– Spring/Summer 2003

Bring on the Devil: On the Romantic Cult of Radical Individualism

Jan Verwoert

Who is the devil? Throughout the centuries this question has proved to be as stimulating as it has been provocative.

The character of the devil has served as a screen onto which ideals and utopias have been continually projected - ideals and utopias that show the devil not simply as the representative of evil in the moral discourse of religion. It is rather in the realm of culture and cults that the figure of the devil has been charged with the many dreams and fantasies that make him into the glamorous, multi-faceted figure he is. One important influence on the modern incarnation of the devil has been the cult of darkness celebrated by the romantic poets of the 19th century, including Baudelaire and Byron. Their version of the prince of darkness, in turn, goes back to the landmark description in John Milton's Paradise Lost. Milton's interpretation of Satan as the fallen but heroic rebel angel made the devil the idol of all outlaws. As such, the devil has become a prime source of identification for many different performers on the social stage of culture, a romantic role model for poets, artists, actors, vamps, divas, dandies, disintegrated teenagers and all who like to be known as mad, bad and dangerous.

What is crucial to the romantic infatuation with the devil is his relation to excess. The devil not only promises excess but also embodies what he promises. This is why the devil invites identification. As an idol he stands in for

  1. Luther Link, The Devil, A Mask without a Face, London: Reaktion Books, 1995

  2. Elaine Pagels, The Origin of Satan, New York and Toronto: Random House, 1995

  3. The Book of Enoch dates back to c.300 BC and had been part of the collection of biblical texts, but was later excluded from the canon. It continues to be essential reading in the occult sciences.

  4. Tertullian, 'The Apparel of Women', 2:1. This reference is cited in L. Link, op. cit., p.29

  5. L. Link, op. cit., p.188

  6. Michael and Lucifer, by Lorenzo Lotto, 1550 (Palazzo Apostolico, S. Casa, Loreto)

  7. Mario Praz, The Romantic Agony, London: Oxford University Press, 1933. Originally published as La carne, la morte e il diavolo nella letteratura romantica, Florence: Sansoni Editore, 1930. I am very much indebted to Daniel Pies for pointing this book out to me.

  8. Baudelaire, 'Journaux intimes', quoted in L. Link, op. cit., p.182. 'J'ai trouvé la définition du Beau, de mon Beau. C'est quelque chose d'ardent et de triste ... Je ne conçois guère un type de Beauté où il n'y ait due Malheur. Appuyé sur - d'autres diraient: obsédé par - ces idées, on conçoit qui'il me serait difficile de ne pas conclure que le plus parfait type de Beauté virile est Satan - à la manière de Milton.'

  9. Byron, Manfred II, Act 1, Scene 2, 1817.

  10. Das sechste und siebte Buch Moses, Braunschweig: Planet-Verlag, 1950. I thank Hennig Hahn for lending this treasure to me.

  11. Author's translation. The devil appears at the end of 4th chapter.

  12. Oscar Wilde: Collected Edition, Glasgow: Harper Collins, 1994, p.878. Oscar Wilde, The Sphinx, was originally published in 1894.

  13. Liber de viris illustribusis is an anthology about the lives of the famous written in the 3rd century AD by Sextus Aurelius Victor.

  14. Alexander Pushkin, 'Cleopatra e i suoi amanti', Egyptian Nights, 1835. Flaubert dedicates a passage to Cleopatra in L'Éducation sentimentale, 1845. Swinburne puplished his early poem 'Cleopatra' in Cornhill Magazine in 1866.

  15. Linda Williams, Hardcore: Power, Pleasure and the 'Frenzy of the Visible', Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989, chapter 6

  16. A comprehensive survey is given in Linda Dalrymple Henderson, 'Die moderne Kunst und das Unsichtbare', in Linda Dalrymple Henderson and Veit Loers (eds.), Okkultismus und Avantgarde - von Munch bis Mondrian 1900-1915, Frankfurt a.M.: Schirn Kunsthalle, 1995

  17.  Ibid.

  18. 'Okkultismus und Avantgarde - von Munch bis Mondrian 1900-1915', Schirn Kunsthalle, Frankfurt, 1995

  19. Andreas Fischer, 'Ein Nachtgebiet der Fotografie', in L.D. Henderson and V. Loers (eds.), op. cit., pp.503-52

  20. See Christian Bouchet, Aleister Crowley, Neuhausen: Urania Verlag, 2000. As an example of Crowley's atheist conviction, Bouchet quotes Crowley's text 'Carte postale aux impétrants' but fails to give the date or place of its publication.

  21. Crowley became a member of the Jacobites in 1896, joined the cult of the Golden Dawn in 1898, founded the abbey of Thelema in Sicily in 1920, and became the head priest of the Ordo Templi Orientalis in 1925 (to give only a few examples).

  22. Crowley has been worshipped by many protagonists of pop (sub)culture. Kenneth Anger's film Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome (1954), for instance, is more or less a Crowlean ritual staged for the camera. The Beatles included a photo of Crowley in the collage on the cover of Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. Of course, his influence can also be traced to the Stones's 'Sympathy for the Devil' and the album His Satanic Majesty Requests. Led Zeppelin's Jimmi Page is a renown collector of Crowleyana, etc.

  23. Aleister Crowley, The Book of the Law - Liber AL vel legis, Basel: Sphinx Verlag, 1993

  24. Ibid., pp.48-49

  25. Friedrich Nietzsche, 'Genealogie der Moral', Vol.5, The Collected Works, Berlin and New York: De Gruyter, 1967

  26. Ibid., pp.38 and 72

  27. This information is taken from George Pendle, 'Strange Angels', frieze, March 2002, pp.58-63. Although the account seems entirely convincing Scientology have denied the truth of the information.

  28. Kodwo Eshun, More Briliant Than The Sun, London: Quartet Books, 1998, p.4

  29. Slavoj Zizek, A plea for intolerance / Plädoyer für Intoleranz, Vienna: Passagen Verlag, 2001

  30. René Girard, Je vois Satan tomber comme l'éclair, Paris: Éditions Grasse & Fasquelle, 1999