The Devil has the best lines: How Satan has informed much of our great art
Phil Boucher wonders if the greatest trick Lucifer ever pulled was to inspire such dangerous creativity
Thursday 24 March 2011
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
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