The Devil has the best lines: How Satan has informed much of our great art

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

Phil Boucher wonders if the greatest trick Lucifer ever pulled was to inspire such dangerous creativity

When Natalie Portman broke into tears on the glitzy stage of the Kodak Theatre in Los Angeles last month when accepting the Academy Award for best actress for her role as a disturbed ballet dancer in Black Swan, it's unlikely that many were considering her relationship with the Devil. Let alone John Milton, Thomas Mann and Lord Byron. But, thanks to her career-defining role in Darren Aronofsky's film, these names will now be an intrinsic part of her career.

Or, at least, that is the contention of Dr Fred Parker, fellow of Clare College, Cambridge, whose book The Devil As Muse argues that literary concepts of the Devil have opened up a vast dark world for artists to explore – and that these subtle undercurrents have created a modern view of Satan that focuses on individuals who are dispossessed, alienated and unbalanced. "He is the opposite," explains Parker. "He is the thing you can't have anything to do with."

In Portman's case this involved adopting the persona of ballet dancer Nina, who lands the lead role in a New York production of Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake. Thanks to her effortless grace, Nina is originally considered perfect for the delicate role of the White Swan, Princess Odette. Yet, through her paranoid obsession for perfection, she gradually succumbs to drugs, violence and self-harm to become far more like Odette's evil sister, Odile, the Black Swan.

While this image of a schizophrenic dancer is dramatically at odds to the horned Satanic nightmare that looms large in our mediaeval DNA, Nina's character is the latest in a long line of flawed characters to draw poetically on the dark side of humanity for their inspiration.

According to Parker, this all stems from the willingness of previous generations to cast aside the mediaeval image of Satan and open an artistic relationship with the original biblical image of the Devil as someone who is far more complex and human. "It is the idea of engaging with a dangerous otherness for a form of dangerous creativity," adds Parker.

To understand what Parker means, you first need to look at the literary history of Satan. Theologists generally agree that the biblical depiction of the Devil is one of an adversary to God, who has a positive function and actually associates with and acts on behalf of God on many occasions.

Indeed, the word "Satan" means "adversary" and it is only during the Middle Ages that this image warped into the monstrous, fork-wielding enemy of God that we all know so well.

"If you look at Satan in the Bible, he is not necessarily on the wrong side. In the Book of Job he is clearly one of the sons of God and sort of working for God as a kind of agent provocateur who says: 'let's go and see how Job responds to affliction'," explains Parker. "So Satan and God are in collusion to some extent. And there is no devil in the Garden of Eden – that is all part of later theology."

According to Parker, this was resurrected in the 17th century, when John Milton created a uniquely imaginative connection with the Devil in his poem Paradise Lost.

Before Paradise Lost – with a few exceptions – the Devil had horns and a fork, yet Milton shows him as to be an individual who's so sensitive to the beauty and goodness of God's creation that he simply can't bear it and has to destroy it. "That's very different from acting out of pure evil," adds Parker.

This concept of a more thoughtful and romantic Satan was built upon by the Mephistopheles of Goethe's Faust - which, in turn influenced Lord Byron's representations of the Devil in Cain and The Vision of Judgment. William Blake was another to draw upon this dark inspiration both within his writing and his uniquely unnerving paintings.

In more recent times it has also influenced the daimonic creativity handed to Adrian Leverkühn, the fictional composer who's the protagonist of Thomas Mann's novel Doctor Faustus.

Throughout all of these, the concept is the same: artists focusing on the Devil and his original biblical role of standing opposite to God, to assume the mantle of the social outsider and explore a darker, more dangerous and more exciting side of human nature.

So when Natalie Portman dons her leotard to take hallucinogenic chemicals in a seedy New York nightclub, she's effectively running through the same riotous doorway that was kicked open by Milton and Mann.

She's by no means alone either: when Mick Jagger sings the lyrics of "Sympathy For the Devil", he is following in the exact same literary tradition."In Goethe's Faust, Faust says again and again 'What's your name?'," explains Parker. "He always gets riddling replies: 'I'm the spirit which always denies...' It's not unlike the Rolling Stones 'pleased to meet you, hope you get my name,' as the Devil is teasing his audience. The lyrics suggest he has been presiding over the great events, the dark events of history, with a malicious glee." The same dark beauty has similarly inspired musicians ranging from Robert Johnson to Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath and the Prodigy.

Modern literary figures such as JK Rowling and Philip Pullman have used similar themes to create shadowy figures such as Lord Voldemort in Harry Potter and the mysterious stranger in The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ. While Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code is essentially based on a group of clerics who stray into a darker form of religiosity.

It doesn't stop there either: the entire Star Wars franchise can basically be said to revolve around Darth Vader's dark impulses. While The Matrix trilogy is set entirely in a hellish world of darkness. The same devilish undercurrents apply to Alien, The Usual Suspects, Se7en, The Silence of the Lambs and more recent hits such as the Twilight series.

The hit television series Ashes to Ashes is another case in point, with Fenchurch East police station ultimately revealed as a policeman's purgatory, and Gene Hunt – the Guv – to be a young PC, shot dead on Coronation Day, 1953.

Throughout the series, Hunt's role was that of an archangel saving souls – with his fierce rival DCI Jim Keats playing the gatekeeper to hell or the Devil himself.

The list goes on and on, with the Devil being expressed in ever more subtle tones. In many ways he is Marlon Brando in The Wild One – the avenger who comes from nowhere to wreak havoc yet can't be touched because he's placed himself outside of society's rules and therefore can't be constrained by them.

"It has a lot to do with alienation and being able to reject or mock the society you live in," explains Parker. "It is the principle that something that's opposite, dark and dangerous is attractive."

Yet the big question is why in our modern secular world, where even theologians don't believe in the Devil, people are still so interested in him? Curiously, the answer may actually come from a man of the cloth.

"I take the view that we cannot know ourselves fully until we fully understand our capabilities for evil and good," explains the Rev Peter Owen Jones, who recently appeared in a BBC2 series depicting his attempts to live according to the austere principles of St Francis of Assisi.

"We are in trouble when we deny that we have dark thoughts, or that they don't exist. It is the consequences of not dealing with them that is potentially far more difficult."

Jones offers the example of Nazi Germany as a society where this artistic lesson was fatally ignored. "With no mirror in which to see themselves, they had no way of seeing where they actually stood and the darkness they were perpetrating," he adds.

"In that sense it is essential that we have a window and that we are fully aware of the atrocities and the depths of our vanity, greed and envy. It is only by being fully aware of these things that we ever stand a chance of walking beyond them. Grappling with our darkest desires as well as our beauty is all part of the journey of being human."

Which, ultimately, sums up Natalie Portman's role in Black Swan. Not to mention the works of countless artists, musicians, writers and filmmakers who have walked on the wild side before her – and will hopefully continue to do so.

Or as William Blake once put it: "The very grandest poetry is immoral, the grandest characters wicked."

The Devil as Muse: Blake, Byron and the Adversary by Fred Parker is published by Baylor (£24.99). To order a copy for the special price of £22.49 (free P&P) call Independent Books Direct on 08430 600 030, or visit www.independentbooksdirect.co.uk

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Israeli-born actress Gal Gadot has been cast to play Wonder Woman
film
News
Top Gear presenter James May appears to be struggling with his new-found free time
people
Arts and Entertainment
Kendrick Lamar at the Made in America Festival in Los Angeles last summer
music
Arts and Entertainment
'Marley & Me' with Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jon Hamm (right) and John Slattery in the final series of Mad Men
tv
Arts and Entertainment
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
art
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
News
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
people
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

music
Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special

TV
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    No postcode? No vote

    Floating voters

    How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

    By Reason of Insanity

    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
    Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

    Power dressing is back

    But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
    Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

    Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

    Caves were re-opened to the public
    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

    Vince Cable interview

    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
    Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
    Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

    The only direction Zayn could go

    We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
    Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

    Spells like teen spirit

    A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
    Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
    Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

    Licence to offend in the land of the free

    Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
    From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

    From farm to fork in Cornwall

    One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
    Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

    Robert Parker interview

    The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor