Friday, October 05, 2007

Some devils

James Hogg's odd little novel of dark, supernatural religion, The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1824) tells the tale of a Scottish family whose two sons are raised in starkly opposing fashion. The elder, George, is raised by the father and given no religious instruction; he becomes a relatively ordinary, carefree, slightly dissolute young carouser, neither particularly good nor particularly bad. The younger, Robert, is raised by the mother and a Minister who is her secret paramour--both strict Calvinists--and taught from a young age that he is one of the elect, destined to be saved, and that no action he takes on earth can change his status as a chosen favorite of God. The novel tells of the elder brother's death at the hands of the younger, and along the way it offers dark reflections on faith, certainty, fanaticism, and religion itself.

The brothers, always different, truly begin to part ways when Robert, the Calvinist, meets an intelligent, worldly, charming man of about his own age who becomes his closest friend and mentor. The friend, who staunchly supports the concept of predestination, tells Robert:
Religion is a sublime and glorious thing, the bond of society on earth, and the connector of humanity with the Divine nature; but there is nothing so dangerous to man as the wresting of any of its principles, or forcing them beyond their due bounds: this is of all others the readiest way to destruction.
A sensible warning--but the friend offers it in the course of urging Robert to murder the man in cold blood for preaching a heretical gospel of piety and good works. The action might seem reprehensible, he admits, but as the man is preaching lies, his death would further God's plan--and, he is quick to remind Robert, as one of the elect Robert need not fear eternal judgment for any earthly action.

The friend, as you have surely guessed, is the devil, and I've not encountered a more seductive devil since Milton ennobled Lucifer. As in the above statement, he mixes lies and truth in toxic fashion, turning meaning on its head and playing deftly on his victim's self-regard and self-confidence. As he explains soon after he first meets Robert:
My countenance changes with my studies and sensations. . . . It is a natural peculiarity in me, over which I have not full control. If I contemplate a man's features seriously, mine own gradually assume the very same appearance and character. And what is more, by contemplating a face minutely, I not only attain the same likeness, but, with the likeness, I attain the very same ideas as well as the same mode of arranging them, so that, you see, by looking at a person attentively, I by degrees assume his likeness, and by assuming his likeness I attain to the possession of his most secret thoughts. This, I say, is a peculiarity in my nature, a gift of the God that made me; but whether or not give me for a blessing, he knows himself, and so do it. At all events, I have this privilege,--I can never be mistaken of a character in whom I am interested.
That perceptiveness, supported by a seemingly straightforward--if horrifying--rationality and clarity of purpose make him a chilling figure. All he's doing, after all, is taking the hideous, self-serving doctrine in which Robert already believes (as did many Scots, which is what drove Hogg to write the book in the first place) and pushing it to its logical conclusions. There is in Hogg's devil none of the self-loathing of Milton's Lucifer--no "Which way I fly is Hell; myself am Hell" here. Instead, Hogg's devil is cold purposefulness incarnate; his urging to Robert on their path to murder could be adopted as a universal fanatics' creed:
Let us be up and doing in our vocation. For me, my resolution is taken, and I never for a moment lose sight of it.

I hope to write more about Confessions of a Justified Sinner later this month--particularly on how it relates to The Testament of Gideon Mack, another Scottish novel published, consciously in its shadow, earlier this year. For now, though, I'll switch gears and leave you, not with a seductive devil who subtly invites your complicity, but with one of his more demonstrative brethren.

I owe Larry McMurtry for this bit from an obituary for Billy the Kid from the Santa Fe Weekly Democrat, which he included in a piece on the Kid in the the October 25, 2007 New York Review of Books:
No sooner had the floor caught the descending form, which had a pistol in one hand and a knife in the other, than there was a strong odor of brimstone in the air, and a dark figure with the wings of a dragon, claws like a tiger, eyes like balls of fire, and horns like a bison, hovered over the corpse for a moment, and with a fiendish laugh said "Ha! Ha! This is my meat!" and then sailed off through the window. He did not leave his card, but he is a gentleman well known by reputation ,and there by hangs a "tail."
Hmm. I think this may be a case where the old saw is correct: the devil you know--cackling and clawed and smoking--is surely a better bet than the devil you don't--sly, sneaking, and supportive of all your mistakes and blind spots.

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