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?

13 Comments:

Aric Clark said...

Very nice reflection on the film and its connection to Milton. I recently preached a sermon which bore some similarities to what you're talking about here, regarding the law becoming a demonic tool.

However, while I agree that Milton's Satan is a fantastic character and that the literature that has been inspired from it is rich - I also think Milton (and others) have a lot to answer for in terms of the damage this image of Satan has wrought in the church. A personified evil has caused the church at times to descend into dualism. People project Milton's Satan back into the Old Testament as if Ha Satan wasn't an officer in God's court, an ally of God. And of course, along with a personified evil comes a reified Hell.

Ben Myers said...

Hi Aric -- yeah, I know what you mean about Milton's unfortunate influence on the popular Christian imagination. Apparently in Italy, when people hear a line from Dante they often think it's from the Bible -- and Paradise Lost has a similar legacy. Many Christians think that scenes from Paradise Lost are actually in the Bible (e.g. that "Satan" was a good angel who rebelled; that there was war in heaven between good and bad angels; that the serpent in the Garden was Satan incognito; that the forbidden fruit was an apple; that eating the apple introduced a cosmic Fall, etc.).

But I wouldn't want to blame Milton for the fact that some people today accept all this mythology as literal truth. On the contrary, Milton himself insisted that he wasn't writing for the masses, but for the "fit audience, though few" who would grasp the radical message of his theologico-political poem.

Pastor David said...

One of the best moments in the whole movie is absolutely the final scene, when Lomax again succumbs to a different temptation, and Milton says "Vanity ...definitely my favorite sin." It is an excellent reminder that the sin of pride is always obvious as sin, precisely because it appeals to what is best in a person - even if that best this is humility and strong principles.

Bruce Yabsley said...

"Look at me --- underestimated from day one!"

Nick said...

Ben,

You said: "(e.g. that "Satan" was a good angel who rebelled; that there was war in heaven between good and bad angels; that the serpent in the Garden was Satan incognito; that the forbidden fruit was an apple; that eating the apple introduced a cosmic Fall, etc.)."

Can't we find Christians (and even to some degree Jews) who believed many of these things prior to Milton's Paradise Lost?

Ben Myers said...

Hi Nick -- yes, you're right. My point wasn't that Milton invented these traditional embellishments. My point is just that Milton's own re-telling of Genesis 1-3 is so imaginatively compelling that, after Paradise Lost, it becomes increasingly difficult for Christian readers to remember where Genesis ends and where the embellishments begin.

To take one obvious example: after Milton has inserted his magnificent Satan into the so-called "Fall story", it becomes impossible (even today!) for many people to read Genesis 3 without seeing "the serpent" as some kind of Satanic intelligence. (As though the idea of a talking serpent weren't already hard enough to swallow!)

So it's not a question of whether Milton has invented these embellishments -- it's a question of his profound influence on the imaginative horizons of subsequent generations of Bible readers.

Michael Westmoreland-White said...

I loved that film, too, but didn't see the Miltonian connections. Thanks. Reminds me of a line from Stephen Donaldson's profoundly dark fantasy novels about Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever (itself a wonderful name!), "Law is not the opposite of Despite."

I have too profound a respect for Torah, for Judaism, to directly equate law (or even rights and freedoms) with the Satanic--but, as the Apostle Paul knew, law can be a breeding ground for the Satanic. Whatever good law does--and it does good as well as evil--it is NOT the opposite of Despite or Evil--and thus may become Satanic.

Milton knew this. The poet of Paradise Lost was also a strong proponent of parliamentary democracy and of protection of human rights against the tyrannies of kings.

Ben Myers said...

Hi Michael -- yes, it's true that Milton advocated a tolerant liberal politics of rights and freedoms. But this wasn't actually as benign as it might sound: for Milton, the people with "rights" are the regenerate, educated Protestants who practice just the right kind of piety (so it's a kind of spiritual aristocracy). This has all kinds of implications -- for instance, in Milton's ideal liberal society, one of the duties of the state is to persecute Catholics, precisely because Catholic piety conflicts with the kind of piety that one must have in order to have "rights"!

I think Milton's politics thus highlights an aporia that is at the very root of liberal democracy: a political system can be founded on the basis of subjective individual rights only when a prior decision has already been reached about which kinds of individuals must be excluded from this benevolent and tolerant system. Or in Alain Badiou's memorable expression, "human rights" always necessarily designates the state's "right to kill".

So I think Milton is very helpful for seeing how this aporia was already built into liberal democracy right from the start. (In case it's of interest, I've explored this in detail in a forthcoming article in the Journal of the History of Ideas.)

Michael Westmoreland-White said...

I'm sorry to hear this about Milton, but I deny Alain Badiou's conclusions.

The Levellers were near contemporaries with Milton and defended both Catholics and Jews (as citizens--NOT their theological views) and Roger Williams, who was Milton's contemporary, did the same in Rhode Island.

I also don't see human rights as "subjective."

Anonymous said...

One of my favorite lines from the film is where he boasts, "Who in their right mind could possibly deny that the twentieth century was entirely mine!"

Anonymous said...

Excellent movie! - has anyone read the novel by Andrew Neidermans that the movie was based on? or any of his works? Thanks

Anonymous said...

I guess what this looses for me is the conflict in Milton's version between the historicity of the English Revolution. Milton's tale celebrates Satan as a hero, and the fall of man is inevitably the means through which we escape the tyranny of God. The movie, on the contrary, used Satan as the enemy, not a hero. Milton is the Devil, but Satan in Paradise Lost fights for more than just pleasure, he fights for democracy, for equality, for escape from the oppression of the church and its support of Tyranny. Milton in the Devil's advocate resembles the devil in some regards, but I think he is more easily charactarized by a more modern image of corporate immorality. Milton in the devil's advocate merely represents the desire to escape repression in the face of industrial culture, the ability of the powerful to manipulate man's law to break man's law. The devil in Paradise fought against god's law, and ultimately was always mourning his wickedness, always frought with conflict over the harm he had to inflict in order to free himself and his fellows.

Michael Westmoreland-White said...

I loved that film, too, but didn't see the Miltonian connections. Thanks. Reminds me of a line from Stephen Donaldson's profoundly dark fantasy novels about Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever (itself a wonderful name!), "Law is not the opposite of Despite."

I have too profound a respect for Torah, for Judaism, to directly equate law (or even rights and freedoms) with the Satanic--but, as the Apostle Paul knew, law can be a breeding ground for the Satanic. Whatever good law does--and it does good as well as evil--it is NOT the opposite of Despite or Evil--and thus may become Satanic.

Milton knew this. The poet of Paradise Lost was also a strong proponent of parliamentary democracy and of protection of human rights against the tyrannies of kings.

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