Phil Hoad is not impressed by a diabolically bad study of witchcraft and the Devil
Demons! by Anthony Finlay, Blandford £16.99
SUMMONING UP the denizens of hell, medieval sorcerers at least understood the importance of getting names right. Demons!, in contrast, is a hopelessly inept title -and an ominous hint at the dubious nature of the beast between its covers. The slender hope of even masquerading as a serious investigation of the demonic is instantly exorcised by that illadvised exclamation mark.
The maladroit title reeks of a marketing man's suggestion and. in a way, the intrusion embodies the predicament Christianity finds itself in now: how to repackage concepts like evil and the demonic to ensure their relevance in a secular age. The Vatican insisted that the restatement of exorcism practice in January's papal declaration De Exorcismis et supplicationibus quibusdam did not represent a break with the past. But there was a tactful shift of perspective in the sobered-up language of the manual, a crucial plea to avoid confusing demonic possession with psychological distress, and a warning that media devils were almost as predatory as the infernal lot.
Clearly, the papacy is concerned with ensuring that its doctrines synchronise with the modern age. The dilemma bubbles below the surface of Anthony Finlay's book, but he obstinately fails to address it. More than once, he correctly identifies that the Church has gained an inviolable sense of direction down the ages by isolating how evil manifests itself — whether through witchcraft, demonic possession or a guest appearance by Old Nick. Yet Finlay denies Demons! such a goal by avoiding a head-on collision with the question in its 20th century form.
What he does contribute is nebulous at best. It is never clear what Finlay sets out to achieve: a history of Christian demonology, or a polemical argument that the Devil is to be feared as a malevolent entity still at work. Instead, he veers amateurishly between the two poles, like a lackadaisical country cyclist blithely taking the wrong route home.
TRACING CHRISTIAN figures of evil from their Hebrew and Persian ancestors, the main body of the book treats the Devil historically. This evolutionary approach would be fine if Finlay stuck to it rigorously. However, he simply doesn't seem committed enough to the approach to make a perennially fascinating subject interesting, let alone insightful.
And the reason for this lack of conviction? Perhaps it is because employing a truly surgical precision in any historical account of the Devil's evolution would make it very difficult to establish that he is "real", that he exists independently of the changes that the vagaries of history have imposed on him.
Anthony Finlay charts Satan's many metamorphoses from Persian bogeyman to New Testament tempter to Romantic antihero. As the Devil enters his modern incarnation an almost non-existent presence — Finlay awkwardly struggles to convince that he is a malevolent reality, not just a fiction that merely reflects the times.
Demons! is dogged by these contradictions. The Church still struggles with them, and Finlay clearly doesn't have any answers. Mostly, the historical account is left to sit uneasily alongside the implication that somewhere beneath all this, the Devil truly exists. Finlay's methods of sifting out viable proof are utterly unsatisfactory. Sporadically, he produces what he considers to be erroneous beliefs of the past, usually the blindingly obvious: he startles with the revelation, for example, that confessions to witchcraft under torture shouldn't be considered kosher.
But when it comes to providing tangible evidence of the Devil at work, he is hopeless. There is little discrimination between accounts of witchcraft and possession designated false examples and those deemed to be actual instances of demonic activity. When he attempts to tackle the more general question of evil in fiction, his readings of the intellectual grand masters like Dante, Milton, Nietzsche and Dostoyevsky are cursory and, frankly, dull. You're better served by simply scouring the source texts in question.
FINLAY DOESN'T EVEN seem to realise when the crunch time arrives and he is required to serve up evidence of the Devil today. As a former priest who claims to have performed exorcisms, he seems well-equipped to make a stronger case than most, but is oddly stingy with anecdotes. As for wider concerns of our age, he consigns Freud and Jung to two flat pages, reduces the 20th century treatment of evil in art to C. S. Lewis, and is gently critical of The Exorcist.
It's a spectacular failure. Finlay chides modern Satan-worshippers and spiritualists (99 per cent of whom are desperate fantasists), barely touching on the real drama: how evil has seeped from the province of demonised figures, through to personal morality; then to psychology and now finally, perhaps, to genetics. If only he had followed the advice of Thomas Aquinas, whom — indulging his penchant for lazy citation — he chooses to finish with: "Even without the Devil, we would have the urge for food and sex... Whether we keep such desires in order is a matter of free will. There is no need to blame everything on the temptations of the Devil."
Putting more of Aquinas's discrimination into practice would have helped Demons! Finlay instead cedes to temptation, defers to banal conclusions and — some satisfying descriptions of the grisly witch-hunting process apart — fails to provide even an enticing read.
As a purportedly serious investigation of evil, Demons! is hardly going to have the Satanic spindoctors frantically preparing a reply. The demonic — whatever it is — will be perching on our shoulders for some time yet.