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The Devil and Pierre GernetSTORIES
By David Bentley Hart
William B. Eerdmans Publishing CompanyCopyright © 2012 David Bentley Hart
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe Devil and Pierre Gernet
My friend — who was a fallen angel who had walked the earth for ages, wearing countless guises and called by a multitude of names — was in the habit of inviting me to his club, The Typhon, for postprandial drinks whenever he had a Friday night free. He enjoyed the extraordinary privilege of reserving a sitting room of almost Borgian magnificence for his private use, and it was here that we usually spent our evenings together, hidden amid a forest of pale marble, polished brass, and glistening silver, encircled by remote prospects of mahogany wainscoting, our voices vanishing into the vault of the dark coffered ceiling high above. We would sit to either side of an immense window that looked out over a terraced garden and wooded park and westward towards the skyline of the distant city — set upon the horizon somewhat to our right — I with my cognac or whiskey, he sipping some nameless ruby cordial from a tiny, tulip-shaped glass, which he held lightly by its stem between the tips of his forefinger and thumb and which, though never replenished, was never empty. "It's not a bibulous drink at all," he once told me, in his plush baritone; "It's a sort of tonic, one of my own concoction. In fact, it induces a deeper sobriety in the drinker. It's a depressant, I suppose; it certainly dampens enthusiasm and cools the temper; but it's not an inebriant. Its effect is a kind of sharp, dry lucidity of thought." And then, after a momentary pause: "As for flavor, it's utterly insipid. Tap water has more taste. We don't really approve of the paltrier sensualisms, you know." This did not surprise me. I knew him to be abstemious in his habits: on those rare occasions when he deigned to eat, he would not touch meat, and his detestation of tobacco was, in his own words, fanatical. At the same time, there was clearly nothing ascetical about him: he appeared comfortably but not excessively corpulent, and the subtle lavishness of his attire — suits as glossily black as India ink, ties of mist-gray or crimson silk fastened with platinum pins, gold cufflinks exquisitely inlaid with armigeral devices, the large emerald ring glittering on his left hand — seemed to me to emanate from a world of unfathomable wealth and unimaginable opulence.
I knew, of course, that an association with a devil was good neither for my spiritual sanity nor for my reputation, but I found his company irresistible: his experience was so vast and various, his erudition so comprehensive and arcane, and his special knowledge so much more exotic than any available to mortal men that I usually parted from him only warmed by drink, but intoxicated by his talk. His conversation did, however, require some getting used to. He was, for one thing, given to rather baroque locutions: he invariably called a taxi a "taximeter cabriolet," for instance, and he had once complained to me, after he had spent a day in the city, of the "unseemly fremescence of the mobile vulgus." But, while such phrases would certainly have seemed ponderous witticisms or insufferable affectations coming from anyone else, from him they seemed quite unpretentious. He had, after all, been a courtier of both Xerxes and Shih-Huangdi, an advisor to Antiochus Epiphanes, and an intimate of Valentinus; he had both granted the Cathars the protection of his estates in Toulouse and then joined the French crown's crusade against them, had owned plantations in the Dutch Antilles and Haiti, and had stood an impassive witness in the streets of Paris as many of his fellow aristocrats had been carried by in the tumbrel; he had, in short, been and done so many things that his habits of speech seemed not so much mannered as timeless.
I must confess, though, that certain of his boasts seemed a little too fantastic to credit. "I invented vegetarianism," for example, or (more expansively), "I invented the agricultural revolution ... and, of course, human sacrifice." On one occasion, he claimed not only to be a champion of the avant-garde but in fact the inventor of all conceptual art and its most generous patron. And his political convictions were somewhat nebulous to me. He confessed, for example, that he was of two minds regarding the end of public executions: the old spectacles, he admitted, had for the most part merely attracted the callous, the brutal, the sadistic, and the deviant, "but then," he added, "who better to enlist upon the side of civilization?" He professed himself an ardent feminist, but when asked to dilate upon this would offer only some coarsely facetious slur, like "Women are probably no less depraved and pitiless than men if left to their own devices, and I can see no reason why their native ebulliences should be suffocated by archaic conventions." He claimed to be both a communist and a devout advocate of the free market. He believed in a strong military and called himself a pacifist. He spoke glowingly of democracy and adored Stalin. Strangely, though, I never had the impression that any of his utterances was frivolous or the expression of a mere transitory mood. I always sensed that I was simply glimpsing facets of what I would have recognized as a single, complex, but internally consistent philosophy if only I could have seen it whole.
We were almost never actually entirely alone, I should mention. My friend was constantly attended (almost haunted, one might say) by a kind of valet, whom he referred to simply as "my man," as if describing a rare curio acquired in a little-frequented shop, and whose narrow frame he draped in a garish antique livery — usually a scarlet coat purfled with gold embroidery and breeches of light blue satin — that had the unfortunate effect of making the poor fellow's desperately unprepossessing features that much more obvious: a distinctly sallow complexion, gaunt cheeks, a sharply prominent nose, fierce small eyes not so much hazel green as sulfurous yellow, and a pronounced widow's peak rising into a low slope of black hair all but lacquered to his scalp by a viscous pomade. I frequently forgot that "my man" was there, however, so unobtrusive was his presence; once he had brought the drinks, he would withdraw to his customary station by the fireplace, alongside the two miniature caryatids supporting the fluted porphyry mantelpiece, where at once he would become so unnaturally immobile that he seemed no more alive than they. Unless called upon to discharge some minor task, there he would remain until, at the end of the evening, my friend would curtly order him to bring the car around; he would then all of a sudden become animate, like a statue brought instantly to life, incline his head somewhat sullenly, hiss a barely audible "Very good, sir," and depart. At first, I found this uncanny self-mastery unsettling, but my unease had dissipated when my friend had confided to me that his servant was also, like himself, "an angel in reduced circumstances."
On one of our last evenings together, I had dined early and so — as it was midsummer — had arrived at The Typhon a little before twilight. Our talk was casual and intermittent at first, as we sat and watched the daylight melt away in a succession of splendors: a ruby sun, then a blazing canopy of orange and purple clouds, then a lingering green pallor, and finally a deep crystal blue fading slowly into darkness. But, gradually, something in my friend stirred, and his conversation began to assume its normal grandiosity. When the west had become a great crevasse of glowing violet, and the distant skyscrapers looked like little more than fragile lattices hung with miniature lanterns, he suddenly exclaimed, without any prompting, "You shouldn't pay me much mind. What am I, really, but a desolate remnant, scarred by immemorial wars?" And a little later, when the city had become a swarm of golden tapers floating in a sea of sapphire, he observed, "If men aren't taken in the full flame of their iniquity, they fade like embers in the aftermath of their own wickedness; and there's nothing to be learned from impotence and decrepitude." And then, when the last darkening traces of blue above the horizon had dissolved into a soft, luminous gray, he shook his head sadly and remarked, "Nothing is done with any elegance anymore; society has forgotten all the old ceremonies ... the deft, fading parry of the cut indirect, the sudden, savage thrust of the cut direct, the balletic grace of the cut celestial, the somber subtlety of the cut infernal.... I mean, really, how can anyone be a gentleman until he's learned the proper way to give offense?" And when only the thinnest ghostly glimmer of daylight still clung to the edge of the world, he mused aloud, "The reason the alchemists failed to become real scientists in the proper modern sense is that they tended to eschew sorcery; all they really cared about was spiritual ascent and purification, and so they weren't willing to plunge themselves deep enough into the occult potencies of matter, the way modern sorcerers — or scientists, I suppose you'd call them — are willing to do." And, finally, a few minutes later, he turned his eyes fully towards me and began to utter connected thoughts.
"I'm as egalitarian as it's possible to be. I know you don't believe that, because of how I treat my man" — he waved a finger vaguely in the direction of the fireplace — "but you have to understand, these arrangements are imposed upon us by a certain inflexible and unimaginative set of conventions over which we have no control. When we were hurled down from the heavens into the sublunary atmosphere, and left to struggle with its idiotic turbulences — without trial, I might add — he descended farther than I, and so now he occupies an inferior rank in the Pandemonium. For us, you see, the world here below is a kind of abysmal mirror inversion of our former condition; back in the old days, in the warm light of the spheres above the moon, he actually stood much higher in the angelic hierarchy than I." He glanced briefly at his valet. "He was at first so resentful of his diminished estate that it was all I could do to bend him to service. I had to thrash him almost hourly. His will finally proved amenable to this, luckily; subjugation based purely on power seemed to conform to his moral expectations. In fact, he began to luxuriate in his degradation, to the point that I had to halt the beatings. A wise master denies his servant too many luxuries." He took a pensive sip from his glass. "Of course, this inversion of rank doesn't hold in the special case of our great leader. He was overthrown like the rest of us, but he remains terrible in his ruin. He's still the mightiest among us...." He paused and looked again to the western sky. "At least, I think he is. It's hard to know, really ... one sees so little of him. He usually dwells at the bottom of a deep, frigid pool whose surface is so shadowy and still and overhung with dead vines that no light can penetrate it. We hear his voice, of course — it issues from the waters in a kind of quiet, mesmerizing, metallic moan.... I don't know" — he frowned slightly — "perhaps I could crush him like an insect. But I dare not test his strength: it could be very painful. We're impervious to physical shock, of course, but the stronger among us can inflict real psychical wounds upon the weaker — deep lacerations of despair or anxiety, so to speak — and these are quite horrible to bear. Well, just ask my man if you like."
Night had completely fallen; the lights of the city cast a dim rufous curtain across the darkness in the west; the trees below us were now an indistinguishable mass of shadows.
"Are you much at each other's throats?" I asked.
He looked directly into my eyes and smiled indulgently. "We demons, you mean? We fiends? No, of course not. For one thing, our several strengths are fixed, at least for this age, and we know better now than to try to match ourselves against one another. More importantly, though, we're not naturally aggressive, no matter what you've heard. Our little contretemps with the celestial wardens — what they like to call our rebellion, with a fine contempt for historical accuracy — was simply a dispute between differing philosophies regarding time and eternity. I mean, to be really very simple, one side, their side, believed that time should be drawn into and ... oh, saturated by eternity; they believed that time is just a moving mirror of the eternal, so to speak, a surface in which the eternal glories and verities and forms should shine forth, like sunlight on the surface of a calm lake. Well, we simply took the opposite view, that's all: we thought eternity should be dispersed into time ... time dissipated into itself. Their vision of things just seemed so unspeakably stultifying to us. We had new ideas, revolutionary ideas — that's all — and certain persons simply found those ideas troubling. But all we wanted was to set time and space free from the ancient forms. We wanted to shatter the mirror, so to speak. We were just an idealistic fraternity of ... well, of eisoptroclasts — if you don't mind me coining a word."
I feigned an appreciative laugh.
"Honestly," he continued, his tone becoming more emphatic as he spoke, "that's all we were ever about: energy, dynamism, creative ferment. We saw possibilities. We recognized that there was an exciting and unexploited potential in chaos, a special kind of fecundity that needed nothing more than to be set loose. And so, of course, this meant that we had to mount a struggle against the heavenly order — against order as such. But it was nothing subversive, our activities weren't clandestine, and what we did we did forthrightly and with firm conviction. Listen" — he pointed a solemn finger at me — "everything's a matter of semantics where ideology's concerned. They talk of 'war in heaven' and of the 'fall of the angels,' and of course it all sounds monstrous and tragic when you put it that way. But why not speak instead of 'exuberance,' or 'will to power,' or 'the logic of material dialectic,' or 'gales of creative destruction,' or simply 'historical consciousness'? That puts a different complexion on things, doesn't it? But, of course, we don't have a propaganda office to match theirs. So, well ... there you have it." He paused long enough to take three measured sips from his glass. "Anyway, that's all in the past. Our struggles are over. We're all good Europeans now — quite pacified, quite ... without ambition."
"Really?" I asked. I shifted in my chair, changed my glass from one hand to the other, and considered my words with care. "Isn't there — I mean, I've always heard there was a kind of continuous spiritual warfare still going on ... in history and nature ... in individual souls and in culture and.... Isn't that the whole point ... ?"
"Nonsense." He shook his head and sighed. "Propaganda, as I've said. Of course, I'm only a private citizen of the infernal polity. I'm not on close terms with any of the agents in our secret services, so I don't know what security operations might be going on from time to time. But whatever one hears in that line is certainly exaggerated. At most, we're engaged in gathering information, keeping an eye out for signs of celestial imperialism — that sort of thing."
Excerpted from The Devil and Pierre Gernet by David Bentley Hart Copyright © 2012 by David Bentley Hart. Excerpted by permission of William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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