Friday, May 21, 2004

Satan and Shaitan: empires of liquid waste

I've been working on a chapter on Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses, so I thought I would offer a collection of some of my favorite quotes about Satan. I'll skip any attempt to create a coherent narrative through them -- they are merely arranged chronologically. I'm skipping the boring bits about Satan as serpent in, for instance, Genesis 3, in favor of the exciting part about him in Isaiah, as well as the follow-up treatments (really 'trackbacks', as one might say in the blog-world) in the Quran, as well as John Milton, Daniel Defoe, and William Blake.

Isaiah: Pride
To begin with, here is God, in a famous passage in Isaiah 45:

I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the LORD do all these things. Drop down, ye heavens, from above, and let the skies pour down righteousness: let the earth open, and let them bring forth salvation, and let righteousness spring open together; I the LORD have created it. Woe unto him that striveth with his Maker! Let the potsherd strive with the potsherds of the earth. Shall the clay say to him that fashioneth it, What makest thou? or thy work, He hath no hands?

In short, don't try and compete with God, but more importantly don't ask about why God is the creator and we are merely clay. The force of this passage is the distinction between creator and creation, and there is a hard line between the two.

And here is where God casts Lucifer down, a particularly brilliant and dramatic passage:

How art thou fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, son of the morning! how art thou cut down to the ground, which didst weaken the nations! for thou has said in thine heart, I will ascend into heaven, I will exalt my throne above the stars of God: I will sit also upon the mount of the congregation, in the sides of the north: I will ascend above the heights of the clouds; I will be like the most High. Yet thou shald be brought down to hell, to the sides to the sides of the pit. They that seek thee shall narrowly look upon thee, and consider thee, saying, Is this the man that made the earth to tremble, that did shake kingdoms; That made the world as a wilderness, and destroyed the cities thereof; that opened not the house of his prisoners? . . . But thou art cast out of thy grave like an abominable branch, and as the raiment of those that are slain, thrust through with a sword, that go down to the stones of the pit; as a carcase under feet. (Isaiah 14)

God accuses Lucifer of arrogance for his desire to sit where God sits, to be like God. It is a little different from the idea of being God, but perhaps being God is such an unthinkable desire that the most that can be aspired to is similitude. And the punishment is to be turned away utterly from the seat of strength and authority. Here Lucifer's punishment is not the suffering of hell, but the misery of insignificance.

Quran: Pride
The creation of Shaitan in the Quran is a little different from the creation of Satan in Genesis and Isaiah. In the Quran (and I should confess I am no scholar), the most direct verse I can find is 7:11:

"We created you [Adam] and gave you form. Then We said the angels: 'Prostrate yourselves before Adam.' They all prostrated themselves except Satan, who refused to prostrate himself.
'Why did you not prostrate yourself when I commanded you?' He asked.
'I am nobler than he,' he replied. 'You created me from fire, but You created him from clay.'

Note the recurrence of 'clay', which refers to the passage from Isaiah 45, the first passage quoted above, But there is a key difference here too: Shaitan's pride is in his superiority to man, not of his equivalence or challenge to God's role as creator. Shaitan's sin in Islam is his negative desire not to be like men, rather than a positive desire to be like God.

Milton: Knowledge, Rational Choice
The Shaitan of the Quran and Isaiah are interesting, but the versions of Satan that resonate most with me are the two paradigmatic modern versions -- the Mephistopheles of the Faustus myth (interesting in both Christopher Marlowe's Faustus and Goethe's Faust), and the Satan of John Milton's Paradise Lost. Let me quote a long but rewarding passage from Milton's Paradise Lost Book IX:

ye shall not Die: [ 685 ]
How should ye? by the Fruit? it gives you Life
To Knowledge, By the Threatener, look on me,
Mee who have touched and tasted, yet both live,
And life more perfect have attained then Fate
Meant mee, by venturing higher then my Lot. [ 690 ]
Shall that be shut to Man, which to the Beast
Is open? or will God incense his ire
For such a petty Trespass, and not praise
Rather your dauntless virtue, whom the pain
Of Death denounced, whatever thing Death be, [ 695 ]
Deterred not from achieving what might lead
To happier life, knowledge of Good and Evil;
Of good, how just? of evil, if what is evil
Be real, why not known, since easier shunned?
God therefore cannot hurt ye, and be just; [ 700 ]
Not just, not God; not feared then, nor obeyed:
Your fear it self of Death removes the fear.
Why then was this forbid? Why but to awe,
Why but to keep ye low and ignorant,
His worshippers; he knows that in the day [ 705 ]
Ye Eat thereof, your Eyes that seem so clear,
Yet are but dim, shall perfectly be then
Opened and cleared, and ye shall be as Gods

In other words, the Serpent says to Eve, 'Why can't you taste the apple? What does God want, except to keep you ignorant? Look at me, I've eaten the apple, and not only did I not die, but I learned lots of interesting things I didn't know before. There is something wrong with this God of yours if he would kill you just for doing something that you want to do, and which will benefit you.'

For me, the genius of this is that Milton knows the readers of his book are human, and that they are, inevitably, seekers after knowledge themselves. In his framework, the only 'intelligent' thing to do is to eat the apple. It represents access to true knowledge, something Milton, as a man of his era, certainly prized. Milton was still a believer in God and a Christian, though passages like this suggest that he believed the only position from which to become a good Christian was from prior knowledge of sin -- and rational choice. Eve was right to bite into the apple, and to succumb to temptation, because it put humanity, though fallen, into a world of choices.

Through this emphasis on rationality and human agency, Milton paves the way for the great secularizers that come after him, especially Blake (and latterly, Rushdie). By the time of Blake, the idea Satan is a syonym for the spirit of human creativity; Blake's Satan is a great Secularizer!

Defoe: No Place, All Space
The final passage I'll quote right now is from Daniel Defoe's History of the Devil. It is the passage cited by Rushdie at the front of The Satanic Verses, indicating that Satan's punishment is to be rendered a wanderer. Here Hell is not the "stones of the pit" of Isaiah, but the homelessness, if you will, of the international airport:

Satan being thus confined to a vagabond, wandering, unsettled condition, is without any certain abode; for though he has, in consequence of his angelic nature, a kind of empire in the liquid waste or air, yet this is certainly part of his punishment, that he is continually hovering over this inhabited globe of earth; swelling with rage of envy, at the felicity of his rival, man; and studying all the means possible to injure and ruin him; but extremely limited in power, to his unspeakable mortification. This is his present state, without any fixed abode, place, or space, allowed him to rest the sole of his foot upon.

As with the Quran, Satan's rival is man, and here the focus of his envy is on the human attempt to imprint itself upon the earth. Human beings not only have a grounding that is denied to him, they possess place, and with it access to the particular and the concrete. All Satan has, in contrast, is unmarked space, which traps him in philosophical abstraction.

In Rushdie's novel, of course, this placenessness is also a figure for the condition of the migrant, who lives in a place but is not of it. It's a good figure for our times: many people experience the mobility of the contemporary world not as a joy of access (you can go anywhere fast) but as a catastrophe of displacement (my job means I have to move). In another way of attacking it, placelessness is also a good way of thinking about the experience of life structured by the internet. These are hells of the upper-middle-classes; there is also an older hell, which involves being stuck in the mud somewhere, doing the same job again and again: Sisyphus.

And finally, my favorite one-liner from William Blake's The Marriage of Heaven and Hell: "The lust of the goat is the bounty of God." This also shows up in Rushdie's novel, starting on page 304 or 315, depending on which edition you have (see Paul Brians' Rushdie annotations to get a sense of what Rushdie is doing with them in the novel).

[A small, devilish, Rushdie-ish joke: Someone should sell Blake's line to Viagra, or Levitra: The lust of the goat is the bounty of Levitra.]


Rob Breymaier said...

I'm not well read in this area but...Goethe (and Marlowe) may be an appropriate addition here. Isn't it Faust's quest for knowledge and improvement that Mephisto bets on? And, in the end isn't it this thirst for growth that brings Faust to heaven thwarting the devil? While in a way the devil attempts to challenge God, his actual contempt is with humanity.

3:05 PM  
Amardeep said...

Brey, yes, exactly. Maybe there will be a second posting on Mephistopheles in Marlowe and Goethe... on Monday? We'll see.

10:05 AM  
Amardeep said...

One other thing -- I thought you might be interested in the space/place distinction in Defoe's "History of the Devil," as it relates to geography.

10:06 AM  
Rob Breymaier said...

You're right I am. Oddly enough, the Faust thing just came to me quicker. (And, I thought it would bring more discussion.)

I usually shy away from religious ideas but it is interesting to consider placelessness as a hell. Certainly, as you state placelessness can be seen as a void from anything concrete.

Hell is placeless because it is only a conceived space. There might be perceptions of hell too. But, they are only perceptions of the conceptual space - not perceptions of the actual space. And, there certainly is no lived space in hell that we can speak of. Although, in that same manner heaven is placeless as well. The difference between the two is only understood through theology - when judgements are made about preference. Geographic theory at its most basic would recognize them similarly I think.

In other words, death is a placelessness to some degree. While a body would be given a "place of rest," religious persons would believe that their soul moves on to a concieved-only space.

I wonder how this works in Hinduism. From my understanding there might be many deaths that result in a re-placement of the soul through reincarnation. But eventually, Nirvana is a placelessness.

Interestingly, place and placelessness coincides quite nicely with "eastern religious" teachings in the West about being and non-being. Attaining Nirvana is an attainment of not being. Non-being would necessarily be placeless.

11:02 AM  

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