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The Devil
Peter Stanford

The Devil: A Biography
Peter Stanford
London 1996

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There’s something of a millennial flavour about the recent upsurge in talk of the Devil. Last month saw the release of Elaine Pagels’ scholarly treatise on The Origin of Satan and now Peter Stanford is hitting these streets with a biography (unauthorised we’re told) of the horned one as he rears his ubiquitous head in our murky history and, in one form or another, throughout our daily lives.

Charting the mutating perceptions of Satan from Biblical adversary to ‘naughty but nice’ cream cake advocate in the advertising campaign, there’s more than enough in this eminently readable book to tempt even the most jaded palate from dry old scholasticism. There’s every confection from anthropology to history, from folklore to superstition, film criticism to literary anecdote, and, oh yes, there’s even some theology thrown in for good measure (or is that light relief?).

The question, surely as topical now as its ever been, of whether Satan is a state of sinfulness in man or something existing as objectively as God, is left-in all the fun-unresolved and, to all intents and purposes, unaddressed by Stanford. Rather, the issues are clouded by his keenness to present the Devil as a magnet for loony fundamentalists, heavy metal headbangers and visionary romantics alike. The rebels and misfits, so the argument runs, flock to Satan’s side, attracted by the archetypal symbol of rebellion and the irrational for which science has no place in its limited scheme. This idea, that Satan’s elasticity and near-infinite adaptability as a metaphor-through literature, art, film and mass-media exploitation, somehow undermines the possibility of objective evil, is a doomed logic from the start. Stanford never gets far beyond it, posing and re-posing the same conundrum with the deployment of history’s movers and shakers on either side of a line of chalk. In his efforts at accessibility he’ll dip into the waters of the Hammer film genre and then, before we can acclimatise to the shift in temperature, the real life horror of the Holocaust and Satanic ritual abuse are his subjects, graphically dwelt on to show us the full evil of which mankind is capable. C.S Lewis, the creator of Uncle Screwtape, claims that there are two opposite but nevertheless equal errors about devils; "One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, i.e. to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them." Screwtape himself maintains that the whole art of seducing mankind to evil is to persuade it that devils don’t exist. Perhaps Stanford’s biography was authorised by its subject after all.

Reviewed by Francesco Spagnolo


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