Excerpts from The Devil's Share

 Excerpts from The Devil's Share

Denis de Rougemont 

(1944)


 

THE DEVIL AS FORTUNETELLER


It is easy to sense why the arts of divination are linked, in popular imagination, with a satanic pact. The soothsayer is regarded as both its victim and its beneficiary. In exchange for the purity of his soul, he finds himself endowed with extraordinary powers, whose source can be—so it is commonly thought—only in the nether realm. This is an involuntary, one might almost say instinctive, homage paid to Satan’s angelic power. It is true that under the name of Python he represents the diviner, and under the Hebrew vocable of ‘VB,’ the spirit of descending light, prophetic and magic power. But the assimilation of clairvoyance in general with this diabolical power is an error which the Devil himself carefully maintains in our spirits. For divination is not evil in itself, quite the contrary. The Bible condemns it in its abuses, as it condemns prostitution while exalting sensual love in the finest of its songs. God himself unceasingly sends prophetic dreams to those who love him, from Daniel to John of Pathmos. And the first to discover and to hail the birth of Christ were the magi.


    It would be vain to deny the facts on the pretext that they are still inexplicable: tables tap, cards speak, thoughts are transmitted in silence. All the signs of the world call to us! Why turn a deaf ear to these solicitations? If divination today is still only the uncertain science of discovering the future, we may well fear that it will become in the future a discovery of science. We shall then regret the time of the winks of destiny, when we could still catch them with loving guile. . .


    When this is said, the Devil has two chances of insinuating himself into our minds by the clandestine way, when he fails by the more refined means of reason and of virtue.


    His first chance resides in our propensity to reduce evil and good to the misfortunes and good fortunes that befall us, and these in turn to the failures and successes of manifest life. This confusion of our moral categories admirably serves the designs of the Evil One. It prevents the victim of the charlatan from understanding that his misfortunes are not Evil, nor even necessarily the consequences of Evil, but are perhaps the means of Good, to say nothing of the true good fortunes that may arise from them. Evil is not necessarily war, for example, but the utilization of war to sterilize our faith, or the utilization of peace no less, and even at lesser risks for Satan. The evil and good translated by fortune-tellers in terms of obstacles and successes can in truth only be defined in relation to the supreme goal of an existence, and in terms of inner attitudes.


    The Devil’s second chance is to flatter our tendency to feel ourselves irresponsible, by means of oracles uttered in the name of an irrevocable destiny. The anguish of modern man before his liberty can be measured by the number of fortunetellers and their clients avid of moral anesthesia. We here touch the secret of the real Mal du siècle.


 

THE MAL DU SIÈCLE: DEPERSONALIZATION

 

The philanthropist or the man of the world, the artist, the author and the successful man—this gallery of victims is classic to the point of being almost outmoded. For Satan steps with his time, and seems to concern himself less and less with convincing the individual, in an epoch in which the latter hardly exists. His ambition turns to the masses. Here at last we come to the Devil’s Grand Strategy in this century.


    The best interpretation of the collective phenomena of today was given in about 1848 by the Danish writer Sören Kierkegaard, the capital thinker of our era. This is what one may read in his intimate diary: 


    “In contradistinction to the Middle Ages and those periods with all their discussions of possession, of particular men giving themselves to evil, I should like to write a book on diabolic possession in modern times, and show how mankind en masse gives itself up to evil, how nowadays it happens en masse. It is for this reason that people gather into flocks, in order that natural, animal hysteria should take hold of them, in order to feel themselves stimulated, inflamed and beside themselves. The scenes on the Blocksberg are the exact counterparts of this demoniacal pleasure, which consists in losing oneself in order to be volatilized into a higher potency, where being outside oneself one hardly knows what one is doing or saying, or who or what is speaking through one, while the blood courses faster, the eyes turn bright and staring, the passions and lust seething.”


    What could Kierkegaard be thinking of when, in his bourgeois, pious and comfortable Denmark, he wrote these prophetic lines? He was witnessing the revolutionary upheavals in Europe which marked the outbreak of liberalism, capitalism and nationalism. He alone had seen the Devil busy in these works—ours, the democratic nations’—one century before Hitler came and awakened us by carrying our own discoveries, “virtues” and ideals to the most grandiose excesses.


    Kierkegaard understood better than anyone and before anyone the creative diabolical principle of the mass: fleeing from one’s own person, no longer being responsible, and therefore no longer guilty, and becoming at one stroke a participant in the divinized power of the Anonymous. Now there is a good chance that the Anonymous may be the one who likes to say, I am Nobody . . .


    The crowd is the meeting place of men who are running away from themselves and their vocation. It is no one and it draws from this its assurance in crime. “Not a single soldier could be found to raise a hand against Caius Marius, that is the truth. But three or four women, under the illusion of being a crowd, so that perhaps no one would be able to say who had done it or who had begun, these are supposed to have had the courage! O what a lie! . . . For a crowd is an abstraction, which has no hands, but each isolated man normally has two hands, and when he lifts these two hands against Marius, they are his hands, not those of his neighbor, and not those of the crowd which has no hands.”


    Let us recognize herein Satan’s old, sempiternal tactic. On the occasion of the very first temptation in Eden he has recourse to the same and single artifice: making man believe that he is not responsible, that there is no Judge, that the Law is dubious, that no one will find out, and that besides once the thing succeeds, he himself will be God, hence master of fixing Right and Wrong as he wishes.


    “And they heard the voice of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day: and Adam and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God amongst the trees of the garden.


    “And the Lord God called unto Adam, and said unto him, Where art thou?

    “And he said, I heard thy voice in the garden: and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself.


    “And he said, Who told thee that thou wast naked? Hast thou eaten of the tree whereof I commanded thee, that thou shouldest not eat?


    “And the man said, The woman whom thou gavest to be with me, she gave me of the tree, and I did eat.


    “And the Lord God said unto the woman, What is this that thou hast done? And the woman said, The serpent beguiled me, and I did eat.”


    You see: they go and hide, they are no longer there. And when they are caught, they say that someone else did it. Thus the men of our time, impelled by their “guilt complexes” and fleeing before the confession of their faults, go and hide among the trees in the crowd. In other words the ideal place in which one can always say, “Someone else did it!” And the place where one is surely farthest “from the face of the Eternal.”


    In order that there may no longer be any responsibility there must no longer be anyone. Now if I call and there is no answer, I say that there is no one there: the person in us is what answers for our acts, is what is “capable of response” or responsible; in a crowd there is no longer individual response; in order that there be no one responsible there need only be a mass. Satan will therefore create masses. Herein lies the secret of this grand strategy: to bring sin into mass production and rationalize soul-hunting.


    It must be admitted that almost all our technical inventions, most of our ideals, in short the general evolution of the time favor this Plan in a thousand ways. Everything, in the framework of our lives, conspires to deprive us of the feeling of being responsible persons. We all live more and more in a world of collective trance. We all participate more and more in forms of life foreign to our particular fate and our normal aptitudes. Through the motion pictures the modern individual becomes accustomed to experiencing vicariously adventures which do not happen to him. The radio, the press, mass meetings, invite him to take a measurable part—in imagination—in the great events which bring into conflict Nations, those personified abstractions, and Revolutions, incarnated by their Leaders.  All this contributes to uproot him from his own life, in which nothing similar would happen. As for the “heartaches and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to,” they appear more and more inacceptable with the spread of notions of indefinite Progress, of comfort at any price, of quick success, and with the dwindling of faith in a beyond which formerly enabled men to bear their ills in patience. On the one hand the modern individual is urged to regard his life as petty and to escape from it; on the other, he is swept by great collective emotions. This repulsion and this attraction work in the same direction. They impel man to seek occasions to become dispossessed from himself. They make each one of us a subject predisposed to collective hypnosis, a virtual victim of mass-passions. Wherever an individual becomes disgusted with his personal life, Hitlerism finds a candidate. To be sure, masses would not be possible, in the precise sense of a concentration of men, without the radio, loud-speakers, the press and rapid transportation. But these technical means have not done everything: man first made them, and it was not by chance that he made these and not others. The real causes and roots of the modern phenomenon of masses are in our spiritual attitude. The crowd is not only in the street. It is in the minds of the men of our time. It has its sources in the very heart of individual existences. And it is only here that one can expose it.


 

THE TOWER OF BABEL

 

If the person is becoming lost in the modern world it is because the frames have grown too big. But why have we enlarged them, for a century, beyond all measure? Why do we clamor for bigness, for more bigness at any cost? If not precisely in order to lose ourselves in it!


    At the origin of all these too vast and too complex things that surround us without framing us and that oppress us more than they sustain us, there are no doubt rather precise reasons, all the famous economic, technical, social and financial “necessities.” But at the origin of these “necessities” themselves, I sense our obscure desire to flee into the irresponsible anonymous, and the very old temptation to compensate our anxieties by the utopia of the eritis sicut dii. 


    Now when we lose ourselves it is the Devil who finds us. And when in order to escape our condition we wish to become like gods, it is the Devil who welcomes us at the height of our ascension. As the history of the Tower of Babel reminds us, a history which is the great myth of our time.


    Although he is not mentioned in the account in Chapter XI of Genesis, the Devil is quite obviously the chief Entrepreneur of the primitive Tower and of its modern replicas. (I am not alluding to the sky-scrapers, those big harmless toys, often grandiose and always a little silly but to the whole of our economic, political and urban enterprises.) Let us go back to that too little known story.


    “And the whole earth was of one language, and of one speech.” In other words, all was well. But here is the anxiety which is always the concomitant of temptation. “And they said, Go to, let us build us a city, and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.” You recognize Satan by that doubt which comes over them, by that need which they suddenly feel to assure themselves of their happiness, in the present case, their unity. And this is why they will lose that happiness, as Orpheus lost Eurydice for having wanted to assure himself that she was following him; through lack of faith. You recognize that romantic idea which he suggests to them: to do better than God, “to make a name for themselves,” to rise up to heaven by their own means in order to become gods in their own way. The result, which the Angel of perversity must have foreseen, is necessarily the opposite of what they wished. If you eat of the apple you shall not die, said the Serpent. They ate of it and they entered the realm of Time in which one dies. If we build ourselves a city we shall remain united, men say to themselves. They build it, and it is there precisely that “the Lord confounded their language”; it is at that point that “the Lord scattered them abroad upon the face of all the earth.”


    This memorable discomfiture is attributed by the biblical story to the anger of the Lord, “who came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of men built. And the Lord said, Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do!” It is as though he wants to punish them for being so stupid. But Dante imagines that they would have punished themselves of their own accord as well. They need only have been left to themselves! In his Treatise on Vulgar Eloquence, he proposes a quite natural explanation of the phenomenon of the confusion of tongues. If men no longer understood one another at the time of the construction of that first skyscraper, it was simply because the enterprise was too vast. In fact, in order to achieve the erection of the Tower they were obliged to divide into specialized crews. Some made the bricks which they used for stone, the others the slime which they used for mortar; still others were in charge of bringing up the material, others of building the walls, of making the framework, or rough-casting. Because of the vastness of the enterprise, these specialized crews lived apart from one another. With time they developed technical languages, occupational jargons, various kinds of slang, until at last they no longer understood one another. The multiplicity of language was born of the work itself. But this work soon began to slow down, then stopped, because no one was able to maintain control over the enormous entirety any longer, nor formulate its meaning in a common language.


    It seems to me that we have just about reached this point. The unprecedented anarchy of our vocabulary, in politics especially, would be enough to betray the absence of any common measure in our century. We have seen things in terms too large for our capacities, we have lost on the way the golden rule, the man-standard. And through having moved too fast in everything we have lost sight of the measure and the meaning of the final ends of the human task. The individual becomes lost in the vast and intricate machinery, he feels himself everywhere an exile. Unless he gets caught up in it by mistake, as happened recently in Illinois: some workers were putting up a prefabricated house with such rapidity that one of them remained stuck in the building, and a whole section had to be knocked down to get him out. Will it be necessary to destroy our world for man to be able to find himself again and rebuild for himself a dwelling to his own scale?


    The most noteworthy phenomenon of the beginning of the last century was, in fact, the abrupt expansion, or to put it better, the Babelization of the material framework of our life. The invention of machines suddenly increased possibilities of control over matter. Industry and commerce provoked the sudden creation of enormous cities, ten or a hundred times larger than those that had been known for thousands of years. Into these cities were compressed shapeless human masses, drowning and dissolving the groups organized around small enterprises. Riches, too, grew to such proportions that the eye could no longer measure them: they became abstract figures, distant powers, whose strange behavior economists began to study—a behavior more mysterious than that of the antediluvian monsters whose utter instability, incidentally, they shared. The population of Europe has more than doubled in a hundred years; its riches have multiplied tenfold; its industrial productivity a hundredfold. And the convergence of all these elements, finally, has provoked the creation of considerable armies, thereby suddenly extended the phenomenon of war to the proportions of the entire nation.


    Thus, by a sudden mutation, within the space of fifty to a hundred years, society has become too gigantic to be taken in at a single glance. A single intelligence can no longer understand and master its intricate mechanism. (And this is undoubtedly why one can with impunity give to the crudest and most ignorant the right to vote and to express their views on everything: it will make things no worse.) Then the vertigo of Babel takes hold of the human spirit. Like all vertigo it results from the incapacity to endure inhuman altitudes or dimensions. Like all vertigo, it can be expressed only in terms of contradiction. Never was man more powerful, and never, as an individual, has he felt more impotent. Never was he more learned, and never has he had the impression of understanding so little what is happening in his world. Never has he approached the goal of his Progress with greater fervor, nor has his barbarism ever shown itself better armed to destroy it. “Climb up!” says the Devil, “and become like gods, forget your human stature!” But the higher one climbs, the more easily one falls. As for those responsible, just try to find them! You will discover only committees, parties, trusts in bankruptcy, theories, isms, initials, an opinion which never knows anything, rulers who are too much afraid of opinion to inform it—a universal flight into anonymity, an enormous cacophony dominated by the sound of bombs.


    One of those articulately wise fools that one finds in cafes used to expound to me the following theory: the whole evil arises from building with more than one story. “As a matter of fact,” he would say, “a house should normally be made to shelter men. It is not natural to add stories to it. For in falling from the fifth floor, for instance, you kill yourself. But that would be nothing. What is serious is that the invention of stories has made large cities possible. Large cities have made possible the formation of masses. With the masses have arisen the great social problems. And these are at the origin of the wars of the twentieth century. The whole evil arises from houses with more than one story!


    To tell the truth, not a few of them are being levelled in these days.


 

BOREDOM, A MODERN MOOD

 

The sum total of good and evil in each century may be presumed to be the same: our time is no worse than another, in spite of the triumph of Progress. Only the distribution of vices and virtues becomes modified, as the Devil renews the strategy of temptations. I believe, however, that a new mood, which might be said to be independent of our categories, manifests itself in the modern era. Beyond good and evil, we have discovered Boredom.


    Not the spleen of the romantic poets, not the blues. But that remark can be heard everywhere, “I don’t know why I go on living.”


    What does it betray, if not the weakening or the almost total extinction of the sense of a personal calling? Let us admit that everything conspires to this end in the collectivist and rationalized era. Everything contributes to the suppression of reasons for living not foreseen by the statistics of the State. But why are we becoming collectivized, if this is something we don’t really like? It must be that it somehow suits us—whatever may be the pretexts that the historians of materialistic economics offer us. We seek refuge in Boredom rather than accept the challenge of an unprecedented calling—for unprecedented they all are.


    Ah, what boredom! What to do and why do it? Go and ask the young people of today what is the meaning of their lives, why they cling to existence. One takes a job, it is simply a “job,” without qualification or intimate preference. The love of money—or the need of it—overshadows in most of them a fundamental mood of boredom, but this is still only a camouflage. One does this in order to do something, because there is no reason for doing one thing rather than another. . .


    When I hear someone saying, with a yawn, “What am I to do—I’m no longer interested in anything,” some remarks of Kierkegaard’s come to my mind: “How does one become a Christian? Take any rule of Christian conduct. Try to apply it.” For it is clear that this effort, if it be sincere, will reintroduce you into reality, where the true conflicts manifest themselves, where the lines of force of the spiritual or moral life appear, where the drama of a calling instantly sharpens: not even a second of boredom becomes possible any longer. And your complaint will be that you have only one life to lead.


    Boredom: the hunter reserve of the Demon. Because here anything can become tempting, if it is sufficiently intense or exciting, flattering, easy, and a pretext to flee from oneself . . . 


 

“VITAL” AND OTHER SOPHISMS

 

The whole evil comes from wishing to escape in order not to have to admit oneself responsible, whether one goes and hides among the trees in a foolish hope that God will forget us, or one climbs into the sky or inversely one sinks into bestial stupidity.


    Whether he goes and loses himself in the masses or in the enormous, whether he believes in science or invokes the mysterious, the man of today shows a constant and masochistic propensity to wish himself irresponsible. Everything serves him as an alibi, he uses everything to prove that he wasn’t there, that it wasn’t he, that he can’t do anything about it. His science says to him: you were determined, it’s not your fault; and his passion says to him: it was vital, there is no fault.


    Those of my contemporaries who look upon man as a complex of endocrine glands, enzymes and vitamins find it more and more difficult to conceive that moral judgment still has a meaning, and that the person exists as a whole, at once autonomous and responsible. Evil or “sin” in their view has ceased to be anything but the effects of a temporary or chronic disturbance in the flow of internal secretions. They have read this somewhere. Each time we discover a new mechanism of life we are immediately obsessed by the idea that it “explains everything.” A strange psychosis of modern man! What is more foolish than to pretend to explain the conduct and the moral decisions of a whole by the description of the functioning of some of its parts, always the most recent ones to be analyzed? Who can prove to you that your glands determine you more than you influence them? There is that ill-tempered man: you may say that it is his bad liver that makes him crabbed, but you know that a violent fit of anger also upsets the liver. Who began? Who is responsible for that evil decision? The man or his liver? We are much too interested in denying personal sin for me to grant the materialist hypothesis the right to call itself objective. It is too easy for me to discern the Devil’s hand in this.


    Indeed I am not accusing Science—nothing is less diabolical than an accurate observation—but only the sophisms that derive their authority from it. It is the Devil who interests me, and the pretexts which he offers us to justify our moral resignations. But in the matter of pretexts, there are better ones than science and its careless vulgarizations.


    The adjective vital, for example.


    In classic periods, a thing is considered true or false, good or bad. If you tell a lie, you know that you are lying, and you try not to get caught. If you do something bad, you try at least to exculpate yourself in relation to a truth and a good that are generally admitted. But our epoch has replaced the criteria of truth by values of intensity, and the respect for good by the respect for “life.” Everything that appears sufficiently intense henceforth ceases to have any relevance to truth or falsehood. It is admitted, in our day, that passion, emotion and even hysteria rightfully place you beyond good and evil. They free you from all obligation, they no longer need to justify themselves.


    I had sworn to be faithful, says a spouse, but I realize that it is incompatible with Life. I had signed this treaty, says a antion, but you see that it injures my vital interests. So naturally nothing holds any longer. But what is new is that we boast about it, with the support of all the novelists, journalists, philosophers and political doctrinaires. The French tribunals customarily acquitted crimes of passion. In the great periods the penalty would have been doubled. Let us limit ourselves to this passing observation: our respect for passion and for “life” are signs of the decadence of passions themselves and of true life.


    I here borrow from Andre Gide a penetrating and minute description of this shift from the true to the “vital” in the secret depth of a modern conscience:


    “But I was scrupulous and, before abandoning myself, the demon who was soliciting me had to convince me that what tempted me was permissible to me, that this permitted thing was necessary to me. Sometimes the Evil One would turn the propositions around, would begin by the necessary; he would reason thus, for the Evil One is the Reasoner, ‘How could what is necessary to you not be permitted to you? Why don’t you agree to regard as necessary what you cannot do without? It would give you great strength,’ he added, ‘if rather than wearing yourself our struggling thus against yourself you would only struggle against obstacles from without . . . Go, show that you are able at last to triumph over yourself and your own honesty . . .’ In short, he derived argument and advantage from what it would cost me to yield to my desire rather than hold it further in leash . . . It goes without saying that I understood only much later how diabolical this exhortation was. I believed then that I was the only one to speak and that this specious dialogue was one which I held with myself. I had heard speak of the Evil One, but I had not made his acquaintance. Even when he already inhabited me I did not yet distinguish him. He had made me his conquest; yes, I thought myself victorious; victorious over myself because I was surrendering to him. Because he had convinced me I did not feel myself vanquished.”


    This reasoning which the Evil One proposes to the individual conscience is the same, in every detail, that Hitler proposed to the German people! And that was called Lebensraum (living space) theory. “How could what is necessary to you be forbidden you? What is right, if not your greater thirst? It would give you great strength if, rather than wearing yourself out in keeping your agreements, you would only struggle against the foreigner who forced you to sign them. What is truth as against your dynamism? What is the rigid law against changing life? I shall tell you: “Recht ist was dem deutsche Volke nützt.” In other words, what is legal is what serves your interests.


    Is this not a place to ask ourselves how—in the name of what—our moralists of passion could have combated the nationalist doctrines?

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