Saturday, 13 October 2007

Devil's advocate: on reincarnating Milton's Satan

If you were to ask who is the greatest of all fictional characters, then Milton’s Satan would have to be very close to the top of the list. The Satan of Paradise Lost (1667) is an utterly powerful and singular character – and he has cast a long shadow over subsequent literary history. Thus some of our greatest modern characters (e.g. Melville’s Ahab) are in fact precisely reincarnations of Milton’s Satan.

But my own favourite contemporary incarnation of Milton’s Satan is found not in literature, but in the 1997 film Devil’s Advocate. The Satan-character in this film (a lawyer named “John Milton”) is modelled very closely on Paradise Lost, and he is brilliantly brought to life by Al Pacino. Like Milton’s Satan, this lawyer is above all a rhetorician – he loves to make long, egocentric speeches. He’s fascinated by himself and by his own unique place in the cosmos: “I’m the hand up Mona Lisa’s skirt. I’m a surprise, Kevin. They don’t see me coming.”

Like Milton’s Satan, this Satan-figure is a champion of human rights and freedoms: “I’ve nurtured every sensation man’s been inspired to have. I cared about what he wanted and I never judged him. Why? Because I never rejected him. In spite of all his imperfections, I’m a fan of man! I’m a humanist. Maybe the last humanist.” Yep, this Satan is one hell of a nice guy.

Further, he is, like Milton’s Satan, a seductive tempter who is always whispering in someone’s ear, enticing people with promises of becoming like God: “You sharpen the human appetite to the point where it can split atoms with its desire; you build egos the size of cathedrals; fibre-optically connect the world to every eager impulse; grease even the dullest dreams with these dollar-green, gold-plated fantasies, until every human becomes an aspiring emperor, becomes his own God – and where can you go from there?”

The big difference, however, is that Al Pacino’s Satan is a rapacious womaniser, whereas Milton’s Satan is (more profoundly) a sexually impotent voyeur who is tormented by the sight of Adam and Eve’s lovemaking. And Devil’s Advocate would have been a much better film if Satan had turned out to be impotent (like the sadomasochistic Frank Booth in Blue Velvet).

Anyway, the most creative and most insightful aspect of Devil’s Advocate is that, while Milton’s Satan was depicted as a heroic parliamentary leader, Al Pacino’s Satan is the head of a big New York law firm. He is a lawyer through and through, “always negotiating.” Indeed, he is nothing less than a pure embodiment of law itself.

Thus this Satan tells his son: “the law, my boy, puts us into everything. It’s the ultimate backstage pass, it’s the new priesthood, baby! Did you know there are more students in law school than lawyers walking the earth? We’re coming out, guns blazing! The two of you, all of us, acquittal after acquittal after acquittal – until the stench of it reaches so high and far into heaven, it chokes the whole fucking lot of them!”

This is superb satire (and we all love to satirise lawyers), but it’s also a profoundly Miltonic twist – a direct identification of law with the Satanic, and thus a paradoxical identity between law and lawlessness. And it’s hard not to be reminded here of the challenging Pauline thought that even God’s own law can become one of the demonic “cosmic elements” (Gal. 4:3, 9) which enact human enslavement. In the same way, do not our contemporary “rights” and “freedoms” function precisely as a cosmic Law whose sole aim is to reduce us to the status of consumer-slaves – i.e., is there not here, too, a precise identity between Law and the demonic?

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