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Who Killed Satan?

ISSUE:  Spring 1996
The Death of Satan: How Americans Have Lost the Sense of Evil. By Andrew Delbanco. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux. $23.00.

Depending upon where one’s eyes fix, Satan is either alive-and-well (televangelists see his face writ large in secular humanism) or dead in the water (see Oprah, Jenny Jones, Jerry Springer, et al.). Andrew Delbanco, Julian Clarence Levi Professor of Humanities at Columbia, is all too aware of the traps, Satanic and otherwise, that come with the territory of a book out to explain how it is that our sense of evil gradually shriveled up, along with the sense of personal responsibility that came with it. The story he means to tell, then, is about the “incessant dialectic in American life between the dispossession of Satan under the pressure of modernity and the hunger to get him back.”

When American culture began, Satan was nothing less than “an incandescent presence in most people’s lives, a symbol and explanation both for the cruelties one received and those perpetrated on others.” By the early 18th century, however, evil no longer gripped the American imagination, replaced as it was by the first inklings of what, two centuries later, would become the modernist (or postmodernist) pickle:

In our disenchanted world, one respected historian has recently remarked (and here he is perfectly representative) that mass murderers like Hitler and Stalin require us “judiciously [to] distinguish mental disorders that incapacitate from streaks of disorder that should not diminish responsibility.” This distinction would be meaningless [as would Hannah Arendt’s more famous formulation about the “banality of evil”] to scores of millions who died at their hands. What does it mean to say that the inventor of the concentration camps, or of the Gulag, was subject to a “disorder”? What does it mean to call these monsters mentally disordered, and to engage in scholastic debate over whether their brand of madness vitiates their responsibility? Why can we no longer call them evil?

One answer, of course, is that evil no longer occupies a place at the academic table; or put another way, talk about Satan and you will have instantly identified your “discourse community”—namely, the Christian Right. Delbanco’s study is an effort to reintroduce matters of moral gravitas into intellectual debate, by writing what he calls our “national spiritual biography,” and perhaps even more impressive, by writing intellectual history with the scholarly erudition of a Perry Miller and the social engagement of an living Howe. In short, there are probably hundreds of ways that a book entitled The Death of Satan might have gone wrong; to his credit, Delbanco avoids every one of them.

Consider, for example, this discussion of Benjamin Franklin and Jonathan Edwards, arguably the most accomplished, as well as entirely representative, figures of their age:

These two great opposites—Franklin and Edwards— articulated the two poles of feeling between which American culture was now reorganizing itself. Franklin’s is our first genuinely modern public voice; and it was the prescience of Edwards to anticipate the breakage between experience and moral ideas that it expressed—to see that the forces of the culture were increasingly arrayed against the demands of religion, not out of some general hostility, but in the specific sense that the twin concepts of personal responsibility and a determining God were becoming incompatible. Eighteenth-century culture was, in other words, showing the tell-tale signs of modernity, of its penchant for explanation rather than confession, and of its conviction that circumstance mitigates crime.

It was, after all, Franklin who cleverly substituted errata (essentially a printer’s error) for the preferred Calvinist term—”sin”; as it was Franklin who demonstrated that a barn set ablaze by lightening was not a sign of providential displeasure at its owner’s sinfulness but rather as something that could have been avoided by installing a lightning rod.

Edwards, in short, didn’t stand a historical chance. His tortured, intellectually impressive efforts to reconcile predestination with free will, to articulate the Puritan vision of Satan’s inwardness coupled with our constant need for spiritual introspection and anguish simply could not derail the engine moving toward Emersonian transcendentalism.

Or consider this passage in which Satan-as-enemy becomes, in the mid-19th-century reckoning, the enemy of ME, whether defined as die Monster Bank by Jacksonians, as the self-righteous Yankees by the slaveholder, or the drunken “paddy” by native urban workers fearful about losing their jobs:

Pride of self, once the mark of the devil, was now not just a legitimate emotion but America’s uncontested god. And since everyone had his own self, everyone had his own god. Opposition to pride as a legitimate emotion was now condemned as the reaction of entrenched privilege, and a concept of “un-Americanness” began to take form. To be deferential was to be alien and strange.

A sense of tragedy, something that was never Emerson’s strong suit, recognizes evil as much, much more than “merely privative, not absolute; it is like cold, which is the privation of heat.” Reading Emerson’s formulation against the backdrop of our century’s collective nightmare, one can only conclude that the same Emerson who was so right about American culture was dead wrong about its capacity for evil.

Granted, Delbanco reminds us, again and again, that a sense of tragedy persisted in such writers as Hawthorne and Melville (he cites their work as sources of inspiration, and solace), but the main cultural road led to Irony, an effort to deliver on the Emersonian promise that the culture can at last be liberated from the oppressive sense that possibility is foreclosed in advance. What we got, instead, was a Hobson’s choice between Susan Sontag’s Camp (“the love of the exaggerated, the “off,” of things-being-what-they-are-not. . . . Camp sees everything in quotation marks. It’s not a lamp, but a lamp’; not a woman, but a “woman.”) or Norman Mailer’s Hip (“. . .whether the life is criminal or not, the decision is to encourage the psychopath in oneself, to explore that domain of experience where security is boredom and therefore sickness. . .”). What we got instead was fashion, imitations that quickly went “commercial” and just as quickly lost whatever authenticity might have existed in the originals.

As for the satanic, it seems destined to abide among us in the degraded form of Freddie Kruger and his B-movie avatars; or perhaps as spin-offs of Dana Carvey’s “church lady” in whatever format eventually replaces “Saturday Night Live.” No matter, for in a culture of irony, minimalism and the more heated exercises of deconstruction are likely to be very far indeed from the senses of evil and personal responsibility that Delbanco has in mind.

What he hankers for is not a return to Puritan Salem, complete with whipping posts and witch hunts, but, rather, a concerted effort to recapture a language in which serious matters can be talked about seriously. If this were a heated op-ed column in the New York Times or even an lengthy article aimed at the pages of, say, Harper’s, it would have slipped, largely unnoticed, down the memory hole. Delbanco’s point is that where we don’t have fashionable talk about victimology, social constructions of reality, or swathes of psychobabble, we have silence. Meanwhile, the intellectual history that painted us into this unfortunate corner needs precisely the documentation and argument his book provides. Delbanco worries—rightly, I think—that “if evil, with all the insidious complexity which Augustine attributed to it, escapes the reach of our imagination, it will have established dominion over us all.” Moreover, “if the privative conception of evil continues to be lost between liberal irony on the one hand, and fundamentalist demonizing on the other, we shall have no way of confronting the most challenging experiences of our private and public lives.” Delbanco may not have the answer, or for that matter, even a set of plausible suggestions, but he has given us a handful of important questions worth pondering against the backdrop of our nation’s complicated intellectual history—and, better yet, he does all this in writing as passionate as it is diamond-hard.


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