end point of a development has been reached here, the devils are at the bottom," says the literary scholar. In fact, the demon is largely disappearing from English literature at first. In the metaphysical lyric poetry of the practicing priests John Donne and George Herbert in the early 17th century, minor devil clichés appear only incidentally, but the devil no longer seems to be of any use as a central theological figure in literature.

A generation after the fall, the devil regains momentum in the greatest verse epic in English literature "Paradise lost" by John Milton (1667). In the expulsion from paradise a Lucifer appears who gains positive traits. "He is a character who fights and loses, but goes down honorably and upright. Lucifer bears some of the features of the angel he used to be," explains Schnierer, "the time to portray him stinking and sulphurous was over." The upgrading of the devil's form continues with Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley and William Blake. They occupy the devil figure with properties that directly contradict the hateful or shocking Satan. "The end point of this development, at which a bad devil is paradoxically turned into a positive figure, are the works of George Bernard Shaw from the turn of the last century," explains the literary scholar.

At the same time, however, a renaissance of classical demonization has started in English literature since around 1880: the black Africans in the colonies are the target. "The process is simple: the devil is black like the Africans. In addition, the devil is evil, so the black Africans must be angry too," Schnierer explains the illogical but extremely effective chain of thought. The common Africans are portrayed as stupid, evil devils, the African rulers as satanic, as dangerous devils. But the equation goes even further: Evil, the devil, must be destroyed, which is then also applied to black Africans. "Literature does not kill anyone directly, but this persuasion process, which is not about conviction but about feelings, provides a justification," says Schnierer, summarizing this threatening development.

Writing about the devil can also be dangerous for the writer themselves. "There was often a boomerang effect in English literature, and the demonization fell back on the author himself. The first to be hit was Marlowe. He was stabbed to death under mysterious circumstances in 1593 and posthumously denigrated as an 'agent of the devil'", says Schnierer. Other examples include Milton and Byron, both of whom malicious critics suspected of being in league with the devil. Byron flirted with assigning himself a diabolical role. But even in our time, anyone who calls the devil has been demonized.

The British music group "Judas Priest" was sued in 1985 for satanic song content and diabolical requests to listeners. "The latest case of demonization is Salman Rushdie, who, according to the 'Satanic Verses', was himself defamed as 'little Satan'," says Schnierer. With Rushdie, the chain of demonization even found a continuation. Rushdie wrote about the devil and was equated with him. "But Rushdie's critics were also identified with the devil, for example by the then French President Mitterand," explains the literary scholar. The devil's rhetoric seems to be contagious: "This is not a common effect. After reading Thomas Mann's 'Magic Mountain', no one would have come up with the idea of ​​conjuring up the return of tuberculosis." Isn't it dangerous to research the devil? "It is a bad habit ascribed to the devil for him to steal the manuscripts of those who deal with him," says Schnierer, albeit with a wink. (6841 characters)

Further information:

Dr. Peter Paul Schnierer
English Philology Seminar
Department of Modern English Literature
Wilhelmstrasse 50
72074 Tuebingen
Tel. 0 70 71/2 97 29 09 or 0 70 71/3 86 83
Fax 0 70 71/29 57 60
e-mail: [email protected]

The press service on the Internet: http://www.uni-tuebingen.de/uni/qvo/pd/pd.html


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