Every literary movement has its catalogue of themes to express aesthetic or philosophical tenets and to enhance the perception of its historical uniqueness. Symbolism, which rejected the stringent rules of the scientific approach to literature favoured by naturalism, devoted itself to the study of mathematically and accurately constructed world model on the other side of the mirror.
This mirror functioned as a threshold marking a break in the continuous accumulation of knowledge and forcing the cognitive process to move in the other direction. It can be seen as a demarcation line between the two movements and, thus, between their respective epistemologies.
Whereas the process delineated the Naturalists’ concept of cognizance in which the science of nature corrected human thought alternatively, the external order of things, the Symbolists’ concept of epistemology was based on the very absence of a clear-cut distinction between reality and illusion, public and private space, objectivity and subjectivity, thesis and idea, real space and the other space, what Foucault calls a heterotopia.
Accordingly, “the other side of the mirror” was represented by the eternal bond to the unknown, the mystery of the universe, and apocalyptic expectations about social changes and revolution, rather than by an image of existing things, the observable reality, and the scientific pursuit of truth.
As a corollary of this shift, the symbolist playwrights, writers, and painters felt a pressing need to re-define old notions and to establish new paradigms for the most basic philosophical concepts of genesis and eschatology.
One of these paradigms, the “suffering demon,” which surfaced in novels, short stories, dramas, and paintings in many Eastern and Western European countries at the turn of the century, has gone unnoticed by theatre scholars.
The “suffering demon” was the Symbolists’ attempt to establish metaphysical exegesis, i.e., to establish man’s place in the micro- and microcosms of the changing Universe. By way of addressing the scholarly inattention to this critical feature of the Symbolist aesthetic, and due to the complexity of the topic, my article will focus on two central arguments.
First, the main changes in the myth of the Devil and the significant historical and aesthetic/ philosophical principles that made the Devil emerge as a suffering demon will be presented. Second, the execution of the theme in selected works will be discussed.
The Christian story of the Devil can be found in two myths which exist independently. One of them is the myth of the rebellion and fall of the angels, which is based on an interpretation of a single line of Isaiah: “How art thou fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, son of the morning.” The second myth which was accepted by Hebrew and Christian writers tells the story of the Angels of God who having fallen in love with the daughters of men, sinned with them, and as a punishment for their sin were expelled out of the Kingdom of Heaven.
This binary opposition of good and evil spirits was characteristic only of those religions which were dualistic in nature. Such an assumption is supported by ample examples from the religious tradition of Israel. Satan was not considered God’s adversary in the Mosaic system.
In Genesis, the serpent is merely the most subtle and cunning of the beasts. The Old Testament recognizes Beelzebub only as a divinity of the idolaters. In the Book of Job, Satan appears among the angels in heaven as a malicious servant of God who enjoys performing the functions of a tempter, a torturer, and an avenger, however, he neither contradicts God, nor hinders his work.
In the older books of Hebrew literature, especially in the Pentateuch, Satan is not mentioned at all. Zachariah speaks of Satan as an angel whose office it is to accuse and to demand the punishment of the wicked. Thus, he may be seen as an adversary of man but never of God.
Christianity changed considerably the previously accepted concepts. Jehovah was transformed into a milder and kinder god. His son, for the love of man, became a man to expiate original sin. If in the ‘Book of Wisdom,’ Satan is treated as a disturber and corrupter of the work of God, impelling our first parents to sin through his envy, this new Satan gains a new dimension a degree of greatness and importance.
This image of the Devil has its roots in two biblical interpretations. First, Satan leads to sin; redemption can only be provided by the death of God’s son, Christ. Second, even though he crushed the Gates of Hell and rescued the souls of the dead, Christ did not wholly overthrow Satan’s power?
In keeping with this biblical interpretation, the Christian fathers saw Satan as a powerful adversary of God. At the same time, he acquired a more realistic shape for congregations. From the third-century onward, Satan started to be associated with anti-Christian forces. For example, Roman and Germanic gods and goddesses, i.e., Jove, Minerva, Venus, Loki, and Feuris, were considered the servants of the Prince of Darkness.
Tertullian was convinced that Rome was Satan’s empire. In the centuries to follow, Christianity’s contact with other religions brought additional elements to the myth of the Devil. He could be seen in animal shape, as a faun, a satyr, or appear as a human bearing a resemblance to Plato, Nero, and Mahomet, individuals who were not accepted by the growing ecclesiastical groups.
Simultaneously, the concept of the devil infiltrated the Church’s politics, literature, philosophy, and visual arts. The study of Church history from the fourth- to the fifteenth-century offers interesting clues about the development of the myth of the Devil which reached its apex in Medieval witchcraft.
Throughout the centuries, the Christian Church used this particular myth to fight against laxity among both clerics and laymen. Men and women were burnt at the stake and their property was confiscated by either the state of the Church because they were believed to have signed a pact with the Devil.
The didactic ecclesiastical writings from the eleventh- and twelfth-centuries depicted some cathedrals, choirs, cloisters, or priests, monks, and nuns as belonging to the domain of Satan.
St. Anselm’s ‘Cur Deus Homo’ and St. Aquinas’ ‘De Malo’ discussed at length the concept of evil and its place in God’s and man’s cosmos. On the other hand, in the popular tradition, the Devil was presented on medieval stages as a comic figure rather than as a powerful adversary of God.
Even though the basic ecclesiastical image of the Devil was firmly entrenched in biblical tradition, vernacular literature and philosophy indicate that the humanist’s attitude toward the Devil underwent a considerable transformation throughout the next century.
For example, Marlowe’s ‘Doctor Faustus’ and Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’ offered a new dimension to the treatment of the Prince of Darkness. The Devil was portrayed as God’s equal whose aim was to strike God through man.
Satan or Mephistopheles were defined in terms of the concept of the “principum individuationis” rather than as a medieval generic type. Romantics, whose theory was rooted in the philosophy of Leibniz and Wolfe, not only elaborated on the image, but also established a new relationship between the Devil and man, wherein man was, for the first time, perceived as the creator and the Pan of his cosmos.
Accordingly, it was a man and not God who shaped his fate and chose his destiny; he, the poet, and not Christ, suffered for mankind and sacrificed his life to redeem souls. This shift in approach, this new religion, was dictated by and had its origin in the belief that the world which God created was full of suffering and disorder.
In his fight for the new order, man chose the Devil, God’s powerful adversary, who, as in Goethe’s Faust or Byron’s Cain, could be seen either as a shadow figure of a struggling hero, or as an initiator leading the hero to the forbidden tree of knowledge.
The Symbolists’ nostalgic longing for the past and its archetypes found its full expression in the mysteries of occult lore and demonology, i.e., themes drawn from the domain of the underworld. At the same time, however, a linear perception of the devil-figure was ruptured. Huysman’s ‘La Bas’ (1891), is one of a very few examples of the Black Mass and satanism in literature depicting Satan both as a grim figure of medieval iconography and the symbol of a human being probing into the limits of existence.
This interest in mysticism coupled with the philosophies of Nietzsche and Schopenhauer forced the Symbolists to revise their understanding of the treatment of the evil spirit. Since God was dead or dying, the equilibrium between reason and passion, or good and evil, was out of balance. Since God was dead, or dying, only passion was left; but passion bereft of its counterpart, reason, can be the source of both creativity and destruction.
As a corollary of this philosophy, the Symbolists saw themselves torn between a subjective, or internal, world of dreams, illusions, and hallucinations, and an objective, or external, world governed by rigid rules derived from politics, Christian morality, and the materialism of the age.
As the century drew toward its close, a feeling of uneasiness, intense self-consciousness, aesthetic hyper-sensitivity, and fear of the next millennium, as well as of the inevitable collision between inner and outer worlds, engulfed intellectuals in melancholic visions of death and apocalypse. Their cosmos seemed to be spinning aimlessly. As the image of God faded, the world seemed to come under the control of a collective unconsciousness which suppressed the struggle for individual freedom.
This philosophy of an individual’s fight for freedom and his/her defeat was depicted in Symbolist writings. Although it took different forms in different countries, the prevailing tone was the same.
The hero, named Prometheus, Saviour, or Rebel, lost the power which had been given to him by the Romantics; instead, he was destroyed by God or by a collective ego, and, thus once again, acquired the distinctive features of a demon “fallen from heaven.” However, this affirmation of alienation, isolation, and loneliness led to his suffering, which resulted from the realization that God did not care for human beings. Therefore, the hero was perceived as an outcast or a suffering demon rather than a traditional adversary of God or people’s enemy.
The term “suffering demon” may seem, at first, to be merely a well-phrased oxymoron contradicting, those religious beliefs which present the demon as a powerful adversary of God, the medieval tradition which depicted the Devil as a joyful and comic figure in, for example, the cycle plays, and the human need to distinguish between good and evil or between summum bonum and infinitum malum.
The seeming contradiction in the term “suffering demon” was, however, made acceptable at the turn of the century through the Symbolists’ technique of the coincidentia oppositorum). The coincidentia oppositorum expresses the desire to erase the borderline and to combine different spheres and emotions, to reach a new dimension of human experience through the assessment of extreme or juxtaposed emotions and situations.
The semiotic and philosophical significance of this conjunction was immense in its day. It meant that love and hatred were neither binary opposites, nor only complementary emotions — but they could simultaneously be experienced; that light and darkness were merged into one entity. More importantly, suffering and demon were not immediately exclusive terms. On the contrary, the phrase was an expression of a change in the concepts of epistemology and cognizance.
This change can be best explained in terms of the Symbolists’ abandonment of the traditional space of representation of naturalism, and the movement toward the absence of clear-cut distinctions and the unification of the binary opposites a decision that required the establishment of a set of paradigms that could embrace the Chaos.
What is and who is the Symbolists’ suffering demon? In order to answer this question and define the term, two functional categories will be used: “God versus Devil,” which is dominated by biblical symbolism, and “People versus Soul,” which concentrates on the conflicts between society and an individual.
The image of the suffering demon represents the biblical struggle between good and evil spirits conceived, in unorthodox terms, as reversed roles, in order to illuminate the question of the true nature of the act of creation.
On the other hand, the suffering of the demon can be perceived as the human quest for self-awareness, a probing of the limits of existence in the chaotic and demonic world of the turn of the century.