Lodestar Quarterly

Lodestar Quarterly
Figure reaching for a star Issue 12 • Winter 2004 • Featured Lodestar Writer • Prose

Infernal Sympathies

Mark Doty

Halloween night in Chelsea, and Paul and I are out for the evening in leather jackets, jeans for him and red sweatpants for me, and for each of us, a new pair of horns, rather realistically bony inch-long pointy curves strapped onto our foreheads by a tight little elastic band. We are delighted by the proliferation of other devils in the streets, by angels that glare or shrink from us, by priests and popes who wish to either embrace or exorcise us. The downtown night feels alive with a veritable outbreak of presences come pouring in from the afterlife or the inner life, all of them hell-bent, so to speak, on a good time. (It feels not unlike Milton's great meeting in Hell, which is my favorite part of Paradise Lost, but much more cheerful.)

What startles me most is an apparition, in a favorite Greek diner on Eighth Avenue: a sleek, lightly muscled fellow, horned and goateed, his bare torso greased a hellfire red. He's stunning; I can't take my eyes off him; I want him to -- what? carry me away? I can hardly eat my sandwich. I'm trying to figure out the deep hook inside this attraction when I see in my mind's eye a troupe of red devils, similarly attired, pouring out from the underside of some Presbyterian sermon or Baptist text; I am five years old, in Memphis, Tennessee, and I have been introduced to the god of prohibition and of punishment, and though I could not have said anything of the kind at the time, the underbelly of his cosmic scheme is hotly, wildly, peculiarly sexy. The men there are red-hot with burning, and nearly naked; they have beetling brows and big noses and (can this be merely an accident?) the same kind of facial hair sported by ninety per cent of the men in my neighborhood. They favor heat, the bodily stench of sulphur, the harsh tang of smoke, and a kind of unmistakably leathery sartorial style. Did you ever see a devil who wasn't wearing tight pants?

There is a further level to this eros though, deeper than its contrast to angelic disembodiment. The devils of my childhood, on TV commercials and, weirdly, even in church scenes and religious iconography, laugh. In church, they're the only ones who do. You won't watch an angel cracking a joke or poking under the mantle of an assumed truth, but those in red are the very definition of "irreverent." (Girls, too, of course. Though I paid more attention to those infernal citizens who embodied male sexuality, there were also just more of them.) They go unhobbled by piety, certainty or received truth. There is in the devilish an eros or élan of argument, a delight in undercutting the given, mocking the president or the professor or the priest.

Milton, famously, makes Satan a grand psychological antihero, whether he intends to or not; it's just that the devil's the most interesting character in the story, and there is nothing the Puritan poet can do about this except to honestly portray the glittering skin of the snake and the fiercely driven will of Lucifer. Even Milton (who William Blake, almost equally famously, said was of the Devil's company without knowing it) can't make an all-knowing God, for whom the fate of each of his subjects is a foregone conclusion, dramatic.

It was Blake himself, a century and a half or so later, who was the first poet to conceive of the infernal troupes as having less to do with good and evil than with states of mind. "All deities," he tells us, "reside in the human breast." It is a particularly modern intuition; he blurs the lines between the holy and the unholy by casting angels, prophets and demons as characters in the grand theatre of the human psyche. Here he is, in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, early in his career but already causing problems for Christian orthodoxy:

As I was walking among the fires of hell, delighted with the enjoyments of Genius, which to Angels look like torment and insanity, I collected some of their Proverbs; thinking that as sayings used in a nation mark its character, so the Proverbs of Hell shew the nature of Infernal wisdom better than any description of buildings and garments. When I came home: on the abyss of the five senses, where a flat sided steep frowns over the present world, I saw a mighty Devil folded in black clouds, hovering on the sides of the rock, with corroding fires he wrote the following sentence now perceived by the minds of men, & read by them on earth:

How do you know but ev'ry Bird that cuts the airy way,
Is an immense world of delight, clos'd by your senses five?

A great current of energy becomes available for poetry in that passage, and in the wildly brilliant proverbs that follow it, a new wind blowing off the revolutions of Europe and the further edges of the Enlightenment. It has nothing to do with evil, really, in the usual sense of the word, though it certainly represents a huge challenge to conventional morality and received thinking. It is the assertion of a temperament that favors inquiry and uncertainty, distrusts sanctimony of any sort, and piousness and rule-making. It expresses delight in instability and paradox, and favors the uncontainable, that which isn't readily circumscribed. What can be shut within the chapel is clearly not large enough to serve as a description of reality; what I will call, for convenience's sake, a diabolic perspective, prefers the unsettled, the disorder that leaks out of systems, the darkness that looms beneath the altar.

The Biblical and literary scholar Elaine Pagels writes that the Greek word diabolos -- the origin of our devil -- means "one who puts an obstacle in the path." The devilish, in this sense, confounds our expectations of ease, keeps us from going easily where we thought we were going, undercuts expectations. The diabolic eschews the straight path, the easy progression.

But to be halted, to be confounded, is to be instructed. In writing, as in living, isn't it the troublesome, knotty thing that winds up having the most of opportunity in it? A friend of mine is fond of quoting a provocative Zen proverb: "The obstacle in the path is the path." What gets in the way, in other words, is what there is to be done; we learn not from the way we thought we were going, but from the actual interruptions, frustrations, all that stops us short, refuses ready apprehension.

Suppose that we set aside the Manichaean binary of good and evil; what other oppositions, at least in the realm of literary devilry, might replace them? What is the vocabulary of obstacle? I'd propose:

stable orderprovisional constructions
conservatismenergetic liberality
hierarchyintellectual anarchy
binary thinkingcomplexity
permanencecontinual revision

Let's imagine that right-hand column as a kind of infernal credo; energy, it cries with Blake, is eternal delight! I suppose it's fair to say that my dream as a writer is to inhabit that column of terms -- well, I almost wrote "comfortably," but in fact it is an ethic and esthetic of discomfort; it suggests that just when one thinks one knows what one's doing -- ah, there goes the rug, the floor and the walls. To be alive is to have one's tentative certainties rewritten, one's systems of understanding called into question, one's rules broken.

Of course I do not -- like anyone save maybe Blake and Nietsche, madmen both -- live entirely on that side of the equation. One is always establishing hierarchies and orders and patterns, composing binary oppositions, striving toward permanence. I'm just saying that it's my increasing goal, as I get older, to embrace my position as one of the devil's own cheerful sons: defiant, interested in the obstacle and the gaps in the path, open to possibility, looking under the robe and the carpet, less certain, more impure, less deceived. I would like to sing along with an angelic choir but I will do so in my own, doubtless inharmonious, idiosyncratic way. That's my inclination, and, as the Sun advises Frank O'Hara in a famous poem, I will "follow it to Hell, if necessary, which I doubt."


This Halloween we did something new, going to the annual Procession of the Ghouls way uptown, at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. The wise elders of that church have allowed into the sanctuary the excluded, the funny, the beautiful and the strange. When the ceremony began, a great fog rose up in the darkened sanctuary, obscuring the altar, and when it cleared a bit we saw that a tall skeleton had arisen there, a Lord of Death, and he was dancing. It was odd at first, and then we realized that it truly wasn't much different, to see Death there on the altar, before us -- hadn't that always been the case?

After Lord Mortality rolled his hips and rattled his bones for a while, to the accompaniment of a grand and spooky organ, the evening's apparitions began to process, emerging from the transept and making their way down the aisle like the celebrants they were. Here came a huge-headed ghoul; here a wild, knife-fingered lizard-face; here an alligato-rish dragon, held in the air on mobile sticks. The procession could have come from Bosch or Brueghel: now a big mouseface, now a strangely doll-headed baby, then an impossibly tall bull-headed being, lovely and calm of visage, all robed in gold. A beetling fly descended the walls from above; a great spider thrummed her web on the wall over the entry; an ephemeral rag-bodied ghost shimmied back and forth above the pews. Why did we feel so exhilarated, so alive? At last a ghostly bishop passed up the aisle between the wide double row of pews, carrying a silvery sunburst like a parody of a monstrance, accompanied by black-clad puppeteers / attendants / altar boys swinging censors from which clouds of unmistakable frankincense arose. It was the middle ages, the ascent of the Lord of Misrule; it was as if something held inside the Mass had been set loose, what was pushed down beneath the altar allowed to emerge into the gloomy light.

How odd and reassuring that what should appear should be so of the earth, things that dwell close to the ground: here were versions of mice and spiders, newts and flies, and their nocturnal companions the owl and the moth, scurrying things, little flitters and darters, the underlife. At the end they accompanied us to the church doors, and out onto the wide steps, where the golden bull bent down as if to kiss me, its placid smile like the face of an Apollo so beautiful, ancient and strange that I let out an Oh! that probably frightened the man or woman inside. The night creatures hopped around or stood sentry, nodded between themselves, guarded and escorted us, and waved us on our way as we left for the bars, the cafes and the trains.

Mark Doty

Mark Doty is the author of seven books of poems, including School of the Arts, a collection expected to be published in spring 2005. He has also published three volumes of nonfiction prose: Heaven's Coast, a memoir which won the PEN/Martha Albrand Award for Nonfiction, Firebird, an autobiography, and Still Life With Oysters and Lemon, a meditation on objects and intimacy. His work has been honored by the National Book Critics Circle Award, the T.S. Eliot Prize, the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, and two Lambda Literary Awards. He has also received a Whiting Writers Award, a Lila Wallace/Readers Digest Writers Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and two fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts. Doty has taught at the University of Iowa, New York University, Columbia University, Sarah Lawrence College, and the University of Houston. He lives in New York City and Provincetown.

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