“The devil has the broadest perspectives for God; therefore he keeps so far away from God—the devil being the most ancient friend of wisdom.” (Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, aphorism 129)
I first read The Devil Is Dead over three decades ago, getting it through a suburban Chicago library where I had requested it by inter-library loan; the owner of that volume was the library of Fort Benning, Georgia. I think I requested it solely because I had enjoyed some Lafferty stories that I had read in SF magazines and in collections like Orbit, and I was intrigued by the title when I explored the author’s bibliography. So, as a high school student, I read this book and loved it.
Of course, I didn’t understand it. Given its cryptic attitude, few would on a first reading in any case. I adored the style, and I was fascinated by its profusion of enigmas. Looking back, I see myself as having been woefully unequipped to appreciate both the exoteric and esoteric dimensions of the book, but I could somehow smell them, and they smelled good. In particular, I had not yet visited any of the places in the long itinerary of the protagonist’s journey. I was inexperienced in sex and drink. I had not yet studied Roman Catholicism. (Lafferty was a rather devout Catholic.) And perhaps most importantly, I had not yet read Nietzsche.
The very title of this novel is a mirroring of the declaration made by Nietzsche (in The Gay Science and Thus Spake Zarathustra) that “God is dead.” But the dialogue between the Catholic Lafferty and the anti-Christian Nietzsche is not so clearly antagonistic as might be assumed. At one point, I paused in my rereading of The Devil Is Dead to look up a reference in Beyond Good & Evil, and I felt as if I were still reading the same book—a tone persisted: jocular, allusive, profound, and riddling, an epigrammatic approach that juxtaposes a garrulous leisure with a laconic urgency. The narrative in The Devil Is Dead is no more naturalistic than the one in Thus Spake Zarathustra, and almost as prone to indulgence in poetry.
Nietzsche refers to the advocatus dei as “honorable” (BG&E 34), and protests, after supposing himself vulgarly accused of disposing of God only to keep the devil, “On the contrary! On the contrary, my friends. And, the devil—who forces you to speak with the vulgar?” (BG&E 37). Lafferty’s book is clearly not addressed to the facile enjoyment of “the vulgar.” He could say with Nietzsche, “I obviously do everything to be ‘hard to understand’ myself!” (BG&E 27).
Lafferty’s novel concerns “several who are disinclined to stay dead” (9) and “those of a different flesh; and may not you yourself be of that different flesh?” (10) By the book’s end, that different flesh has been variously explained as the progeny of the devil, the descendants of Nephilim, or “the old race throwing angry primordials” (212) rather than Nietzsche’s anticipated overman, but the essential distinction is that of an “ugly” elite that defines itself over against an insipid mass, and the conflicts among that elite regarding the application of their powers. Lafferty’s literary genius was such that his presentation of this “people before the people” echoes both the giants of Rabelais and the “little people” of Arthur Machen, savoring equally of Fortean parapsychological speculation and Platonic political philosophy. They bear on the pulse of their left wrists the mark of the false octopus, which I cannot help but see as a seven-headed beast.
The Devil Is Dead protagonist John “Finnegan” Solli is of the “mixed blood,” and for all the emphasis on the distinction of types both in the novel and by Nietzsche, it remains an open question whether any individual is “pure”—regardless of whether this divide is genealogical or “spiritual” in its nature. And it may be this conflict within the people—and behind each person—that propels human effort and accomplishment.
To rewrite Nietzsche’s The Gay Science, aphorism 125, with the substitution indicated in Lafferty’s title: “The Devil is dead. The Devil remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? … Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become devils simply to appear worthy of it?”
“Ye are against the people, o my chosen!” [via]