Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Not Evil: What the Devil😈, As Debt Collector, Really Symbolizes

Stuart K. Hayashi

Chernabog from Disney's Fantasia, drawn by Stuart K. Hayashi on September 30, 2015.

First off, BOO!👻art wishes you a Happy Hayshiween!

Non Serviam!
Although philosophic Romanticism arose, in many respects, as a backlash to the pro-rationality trends of the Enlightenment, there were some poets and writers, especially those in Percy Bysshe Shelley’s circle, who showed interest in ideas from both the Enlightenment and Romanticism (philosophic Romanticism and artistic Romanticism alike). One of the writers in that nexus was Lord Byron. Since the eighteenth century, led by the likes of Lord Byron, there have been some intellectuals who have written of the Devil😈 — or at least his earlier form, the angelic Lucifer👼 — as a sort of symbol of rebellion against the heavy-handedness of Yahweh (that is, the heavy-handedness of traditional organized Christianity).

As a priest says it in James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man,

Lucifer, we are told, was a son of the morning, a radiant and mighty angel; and yet he fell. What his sin was we cannot say. Theologians consider it was the sin of pride, the sinful thought conceived in an instant: non serviam. I will not serve. That instant was his ruin. He offended the majesty of God by the sinful thought of one instant and God cast him out of heaven into hell for ever.

While there is much in Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals of which I do not approve, I can hardly fault Alinsky’s acknowledgement from the first edition, which read:

Lest we forget at least an over-the-shoulder acknowledgment to the very first radical: from all our legends, mythology, and history (and who is to know where mythology leaves off and history begins — or which is which), the first radical known to man who rebelled against the establishment and did it so effectively that he at least won his own kingdom — Lucifer.

Alinsky removed that epigraph from later editions, which is a shame — that epigraph was the only truly wise part. Such a rebellion on Lucifer’s part becomes more sympathetic in light of how Yahweh has long been depicted in Western culture: as someone who demands, more than anything, unquestioning devotion and obedience, outranking anyone and everything, including familial love, with Jesus announcing,

Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword. For I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter in law against her mother in law. And a man’s foes shall be they of his own household. He that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me: and he that loveth son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. [Matthew 10. 34–37.]

Jesus’s insistence that your prioritize him — oh, sorry, capital-H Him😑 — over your own child is not unlike that of a twenty-first century cult leader. The same applies to Abraham passing Yahweh’s test when demonstrating his commitment to killing his own son Isaac if that was as Yahweh commanded. That sort of manipulativeness on Yahweh’s part is a symptom of Narcissistic Personality Disorder. The totalitarian aspect is further amplified by the idea of Yahweh constantly monitoring, surveilling everyone, affording them no privacy. That is the difference between totalitarianism and mere authoritarianism — whereas the authoritarian can override everything you do, the totalitarian even goes as far as policing what you think and how you feel. If merely to look upon a woman lustfully is a for a man to sin against God, then God is policing that man’s heart and his mind.

Big Brother ain’t got nothin’ on the Heavenly Father!

Still, it is often said that Lucifer did not want to overthrow Yahweh for the sake of establishing a free republic in Heaven. Being far from the ancient equivalent of John Adams or Thomas Jefferson, this character was more like a typical leader of a military coup: trying to overthrow the dictator just to seize the throne for himself. And, upon his being banished, John Milton has Lucifer surmise in Paradise Lost, “Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.”

Well, I don’t want to reign over anyone else. Therefore, my policy is:

Better to reign over my own life on Earth — and no one else’s — than to serve in Heaven. I might not be a Lucifer, but I am a STUcifer.

I can agree with what James Joyce quoted Lucifer saying, “Non serviam!” I will not serve.

But I want to explore yet another aspect of the legend of the Devil. Popularized by the poetry of Christopher Marlowe and Goethe, there is the depiction of the Devil as a businessman who cares deeply about contractual commitments. He will grant wishes to Doctor Faustus and other suckers in exchange for their immortal souls. For a long time, I thought this was just another facet of the “businessmen are evil” cliché that is at least as old as the Old Testament. Robert C. Wright provides an interesting explanation for what circumstances might have contributed to motivating such Old Testament prophets as Amos and Isaiah to express revulsion at merchants and their profit-seeking. But now I think there is another aspect to the myth of the Devil as a creditor collecting the debt due to him, and this other aspect isn’t necessarily villainous.

Who — or What — Always Remembers You?
This occurred to me because of an unlikely source. Ub Iwerks is most famous for designing Mickey Mouse for Walt Disney, but many of his old animations — both his collaborations with Disney and his solo projects alike — were decidedly creepy rather than cute. A case in point was his “Balloon Land.” Anyhow, as an homage to Iwerks, some people created an extremely difficult and frustrating video game called Cuphead.  The game’s titular protagonist looks like Mickey Mouse but, as his name suggests, he has a teacup for a head. In the story that sets up the game, Cuphead and his brother Mugman go to the Devil’s casino. Emotionally caught up in a winning streak at the craps table, Cuphead bets everything, putting up his own soul and his brother’s as collateral. When Cuphead loses, the Devil tells him that instead of handing over their souls immediately, the two brothers can go after many deadbeats who have skipped out on turning over the souls they owe. Throughout the game, the brothers battle against the other debtors in order to retrieve their souls. The Devil, of course, ends up being the “final boss” for them to confront.

What got me thinking about the symbolism were two songs on YouTube made by fans of the game.

The first one goes,

The Devil’s gonna getcha
Collect your debt tonight
The Devil’s gonna getcha
Your soul will soon be mine

The other says,

The Devil always
gets what he’s due
Oh, oh
the Devil always
remembers you

Then it hit me. What does it mean to “make a deal with the Devil”? Someone cuts corners ethically to gain some immediate gratification while choosing not to consider the longer-term adverse ramifications of it. When that person’s choices catch up to him, it is said that this is “the Devil collecting on the debt.” That is, “the Devil collecting the debt” is a metaphor for how someone might try to avoid facing reality but cannot ultimately avoid the consequences of reality.

This is also the theme of Spider-Man co-creator Steve Ditko’s comic book The Avenging World — someone might try to wish away the repercussions of his actions, but reality will “avenge” itself on him.

For the Devil to “collect the debt” is for the debtor to be held accountable for shortsighted, whim-driven, or unethical choices. . The TV series Lucifer hinted at this when the titular Lucifer Morningstar declares, “I punish the guilty,” but that’s not exactly it: people facing the ramifications of their choices is not about a conscious entity choosing to exercise retribution against them for violation of some rules; having to face reality is simply about logical cause-and-effect. As seventeenth-century laissez-faire theorist Pierre de Bouisguilbert put it, “qu’à laisser faire la nature, comme partout ailleurs” — let nature take its course here, as it does everywhere else (translation from French by Laure Olmedo). The Devil collecting the debt means that eventually we must all face reality. The lyrics to the aforementioned song could be thought of as meaning,

Logical Consequence
always gets what it’s due
Oh, oh
Logical Consequence
always remembers you

That is facing reality and logic. And when you face logic and reality, you learn and grow more enlightened — fitting for a bringer of light, luminous Lucifer. Far from being evil, the Devil collecting the debt is the symbol of . . . justice.