A Weighty Affair: On Ed Simon’s “Pandemonium”
By David Bentley HartOctober 16, 2022
Pandemonium: A Visual History of Demonology by Ed Simon
Then again, I may not know what the hell I am talking about. I do know, however, that Simon has in the past described himself as a practitioner of “Orphic criticism,” which is his term for an approach to literature that recognizes its irreducibly magical or sacramental or even theurgic nature. Needless to say, a literary critic uninterested in religious questions is, by very definition, an inept critic. There is scarcely any significant literary achievement that does not touch upon the transcendent, or at the very least its traces in the immanent, even if only in the negative, or only to mark the irretrievable loss of its felt presence in the modern world. But Simon is not merely interested in religious “themes” in this or that author’s work. What concerns him is the sacred dimension of literature as such, understood as a particular kind of visionary practice. He is in that special company of critics — such as Elizabeth Sewell and George Steiner — who understand that literary art is largely unintelligible unless it is understood as something wholly rooted, both historically and essentially, in the oracular, the mythic, the devotional, the supplicatory. It is nearly always, if it is of any great consequence, an invocation of unseen presences, a commerce with uncanny powers, an attempt to make an acceptable offering to the one ultimate (which is to say, transcendent) critic of all things. In one sense, Simon’s tendency to approach the numinous by way of literature allows him to circumvent creeds and doctrines and observances. In another sense, it brings him into direct contact with the holy in one of its most primordial and indomitable expressions.
Which brings me to Pandemonium.
Simon’s newest book is a lavish and, in the most concrete sense, weighty affair. In appearance, it is very much a coffee-table book, though only the sturdiest of coffee tables is likely to bear it without complaint. But the appearance is misleading. Its argument is far more intellectually ambitious, original, and absorbing than a merely ornamental volume has any right to contain. Actually, this is one of those rare occasions when one might almost have wished for a somewhat more minimalist approach to the bookmaker’s art; the text is in constant danger of being overshadowed by the sheer massy opulence of its printed form. But in for a penny, in for a pound, I suppose (and part of the joy of the book is undeniably its immense gallery of illustrations). It is also a compulsively entertaining journey into the realm of the sacred, albeit only on the very shady side of town. It concerns the diabolic, the demonic, and every kind of personified — if not necessarily objectified — evil. It is, in the widest sense, a literary and historical tour of the human experience of evil as something truly other, truly active. And it is a great ride.
This, as it happens, is the first and most important thing one should note about Pandemonium: that is, what a long and indecently entertaining journey it provides — one that covers implausibly enormous territory without at any point losing momentum. Near Eastern antiquity, Second Temple Judaism, the Christian Bible, the Desert Fathers, rabbinic and patristic traditions, Greco-Roman late antiquity. Then medieval demonology, Western and Byzantine. Everyman, The Castle of Perseverance, the Divine Comedy, The Canterbury Tales. Grimoires, manuals of exorcism, Renaissance esotericism and hermeticism. The early modern obsession with satanic sorcery, the Malleus Maleficarum, witch hunts and witch hunters, Matthew Hopkins, Cornelius Agrippa, The Lesser Key of Solomon, Cotton Mather. The Elizabethan stage, most especially Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus and its eminently modern devil, Mephistopheles, as well as Milton’s even more modern, altogether Promethean Satan, not to mention his Romantic sequels. Urbain Grandier, naturally, and the convent of Loudon. Cagliostro, Sir Francis Dashwood, de Sade, and Matthew Lewis’s The Monk. French fin-de-siècle diabolism, Baudelaire, Huysmans. Nazis, totalitarianisms, atomic bombs, capitalism at its most pitiless. And on and on, up to and into the realm of cinema and late-modern popular culture.
Among Pandemonium’s strengths, moreover, is Simon’s recognition that he cannot do the object of his study justice if his investigations are confined merely to imaginative literature, even in the modern period. He also grasps that he is dealing with a cultural grammar that has continued to permeate — or haunt — even periods of intellectual endeavor and fields of intellectual labor that one might all too hastily imagine had largely freed themselves from it. Simon sees with commendable clarity, for instance, that the deceiver demon whom Descartes invoked as a possible impediment to his rational reconstruction of reality is anything but a quaint rhetorical device or amusing metaphor. That demon was no less a serious concern for Descartes than were any of the devils of earlier ages for those who believed in them. And as in earlier ages, so too for Descartes, the only refuge from the malignity of the demonic was the intervention of God, and the certainty of his gracious protection against the forces of darkness.
For me, admittedly, there were a few longueurs in the book, but really only on account of my own tastes and prejudices. Nothing can make Aleister Crowley or Anton LaVey even vaguely interesting to me, for instance, or make me take H. P. Lovecraft seriously as a writer. But Simon can hardly be blamed for that. There are also, as is inevitable, a few errors of detail in the text. Simon claims, for instance, that Satan has been identified with Lucifer since the book of Revelation. In fact, the only figure so identified in Revelation or anywhere else in the New Testament — even using that very name in its Greek form, Phosphoros (2 Peter 1:19) — is Christ; the myth of a fallen archangel named Lucifer is a later invention, distilled from a combination of four passages in the Bible that have absolutely nothing to do with any such figure or tale. Simon also suggests that the trope of a deal with the devil is arguably as old as the story of Eden. If so, only well after the time of its composition, and only as a late imposition on the text. The authors of Genesis had no concept of any devil and were not even particularly interested in depicting the impeccably honest snake in the story as a villain. Simon also attributes the concept of evil as a privatio boni to Augustine, a common enough error, as it happens; by Augustine’s time, the notion that evil is pure privation was a long-established metaphysical axiom of pagan, Jewish, and Christian philosophy alike. And there are a few other minor lapses — but all of them taken together are of scarcely any consequence set beside the sheer abundance of delightful material the book contains, and of no consequence whatsoever set beside Simon’s exuberant and elegant treatments of his subject.
So then, when all is said and done, the book is a grand entertainment, even something of a grand gala — a veritable festival of evil, one might say, boisterously celebrated, sumptuously decorated, festooned with plenty of bunting, and even punctuated with some fireworks — and I can recommend it to any reader in search of an intelligent diversion and possessed of particularly sinewy forearms. Buy it, enjoy it, wallow ecstatically in its evil, and for God’s sake don’t drop it on your foot.
I could, I suppose, leave the matter there, but that would be something of an injustice. As I have said, Pandemonium is more than merely an entertainment. It is also something more ambitious: a genuine proposal regarding the human experience of the demonic. Here, to my mind, is where the text is at once at its very best, at least as an exercise in “Orphic” criticism. And it deserves serious consideration in those terms as well.
To be clear: While Simon accords that experience complete credibility as an experience, he is adamant in his resistance to any sort of reductive reading of it, either of the kind that assumes the literal veridicality of its folklore or of the kind that treats our apprehensions of evil’s real and personal otherness as nothing but metaphors for purely subjective psychological states. Instead, his book occupies a shadowy epistemological interval, located equidistantly between affirmation and denial, and for him this is a matter of principle. He admits, if only with a certain rueful irony, that as a responsible modern man he cannot simply accept the literal existence of demons, at least if that means believing that they are real in the same way that the dog in the front yard is real. Those who do think that way, he says, “just choose to believe in something demonstrably wrong.” (Actually, empirical negatives are notoriously immune to “demonstration,” but one gets the point.) But it is quite possible to decline to believe in the literal individual existence of an entity called Asmodeus (for example) without thereby denying that there is a dimension of real experience — or at least a dimension where experience and objective reality are only indiscernibly distinct from one another, if at all — that is properly understood as the demonic. In regard to that dimension, the names given demonic beings are incantatory rather than indicative, ritualistic rather than taxonomic. They do not indicate certain discrete entities so much as they gesture evocatively toward a “dark something” that cannot be denied but that remains utterly elusive of clear definition.
Simon, in fact, takes exception to the whole “epistemological attitude” that demands declarations of either belief or disbelief in simplistic terms, dismissing it as an expression of our unfortunate devotion today to what he (not quite accurately) calls the “correspondence theory of truth”; what he is really objecting to is a species of positivism. In good Husserlian phenomenological fashion, he is entirely willing to bracket out all questions of the ontological status of the object of intention and perception, in order to pursue an exhaustive and unprejudiced survey of the ways in which it is manifested. And his object here is, as he rather flamboyantly describes it, “the demonic singularity that radiates out such malignance through every crevice of our damned lives,” “something of the demonic within the core of our universe,” “the cracked numinous” — he even speaks of it as the menacing gaze of red eyes staring back at us from nowhere — which he chooses to approach entirely in terms of our human interaction with it rather than in terms of its presumed essential nature. And this he chooses to undertake by way of a demonology, filtered through a “demonic poetics.”
This is for the most part a sound strategy. Simon is wise, on purely prudential grounds, to abstain from propositional assertions regarding the reality or unreality of any particular aspect of what he wants to study. It allows him to explore an absolute embarrassment of fascinating material without being obliged constantly to attempt to distinguish between reality and appearance, sanity and delusion, plausibility and nonsense. My one complaint regarding his method, however, comes at the point where he attempts to supplement his phenomenological prudence with a metaphysical rationale. Early on in his argument, he quotes Paul Tillich, who here (on this occasion, at least) is speaking for the entire classical theistic tradition: “God does not exist. He is being itself beyond essence and existence. Therefore, to argue that God exists is to deny him.” To many ears, needless to say, that will probably sound like nothing but willful paradox. All it really means, though, is that God is not a discrete thing alongside other things. Rather, he is the infinite and metaphysically simple reality of being in itself, in whom all finite entities subsist and from whom they receive their purely contingent being (which is what the word “existence” means here). This is little more than a logical truism regarding any coherent concept of the absolute. But Simon tries to use it as a warrant for his refusal of an ontology of the demonic: “Insomuch as the demonic is within the realm of the sacred, where that word connotes not goodness so much as those things that are other from our profane reality, I think that paradoxically something like this is true for demons as well.” That does not work.
Tillich’s is not a claim about the sacred; it is strictly and solely a claim, technically speaking, about ontological modality, and it can intelligibly apply to only one object: infinite divine being, in which no distinction can be posited between essence (what something is) and existence (that something is). It cannot be extended, even analogously, to any individual finite being — real, fanciful, metaphorical, or other. It is a definition, not a predication, and its referent is unique. Admittedly, in quite a contrary and nonanalogous sense — as Simon well knows — this same metaphysical tradition denies evil per se any intrinsic existence, defining it instead as a pure absence of the good, with no substance of its own, therefore lacking any proper “essence” whatsoever, and possessing “existence” in only a transitive sense. But that, alas, can have no bearing whatsoever on the question of the reality of this or that putative personification of evil, or even on that of the category of the diabolical as such. This is, admittedly, a rather minor matter in the grand scheme of things; a casual violation of modal logic here or there cannot really detract from the pleasure the book affords, or from the richness of the information it imparts. And yet, by making this move, even in passing, Simon leaves a question dangling over the text.
Again, I heartily approve of Simon’s decision to approach the demonic entirely phenomenologically, faithfully hewing to an altogether Husserlian suspension of ontological assumptions. In treating the demonic purely as a noema whose features can be enumerated without existential predicate, and in bracketing out questions of existence altogether, he liberates himself and his reader from the need to decide on the “proper” attitude toward the unseen forces and malign agencies he is describing. That is the perfect attitude to strike in a book like this; it affords him ample license for its almost wanton superabundance of engaging material.
And yet one also should note as well that phenomenology, scrupulously pursued as far as it leads, inevitably subverts its own constraints. Even the purest, the most chaste, the most austerely rigorous phenomenological reduction cannot avoid ontology indefinitely. Sooner or later, as the evidences regarding the object of phenomenological study accumulate, and the contours of the experience it investigates are progressively elucidated, the question of the reality or unreality of both object and experience alike forces itself upon us, as a real dimension of their very phenomenality: Is the phenomenon sheer appearance as such, or is it instead the disclosure of something real? Can, in fact, manifestation ever be entirely dissociated from real existence? If not, what does the experience of a given object imply regarding the relation of that object to the rest of reality? And, as I have noted, in the case of anything other than God, the ontological question is ultimately a binary one: either existence or nonexistence. If, of course, the answer is the former, this then raises the further question of the mode of existence at issue.
Simon travels quite a long way under the impulse of his initial choice to examine the experience of the demonic without speculating on its substance. Yet at times, one might wonder whether the very distance crossed does not make that decision seem like something of an evasion by the end. Either an experience is an experience of something independent of the intentionality that seeks it, or it is an item only of personal psychology, as Simon grants. But then the nature of its existence, whether independent or dependent, sooner or later poses itself again. One can ultimately decide that the question of the object’s ontological status is unanswerable, true, but it is an error to think that only a crude literalism or positivism might prompt someone to raise it. If the experience of the demonic is so widely, perennially, variously, and vividly attested, the weight of plausibility begins insensibly — but inexorably — to shift in one direction rather than the other.
Not that Simon fails to understand any of this in principle. Early on in his book, he accords the experience of real evil sufficient credibility to advise against trifling with forces one does not understand (illustrating the point with an anecdote about what could have been a case of temporary psychosis or theatrical fraud, but which also might have been an instance of demonic enthusiasm, in the original sense of the word). He is aware that there are mysteries here that a prudent person might want to avoid peering into with too intrusive a gaze. But I cannot help but think that the grand, opulent, farraginous story he unfolds in this book has a more unsettling implication than he allows. Where there is smoke, there is fire, after all. And where there is a great deal of smoke, the fire is probably a very lively one. And when that smoke is so very redolent of brimstone, one might legitimately suspect that it is fire of a very particular sort.
David Bentley Hart’s newest books are Roland in Moonlight (Angelico, 2021) and You Are Gods (Notre Dame, 2022).
LARB Staff Recommendations
Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?
LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!