In a recent novella I’ve tried to reimagine the Christian Gospels from the point of view of the Devil. This posed a number of problems, most immediately how to represent a so-called unreliable narrator as reliable. As quaint as that sounds to the postmodern ear, I think any narration involves an initial negotiation between writer and reader over some ground rules.
On the most basic level the reader wants to know how reality works in the story, which is not to say that the author is shackled to realism, just that he has to be consistent. If animals speak, they speak, and don’t suddenly go mute. There are no hidden characters, no “then-I-woke-up-and-realized-it-was-all-a-dream moments”; no deus ex machina. Of course, this is essential for crime novels—mysteries especially—in which the reader is following along trying to crack the case and must be provided the clues to do so.
In relating a story, the narrator is responsible for maintaining this contract between writer and reader. Now, the degree of truthfulness, irony and subjectivity that the narrator allots himself, and to which the reader agrees, varies. At one extreme, the narrator may be said to speak with authorial intent. At another, in the case of an unreliable narrator, belie his meaning. In either case, the writer has done this intentionally, and in the case of the unreliable narrator he ideally lets the reader in on the ruse so they can laugh together at this self-deluding fellow.
My problem was how to make the reader actually believe a time-honored scoundrel like the Devil.
This might sound like a complicated task, but I’d like to float the theory that the ability to gain trust is probably genetically hard-wired into some part of us that is responsible for maintaining our own social contracts. Each of us is an unreliable narrator and each of us must gain the acceptance of others. We’re all the subtlest of salespeople. Much of the problem of presenting Satan worked out intuitively, though looking back over Satan’s lines, I can see a method.
Early on in the story, Satan remarks, parenthetically, about a mortal’s desire to bargain his soul for fame: “If man only knew the truth he’d lose heart altogether, and what fun would that be? Let man have his everlasting soul. His principles. His stake.”
He goes on to complete the bargain, but not before letting the reader in on the joke that the afterlife is a Ponzi scheme. In this way, the Devil-narrator accomplishes two seemingly contradictory things. First, he gains the reader’s trust, for he admits that he lies and second, he adds a layer of complexity to his character that he may lie yet again. A liar’s paradox.
Of course there are other examples of sympathetic Satans, but I think they abandon this complication. Milton’s Satan is so compelling because of his unswerving, high-flown rhetoric and adamant opposition to God. He is steadfast. ”What matters if I be what I am and what I should be?” He is out front with his rebellion that we don’t doubt him. To take a more contemporary example, the television character Lucifer, based on Neil Gaiman’s writing, insists that he doesn’t lie. The writers are at pain to prove this, and even create scenarios where Lucifer’s compulsion to tell the truth actually works against him. Lucifer’s distaste for equivocation is an interesting angelic touch, but in the end, rates him on a human scale of values. The ancient Gods are said to exist in another reality. While I am interested in Jesus’ humanity, it seemed dramatically and cosmologically correct that Satan should remain separated from the world by a veil, try as he might to enter.
As a down-payment on this deal, now, the Devil agrees to tell the tale of Jesus, whom he’s taken up with on the Road to Jerusalem. It seems the two have much in common. Jesus doesn’t particularly want to be crucified any more than the Devil wishes to be vilified for all time. Each would defy his fate. The problem, for all of us, is that this heavy hand of God deprives everyone of free will in the end.
In dramatic terms, God functions as the antagonist, strangely, standing in the way of his characters’ self-fulfillment. Jesus and the Devil have gotten their signals crossed. Jesus has lost interest in God’s plan, while the Devil seems interested in a measure of redemption.
Throughout, I think, the reader maintains a “willing suspension of disbelief.” Why? Or rather How? The answer, I think, is that the Devil maintains a plausible confessional tone throughout. Beneath whatever wise cracks he makes, he seems to reveal another poignant aspect of his existence at each turn, compelling our confidence.
Of course, one needn’t believe every confession. There are a few examples of false confessions in film and literature. (The Usual Suspects is a great one.) In which case we’ve really stumbled into the realm of psychodrama. The Gospels are not that kind of thriller that deals in abnormal psychology; so we tend to give the penitent the benefit of the doubt….
That may be deeply ingraine in me as a former altar boy and Catholic. I suppose I find it compelling. I’ve always enjoyed romantic autobiography. And the Confessional school of American poetry: Lowell, Berryman, Plath and Wright.
I found it useful in my first book, a crime memoir. For a long time, I puzzled over how I might present an unsympathetic protagonist (myself) who despite his villainy is not exactly an anti-hero, but more like a frustrated idealist, (much like Satan who is Lucifer, The Morning Star.)
I was teaching Philip Lopate’s Art of The Personal Essay in a Freshman English course at the time and came across a passage in Lopate’s introductory notes on “the confessional element in personal essay” suggesting how the writer might navigate a moral fix by simply telling the truth. In Lopate’s words “drop past psychic defenses toward deeper levels of honesty, implicat[ing] first oneself and then the reader in a fault that seems initially to belong safely elsewhere.”
That seemed exactly right: that one might involve the reader emotionally and morally in a piece by accusing oneself first.
Satan’s self-revelation culminates in the so-called temptation scene, which is really kind of a maudlin confession. Eventually he pushes Jesus back on his path to the cross, fulfilling their fates accordingly. The irony is that Jesus’ crucifixion serves not to redeem man, but, as an action taken up freely by Jesus, it redeems God, restoring that notion of free will that justifies human suffering.