The Devil’s Playground

Jean Nolan Banner

“We have a clearly conflicted relationship with our less virtuous traits, and that confusion is evident in our portrayals of the Prince of Darkness. Much of it is Milton’s fault. The devil is far and away the most interesting character in “Paradise Lost,” angry, suffering, an angel in exile, beautiful, and tragic. That is the devil I find easiest to grasp. I am fairly convinced that God and Satan are simply names we give to the parts inside us that argue over whether to take the last cupcake or leave it for our child/spouse/parent/friend to enjoy.”—Jean Carroll Nolan

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By Jean Carroll Nolan

Who we were then.

Who we were then.

Jean Nolan

SEASIDE California—(Weekly Hubris)—December 2018—

Lucifer fell, the changeling prince of heaven
Flung by the maddened and immortal arm
Of God, and Hell was born. The flames eternal,
Burst from the realm of everlasting day,
To light, with cruel brilliance, the halls of darkness.
And from the stars, crushed in the Father’s hand,
The sparks flew million fold. Within each spark,
An embryonic demon, wrath-conceived,
Lay cradled, Hell-intentioned, ripe for birth.
There were the griffin, Phoenix and March hare,
And dragons, every shade that one could dream,
And monsters of the deep, and snake-haired Gorgons,
To dance with gargoyles in the garish halls,
While all alone, the unicorn paced time . . .

In 1973, before life became serious, before we knew the extent of the damage done by PTSD, before we had children, and lost them, before Watergate played fully out, before our bruises had set, like Jell-O, freezing us in our pains, we were young and cute and very hip. We lived on East Division St., in Chicago, across the street from a bar called the Hotsie Totsie, smack in the middle of the Gold Coast. We had a roomy third-floor studio, with a blue-tiled fireplace, a scrumptiously wainscotted bathroom, and cool neighbors.

We had four cats. In a studio. Let that sink in for a minute.

John was at the University of Illinois Circle campus, a full-time student. I was working at Marilyn Miglin Model Makeup, on East Oak Street, getting my hair cut at The Crimpers, the hot salon across from Miglin, essentially spending my days as if I were in a harem. We were outrageously happy; he, discovering the life of the mind; I, playing along as editor. We talked incessantly, read classics and history together, took long, happily stoned walks on Clark, and Astor, and Dearborn and Rush, and the inner Drive. We walked two miles each way on winter weekend mornings to a terrific steam-table deli called Frances’s, where you were greeted with half a loaf of Rosen’s rye bread in a basket, garnished with a quarter pound of unsalted butter.

We found ourselves wonderfully interesting and sparkly. We made love a lot, and ate too much seven-pints-for-a-dollar Walgreen’s ice cream, and spent the coldest day of the year, whenever possible, at Brookfield Zoo, watching ecstatically happy Siberian tigers and polar bears frolic along the deserted subzero pathways, warming up by drinking watery tomato soup, the only hot nourishment available, in the faux African safari hut. We owned very little, and owed nothing, and believed the world had been created for our enjoyment.

I was reading Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicle, I believe, when I decided we should create and mount a Christmas “masque” to perform for John’s family, with whom we would spend Christmas. Poor things! But, at 26 and 23, we had that lovely, youthful assurance that what interested us would, perforce, fascinate our acquaintance. So, between clients at MMMM, I scratched out 50 pages or so of high-flying, hilariously excitable iambic pentameter, feeling, I imagined, all the artistic energy of a young Shakespeare. John’s responsibilities were limited to reading two characters, the Unicorn and the (generic) king, and a chunk of narrative. I read the support roles and stage-managed, and John’s sister, Maggie, read the Virgin, and a Cassandra-like gypsy soothsayer, as well as more narrative.

I have previously confessed my soft spot for bad boys. Not psycho killers, or awful people like that. Think more Brando in “On the Waterfront”; damaged and vulnerable, not mean and malevolent. So, we created The Virgin and the Unicorn, beginning with a thundering prologue, starring the original bad boy, Lucifer (see above), a catalogue of beasts (thanks to Mary Ann, a beloved friend and medieval scholar), and a pure fairy tale story line in which a ravening monster, a bit more macho than today’s pastel and denatured unicorns, is reconciled to life and pain by The Love of a Good Girl.

Redefines dreck, I get it. The Unicorn as a slightly better-read Fonzie. Unoriginal in the extreme. But, you know, it was entertaining and, in a limited, Christmas-with-the-family, March sisters way, it worked. We had so much fun, it should have been illegal, and John’s long-suffering parents and sisters were great sports, and astonishingly kind. A terrific holiday story, in fact, his folks’ big living room full of people whom we loved, John and Mags and I full of ourselves, costumed and shiny in a space lit by candles and Christmas tree lights, a happy dog or two crashed in the haze of carpets and good will.

Lucifer Morningstar. (Image by XanChan on DeviantArt)

Lucifer Morningstar. (Image by XanChan on DeviantArt)

I was reminded of that Christmas recently. I rarely indulge in binge TV viewing. Last week, however, I became perhaps the last relatively cool person in the country to find the show “Lucifer,” and I have been having late night parties ever since. Neil Gaiman, whose terrific and funny and sexy and smart work I have long enjoyed, is one of the show’s creators. It is wonderful.

Lucifer Morningstar, played, with simultaneously languid and intense energy by a tall and delicious Tom Ellis, is the devil. He got bored running Hell, and decided to take a vacation. He chose Los Angeles (where else?) as a getaway spot. By the time we meet him, he owns a club, drives a vintage Corvette, and sees a therapist. (Just typing that cracks me up.) Bad boy mystique in abundance. He plays piano, because, you know, the devil and music, and the club bartender is a female demon named Mazikeen who, in her own words, “walked through the gates of Hell” with him. She wears black leather and is pithy. He wears cuff links and is airily evasive.

There is a Good Girl, of course. Chloe. A police detective.

It’s a great show. Not for everyone, I suppose, but funny and sad and thoughtful and sexy and philosophical. Right up my alley. I have always found humanity’s willingness to blame Satan for everything dubious in our collective character a bit disingenuous. If we build a roof with a hole in it, and it leaks, our tendency is to say, Oops, I was distracted by a shiny thing, and it’s the devil’s fault. The reverse of this, of course, is the rush to blame God and His plan for whatever goes astray in our own blueprints.

Well, this Lucifer is thoroughly tired of being viewed as the genesis of evil. He points out, with asperity, that he is the punisher of evil, not its cause. This is not to suggest he rejects the transgressive. He drinks too much, trying in vain to overload a supernatural constitution. He is a Miltonian (“better to reign in Hell than serve in heaven”) devil, and suffers from excessive vanity, a dose of narcissistic personality disorder, and a real stack of family issues. In particular, he thinks his father a controlling, cold, and unsympathetic being, rejecting and rejected by his warmer, less morally distinct son. Were he human, Lucifer would be a romantic. An irregularly behaved romantic, but romantics do behave irregularly.

There is the devil of the film, “The Exorcist,” a malevolent entity, physically and psychically hideous, bent on destruction for destruction’s own sake. This being is incomprehensible to a relatively normal psychology. Who can really think happily about doing terrible things to others? You have to be very disturbed, indeed, for that to be your ne plus ultra. And the devil in “The Devil and Daniel Webster” ends up as a joke which, while satisfying to patriotism and smug self-regard, is an inappropriate view of the theoretical source of all evil.

We have a clearly conflicted relationship with our less virtuous traits, and that confusion is evident in our portrayals of the Prince of Darkness. Much of it is Milton’s fault. The devil is far and away the most interesting character in “Paradise Lost,” angry, suffering, an angel in exile, beautiful, and tragic. That is the devil I find easiest to grasp. I am fairly convinced that God and Satan are simply names we give to the parts inside us that argue over whether to take the last cupcake or leave it for our child/spouse/parent/friend to enjoy.

To me, it is much more appealing to dress the selfish impulse as a cute, intellectual, French cuff shooting dude with disarmingly 21st-century problems, rather than a horned, hairy-legged, made in China Pan knockoff. Works for me.

Some time ago, working at the examined life assignment we all confront, contemplating the ways in which we disguise ourselves from ourselves, the following poem, a more prosaic cousin of the experimental masque hoopla, crawled into my brain. I hope you enjoy it but, far more important, I wish you every joy in the holidays upon us. It is a hard world, but there is color, music, kindness, beauty, laughter, and courage all around us. Find some magic, dance to leave stardust trails, and sing in your soul. Happy holidays.

Illustration for John Milton’s “Paradise Lost” by Gustave Doré, 1866.

Illustration for John Milton’s “Paradise Lost,” by Gustave Doré, 1866.

By Jean Nolan  

the snake took the bus to eden, wanting
in his supple way, to be inconspicuous.
his reasoning was sound. if they’d had time
to talk about the apple in advance,
to consider temptation—well, they’d have recalled
The Voice, and thought it over
no telling the outcome.  

he thought it best to catch them by surprise, and did,
dropping with insouciance from a branch,
grinning, charming, candidly subversive.
he actually knew he’d won when eve blushed
as he leered at her.
and that was before she’d even taken the bait.
easy, he thought, and nudged her hand with his blunt head,
(twining a carelessly thoughtful coil
about her wrist when she shivered and drew back),
toward the fruit. 

and then, it was all as it had been, over and over.
she giggled as the juice stained her lips, adam
stopped fiddling nervously with fig leaves,
the results of Original Incest litter the earth. 

the snake slipped out of the garden,
a certain jauntiness perceptible in his slither,
and caught the next bus somewhere.

 lust and doubt remained, flourishing, despite
the worthy, wordy, educated tracts,
written to suggest that godhead is
best served by misery; sackcloth spectacles.

laughter goes almost everywhere.

About Jean Carroll Nolan

Jean Carroll Nolan lives in Seaside, California (just north of Monterey), in a perpetually disorderly house, with too many books for the bookcases and a housemate whom she has known since 1985, when they met on their daughters’ first day of kindergarten. She enjoys music, reading, writing poetry, talking with friends, and watching old films. She is cared for by two dogs: Sonny, a 90-pound bully dog; and Mojo, a 14-pound chihuahua mix. (The chihuahua, of course, believes himself to be larger than his enormous younger brother.) Nolan’s reading tastes are eclectic, ranging from sociology to murder mysteries, royal biographies, and military history. She considers herself a liberal and a patriot, and sees no dichotomy there. She supports animal rescue projects and facilities (race horses and pit bulls, in particular), and is trying to preserve a diminishing belief that courtesy and kindness have power to reshape the world. She adores her two adult children and her daughter- and son-in-law, who are as good as it gets. She is desperately in love with her grandchildren, Brody and Sarah, her grand dogs, Wayne and and Chance and Suzy Snowflake and Valentino, and her grand cats, Oliver and Greta. She enjoys finding and enjoying the miraculous in everyday life, a trait she first discovered in the subway stations of Chicago, observing former field mice who, amazingly, not only survived but thrived on the track bed below the trains. (Author Photos: John Nolan.)
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5 Responses to The Devil’s Playground

  1. Ross Konikoff says:

    Jean I really, really enjoyed reading your story. It reminded me of things I shoud not have forgotten and made me happy this morning. Good going!

  2. Jean says:

    Thanks, Ross. I am, despite 40 years in lotus land, a child of the cement caverns, and I miss the city desperately sometimes, particularly at the holidays. Glad this rang some bells for you. Merry Happy.

  3. Diana says:

    What a great idea to have a Christmas story devoted to Satan in his various manifestations, and blaming our interest in him on Milton (of course, I agree). Loved your description of early married life, the masque and the delightful subversive poem — don’t think anyone has ever put the serpent on a bus before. You have really made me smile.

  4. diana says:

    BTW I love Neil Gaiman too

  5. Jean says:

    Diana, thank you very much. I particularly enjoy your enjoyment of the Greyhound riding serpent. Neil Gaiman rocks. I enjoy it very much when writers just plop me into an alternate reality, and proceed to tell me what happens, without bothering to explain. It gives me confidence. Gaiman is stupendous at that. I also love funny approaches to serious matters. As you may have gleaned. Thanks again.