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The Devil in Popular Culture

April 11, 2012


At the moment, TV screens are rife with supernatural TV-series largely based on fantasy fiction or fairy tales such as Once Upon a Time, Grimm and Supernatural. There are, I am sure, many explanations for the recent surge in this type of series, most of which I am unaware. But as a devotee of True Blood, I happily include myself in the demographic for such things. One thing I have come to realize they all have in common is that they in some way deal with the darker, imagined sides of humanity.

I know a lot of people reading this will probably think that I am instilling too much meaning into something as far-fetched as a show set in thickest red-neck Louisiana, filled to the brim with vampires, fairies, werewolves, werepanthers, shape shifters and god knows what else they are planning to bring into the fifth season (or that I am just blinded by my love for Alexander Skarsgård). But let us think about it for a moment (and also have a look at Alexander Skarsgård, though admittedly not at his most handsome right here).

Let’s assume that the average person is, at any given time, as good as they can possibly be. Or at least, refusing certain impulses, temptations etc. for the sake of conscience, morality, politeness or simply to keep things from being awkward. Say you were an exhibitionist. Imagine all the things you were refraining from doing for the sake of “society”. Now imagine a person, or a being if you will, who would have no such qualms.

I give you, ladies and gentlemen, The Devil of Popular Culture.

To a society of John Milton‘s contemporaries, England ca. 1650, the abovementioned being would be the worst thing they could possibly picture. This was a society of, broadly speaking, restraint and religion. In this context the Satan of Milton’s Paradise Lost is all the Devil is supposed to be – self-indulgently sinful.

It wasn’t until the age of enlightenment, romanticism and rebellion that the Devil began to be seen as something interesting, namely with William Blake’s Marriage of Heaven and Hell. What Blake did was link Satan to one of the greatest mythical heroes of the time, Prometheus. Prometheus stole fire from the gods and gave it to the people, and for this offense was chained to a rock for thirty thousand years where he had his liver hacked out of him by and eagle on a daily basis. In a society favouring a guy like Prometheus as their idol it is easy to see why the Devil, or more specifically Milton’s version of Satan came to be a hero.

Though traditionally a bad guy, The Bad Guy in fact, he isn’t all that bad, according to Blake. Because Satan getting Eve to take a chunk out of that apple by extension led to the Awakening of Man’s Intellect. Knowing the difference between right and wrong, etc etc. This, to the post-enlightenment mind, is obviously a good thing. And through a bit of a paradigm-shift (excellently explained by DBC Pierre in Vernon God Little), Milton’s Devil had become glamorous and a champion for mankind.

No matter that Satan of Paradise Lost rapidly deteriorates from book 4 or 5 onwards to become a sulky, irrational, childish and cowardly creature of the underworld. In the beginning he is still a hero. And no matter how much Milton probably didn’t “take Satan’s side” or have a favourable view of him (this would probably be almost impossible to a renaissance mind) that is how people think of his Devil.
Myself included. (Poor Milton, condemned to be a Satanist).

And that is the basis of Satan in contemporary literature. Yes, a bad guy. A tempter. But also someone exciting. Someone who can live out every fantasy, every urge. Who not only can live them out, but who is expected to do so. Someone glamorous. Someone who becomes another urge to resist. Someone even more glamorous, dark, beyond the human scope than a vampire or a werewolf. A vessel, if you will, for authors to fill up with every one of their dark, secret (not so secret once they are published) ideas. And also someone who will almost always be more interesting than, say, Jesus and God, who will so very frequently be mind-numbingly boring characters. Because how can you imagine and portray something better than yourself? Not more attractive, with more willpower, more intelligent. Someone who never gossips about their coworkers or gets annoyed at their mother. Someone who doesn’t need willpower, because they are good? Almost impossible.

So fiction chooses the Devil.

Stay alert for a Top Ten Works of Fiction Featuring The Devil, coming to a literary blog near you, very soon. In the meanwhile, a little aesthetic taster (gotta love a lil’ bit of Liz)

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