The Devil’s Dictionary

"The Hell," mosaic by  Coppo di Marcovaldo, circa 1301. (Credit:  Wikimedia Commons)

“The Hell,” mosaic by Coppo di Marcovaldo, circa 1301. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

In times of trouble, I do not consult the Bible. I visit the astonishing and still very relevant Devil’s Dictionary by the bewildering Ambrose Bierce. Its word definitions—compiled during the last half of the nineteenth century—are cleansing, illuminating, and especially joyful during times when our minds are full of signs (indeed the certainty) that the prophesied and long-awaited Apocalypse is upon us.

Observe, for example, its sober definition of ABSURDITY = A statement or belief manifestly inconsistent with one’s own opinion. Take heed, all those who labor in “new” universities and houses of learning, of the dictionary’s stern proclamation of the decadence of such institutions: ACADEMY = A modern school where football is taught. (more…)

Shaw’s Don Juan and the Devil’s Disciple

"The finding of Don Juan by Haidée" by Ford Madox Brown, 1870, watercolor and gouache over pencil. (Credit:  Wikimedia Commons)

“The finding of Don Juan by Haidée” by Ford Madox Brown, 1870, watercolor and gouache over pencil. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

In the early twentieth century, George Bernard Shaw took on the “frightful responsibility” of composing a Don Juan play. His immediate sources were “a very great play” (Moliere’s Dom Juan), and “a very great opera” (Mozart’s Don Giovanni).[1] But he understood that the spirit of the Spanish hero is that of a mythological trickster.

In a brief exegesis of the first Don Juan play (El burlador de Sevilla by Tirso de Molina, 1583-1648), Shaw explained:

The prototypic Don Juan … was presented, according to the ideas of that time, as the enemy of God, the approach of whose vengeance is felt throughout the drama, growing in menace from minute to minute. [2]

Shaw rejects the notion of Don Juan as a vulgar “libertine,” and makes clear in Man and Superman that his John Tanner (Juan Tenorio) is one “in the philosophic sense”:

Don Juan is a man who, though gifted enough to be exceptionally capable of distinguishing between good and evil, follows his own instincts without regard to the common, statute, or canon law; and therefore, whilst gaining the ardent sympathy of our rebellious instincts … finds himself in mortal conflict with existing institutions.


Tripping the Demonization Trap

“The Great Satan” by Brazilian cartoonist Latuff, 1 October 2003. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Does US Representative Seth Moulton slip or trip war culture’s demonization trap when he endorses the Obama administration’s nuclear deal with Iran?

As mentioned in the preceding post, the congressman allows that the deal does not require the US to trust Iran and concedes that Iran is a determined enemy of the US and Israel that supports international terrorism and violates human rights. The basic premise of the case for rejecting the nuclear accord and its underlying Manichean mythos of good versus evil remains unremarked and unchallenged.

War culture remains rhetorically intact, whether one decides to support the nuclear accord on the congressman’s terms or reject it. The perseverance of war culture on this matter is reflected in the expression of public opinion. (more…)

Unmaking the Devil

Saddam Hussein and Mohammed Reza Shah Pahlavi during the Algiers agreement, 1975. (Credit:  Wikimedia Commons)

Saddam Hussein and Mohammed Reza Shah Pahlavi during the Algiers agreement, 1975. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

The Obama administration’s nuclear accord with Iran is drawing rhetorical fire. That’s not surprising. Conjuring the devil is a ritual that sustains the war state. It rehearses the narrative of good versus evil. Without the threat of evildoers, the country’s motivation to fight degrades over time.

Congressional war hawks and their neoconservative allies, observes James Carden, warn against being snookered by a despicable Iranian regime. Alluding to the Holocaust, Presidential aspirant Mike Huckabee insists that the deal would march the Israelis “to the door of the oven.” Senator Lindsey Graham adds that the religious views of Iran’s Supreme Leader compel him to destroy Israel and attack the US. Iran is the devil incarnate, Hitler de novo.

Senator Dan Coats summarizes much of the critique that follows from the basic premise that they are evil and we are good. In a guest column published by various Indiana newspapers, the Senator says the more he reads through the text of the Iran deal, the more his concern grows. Why? Because “the deal will not permanently stop Iran’s nuclear ambitions” and “the negotiators conceded [far too much] in order to reach an agreement with a regime that calls America its enemy, brazenly violates U.N resolutions, sponsors terrorism, threatens Israel’s existence and is responsible for more than 1,000 American military deaths since Sept. 11, 2001.” (more…)


Illustration by Sidney Paget of the Sherlock Holmes adventure

Illustration by Sidney Paget of the Sherlock Holmes adventure “The Greek Interpreter,” which appeared in The Strand Magazine in September, 1893. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

“I thought you’d like to hear what we’ve found so far about Constance.”

“I take it that doesn’t include whoever killed her,” said Myrna.

“Unfortunately not,” he said as he put on his reading glasses and glanced at his notebook. “I spent much of the day researching the Quints—“

“Then you think that had something to do with her death? The fact she was a Ouellet Quintuplet?”

“I don’t really know, but it’s extraordinary, and when someone is murdered we look for the extraordinary, though, to be honest, we often find the killer hiding in the banal.” (more…)

John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress

Christian's Combat With Apollyon, by H.C. Selous and M. Paolo Priolo, circa 1850.

Christian’s Combat With Apollyon, by H.C. Selous and M. Paolo Priolo, circa 1850.

In the middle of the road of life, having left the City of Destruction on his way to the City of Zion, in the depths of the Valley of Humiliation, Christian (who was once called Graceless) meets the foul fiend Apollyon, who had “wings like a dragon, feet like a bear, and out of his belly came fire and smoke, and his mouth was as the mouth of a lion.”

The above print reflects the recurrent image of the devil myth that has haunted American war culture from the days of origin. There is always a devil to fight, a beast to overcome, Beelzebub to defeat, or Apollyon to engage in combat. (more…)

Trickster Angels

"The Three Archangels and Tobias" (tempera on panel) by Francesco Botticini, 1470.

“The Three Archangels and Tobias” (tempera on panel) by Francesco Botticini, 1470.

There are Black Angels, Warrior Angels, Healing Angels; Angels who announce a New Beginning and Archangels. The Trickster Angel of Temperance, who is the Archangel Raphael, stands between the deep waters of the self and the shores of our persona.

In his chalice he mixes the blood of the martyrs and the clear streams of eternal life. He announces a New Dawn in the distant mountains. This is the Trickster who made Abraham change his God rather than sacrifice his son; this is the Angel who stood on the banks of the river and caught the fish that returned Tobit’s eyesight. This is the same Angel who drove the Devil to the far regions of Egypt, and cleansed the world from his influence.

Mark that he did not kill the Devil, for the Devil too is part of all things, but only bound him in chains in a mountain. (more…)

Fool’s Errand

"The Fool," Stratford-Upon-Avon, Great Britain (Credit:  Irene Ogrizek / Wikimedia Commons).

“The Fool,” Stratford-Upon-Avon, Great Britain (Credit: Irene Ogrizek / Wikimedia Commons).

Andrew Bacevich, historian of American militarism and empire, has declared the U.S. war against the Islamic State a fool’s errand. His argument is captured in the title of his Washington Post opinion piece, “Even if we defeat the Islamic State, we’ll still lose the bigger war.”

The U.S. is involved in a decades-old enterprise to bring order and stability to the Middle East, which is both costly and counterproductive. “Regime change has produced power vacuums.” The Islamic State is the most recent iteration of “America’s never-ending Middle East misadventure.” We are “inadvertently sowing instability” and thus digging the hole we’re in even deeper.

Bacevich’s critique invokes the mythic force of the archetype. The fool’s errand, as an idiom of war, places the U.S. under the spell of a heroic quest. It is a grand undertaking that has no chance of success, a pointless task carried out against our better judgment.  (more…)


President Barack Obama at the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize ceremony in Oslo.  (Harrywad / Wikimedia Commons)

President Barack Obama at the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize ceremony in Oslo. (Harrywad / Wikimedia Commons)

The senator who opposed the Iraq War is now—as President—engaging in an Iraq War. The Nobel Peace Prize recipient is authorizing air strikes in the Middle East. The candidate who lost a presidential race because he opposed, as a young veteran, the Vietnam War is now—as Secretary of State—organizing allies for a war campaign in Syria. The senator who opposed George Bush’s policy of torturing enemy combatants, and who made a mark in his presidential race by singing bomb bomb bomb, bomb bomb Iran, is gleeful at last that his advice has been heeded, and that we are bombing someone.

For once again, another barbarous Devil has appeared in the Middle East; yet again, another heinous adversary threatens “American Interests” (read “American Money”) and “National Security” (read “American Power”). The land is plagued by a Hydra Monster; no sooner does the U.S. cut off one head, another one grows in its place. (more…)

The Perfect Enemy

Guantanamo captives in January 2002 (photo by Petty Officer 1st class Shane T. McCoy, U.S. Navy).

Guantanamo captives in January 2002 (photo by Petty Officer 1st class Shane T. McCoy, U.S. Navy).

David Campbell observes that, although not all risks are perceived as serious (regardless of so-called objective factors), they are considered dangers by Americans when they are characterized as “alien, subversive, dirty or sick” (Writing Security, 1998, pp. 2-3).  These traits signal the presence of an enemy because they violate the avowed essence of national identity (we are a healthy, clean, and loyal citizenry).  The imagined enemy exists within a tradition of interpretation that is shaped by the dynamics of language and that carries over from one situation or context to the next.

The perfect enemy, beyond the specific features listed by Campbell, is represented as opposite to the national self-identity.  Such an enemy might be marked as dirty or sick but also as predatory, lawless, and profane.  There are many ways to express these themes of danger, but in each case they indicate the threat of an evil and barbaric force to the safety and mission of a chosen people.

Language has its own mythic dynamic that plays into the construction of the perfect enemy.  (more…)