THE DEVIL MADE ME DO IT

September 2005
The events I have recorded in my piece Hospital took place in 1998.  I had put the memory of that event  behind me without thinking out the implications. Now this year I have come to see the whole episode with increasing dismay.  I don’t know why I hadn’t faced this before. Why now, seven years later?

I don’t mean to retract Loitering; last summer was a high point in my life. This is why I chose it to title the book. The tone of my life has not changed, I am no less confident of myself. It’s just that the irrational side of my mind has become obvious and I have to deal with it, and I don’t know how.

Medical people would say I was psychotic during my stay in the hospital. And I was, God knows, out of control. But I am not easy with talk of psychosis: the word was invented in the nineteenth century, and in all my reading, at least on the internet, psychosis is presented as total disaster—delusions, voices in the head, hallucinations, distorted thinking, “a reality-bending mental state.” A psychosis seems to have no existence of its own, it seems to be thought of as a void in the surface of ‘reality’, to be hastily filled with therapy. Whereas I have been re-reading Rollo May’s Love and  Will. He talks about the daimonic as something to be lived with, he says the daimon can be creative as well as destructive. It sounds like Shiva.  This is something I can deal with. What happened to me in the hospital was plain daimonic possession, familiar from history.
May says any natural function that has the power to take over the whole person, whether it be power, erotic desire, rage, creation or destruction, whether for good or for evil, is daimonic. He is very persuasive. I had originally wondered (the axe)if this guardian angle or daimon was an entity, but May says no, it is part of oneself. And of course he is right: to call it an entity would be to give in to dualism, and that is not an option for People of the Book;  God may well be dead but our cultures are as monotheistic as ever. I have never heard it said that the gods are dead.

Now that I come to consider seriously the daemonic I see that I have a long and ambivalent acquaintance with the thing.

On a day in Toronto, when the children were small, I was making something in the yard. My son kept ‘borrowing’ my knife. The function of small boys is, as everyone knows, to lose their fathers’ tools. Mildly exasperated I said to him, “If you don’t stop running off with my knife I’ll . . .”  Pause. Fifteen-sixteenths of my mind was taken up with my work, with the remainder I tried, absentmindedly, to think up a suitable penalty, such as turning the garden hose on him, when a completion of the sentence floated to the surface:  “. . . use it on you.”

I didn’t think much about this at the time, being used as I was to the bizarre things that come out of the mind,  but now I have to ask myself, who said those four words? They evoke an image that doesn’t bear thinking on.

The irruption of the irrational into my life, as described in The Axe was, in retrospect, the major encounter of my life. I have never read anything like it—at best vague references to guardian angels. This phenomenon announced its presence in the world as a thing to be reckoned with.

And of course there is the Whim: That grotesque caper was quite clearly eroticism gone off the rails, the purely daemonic at its most rank.

In view of all this, the disasters in the hospital, and above all the four words that imploded on the lawn in Toronto, I have to revise my version of myself. I have become questionable. My will and my judgement can collapse. Evidently I can become possessed at quite low levels of stress. I have become somewhat strange to myself. Not estranged, I am relieved to say—strange is bad enough.

There are inexplicable holes in the corners of my life that I suppose have to do with this Caliban at my elbow, though I cannot see how. Years ago, at a dinner somewhere, I translated a word for a visitor who could not speak English. A friend sitting beside me said, “I didn’t know you spoke French, Tod.” Now this is strange: I heard him with perfect clarity, but I stared straight in front of me as if I had not. He said, “Tod?” I still would not answer. But why? It was a natural question. I speak some French, am not  fluent. It was as though the question were a threat. But what threat? I did not know then, and I do not know now. All I can say is I would have answered if I could, I could have answered if I’d wanted to. But I couldn’t/didn’t. There appear to be invisible knots in our clearest intentions. I see this incident as one of the most mysterious non-events of my life. Possession? In what sense? To what end?

And dreams, now that we are theorizing: Is this daemon the force that dreams our dreams?

There was a period some years ago when I recorded my dreams with the care of a court reporter and even wrote a little pamphlet on the subject. I came to have the feeling that at the source of these nighttime narratives was a kind of trickster with a mind of its own and a daft sense of humour, the Tyl Eulenspiegal of dreams.  This trickster has a certain command of syntax as shown by a card in a shop window in a forgotten dream that read in large clear letters: “wet me no drivel.” About the incident on the lawn in Toronto: I ask myself today, was it this trickster/daemon rummaging in the ragbag of possibilities, fitting together harmless verbal debris floating around the mind in order to ‘freak me out,’ as we would say in the sixties? It is just the kind of mischief it would concoct.

Yet this same trickster produced a master dream if I may call it that. I saw an Indian city, which I thought of as Benares. Everywhere was dust, ochre-coloured dust, people in ochre-coloured rags and robes, and here and there, each a cameo set arbitrarily into the landscape, lay cattle, the famous  sacred cows of India, and they were numinous. This was the most intense image I have ever seen, waking or sleeping.

By contrast, a recent dream. It began well enough: an unknown woman and myself were playing ten toes in a large dark space, there was the impression of others. I became aware that another woman in the room was being strangled. Cut to: me being there. I tried to pry apart the fingers wrapped around her neck. But they were not fingers, they were the knotted roots of a tree. And then there was a howl, so loud and charged with such horror that it brought me awake almost to my feet.

The howl I heard in that night is the howl that rises, now and always, from the throats of all the broken people of the world, pressed to their limit and beyond.

These two dreams, taken together, bring to mind a question that I am not the first to ask.

The world contains indescribable splendour, and horror unimaginable. Is the horror contained and containable within the splendour? If that is so, then we may perhaps hope. But if the splendour is an island in a sea of horror, then . . . is there no hope?

Can it be the trickster-daemon that poses such deep, unanswerable questions?

In the end, it is not possible to describe the daemon. I know very well how it has affected me, but I cannot say what it is. I can only say that it is something that I live with. Any more than I can say what the `self’ of myself is. I am also something (someone?) I live with. This takes me out of my depth in ontology and further into language than I want to go.

The daemon. I catch myself superstitiously wondering such absurdities as: Can it hear me? Does it know I am writing about it? Indeed it is extremely hard to find a way to write about the daemon. Can it be one of the `unclean spirits’ that so devilled the apostles in the New Testament? The Bible implies that these spirits were the result of ritual pollution, and could be cured by ritual.

I don’t want to be cured of the daemon. Though I wish it could be explained. The whole thing seems preposterous. How would you describe it – a spook that has somehow moved in to share skull-space with the landlord?

Having said that, I had to smile because I remembered that some years ago I heard a voice in my head. Yes, literally. (A sure sign of psychosis, remember?) In a quiet moment I quite clearly heard a voice about an inch in from the surface of my left temple say “Nice place!” It was the resonant easy-going voice of one of those pleasant self-possessed young men you meet these days, the kind of man I would like to have been. He sounded as though he were looking around at a comely apartment with approval.

A voice in the head? What on earth can explain such an odd phenomenon? Another little mis-en-scene by Tyl Eulenspiegal, master impresario?

I am aware that these experiences of mine, and my way of writing about them, make them seem trivial when set against the violence of the modern world. Helpless in the face of killing and torturing and hunger, conditioned by 5000 years of Judaism, 2,000 years of Christianity, 800 years of Islam, it is no wonder people talk of the Devil as pure malevolence. But there is a misunderstanding here.

Satan was an angel in good terms with God, even in the New Testament as anyone who reads the Bible must be aware. It was he who couldn’t stand being in the same heaven as God and consequently fell, or jumped, or was pushed, out of the sight of God and came to live down here and work mischief. But still only as much mischief as God permits. This is monotheism, after all. The `dark satanic mills’ were the result of the truly daemonic greed that overcame certain men in the Midlands when they saw the fortunes to be made by linking the recently developed steam technology to the industrial loom. It had nothing to do with Satan.

Socrates talks about the daemon warning him when he is about to do something wrong. Years ago I became aware that I was sliding into an affair with a woman I met through work. My state of mind was plain horniness. For several days, for most of the hours I was awake, I had the strong sense that I should not do what I wanted to do. The signal was clear and insistent. Of course I ignored it and went ahead anyway in my pig-headed way, and of course it turned out badly. I passed up a chance for a fine friendship. And now that I read again what Socrates said about his daemon warning him before he did something unseemly or stupid, I understand—or at least as much I can understand of this obscure matter.

I have come to accept the presence of the daemon, no longer a hypothesis but a given, in my life because of two events. This warning is the first event. The other is the unmistakable authority with which IT intervened, underwater, some fifty years ago to keep me from drowning myself.