August 31, 2004

Poof

Chadwick Hansen chose an interesting epigraph for his work Witchcraft at Salem, which I last mentioned here:

He who believes in the devil, already belongs to him.

The line comes from Thomas Mann's Doctor Faustus, a book I read (and loved) in college, but haven't glanced at since. My recollection is that Mann wrote it during his period of American exile from Nazi Germany; the novel is a meditation on Germany's descent into the barbarism of Naziism. I wish I remembered it better, but suffice to say that in telling his tale, Mann evokes a number of German cultural tropes, from Nietsche's one visit to a brothel to modern German music to Goethe.

Of course, in the novel, the devil does exist, which leads me for some reason to reflections about Andre Gide, who came from a rather austere Protestant theological background, one that he never abandoned, and was a homosexual, two things he tried to reconcile though I'm not sure he ever quite managed to. In one of his novellas -- I think it was the Pastorale Symphony, but it may have been Strait is the Gait (it's years also since I last read Gide) he ruminates over the distinction between Christ and Paul, with the latter cast in the role of the killjoy who make all the rules. When I read it, I was rather taken by it, but lately I've been thinking it was Paul, after all, who declared the Old Testament to be superceded; Paul couldn't be bothered with whether or not you should eat pork, there's more important things to be thinking about, like your eternal soul.

I'm not sure if he coined the phrase -- perhaps it's just that I encountered it first in Gide -- but somewhere in his works one can find a line to the effect of "the smartest thing the devil ever did was to convince people he didn't exist," a line echoed many places, including in one of my favorite films of recent years -- The Usual Suspects. For all the implications of the line, Gide seemed far more interested in God than the devil...

Posted by Ideofact at August 31, 2004 11:41 PM
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The line "the smartest thing the devil ever did was to convince people he didn't exist" occurs in Baudelaire's prose poem Le Joueur Genereux, which takes the form of a meeting between the poet and a mysterious gambler, who is, of course, the Devil ("His Highness" -or "His Satanic Majesty"- in the extract below):

Nous causâmes aussi de l’univers, de sa création et de sa future destruction; de la grande idée du siècle, c’est-à-dire du progrès et de la perfectibilité; et, en général, de toutes les formes de l’infatuation humaine. Sur ce sujet-là, Son Altesse ne tarissait pas en plaisanteries légères et irréfutables, et elle s’exprimait avec une suavité de diction et une tranquillité dans la drôlerie que je n’ai trouvées dans aucun des plus célèbres causeurs de l’humanité. Elle m’expliqua l’absurdité des différentes philosophies qui avaient jusqu’à présent pris possession du cerveau humain, et daigna même me faire confidence de quelques principes fondamentaux dont il ne me convient pas de partager les bénéfices et la propriété avec qui que ce soit. Elle ne se plaignit en aucune façon de la mauvaise réputation dont elle jouit dans toutes les parties du monde, m’assura qu’elle était, elle-même, la personne la plus intéressée à la destruction de la superstition, et m’avoua qu’elle n’avait eu peur, relativement à son propre pouvoir, qu’une seule fois, c’était le jour où elle avait entendu un prédicateur, plus subtil que ses confrères, s’écrier en chaire : «Mes chers frères, n’oubliez jamais, quand vous entendrez vanter le progrès des lumières, que la plus belle des ruses du diable est de vous persuader qu’il n’existe pas!»

We also talked about the universe, its creation and its future destruction; about the leading ideas of this century, namely progress and perfectibility; and about all sorts of human infatuation in general. On this subject, His Highness was an endless source of sparkling and irrefutable jokes, and he expressed himself with such smoothness of diction and easy-going wit as I have never found among humanity's most famous conversationalists. He explained to me the absurdity of the various philosophies which had seized hold of the human mind up till now and was even so good as to let me into the secret of a few fundamental principles whose benefits and ownership it would be wrong of me to share with anyone. He made not the slightest complaint about the bad reputation he enjoyed all around the world and assured me that he was the very person who had the greatest vested interest in the destruction of "superstition" and admitted that he had only been afraid once regarding his own power and that was the day he heard a preacher - a subtler one than his fellows- cry from the pulpit: "My dear brethren, don't ever forget when you hear them boasting about the progress of the Enlightenment, that the devil's smartest trick is to persuade you he doesn't exist."

Posted by: J.Cassian at September 2, 2004 02:52 PM