Introduction and translation of Nerval's essay 'Le Diable Rouge'
[With the help of Henri Delaage (a well-known figure in the nineteenth century among the “initiated” in Paris) and some illustrators (including the famous Nadar, who was a designer before becoming a photographer), Gerard de Nerval composed the journal Le Diable Rouge, which was meant to be a “Cabalistic Almanac for 1850.” Le Diable Rouge inaugurated Nerval’s “Republican” period, the one that would see him, in 1850, publishing in Le National, the great daily organ of the Left. He had become disenchanted with the political paralysis and hypocrisy of the Louis-Philippe monarchy, as well as with the Second Revolution, which led to the rise of Napoleon.
In the following essay, Le Diable Rouge, published in the journal of the same name, Nerval imagines Lucifer as one of the revolutionaries fighting against the Nobility during the French Revolution. He sympathizes with their cause; Nerval had written in The Library of my Uncle, “Far be it from me to attack” those eccentrics “who are suffering today from having tried too foolishly or too soon to realize their dreams.” Lucifer, having been misled by, and now under the command of, Satan, a fierce military leader, proves himself unsuitable for the military. But the revolutionaries would finally win the war against the Nobility, whose “celestial lightning” was no match for Satan’s cannons. In Le Diable Rouge, Nerval shows his sympathy for the devil, or to be more precise, Lucifer.
This essay offers a nice summation of Nerval’s political views during the Second Revolution. (J.R.)]
LE DIABLE ROUGE
Do not be afraid of this figure who is more ruddy than dark. All devils are not black. — He is by nature rather terrestrial than infernal; he even took part poorly in the great struggle that once occurred in the celestial spaces, and which was called the rebellion of Satan and his angels, against Adonai (the Lord) and his own.
Satan was a kind of Kossuth, who dared to raise the standard against his lawful emperor and brought into his conspiracy a crowd of discontented spirits imbued with republican doctrines.
We know that every star, every planet — and even every mere comet — was in principle entrusted to the government of a spirit or an angel who animated it as the soul animates the body. We humans and terrestrial animals are only the parasitic insects living on the surface of one globe and fed — very poorly fed — from its external substance.
Satan was one of those imperious, indocile, and ungrateful beings who thought himself the most superior of all — let us cut that word, in fact he believed himself to be a genius. He looked upon the Trinity as a despotic race, which abused an earlier position that it called divine right, and were responsible for a usurpation achieved through cunning which had conferred upon it the universal empire through the consent of a corrupt majority.
He brought into his conspiracy a host of planets, stars, nebulae, and even some first-rate stars who let themselves be deceived by his golden words. Comets, always disposed to evil, served as irregular troops. A monstrous battle ensued between the various balls that we see in the sky, causing monstrous pileups. The remaining debris still forms what we call the Milky Way. The rain of aerolites which resulted from all these shocks spread the greatest turmoil throughout the universe. — Occasionally, our globe even receives some old mislaid projectile splatter that has rolled on for thousands of years to reach us.
The details of this immense catastrophe can be read about in Milton’s Paradise Lost, which is based entirely on one of the so-called apocryphal books of the Bible which is called the Book of Enoch.
This book has always been rejected from the Orthodox Bible, because it had been feared that there would be, in the rebellion of Satan, a certain grandeur that would seduce human imaginations. A Catholic scholar, Father Kircher, a Jesuit, translated a fragment of it in his Oedipus Aegypiacus.
It is from this last book, well known to the cabalists, that we borrow the authentic figure of le Diable rouge which we must deal with, now.
Poor devil! But is he really a devil? — The ancients just called him a demon, a word that derives a bit from Δῆμος (demos), meaning the common people, and which signifies only an unhappy person, an insurgent, who is basically good natured. — Demos, in the specific sense used by the Greeks, never contained a malicious meaning.
The position of le Diable rouge was very sad, — if we are to believe Dante’s Divine Comedy, — as a result of the victory of the Eternal. He presided, when he entered the conspiracy of Satan, over the evening star, vulgarly called Lucifer. He has kept the name, but he no longer has the attributes, which were entrusted to his wife, Astarte — who had protectors in Paradise.
During the celestial revolution, poor Lucifer was the commander of the artillery; (Milton taught us that Satan had invented cannons to respond to the celestial lightning, many thousands of years before they were imagined on earth). The administrative artillery unit that Lucifer directed was disassembled and he himself received a thunderbolt so well directed into his chest that he fell from his star and descended head first onto a newly formed globe, which was still soft enough to cushion his fall.
We must not judge the size of celestial beings on the scale of our minute proportions; — we are atoms. — But if it is true that the men before the flood were a league high and lived a thousand years (we must believe the Bible), we can understand that the pre-Adamite and astral creatures reached proportions a thousand times greater. That is why we should not be surprised at the size the great poet Dante gives to Lucifer in Canto XXXIV of his poem. There he claims that Lucifer’s body stretches across the globe completely, such that his head is directly underneath the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies and his feet form two islands in the sea of Oceania, at the antipodes of our Europe. One of his horns corresponds to Vesuvius, the other to Etna. When Lucifer moves, there are earthquakes, — when he sneezes, there are eruptions!
Dante calls him in his emphatic Italian: “This miserable worm that crosses the world.”
Guided by Virgil, the Florentine poet was able to reach the pit of the abyss that surrounds the cursed belt and forms the last of the seven circles of the earthly hell. The water around Lucifer was freezing, though the fire was rising higher from his mouth and nostrils. — Here is the text: “The emperor of the sorrowful kingdom from his mid-breast issued forth from the ice.”
Dante and his guide, after having visited the entire subterranean spiral devoted to torments, which is vulgarly called Gehenna, — managed to slip along the hairy sides of Lucifer by attaching themselves to his hairs and moving from tuft of hair to tuft of hair. Once the center of the globe was crossed, Dante could not get over his astonishment at finding himself, soon after, on the other side of the earth. Virgil responds to his surprise by saying to him: “Here it is morning, down there it is still evening, because we have just crossed the earth.”
“See,” he said, again showing the poet the position of the demon, “he who has made us a ladder of his hair is still stuck as he was at first. It was here, on this side of the earth, that he fell from heaven, and the surface which had previously been land, out of fear, made itself into a veil of the sea.”
It must be clear to our readers that Lucifer, le Diable rouge, is that same one that the ancients called Demogorgon, a name in which we can still find the root Δῆμος, meaning the common people.
He was, for the Greeks, one of the Titans who had fought against Jupiter. For the Syracusans and the inhabitants of Great Greece (the Neapolitans) he was the same as Enceladus, to which the description by Dante relates perfectly. The image given by the Father rather represents the great Pan, that is, the spirit of the earth, to which the modern followers of pantheism bestow their adorations and homage. Nothing prevents us from believing, finally, that all these personalities form only a single figure, which must be carefully distinguished from what is vulgarly understood as the devil, that is, an evil spirit.
In fact, it has not been proven that God, the supreme Father, struck the imprudent Lucifer with an eternal curse. At the very moment of his fall, his wife Astarte, who had not ceased to dissuade him from taking any action against the good cause, pointed out to the Lord that this poor devil was so stupid that he had not been able to resist the guilty maneuvers and the satanic profligacy of Satan. — That is the reason why he was pathetically misguided.
So that he could be of use when he was tired of smoking and whining, he was entrusted with the surveillance of the terrestrial hell, a prison without cells, built according to the old system, which should not be confused with the great and terrible hell destined for the immense mass of culprits from the whole of creation. These latter are relegated, according to the words of Christ, to the outer darkness, that is, beyond the created universe.
This devilish man, to which we can now give this attenuating epithet, became so noticeable through his good conduct that the Lord, coming to earth, had no need to speak with him for some time, as we can see in the second chapter of the Book of Job. He entrusted him with certain powers of the police, which have nothing to do with those of provocative agents, because the aim was not, as has been said, to make him fall into temptation, but to spur his activity as one who was subject to release, as demonstrated by the famous Goethe, the author of Faust.
In this regard, must we attribute to the ignorance of certain monks of the Middle Ages the supposition that this devil had inspired all the famous discoveries that created the glory of the fifteenth century? Let us remember that it was a monk named Berthold Schwartz who invented gun powder, and if Lucifer inspired this, it can only be that Berthold remembered Lucifer’s former feats of artillery in the service of Satan; but this supposition is by no means proven; even though it is quite well known that it was he who inspired Dr. Faust with the idea of printing, this popular power that could resist the cannon which was the final argument, the last resort, of kings.
The cannon and the printing press are therefore two forces that struggle to destroy each other, one in favor of darkness, the other in favor of light. But the gospel said that hell could not be divided with itself. “So if he invented the printing press, he could not have invented the cannon.”
Let us leave these idle quarrels. Poor Lucifer is quite guilty enough in the eyes of some people. He is accused, with good reason, of materialism and communism, and he is strongly suspected of not having been a stranger to the events of last year. But we believe that his intentions were pure, and that the malice natural to men exaggerated the results; that is why we still ask for some kindness for a man more unhappy than guilty, who will undoubtedly take part in the universal amnesty, reserved for all the poor devils that have been led astray by his doctrines.
1. A Hungarian patriot and revolutionary. In 1849 he had the Diet proclaim his country’s independence and the fall of the Habsburgs, but was forced into exile by the joint offensive of the Austrians, Russians and Croatians led by Josip Jelačić.
2. In 1652–1654, the scholar Athanasius Kircher could have quoted the Book of Enoch from a secondhand source, but not translated it, since no copy was then known.
4. A poorly defined figure among the writers in the Renaissance. In Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound, he is a figure of liberating revolt against the tyrant Jupiter.
5. In Greek mythology, one of the Giants born of Gaia and the blood of Ouranos. He would merge, according to Philostratus, with the figure of Typhon.
Poems and poetics