Sunday, February 17, 2008

Demons and the Devil (Way Down in the Hole)

"Yes, I don't think that Obama or whatever his name is is ready for the White House, him and his wife. They don't act like they've got that many smarts to me. But anyway, if it was me and they was putting me in there it would scare me to death. I know I ain't that smart so I don't think they are neither." -- Unidentified voter, Georgia, Feb. 5, 2008

I have grown weary of the first person singular, and I thought I might avoid having it be the first word of this blog entry, or at least some blog entry some time. I guess today isn't my day. Despite the fact that solipsism is the one thing that plagues our society most, the attempt to deny one's own place in opinion or judgment is another. We have two alternating problems. The one is a world without empathy because it is a world where everything outside of the self is a flattened image of "not me," and, on the other, people who, when they have a desire, will squirm about verbally and blame their own impulses on inevitability, expedience, or the needs of others. I would prefer to talk about this, in one of my tried and true "neither/nor" essays, at some later point, though. Perhaps my next will deal with it under the topic of "Going to the movies." For now, I want to address something else. I want to address keeping the devil way down in the hole, as Tom Waits says we should.

A week or more ago, I saw "Into the Wild," directed by Sean Penn and concerning Chris McCandless. I went to the local art house (the town my great-great-great-great grandfather helped settle has just gotten one). The movie, for those who can't follow a link or who do not yet know, concerns a young man who graduated with honors from Emory University and then, out of a sense of great resentment toward his parents and the machine of materialism and expectations, gave away his trust fund, tore up his identification, and set off walking. He eventually went to Alaska, where he died of malnutrition, although not because of any amateurishness on his part. As I sat in the theater, a voice over came on to give some background to the man. I knew little about the movie ahead of time except its plot outline, and I didn't know the name of the hero. However, the name began to bother me. As the voice over man said that he had gone to Emory and graduated in 1989, it gnawed at me more. I realized that there was a very, very strong chance that I had met him.

Without going into the "famous dead people I have known" routine, it's enough to say that I had a red shirt senior year at Emory, and I had to take a Poetry class (Poetry 205) in my fifth year. I was already an experienced English Major at that point and a competent writer of close readings, and so the other students in the class, who were all Freshmen, gathered around me for help on writing papers. I really think I met the youngster then.

He was possessed of a devil, and, had I known him well, I would have done exactly what all the others did, including himself, and mistaken it for a demon.

There is a great deal of folderol about "daemons," since that Golden Compass movie, but it merely adds to the babble surrounding the demon. You see, it's good to have a demon. A demon is the minor aggravation that produces a pearl, it is the generative unhappiness. If you have demons, you have things that rob you of contentment, but not of joy. With a demon, you never quite settle. You think you're fat, and your friends tell you you are not, but they know nothing compared to the internal censor. You feel friendless, despite all the people calling you their friend, and so you continue to glad hand strangers and buy books on influencing others. You cannot quite get over seeing your parents naked, or dead, or fight, and so you write poem after poem about social malaise and the menace of mayonnaise culture. Mysterious images coalesce like sunbeams in your subconsciousness and strike common objects with holy light, and all thanks to your demon. In time, you can even come to give your demon a name. Like a stranger wielding a goad, you call it everything from Io's flies to Unresolved Identity Fixation or Inferiority Complex.

People with demons are easy to spot. Not only do they keep beating away at creative expression, but they show unearthly interest in themselves. It's common to laugh at people like this, if they are not young. However, they are not interested in the complexity of themselves because of egotism, but because of unhappiness. They are restless, most of all. If they are graphically or physically or verbally inclined, they will, either as a hobby or annoyingly public party trick, create art. If they are jabbed by duller demons, they may buy endless and repetitive books on working It out. There is a great deal of money spent that way, so people with demons are common as people with noses.

Devils are another matter. Devils are the ones who not only inflict the impulse on their victims but also suggest a really destructive object. Chris McCandless hated his parents, even though they did not appear to be too dramatically unlike other assortments of hypocrites, compromisers, and achievers (but who says that the other assortments shouldn't be as possessed and miserable?), and he felt that pain from top to bottom, as tens of thousands of other young people have. However, he also had a notion of how to fix things. He would go on the Romantic American trip of self-reliance and self-discovery and find his own identity in his own way, and without any compromises. That's what a devil does.

If I knew him, he was not the only possessed person I knew. I knew another who was working as a prostitute. She was attending Georgia Tech, and she was graduating, and she was working as a particular sort of prostitute. She had been inspired by Genesis P. Orridge and his girlfriend and their stage shows that included self-mutilation and on-stage bodily functions. At least she and her boyfriend seemed to be entranced by that, but she was also being paid to be the victim of scatalogical and violent sex fantasies. I had no idea about that. Do you suppose that this was a demon? When a person's "art" goes to the stage where she is being tied up by drugged up rock stars and slashed or urinated upon, is that the slight irritation of an unresolved issue or an unbalanced equation in the mind, or is that, just perhaps, a little bit more?
She, however, did what she did, and none of us knew, and now she is doing fine. McCandless, of course, is dead. Another I knew. She was one of the prettiest, happiest, most wonderful young women I knew. She was fantastic, and I wished with all my might that she would date me at some point. Sending such wishes is as well as sending fishes, of course. Many demons persuade us to date the least appropriate person, but she dated the most wretched. She did not seek out the married or unavailable, or gay, as so many women I have known have done, but only those who would be certain to abuse her affections. I lost touch with her for years and ran into her again only after a suicide attempt and a complete psychotic break as a result to sexual abuse from a step-father that had been going on all the time that I had known her.

Devils are perverse. They hold out the worst things and make them seem inevitable. They sit at the center and draw us to them. They propel us toward their own ends. Sometimes, as with my friend, they are clear wounds that suppurate and multiply, the wounds at the center of the psyche that try to spread out to claim the whole mind. Sometimes, like my artist friend, they take their own paths to satisfy the consumption of the person in odure and death. Sometimes, as in McCandless, they demand purity that can only come in a shortened life. Whatever they do, though, they consume.

I will leave my attentive reader to guess the connections between these unfortunate people and the voter I begin with, but I will tie up the bow with a recurrent reference to myself.

I have a bit of the demon of self-destruction, but it is only a demon. I cannot keep it in the hole, but I can keep a foot outside of the open mouth of the grave. I regard it as rather common to say, with Beckett's Murphy, that the good old days are when you wished you were dead. It's only surprising and worrisome, to me, when a new method comes to mind or a new form of self-destruction appears in the rear view mirror as a fait d'accompli.