Notes: They're Back

The little devils

I DECIDED NOT long ago that it was time to catch up with the rest of America and get myself a personal trainer. I might start slow, with someone who would come into the office for an hour every day, and work myself up toward a full-time live-in trainer named Jake, who would help me to realize my full potential as a physical specimen. No sooner had I made this decision than my newfound ambition wilted, when it became apparent that personal trainers are hopelessly quaint and passe. The big thing now, to judge from news reports I see almost every day, is to have a personal demon—or, better, several of them. In the nation’s expanding service economy personal demons are the real workhorses, and they perform an impressive variety of tasks.

They make good chauffeurs, for instance. An article I remember reading about Michael Deaver, reporting his claim to be an alcoholic, explained that the former adviser to President Ronald Reagan was “driven by personal demons.” The picture of Deaver that accompanied the article showed him, as if by way of proof, sitting in the back of his limousine. Thomas Wolfe, John Dos Passos, and Erskine Caldwell all had personal demons at the wheel, according to an article in The Washington Post, though Ernest Hemingway, as William Faulkner was quoted in the same article as saying, “wasn’t driven by a private demon.” Personal demons will go anywhere. Writing in The New York Times last winter, Anna Quindlen talked about herself and her husband “struggling with a relationship, sometimes flying off with our own personal demons.” The Chicago Tribune, noting last spring the improved performance of the pitcher Fernando Valenzuela, explained that he was no longer being “chased cross-country by personal demons.”

Personal demons do not always have it easy. At last year’s Wimbledon lawntennis championships John McEnroe was seen by a Chicago Tribune reporter “swearing at personal demons and giving innocent ballbovs an earful.”Another newspaper account described the U.S. downhill skiing champion, Moe Johnson, as “fighting injuries and personal demons.”

Personal demons can give as good as they get. One press report earlier this year noted that Pete Rose, the manager of the Cincinnati Reds, “was unable to beat his personal demons as consistently as he had generations of pitchers.” Some personal demons apparently plague several people at once. The Washington Post observed last year that the outfielder Eddie Murray, who then played for Baltimore, was “not alone among old Orioles in choosing owner Edward Bennett Williams as his personal demon.”

Along with professional athletes, people in government service are prominently possessed. When Robert S. McNamara, the former Secretary of Defense, testified during the lawsuit brought against CBS News by General William Westmoreland, The Washington Post pictured him trying to “wriggle loose from his personal demons.” George Bush and Robert Dole found themselves in a similar situation immediately after the Iowa caucuses last year. The two GOP front-runners, according to Time magazine, “went into a defensive crouch fending off their personal demons.” Pat Buchanan, who was for several years the director of communications in the Reagan White House, seems to be a Washington rarity: “He’s entirely without any of the personal demons that so often occupy the men in power,” according to the Reagan speechwriter Anthony Dolan as quoted in Time.

ENVY, GLUTTONY, lust, covetousness, sloth, pride, anger—these are the Seven Deadly Sins, and for a good while now human beings have been trying to explain them away in the language of psychology and sociology. Now we are back to demons, which have not figured significantly in the Western world for about three hundred years. The writers of the texts introduced above probably don’t mean to refer literally to a representative of Satan when they use the word demon, but they do mean to refer to some maleficent exogenous variable, for which a demon stands in as a kind of stunt man.

Nobody knows, of course, when a belief in demons as tormentors and inducers to sin first arose. The Judaic literature doesn’t make a big deal about demons, though they do appear from time to time. The notion that demons are a powerful and pervasive influence in the affairs of men was mainly a Christian contribution, and it raised a lot of questions. Are demons the pagan gods? Are they fallen angels? Did God create them, and if so, why? The early Church fathers and medieval theologians had to grapple with such questions, because they involve the very nature, and the source, of evil. From Augustine to Aquinas, philosophers labored to construct an elaborate demonology.

And yet, ironically, it was not during the Dark Ages but during the Renaissance and the Enlightenment that the fear of demons and their human agents reached its height. Charlemagne in the eighth century forbade the burning of witches as a pagan custom. The laws of King Coloman of Hungary in the eleventh century took no notice of witches “since they do not exist.” Only with the dawn of the age of science did an awareness of demons and their earthly wiles become, as H. R. Trevor-Roper argued in a famous essay, an “explosive force" and “a standing warning to those who would simplify the stages of human progress.” The lesson seems to be that there is something about a society whose smug self-conception is one of rationality and sophistication which leaves it wonderfully open to the forces of unreason.

Trevor-Roper’s observation may have a certain relevance in our own time. Certainly the popularity of personal demons seems of a piece with the age. To have a personal demon is at once an assertion of individuality, a denial of responsibility, and a claim on sympathy. That combination is a potent one, and it prolongs a great deal of disagreeable behavior. You’ve got to give the devil his due.

Cullen Murphy