TABLE OF CONTENTS

PRINT Summer 1989

ON THE DEVIL AND THE STONES

THERE ARE SOME WHO MAINTAIN that the Devil does not exist, that He is but a pious invention meant to help us along our difficult road to heaven, a feeble fiction god imagined in the moment of despair when He understood, too late, that the common man—except for the rarest cases of the blessed in spirit—desires solely the world and the body; his dealings with the soul limited during his lifetime to attempts at persuading it to accept a maximum of accommodations to the interstices in both divine and human law. I confess, I myself also do not believe in the Devil. But in cautious compensation, I have blind faith in His representations, innumerable, produced by our anxious minds, now mostly in cinematographic appearances, where He and His manifestations rarely go beyond mere luminous vibration, and yet are convincing, judging by the terror that generally strikes the hearts of spectators.
 
In my house there live three visible Devils. I say visible because it’s not impossible that, during my already long life, other Devils have hidden in the corners waiting for the moment they judge fit to try new temptations or to repeat some ancient ones. One of them emerges from the flames and souls of Purgatory—a popular clay piece, stridently colored, in which the Fend, it’s quite clear, is getting short shrift: he’s black, with bulging eyes, horned beyond measure, and fearful of the resplendent sword that the Archangel Saint Michael is bringing down on his head. My second Devil is in an oil painting: the ugliest creature, who, in addition to the above-mentioned attributes, has abundant claws for nails and a serpent’s tail for legs,which means the painter deprived him of the natural secret parts that are usually found between them and that have been, in the competent pronouncements of theologians and fathers of the Church, an instrument of the soul’s damnation far more effective than the devilish arsenal. Upon this Devil, a Saint Michael of somewhat suspect appearance treads, armed with lance, sure enough, but his face, seemingly powdered, the touch of rouge on the mouth, and his hair in curls, makes me think that this particular battle is not going to end as the canon says. My third Devil is of porcelain and looks like a musketeer. He is a jovial head, cheerful, with a smile that lets us appreciate the excellent set of teeth nature equipped him with, a moustache and a goatee that D’Artagnan would envy, and the mien of someone who loves life above anything else. I like this Devil of mine; I pass my fingers along his horns, the crooked nose, the pointed ears, the full eyebrows; and keep wondering about the purpose of a round hole in the top of his head. Perhaps the artist destined the infernal character for an ashtray, but, if such were his intention, I’d sorely disappoint him: never, as long as I live, shall ashes insult his irrepressible joy. I prefer to think that the hole is meant for a candle, thus restoring to this beheaded one his original name of lucifer, precisely, He Who Brings Light. But it’s getting late for kidding, and this Devil of mine, with a candle stuck in his head, would look as absurd and incongruous as the Christ that Fellini ordered to be carried over the roofs of Rome, suspended from a helicopter.
 
My perverse faith invariably makes me search, when on my journeys I visit the chapels, monasteries, churches, basilicas, and cathedrals of our world, for the Devils that populate them in legions, and although even there I lack the ability to discover the invisible ones, I can swear that of the others, the material and the evident, not one escapes me. All are detestable, hideous, none laughs as my Lucifer does, but I insist on inventorying them wherever they are, in the carvings of sculpted panels, in the paintings of the Last Judgment, in the falls of the rebellious angels, in the labyrinths of Romanesque columns, in the gargoyles, and in the Temptations. It is true that the saints, all of them, had difficult lives of fasting, sackcloth, and various mortifications, but having been at first just like us, weak and sinful, I imagine that the most painful thing for them must have been to endure with serene face and steadfast heart the obscene monstrosities, the repulsive forms never before seen, the viscous drivel, these precursory Draculas, Quasimodos, and Frankensteins, but above all—ah! Above all—the naked women, yes, tempting, those breasts, those thighs, those exposed arms, those lips and tongues, those hips and buttocks, Jesus, Jesus, let this cup pass from me, but God quickly ordered the suspension of the luxuriant spectacle and the opening of the gates of paradise, before regret could take full possession of the body and will of the poor man, so that his last and sad terrestrial look, in the moment of entering heavenly bliss, deserves greater compassion on the part of the men and more tears on the part of the women who contentedly continue on earth. Something else, since we are talking about temptations, is really strange: one never sees naked men making enticing poses and carnal invitations before female saints besieged by the Demon, but just some miserable creeping snakes, some pitiful toothless dragons, nothing that could truly disturb the woman’s soul, unless these be phallic semblances. For how many objects were painted here that could, by their aspect and approximate shape, suggest to the distressed saint delightful associations that her confessors would take for spiritual raptures, while they were merely sensual deliriums, just as we might take Saint Teresa’s translucence for nothing but a myocardial infarction, forgive me, lord, for this satanic thought.
 
Well, among the abominable figures of the Devil, few are so boldly malignant as the one in a bas-relief at the Monastery of Oseira in Galicia, and that represents not a Temptation, but rude and disloyal behavior of the Fiend toward one of the most respected saints of the hagiology. It is he, Saint Benedict, whom we see here doing penance in a cave in the mountains of Subiaco, dressed as a monk, barefooted, with a book in his hand, perhaps exhausted from study, vigil, and mortification. The edifying picture is completed, as is the rule, by a skull and a wooden cross, without which no thought can elevate itself to the supreme heights. Up on the superimposed rock there is another monk, and this one makes a gesture of ringing a bell, a prearranged signal indicating that a basket with some food for the saint is to be lowered. In the background, as it behooves him, we can see the Devil. And what does the Devil do? The Devil, father of malice, throws stones at the bell, trying to break it and thus to keep the saint from noticing that supper is about to be served. One does not have to be Voltaire to object that the bell, after all, doesn’t make much difference, since it’d be enough to lower the basket to the the level of Saint Benedict’s eyes, who would indeed have to be profoundly enraptured in contemplation not to notice that it was time to eat. But it is also true that one can reach a different conclusion, one quite contrary and not at all favorable to the intrinsic merits of the saintly man, and this is that he was in fact sound asleep, and thus in need of the noisy turbulence of a clapper. We touch here on a delicate point that we won’t investigate any further for fear of seeing the entire Flos Sanctorum collapse, depriving us of the most charming and imaginative romance ever written.
 
What can be said, yes, is that the Devil has never forgotten this rustic manner of inserting Himself in the lives of people, and continued to use it in Portugal until only a few years ago, even though in less sacred matters still pertinent to the problem of temptation. It could be a scene taken out of Faust, but it is simply an episode of popular love-making, made into a quatrain sung perhaps at one time, perhaps never, and it goes like this: “Don’t throw any pebbles/As I’m doing the dishes/Send me your kisses/Before my ma notices.” Felicitous, those bucolic times, when a lad outdoors flings pebbles at the window, and his sweetheart, a clever maiden, asks for kisses from indoors. A careful reader would call attention to the obvious fact that it is not the Devil who is throwing the stones, but a young man in love who in this way releases his longing and desire. But the reader is greatly mistaken. Love let me tell you,is a demonic thing and it is the Devil, thank God, who moves the young man’s arm, who will move his hands and his whole body wen he finally enters the girl’s room after the dishes are washed and the mother is asleep.
 
There are some who maintain that the great misfortune of the Devil is being unable, or not knowing how, to love. Therefore, I say, the Devil falls in love and loves Himself in the loves of men and women, and, to achieve this pleasant end, will use any means. Even stones.

José Saramago is a writer who lives and works in Lisbon. His most recent novel, História do Cerco de Lisboa, was published by Camino in Lisbon.

Translated from the Portuguese by Grazyna Drabik.