The Book On Satan
April 26, 2000
The Death of Satan: How Americans Have Lost The Sense Of Evil. By Andrew Delbanco. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 274 pages, $23Hit Movies notwithstanding, which of the seven deadly sins are still menacing? Gluttony, Lust, and Sloth are out -- they aren't much trouble as long as you don't bother anyone else, and they can all be accomplished over the course of a weekend. Pride and Envy may not be evil, but they're generally uncool and start fights when they meet with Anger. Covetousness, possibly the worst of the lot, continues to cause wars over oil and land. But to be honest, not one of the seven deadly sins has quite the punch it carried in puritan America -- not because there's less evil around now but because the names we used to have for it are fading. It's unclear what words we'll use to replace them.Andrew Delbanco thinks this is a shame. He argues that without the old-time language of Satan and sin, we aren't able to wrap our minds around the radical evil in current events such as the Oklahoma City bombing and the Menendez murders. We look for subgroups of Americans to blame for these brutal killings or hidden causes to explain them away. "If the language of evil is finally eliminated," Delbanco contends, "we shall surely be left in a kind of dumbness -- akin to the condition that accompanies sexual or aesthetic experiences when we let the music wash over us, or [when we] receive, without giving navigational instructions, a lover's caress." This doesn't sound so bad, since in sex and music the prelinguistic state can be liberating. But in moral matters, Delbanco says, it's an imprisonment.Whether you agree with its premise or not, The Death of Satan is clearly argued and thought-provoking. Delbanco, a professor of humanities at Columbia University, manages to blend his academic arguments with colorful details woven from a prodigious supply of juicy anecdotes, newspaper clippings, overheard conversations, and poems about the devil. To show just how cavalier we've grown about the prince of darkness, for instance, Delbanco begins one chapter with a picture of Jon Lovitz in his adorable Saturday Night Live devil costume.Satan, so the story goes, used to help Americans cope with rough times. Equipped with a notion of radical evil, Americans were once able to think more clearly about right and wrong. Abraham Lincoln renewed the symbols of good and evil during the Civil War in a way that Delbanco thinks ought to be resuscitated today. Lincoln was not a religious man, but he had a vision of evil as taking invisible hold over both halves of the nation, not just the South. His ideas, akin to original sin, eliminated the us-against-them mentality that prevailed at the time while continuing to assign responsibility for the evils of slavery. "Refusing to portray the devil as a huntable enemy," Delbanco says, Lincoln instead "conceived of evil as the absence of good, a national moral failure."As a historian, Delbanco is in a position to give the long view of American history. The professor is less successful, however, in rendering our own age faithfully. Bewildered by what he calls the caustic irony of postmodern culture, Delbanco sees cultural play in our time as a grave absence of moral values. He gives examples to show that irony has weakened our ability to make strong moral statements, but in the process he ends up sounding reactionary and a little out of the loop. Here's Delbanco on Maya Lin's Vietnam memorial: "This mute tombstone is the only kind of monument we now dare to build." And here he is on camp:To be fashionably dressed today is to be either androgynous or satirical in pinched-waist dresses or square-shouldered suits that make mock allusions to some hyperfeminine or hypermasculine style in the past.The last chapter, "The Death of Satan," turns out to be a disappointment. Delbanco offers no fresh way of bringing forward the wisdom of Lincoln to deal with the evil currently around us; he offers no new metaphors. The whole trick in reinventing Satan is to forge concepts, like the seven deadly sins, that are compelling to many people of many different beliefs. I'd say Cruelty, for starters. And instead of Pride and Covetousness, maybe Complicity, to remind people that sitting around doing nothing about evil is as big a sin as doing evil.