Oct 25, 1919
THOSE who suffer from melancholy to such a degree that even to go to a music-hall seems a cheerful experience may easily find themselves one of these nights listening in the heart of London to a chorus in praise of the Devil. The chorus runs something like this:
Give the Devil his due:
His faults are many, his tears are few.
He’ll offer you all he has to give;
He’ll take you and break you, but he’ll show you how to live.
There is more of it, which we forget. It enumerates the Devil’s gifts—love, gold, music, wine, perhaps. It is a long time since we heard the Devil praised so openly in a popular assembly. The Devil, we always knew, was a popular character, but in this country at least it has been the custom to respect his incognito. His enemies, indeed, speak of him quite freely; but those who look after his interests most warmly are the most reluctant to mention his name. If there is a cult of Satan worship, its adherents have built no church to him. We have heard it said that they have no fault to find with the churches that already exist. The Devil himself, indeed, has been in various ages a steady church-goer. We have it on the authority of Shelley that he “has neither hoof, nor tail, nor sting” ; but that “he is—what we are”:
Hell is a city much like London—
A populous and smoky city;
There are all sorts of people undone,
And there is little or no fun done
Small justice shown, and still less pity.
This being so, almost any man who wishes to flatter the Devil by imitation can easily do so without revolutionising his professions. The Devil asks his servants for deeds, not words, and he had rather have one conscientious plodder among the seven sins than a whole library of prose and verse written in his honour by sentimentalists addicted to virtue in their lives. This helps to explain why it is that, in spite of the world-wide influence of Satan, there is so little literature directly in his praise. Samuel Butler, wishing to judge the Devil fairly, said: “It must be remembered that we have only heard one side of the case. God has written all the books.” Butler, it seems to us, was deceived by appearances. The reason why there are no books praising the Devil by name is not that the Devil is not an author. The Devil, we should say, is one of the most prolific authors, but he is so infernally cunning that he will bring nothing out under his own name. He has a thousand pseudonyms, and a thousand styles, and there are constant disputes as to which pen-names are really his. Our grandfathers were convinced that he wrote under the name of Voltaire, and quite a number of people in our own time believe that he was Nietzsche. “The Devil,” said Kettle in the latter connection, “was always a good stylist, and it is not inappropriate that, when his gospel is at its worst, his prose should be at its best.” For ourselves, we doubt if this be true, though Blake must have thought the same at one period when he praised Milton for being “of the Devil’s party.” “The reason,” declares Blake, “Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of angels and God, and at liberty when of devils and hell, is because he was a true poet, and of the Devil’s party without knowing it.” Even if we grant that Satan wrote Paradise Lost, however, it is but another example of his cunning, for it makes Satan the hero under the pretence of being an attack on him. Surprising as it seems to us nowadays to find Paradise Lost classed among the Devil’s books, it would have appeared a moderate enough statement to a Manichean. To the Manicheans the whole of the Old Testament was a Devil’s book. Moses was a devil, and all the prophets, and “the God of the Jews was a Prince of Darkness.” Even in our own time many of the great religious books have seemed to some writers to be the work of devils. Swinburne, we fancy, looked on the Puritan divines as devils, and we have a suspicion that Mr. Chesterton regards the Devil as the author of Calvin’s Institutes. Truly, Butler was innocent in thinking that the Devil was a dumb devil. Most of the great books of the world have been attributed to him at one time or another—Shakespeare no less than Shelley. We are of the opinion that his genius has been somewhat exaggerated, and that he has put it about that he is the author of many great works which he could not have written to save his life. On the other hand, his fertility is undeniable. Most of the novels that ” make one feel better ” are by him—novels full of honeyed sentiment. For the Devil is the most sentimental of liars. But a stylist? We should have said his style was damnable.
The truth is, the Devil has few good points, if any. He has gained a certain notoriety among emotional people on account of his having been the first rebel. He is admired by some as a fallen angel—a sort of Byron of the skies. Others have even regarded him as a Prometheus—a deliverer from respectability and the oppression of the Sabbath Day. For our part, we are sometimes inclined to doubt the story of his high ancestry. What warrant have we for believing in it? If it is true that he was thrown out of Heaven, we think it exceedingly likely that he was thrown out not because he was a rebel, but because he was a bore. We know a man who is acquainted with the fellow, and even claims to have been of considerable service to him on various occasions. He took the Devil to his bosom in unsuspecting friendship; and, if he speaks of him now with impatience, it is because he found him both a tedious and a treacherous companion. The Devil, he declared, was in the first instance an incorrigible sponger, who never spent a penny of his own, and at the same time would lead one into all sorts of expenses that one could not afford. One was always being promised happiness and given a headache—being taken to see life and shown into the cemetery. The Devil, according to the man we are speaking of, has no sense of humour. He thinks that any reference to the relations of the sexes or even to various parts of the clothing of human beings is funny, and that to demand more in the way of humour is to be a “high-brow.” His sense of beauty is equally limited. He thinks that any back is beautiful so long as it is bare. Many men have tried to live on good terms with him, but there are few who do not turn from him in the end on account of his empty-headed dullness. Baudelaire ultimately forswore his Litany to Satan and died in the arms of the Church. To escape the boredom of the Devil, men have even been known to take refuge in buildings of corrugated iron. Anything is better than the idiotic iteration of that whisper in one’s ear.
In the first instance, no doubt, it is in order to escape boredom that many people go to the Devil. We make virtue a figure in a waxwork show, and in comparison with this even the Devil seems a man. As a cold negation, virtue cannot compete with Satan, who is at least a fiery negation. Those who mistake SabbatarianismMor teetotalism or abstinence from the theatre, or any other negation, for virtue make virtue as repellent as a figure on a tomb. We are aware that the Devil calls every saint a plaster saint, and that it is his policy to represent all virtue as cold. For this the virtuous themselves are partly to blame. They make virtue seem like a smooth road between railings rather than a difficult climb up a mountain with ill-marked paths. The truth is, they praise the safe virtues and say little about the unsafe ones. They do not appeal to that love of danger which exists in nine out of ten human beings. Most of us take for granted that human beings desire safety above all things; and so, in a sense, they do. But they also desire a spice of danger in order, perhaps, to make their safety taste all the sweeter. Certain it is that the sheltered life does not always succeed as a school of the robust virtues, and many fly from it to the perilous company of the Devil until they find that he, too, is a conventionalist and leads them along beaten tracks. Alas, what is a poor human being to do? The bishops tell him one thing, the music-hall artists another. He has now been experimenting for several thousand years, and he cannot even yet give you a satisfactory definition of virtue, much less practise it. All he knows is that he no longer quite believes in a personal Devil. As the Encyclopædia Britannica cautiously and broadmindedly puts it: “The possibility of the existence of evil spirits, organised under one leader, Satan, to tempt man and oppose God, cannot be denied; the sufficiency of the evidence may, however, be doubted; the necessity of any such belief for Christian thought and life cannot, therefore, be affirmed.” We are even told that Lucifer, son of the morning, who fell from Heaven, was not the Devil, but only the King of Babylon. All the same, we are inclined to believe in the Devil. How else can we explain all the things that we read about in the daily papers? Yes, as the song says, “give the Devil his due.” He is a dull dog and all the rest of it, but he is very much alive.