Ruminations on the Devil

One of my all-time favorite quotes is from Goethe’s Faust. Although taken from Renaissance lore, Goethe’s Mephistopheles has all the trappings of a 19th Century philanderer. Needless to say, such a metamorphosis makes it difficult for his cohorts to recognize him and pay him his due homage. So much so, in fact, that the witch on whom he calls does not recognize him. Chiding her, he says:

For this time I will let you off:
It’s been some little time now, true enough,
Since last we ran into each other.
Civilization, glossing all we knew
Has rubbed off on the devil too.
That Nordic spook has nowadays been banished.
Those talons, horns and tail—all vanished! (Part I, 2492-98; translated by Walter W. Arndt)

There’s a lot of irony there. Old concepts revamped. True, we are familiar with the doctrine of temptation. That the devil is disguised in order to trip us up is not a revolutionary idea. But it’s not his victims he’s confusing here! Moreover, his change is not deliberate and malicious but simply a sign of the times. One has to keep us, doesn’t one? Very charming.

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