Note: This essay comes from a larger work that narrates experiences I had while I lived alone in a midwestern farmhouse. During that time, I also worked as a caregiver for disabled adults who lived at a group home I call Tappan. (Tappan is the name of the house’s street.) In the next few pages, you’ll read about Silas the Barber. He is an autistic, semi-violent resident of Tappan, who tried to shave himself, in the bathtub, after irritation and fatigue had diverted my attention elsewhere. Among other things, Silas tried to shave his head, and he ended up looking as if he had hacked at himself with a cheese grater.
Part I. Presence
I once spent a year looking for the Devil. After that night at Tappan, when Silas sat, delighted and bloody in the bathtub, I began to look beyond evil as it flowers in the soul. Maybe I was looking for the proverbial scapegoat–horns and all–for an outside reason why, despite anyone’s best intentions, evil can become so inhuman, which is to say, inhumane.
As a proper accuser, the Devil had mostly shown me the faults of men. But I still din’t know if such adherence to expectation was a sign that he does, or doesn’t exist. This is what pondered in the middle of the nights, in that year, when the wind was so fierce that I swear it jostled the bed. My thinking went like this: If the Devil does not exist, we will eventually reach the same conclusion that the mythical prosecutor would have delighted to put in our hands. That is, in line with what the accuser would suggest, we will accept the fact that evil finds its full origin in man. This is one possibility.
An alternate outcome is the reverse–where the Devil does exist, whether we believe it or not. If this is the case, the fact that we question Satan’s reality might show that Satan hides–that he lies. And as C. S. Lewis suggests, the greatest lie might well be the very suggestion of the Devil’s absence–the idea that as far as true evil goes, man is its only source. Belief in this lie would give us a rather unholy sense of power. Or it could give us an unholy sense of guilt. And by unholy in this case, I mean untrue. And by everything else in those statements, I mean that if we decided that we, ourselves, are the great source of evil, we would end up accepting both an elevation and a condemnation that would serve the biblical Satan quite well.
This mystery is why I spent my time lying awake in a fitful bed. And in some prescient sense it may be why I had originally come to the farmhouse–why I’d followed the road farther from town, to that once-abandoned shack that sat on the edge of what was the closest I could come to wilderness.
When I first moved into the farmhouse, I stood in the side yard and watched a snake slide through a split in the window screen, to where my mother was cleaning the mudroom. I ran to the window, yelling, but when I got to the mudroom, the snake had gone. My mother stood, alert and curious. She likes snakes. If she found a skin in the yard, while I was growing up, she would leave it on the breakfast table. I told her this snake had been gray, with dark hashes. We looked through the coats and the garden boots. In the end, we wrote it off as a trick of the light.
Tradition says that the Devil–the Lord of Lies–is the master of the phantom. Up until the Enlightenment, much of Europe believed that all illusion came from him. Italian workers, in the 18th century, saw demons in the patterns of coffee stains that they’d left on the plaster walls they built. They must have talked about this, for us to know it. They must have told a priest, or the people who planned to move inside. Maybe they never drank coffee again.
Their first thought must have been that the coffee was a wash that revealed something present in the texture, the way that water shows what’s in a stone. Then the workers learned, with the emergence of optics, that the images came from neither the coffee nor the walls. And I wonder if, at that point, they gained any relief from the fact that the demons came from themselves. Or perhaps it makes sense that not long after optics, psychology began.
In Iraq, between Kufa and Najaf, there is the Tree at the Navel of the Earth. Locals say that this is what’s left of the Garden of Eden, which began with a spring that has since gone to dust. This ruin, scoured to grains, is a place where your shadow can grow so long that it can startle you. It can remind you that a desert may bring a death brought on by an excess of light. I imagine that here–in the Garden–looking on Satan would be unconscious at first, as if you’d just looked on him as a means of resting your eyes. His shadow is perhaps remarkable, because it is too short–as if the sun hit him differently, and earlier. The light that shines on the caster is too old for the present, as if he had saved and re-used it from another time.
At first, gazing at Satan would offer relief from the light. I have to admit it might feel this way. One of the Devil’s best temptations must be his ability to bestow momentary relief. Such a thing, of course, is another illusion.
When the serpent first spoke in Eden, I think it offered relief from stipulation. Dietrich Bonhoeffer says that the serpent’s first question to humanity is theological. In the Bible, this is frequently the thrust of Satan’s dialogue. He speculates with man about God, and with God about man. In the first sense, he is the slanderer; in the second sense, he is the prosecutor; and in every sense, he seeks to diminish one side in the sight of the other.
According to Bonhoeffer the serpent’s Garden speculation goes like this: First the serpent asks if God truly forbade humanity from eating the fruit. The serpent asks if this is what God truly meant, and then the serpent asks why. When humanity responds with God’s reasons, the serpent scoffs. “No,” he says. “You shall not die.” The serpent declares that what God wants for his children is for them to remain ignorant. Otherwise, they will become like God himself. And here, the serpent’s creation of falsehood is extremely shrewd. At first he seeks to clarify; then he begins to lie; then he slanders God as a tyrant.
What I find most interesting about the Eden situation is that in light of most ancient narratives, the suggestion of divine tyranny is absolutely reasonable. The Greek god, Kronos, tries to eat his children. The Babylonian creators try to destroy their offspring, after the offspring disrupt the creators’ sleep. The Hittite high god, Alalu, falls to his son, Anu, who in turn falls to his son, Kumarbi, when Kumarbi bites off Anu’s penis. Anu gets his revenge when his swallowed penis impregnates Kumarbi, and makes Kumarbi give birth to all the other gods.
The upshot is that the serpent doesn’t just tempt humanity to distrust God. It tempts humanity to reduce God’s behavior to something that we’d expect from all the other pantheons. The serpent invites us to break the first commandment, in fact, where we fail to put God before all others. And notice that this isn’t a failure of hierarchy as much as it’s a failure of esteem. The serpent moves us to decide that God is not above lying to his children–that at any moment, God could devour us in an anxious fit. And it won’t be long until such perception invites the very ancient and conventional possibility of our going to war with our parent.
This is how Satan begins. And by following the suggestions that the serpent bids us consider, we allow for the possibility that Satan and humanity raise each other to fulfill the truest, most fractured states that await them in the fallen world. That is, if both do exist, they have helped each other become their present selves.
My farmhouse stood empty for a year, after a tornado touched its backyard. When the tornado came, the landlord’s sister was living in the house–and while she cowered in the basement, the air pressure dropped to the point that the dust rose an inch off the ground. Now she lives in a Florida retirement home, where she’s apparently the star of the Jacaranda Jaguars Nerf volleyball team.
I learned all of this from Lewis, my landlord’s maintenance man, who came out to the house about a week after my mother left. He was caulking the openings in the seal between the house and its basement, and later that day, he called me onto the driveway, so he could show me what he’d found. He took the lid off an aluminum garbage can. There were snake skins, maybe nine of them, lying in the bottom of the drum and curling up the sides. I knocked the can with my knee, and the skins rustled.
“No rattlers,” said Lewis. He drew out a skin and held it to the sunlight. “This one’s a bull snake.” He pointed to the blotches on the skin, as if he were consulting an omen. The whole of it was four feet long.
I like snakes, but I am only five feet long. Lewis took the time to show me he had sealed every crack. He kicked away the peaberry that had crept toward the house, and the vines clung to him. Vegetation attracts snakes, apparently. A month later, a neighbor told me that he has horses that won’t walk in whole stretches of the surrounding fields, because they smell so many snakes. His mother, Nellie–an octogenarian who knew Flannery O’Connor–she said, “I saw a snake the other day, and it looked as if it was wearing the littlest, diamond sweater.”
There was no door to my farmhouse’s basement. Its stairs opened to the mudroom, and the mudroom had an oak door between it and the rest of the house. This inside door was the one you could deadbolt. It was at least three inches thick and it had stain that had aged nearly purple. On its mudroom side, about level with the doorknob, I’d found impressions on the doorframe that looked as if somebody had whacked the wood with something the shape of a honey dipper. The grooves of the indentation were about a quarter inch deep, and I touched them as if they were the rough edges of a thought.
I didn’t know how hard you would have to hit a doorframe to make a dent like that–especially with a honey dipper, if that’s indeed what it was. Nor was I sure what to think about the fact that the impressions were at hand level, because this means that the leverage you could get for striking such a blow would be next to none. You could get a better angle if you were supremely short–like a child. But this only made the possibilities stranger. In the end, I decided the only explanation was that somebody marked the wood before they hung it in the frame.
In any event, I shot the bolt. I’d heard that in Quebec, they keep a law of hospitality that stipulates how a house with a vestibule may never lock its outer door. You may secure the inner entrance with anything you have, but you must leave the space between as a shelter for the wanderer or the poor. This is a lovely idea that recalls the Mosaic commandment to leave a corner of one’s crops for the hungry. But I was not in Quebec. And more to the point, the outside door to this house had two working locks–as if the house’s project had been to keep something both outside and in.
A week after the Silas event, I had started to change my clothes as soon as I returned from work. The laundry machines were in the basement, so I stripped down there, filled the washer, and walked straight to the upstairs shower. I have no idea how old that basement was. Its floor had water stains and cracked concrete. Someone had cobbled the walls with brick and gobbed cement, and judging by Lewis’s wads of caulk, the builder had made the walls fast and from necessity, and then let them gape. My landlord had lined them with floor palettes and plywood shelves. He’d set the laundry machines across from the stairs, near the far end of the basement. Behind them was a cinder-block wall, and a pitted door that led to a deeper, secondary room. There was the sump pump back there, and also the fuse box. Someone had mounted a splintered work bench, along whose top had scattered rusted nails, twigs and clods of earth. I don’t know what was going on back there–or even when. It’s like somebody was trying to build a golem.
Now, during this week after I’d found Silas, I stood, half-dressed, on the last step of the basement stairs. Dangling from the crevice between the southern wall and the bottom of the house was a snakeskin.
I climbed its nearest shelf and looked. The scales were so round that they resembled grains of wheat. I grasped the skin, and I heard a buzz and a sliding. There was a long, smooth movement within the crack. I dropped the skin, and it inched along, as it dangled from the snake.
From where I had gotten halfway up the stairs, I couldn’t see the skin anymore. I dashed to the kitchen and grabbed a spaghetti ladle. The snake had buzzed, which meant it was a bull snake. It hadn’t struck while I tried to pull off its skin, which meant it was a very civil snake. But William James has a saying that the Devil himself is a gentleman.
I stomped down the stairs, banging the ladle against the wall. The snakeskin was gone. I lowered the ladle. I laughed at what I had in my hands. The snake poked from a hole that Lewis must have missed. I ran up the stairs and bolted the mudroom door.
William James says that the world is richer for having a Devil in it, so long as we keep our foot on the Devil’s neck. Maybe this house was also richer for having the possibility of a snake inside. I certainly paid more attention each time I opened the medicine cabinet or grabbed a soup pot.
In Eden, when God revealed the serpent’s malfeasance, he also predicted the enmity between the serpent and man. This is the point, perhaps, where we not only became aware of evil, but also began to preoccupy ourselves with where it lurks, where it comes from, what it is. Maybe this essay illustrates the very point. These days, when I mention Satan, my friends start to check the time.
A byproduct of the Fall is that we both worry about evil and judge its origin. We mistrusted God once; that’s what got us into this mess in the first place. And I’m beginning to suspect that the Devil grows every time we mistrust God again. This is, perhaps, both a punishment and a natural outcome. God has a penchant for obliterating the line between the two; he is, after all, the master of all outcomes. God’s retribution for our mistrust can fit the daily pattern of cause and effect. And if we look at the events in the Garden, we see that the natural progression of that retribution fits Satan and the Fall like this:
In the garden, man gains (albeit imperfect) knowledge of good and evil. And as a consequence, we begin to worry about whether God’s actions are good or evil. We struggle to find goodness in, say, the near sacrifice of Isaac; the suffering of Job; the fact that First Samuel shows how God made David take a census that God himself forbade. And this is to say nothing of Jesus’ own crucifixion. Chronicles 1 revisits the census story, and claims that Satan is the one who directed David. Scriptures also say that Satan is the one who tormented Job. And just before the crucifixion, Satan is the one who entered Judas.
I have no interest in disputing canon. In fact, my book endeavors to preserve it. But I think the natural punishment for doubting God’s goodness emerges from how we treat this canon. That is, the worst hallucination that occurs after the Fall is not so much about the serpent, as it is about the nature of God himself. The sin occurs when we judge these scriptural events as something only and truly evil. Our mistrust tempts us to declare that regardless of scriptural origin, these events are so unjust that they could never warrant a reason. So through addition, revision, or interpretation, we decide that the God of goodness would not commit them. And as a punishment for removing these events from God’s purview, we decide that Satan can freely pose as God, dominate kings, ruin the faithful, and murder God himself. That’s a lot of power we just gave to Old Nick.
I suspect that the people of the Book contribute to Satan’s growth even if they don’t carry their insecurities all that far. We cause problem enough, for instance, in forgetting God’s own use of ferocity: his Flood; his plagues; his own punishments against Moses, Solomon, David, Sodom and Gomorrah, Lot’s wife, Jonah, Judah, Israel, Zechariah, the Pharisees, Judas; the threats of punishment to the churches in Revelation–and in fact, much of Revelation in general. Honestly. If God loves whom he chastises, he must adore the entire multitude. But by forgetting God’s ferocity–and by this I mean the arrival of what amounts to punishment, instead of an episode of cruelty–by forgetting, in other words, who God is, we build a repository of what we hope he is not. And this means we both diminish his powers and build the influence of the other’s. Destruction becomes hateful at worst, and arbitrary at best. So by contrast, then, I suggest that we decide that although it would be foolish to say that all ruin has a discernible purpose, it is perhaps wise to suggest that it will have an answer nonetheless.
I don’t think this posture means that Satan doesn’t exist–or that he exists only through the hallucination of God’s tyranny or weakness. But I do believe that the fruits of hallucination suggest how Satan enjoys influence especially in proportion to how much we award him. C.S. Lewis claims that Satan is the Lord of the Lie, because a lie renders reality unknowable and unloveable. It makes the world, in other words, into Satan’s own image.