The Satanic Pose of False Individualism
Mary Harrington recently wrote a lively and provocative piece on how Satanism has become the reigning ideology of the United States. This was daring work, since you naturally ratchet up the stakes in a debate by claiming, “My opponent is siding with Satan.” It is the ultimate, final form of culture clash. Harrington defines Satanism as pure, unfettered individualism or egoism, and sees it as the implicit and even in some cases explicit ideology of our time. She points to articles in publications like Salon, which suggest that Satanists are pretty cool, amounting to effective champions of liberalism.
The pose of Satanism has been attractive for centuries. From exalted poets like Charles Baudelaire to the guys in Slayer, Satan comes to stand for the ultimate rebel—the person who cannot fit into the established order of things, who seeks to break it and remold it nearer to his heart’s desire. This is an admittedly powerful and romantic point of view, though with nasty implications, and it is not hard to understand why it has resonated throughout time. But, funnily enough, Satanism does not seem to lead to a state where unique personalities are allowed to flourish. Paradoxically, it leads to the opposite condition.
To illuminate this point, I would add something to Harrington’s commentary on John Milton and how he relates to our situation. Harrington sees Milton’s Satan as the archetype of the rebellious ego, the anti-heroic template for the liberal project. But there is an important fact about Milton’s Satan, which it is worth discussing in greater detail: he grows duller as Paradise Lost progresses. This seems to be by design. Satan starts off bearing a luster of heroism, radiance stolen from heaven. He gives exceptionally eloquent, thundering, and defiant speeches. But these are concentrated in the early sections of the book. As the epic progresses, his determination to be “self-raised by [his] own quickening power”—not grounded in anything else or in relation to anyone else—leads him to become what C.S. Lewis calls “a thing which peers through bathroom windows.” (This is in reference to Satan’s gushing reverie as he secretly observes Eve in the garden.) In the parlance of our times, Satan becomes a “coomer.”
By the time Paradise Lost ends, Milton’s Satan is like Dante’s Satan: boring. He is a snake with nothing to say, slithering away to eat a bunch of apples that turn into ashes in his mouth. This may explain why our increasingly “Satanic” culture has not actually become more exciting or titillating or Metal. It is merely zombified—chilled out, not heated up. It is similar to the pattern presented in Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe: The White Witch lures you in with the promise of Turkish Delight and indefinite pleasure, only to leave you frozen as a statue in her garden, bored out of your gourd.
We can readily trace this trajectory from red hot rebellion to soporific tedium. A poet like Baudelaire embraces Satanism (if for poetic purposes; he was actually a believing Catholic) in a spirit of authentic Romantic revolt, using a diabolic persona to express a universal sense of outrage at the oppressive weight of the universe. Contemporaneously, Captain Ahab is a similarly impressive cosmic rebel. But Melville’s whaling captain and Baudelaire’s poetic persona are ambivalent creations, more than half-cautionary. They are a diagnosis of certain trends in human personality.
As the desire to be “self-raised” without relation or obligation progresses in people who really believe in it, it produces art of a significantly lower quality. Or, perhaps of no quality. Quality ceases to matter, and all that is left is the quantitative enumeration of identities, the checking of representation boxes. Eventually, the “Dark Satanic Mills” start to churn out the same, boring, repetitive, pandering Netflix shows. These shows celebrate identity and “speaking your truth”—but entirely through cliché. The point isn’t to create something good, as the Good, the Beautiful, and the True have been abolished. The aim is just to rack up status points, likes, and dividends. This is how we see Dante’s Satan in the end: a being of quantification and automatic appetite, flapping his wings mechanically, frozen in place, unable to do anything other than chew on a few of the most famous among the damned.
When a ’70s or ’80s rockstar declares that he is on the highway to hell before burying his head in a mountain of cocaine, it seems believable. He really is runnin’ with the devil. But a contemporary “Satanist,” logging on to doomscroll or gaze at pornography, is devoid of this same rebellious aura. He or she is simply going on the computer, like every bored teen on planet earth. Below deck, Satan is no doubt rubbing his hands excitedly. But his nefarious plans lack the epic scale and carnage of a Hitler-on-Stalin throwdown. He has settled for making people watch lousy Netflix original programming. That is atomized Satanic “individualism” at its terminus, a sad and numb person opening tabs in Google Chrome and then slamming the laptop shut when Mom unexpectedly walks in the room. Not exactly Stalingrad, but Satan will take it.
In order to preserve this state of affairs, the dedicated Satanist needs to defend himself from anything that might provoke his curiosity, anything that might rattle him into an awareness of the poetry in nature or in other people. He needs a cocoon of Satanic narcissism—the ultimate safe space. Our culture is eager to oblige. Two congressional representatives recently suggested replacing the police with a “Committee on Public Safety” (assist from Robespierre) to protect, one presumes, these boundaries.
I remember attending a Unitarian Universalist Church during a period of religious investigation. The congregation’s guiding mantra was “God is whatever you want God to be.” I reasoned to myself that if God was whatever I wanted God to be then I would, in effect, be God. This struck me as absurd. What Harrington calls Satanism is this very tendency—to deify one’s own will, whim, or power of arbitrary choice. According to this ideology, what one wills does not actually matter. You can will getting burned with wax in a dominatrix’s cavern, will ending illiteracy, will transforming yourself into a dolphin person, will recycling, will all sorts of evil, or will curing the common cold. All desires are on the same plane, and none are preferable. You just need to will it. But, for obvious reasons, this is a recipe for unhappiness and insanity. G.K. Chesterton criticized Nietzsche on these grounds, saying that he is like a man grabbing you by the lapels demanding that you will something, while the genuinely interesting question, the question of what is worth willing, goes unanswered. To answer that question, you cannot treat reality as something that is arbitrarily imposed by your whims. You have to treat it as something that has its own nature, with which you must strive to acquaint yourself.
The curious thing about individualism is this: one needs to consider oneself in relation to the universe and its inhabitants to actually bring out individuality. The isolated, individual self, without any greater contact with reality, is like a seed that goes un-watered. Nothing stimulates it to break its boundaries. This is not to say that there is no individual self, or that the collective or the state are the final determinants of the individual. That is a delusion at the other end of the spectrum.
Culturally, we face a paradox: by trying to completely self-determine being, we are ultimately plunged into slavery under our darkest compulsions. The alternative of becoming interested in other people and in the surrounding world liberate individuality to shine forth through this relation. One develops an authentic inner life by means of this vibrant connection with a wider world. As Joseph S. Laughon writes on birding, “Spending time among the birds, I found myself loving humanity more, not less.” That is how all the great novelists and poets worked: they became interested in their surroundings. Or, as I have previously written on sexual exploitation, there is only one way to combat the hyper-capitalism of consumption and commodification: “You start by giving a gift.” This is how all great saints and statesmen found their virtue.
In other words, to paraphrase Martin Buber, one can only find one’s “I” by searching for a “Thou.”
Featured image: Satan Exulting over Eve in painting (1795) by William Blake via Wikimedia Commons.
Sam Buntz is a writer based in Chicago. He is a graduate of Harvard Divinity School and Dartmouth College, and his work has appeared in The Washington Monthly, The New English Review, The Federalist, Fare Forward, Pop Matters, and The Symbolic World. You can find more of his writing at his blog The Muted Trumpet. He invites you to follow him on Twitter.