We are, of course, as faddish in our treatment of the spirit world as in our relationship to everything else. For the past few years we have been enchanted with the Devil and his infernal legions. Witches and wizards have become all too predictable a part of our lives, from T.V. comedies to college courses. Films of diabolical possession and exorcism, or even diabolical impregnation and parturition have shocked and titillated the masses. Americans apparently find the notions of Old Ned both charmingly ridiculous and ominously believable. Taught in our youth to accept the literal reality of the Devil, we are ridiculed in our maturity for such belief. The trivialization of the occult is an extension of this attack on the theology of evil, a cheapening of it that reduces sin to entertainment.

C. S. Lewis has his charming Screwtape note that one of the Devil’s favorite ploys is the encouragement of the disbelief in his own infernal reality. Once convinced that evil is no more than superstitious flim-flam, we can relax, content in our faith in human decency and self-sufficiency. The medieval image of the good angel and the bad angel fighting for the soul is laughingly reduced to Flip Wilson’s “The debbil made me do it.”

Tolstoy believed in evil, in the reality of Satan, in “the power of darkness.” So did Dostoyevsky; so does Solzhenitsyn. Even Conrad, for whom evil was in the universe, not beyond it, saw that deep in the human being lay “the heart of darkness.” Graham Greene believes this in an impressively literal and supernatural way. So did Dorothy L. Sayers. In fact, she studied how the Devil has fared in literature. And she wrote her own version of one of the most famous “devil plays.”

From medieval moralities to modern immoralities, there has been a diminution in the character of Satan. Santayana also noted that the treatment of Mephistopheles in Marlowe’s Faustus and in Goethe’s Faust reflect the cultural intellectual contexts that produced the plays and their audiences. Sayers went further: She notes that Marlowe saw temptation that a faith in human sufficiency leads to damnation. Even though the author was apparently not a Christian, he accepted the doctrine as true. Goethe, on the other hand, did not. His Faust redeems himself through his love of his fellow man and his constant striving. In his view, Satan is no threat to the tireless social activist. And, as Sayers points out, such a man senses no need for supernatural intervention to achieve his salvation. He can handle it all by himself. Thus, the romantic eliminates the human need for God in his elimination of the power of Satan.

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Returning to the more realistic view that Sayers finds in her beloved Dante, she insists that Satan is real. Not created in his evil by God, but the effect of God’s goodness, he stands as a frightening power in the universe and in man’s existence. Freedom of choice makes no sense unless there is an evil as well as a good. Thus, when she wrote The Devil to Pay, Sayers made her Faustus ask that Mephistopheles take away the knowledge of good and evil. The price for such “innocence” is, of course, his soul.

It is interesting that Sayers sees a flabby liberalism as the first step toward Faustus’s damnation. Sounding like a modern politician, Faustus exhorts the crowd in Rome with stirring words: “I would free you from the burden of fear and pain and poverty that God has laid upon you.” When the people create new evils from the gold he showers upon them (young people mug old cripples and leave them in greater pain than they knew before), he grows disillusioned. (Now he sounds like a president whose war on poverty has just failed):

I too love men; but they are all against me.

They hug their chains; the sacrificial iron

Cankers them at the core. I am not afraid

To suffer; for their sakes I would be damned

Willingly, so I first might do away

Suffering forever from the pleasant earth.

But neither God nor men will allow him to serve as the substitutionary sacrifice. Unable to become Christ for suffering man, he seeks to forget that suffering exists. Thus his escape into devil-given ignorance—and damnation. In the end he wastes his life on vulgar conjuring tricks, trying to avoid the awareness of approaching death. Sadly, he admits, like a world-weary modern Sybarite: “I gave all I had for happiness.” His lesson, still unlearned on the day of his death, is that happiness is not an end, but “something that comes of itself, when we are busy about other matters.”

Only at the moment of death is Faustus reminded of hell. He protests: “Death and hell? Don’t speak those words. They madden me. I’ll not hear them.” Ironic, urbane Mephistopheles, the eternal realist, responds dryly: “Stop your ears and welcome. But die you must and be damned.” The joke on Mephistopheles is that Faustus, by retreating from his humanity, no longer has a soul worth damning. At his death, only the brutal soul of a dog remains in the corpse. In a final judgment, Faustus is given the choice of living the uncommitted life, between heaven and hell, like those trimmers so miserable in Dante’s ante-Hell, or accepting damnation.

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Mephistopheles, summing up the reality of evil for our age, says: “I am the price that all things pay for being, the shadow on the world, thrown by the world, standing in its own light, which light God is.” Faustus discovers God at last, only in the moment when he acknowledges the reality of evil, of hell. Until he sees this, he cannot know the full glory and power of God.

The play was not a success—perhaps because it came to the London stage just as the Second World War was starting and death became a matter of immediate concern for the British, not a subject for entertainment. But neither has it been revived as the Wimsey stories and other Sayers plays have been. The critic, though aware of certain formal problems in the drama, must suspect that the play does not speak to the contemporary mood of England or America. Other variants of the Faust legend have been successful (as in, Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?), but they were handled as comedy. Our age apparently wants to giggle its way past unacknowledged and therefore unreal hell into a heaven that imposes no entrance requirements.

We do not seem to accept the reality of evil and its dramatic potential if set in exotic climes or remote periods—or if the evil-doer is Nixon or some member of his infernal troups. The notions that evil is personal, that death awaits us, and that our eternal home could be Hell—these possibilities are as remote and fantastic to Americans as star wars. Perhaps that is why Sayers clothed her tale in late medieval, early Renaissance garb.

We, like Faustus, have hungrily bought Mephistopheles’s shoddy wares. (Where are the consumer advocates when we really need them?) Playing with the trinkets of affluence, thrilled by our destruction of others and our hopes for the preservation of ourselves, we ignore the realities of death and damnation. If Satan is no more than a spooky voice, exorcised by the end of the film, we are secure in our splitlevel complacency. Certainly no devil can demand the soul of a twentieth-century American. It would be an outrageous attack on our civil rights. We are delivered from evil by seat belts and redeemed by the GNP. If we sniff a puff of infernal smoke in Manson’s tribal rituals, or in Watergate or Koreagate, we know that the judicial system, in its power and glory, will preserve us.

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Milton, Bunyan, Dante, and Sayers are voices of the loyal opposition: They took evil seriously, and they took free will seriously. We know good by knowing evil. Our postlapsarian freedom can no longer be innocent (and childish) or ignorant (and brutish). We must acknowledge that evil is well and living in New York, not to mention Washington, Hollywood, and London; or we shall fail to seek the good that even New York can make out of adversity. By refusing to take Satan seriously we fail to see the need for a redeeming God.

Nancy M. Tischler is professor of English and humanities, Pennsylvania State University, the Capitol Campus, Middletown, Pennsylvania.

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