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Spirits and Demons

Every culture has its tales of demons and spirits, angels and devils. They help us to explain the inexplicable, and to understand our relation to forces incomprehensible and beyond our control–our relation to nature, to our own history and the history of the world, to death itself. And they help us to define forces within ourselves, our inner demons, born of unresolved trauma, vices, and regrets.

Scrooge and the Ghost of Marley by Arthur Rackham

Often, in film and literature, these spirits befriend and bewilder a human character. Ghosts, angels, devils, goblins, spirits, pookas – each represents something important for the person they attach themselves to. These phantasms are concocted from a little kernel of conscience, or guilt, or fear, or loneliness. Sometimes others see them, sometimes they don’t, they’re shifting and dreamlike, and they operate according to their own rules. They’re unreliable narrators. They’re wise or foolish, in turn; they speak in riddles, they speak a questionable truth, changing and suspect, like all truths. They’re a nuisance, but they can’t be denied. You can’t accuse them of being a bit of underdone potato and say you’d really rather get back to bed.

Often the spirit’s relationship with their friend is oddly human – frustrating, complicated, and even at times full of warmth and humor. Shakespeare gave us Hamlet’s ghostly father and Banquo, Macbeth’s ghostly dinner guest. Dickens gave us poor Ebenezer Scrooge’s ghost and three spirits. Miyazaki’s world is full of friendly and frightening spirits–Totoro, No Face, a river spirit, soot sprites, all perhaps descendants of the Yokai, demons and spirits who embody everything from rain and wind to old age. James Stewart plays two characters with imaginary spirit friends; Elwood P. Dowd’s best friend is a giant rabbit named Harvey, and George Bailey has an unlikely guardian angel named Clarence. Perhaps the most remarkable demon of all is Ivan Karamozov’s Devil. He’s so unlikely, so brilliantly described, and such a perfect distillation of Ivan’s fears, hatreds, and hopes, such a brilliant foil for Ivan’s wonderfully prickly nature.

Elwood Dowd is a very ordinary man, but he’s let go of the reality that held him back, and now he’s in a sort of blissful state of pleasantness. “Well, I’ve wrestled with reality for 35 years, Doctor, and I’m happy to state I finally won out over it…Years ago, my mother used to say to me, she’d say ‘In this world, Elwood, you can be oh so so smart, or oh so pleasant.’ Well, for years I was smart… I recommend pleasant.” His pleasantness shines out of him as a sort of beam, and his thoughtfulness and kindness confuses but pleases everyone around him. He sets his world aglow with his kindness – touching off the same sort of warm light in everyone he meets. “Harvey and I sit in the bars… have a drink or two… play the juke box. And soon the faces of all the other people they turn toward mine and they smile. And they’re saying, ‘We don’t know your name, mister, but you’re a very nice fella.’ Harvey and I warm ourselves in all these golden moments. We’ve entered as strangers – soon we have friends. And they come over… and they sit with us… and they drink with us… and they talk to us. They tell about the big terrible things they’ve done and the big wonderful things they’ll do. Their hopes, and their regrets, and their loves, and their hates. All very large, because nobody ever brings anything small into a bar. And then I introduce them to Harvey… and he’s bigger and grander than anything they offer me. And when they leave, they leave impressed.” In a way Harvey and Elwood perform the spirits’ duty for everyone they meet, unburdening them of their regrets and hates.

Clarence, George Bailey’s guardian angel in It’s a Wonderful Life, seems to manifest some gentle quality of George’s nature that has been replaced by bitterness. Though we think of It’s a Wonderful Life as a cheery holiday film, in reality it’s dark, very dark. George is violently unhappy, he’s suicidal. Disappointment has crystalized into a toxic misery. Clarence hopes that forcing George to take a trip through his memories will rekindle the warmth and hope he felt before discouragement took hold. But Clarence himself is also odd, unimpressive, and disappointing. He’s tried and failed and tried and failed to earn his wings, just as George has tried to go to college and see the world, and failed time and time again. George is not impressed with Clarence. “That’s what I was sent down for. I’m your guardian angel.” “I wouldn’t be a bit surprised…you look about like the kind of an angel I’d get.” His angel is just like he is, because he’s a part of him. Disappointed, kind, well-meaning but baffled. They need each other, they’re connected, and they’re oddly good friends.

To me, the most extraordinary (though strangely ordinary) devil in the world is that of Ivan Karamazov.

This was a person or, more accurately speaking, a Russian gentleman of a particular kind, no longer young, qui faisait la cinquantaine, as the French say, with rather long, still thick, dark hair, slightly streaked with gray and a small pointed beard. He was wearing a brownish reefer jacket, rather shabby, evidently made by a good tailor though, and of a fashion at least three years old, that had been discarded by smart and well-to-do people for the last two years. His linen and his long scarf-like neck-tie were all such as are worn by people who aim at being stylish, but on closer inspection his linen was not over-clean and his wide scarf was very threadbare. The visitor’s check trousers were of excellent cut, but were too light in color and too tight for the present fashion. His soft fluffy white hat was out of keeping with the season.

In brief there was every appearance of gentility on straitened means. It looked as though the gentleman belonged to that class of idle landowners who used to flourish in the times of serfdom. He had unmistakably been, at some time, in good and fashionable society, had once had good connections, had possibly preserved them indeed, but, after a gay youth, becoming gradually impoverished on the abolition of serfdom, he had sunk into the position of a poor relation of the best class, wandering from one good old friend to another and received by them for his companionable and accommodating disposition and as being, after all, a gentleman who could be asked to sit down with any one, though, of course, not in a place of honor. Such gentlemen of accommodating temper and dependent position, who can tell a story, take a hand at cards, and who have a distinct aversion for any duties that may be forced upon them, are usually solitary creatures, either bachelors or widowers. Sometimes they have children, but if so, the children are always being brought up at a distance, at some aunt’s, to whom these gentlemen never allude in good society, seeming ashamed of the relationship. They gradually lose sight of their children altogether, though at intervals they receive a birthday or Christmas letter from them and sometimes even answer it.

This is Ivan’s devil, who may or may not be a figment of Ivan’s fevered imagination. He doesn’t have the decency to wear horns and a cloak, like a devil should. He’s shabby and dull and embarrassing. Ivan hates him with a passion, he represents everything Ivan despises – everything within himself he hates, facets of his boorish father and elements of Russian society that Ivan disdains. Ivan calls him stupid and foolish, which is the worst thing a person could be, to Ivan. And yet his devil is not stupid at all. He’s extremely clever, of course, because he’s part of Ivan, he shares Ivan’s brilliance. He’s articulate, even witty, and it’s obvious that Ivan has a strange delight in talking to him – in testing him and trying to catch him out, in trying to untangle his devilish riddles. Ivan has met his match, and it is piquant to him, it pierces him almost to madness. He’s sure this devil has the answers to all of his questions, all of the questions that won’t let him rest.

The countenance of the unexpected visitor was not so much good-natured, as accommodating and ready to assume any amiable expression as occasion might arise. He had no watch, but he had a tortoise-shell lorgnette on a black ribbon. On the middle finger of his right hand was a massive gold ring with a cheap opal stone in it.

Ivan was angrily silent and would not begin the conversation. The visitor waited and sat exactly like a poor relation who had come down from his room to keep his host company at tea, and was discreetly silent, seeing that his host was frowning and preoccupied. But he was ready for any affable conversation as soon as his host should begin it. All at once his face expressed a sudden solicitude.

Fritz Eichenberg, Ivan and the Devil

It’s such a strange, nightmarish, beautiful passage. The devil has Ivan tied in desperate knots, trying to understand if he is real, or merely a figment, and in the end, it seems he’s both. “Yet such dreams are sometimes seen not by writers, but by the most ordinary people, officials, journalists, priests…. The subject is a complete enigma. A statesman confessed to me, indeed, that all his best ideas came to him when he was asleep. Well, that’s how it is now, though I am your hallucination, yet just as in a nightmare, I say original things which had not entered your head before. So I don’t repeat your ideas, yet I am only your nightmare, nothing more.” In an odd way, Ivan’s conversation with his devil makes you understand and love him better. He’s depressed, and he’s not sure why. He’s frightened to lose his doubt and disbelief, because they define him, and he’s clung stubbornly to them for dear life. But you know that he feels love as well, which is something he would deny. He’s almost frantically hopeful despite his cynicism.


I do believe that some sort of spirit or spirits inhabit all creatures, all things, all ideas–the elements, the trees, the ocean, the seasons, the passing of time–all existing in a way and on a level that we can never understand or define. But I love the fact that we try. All of us, all over the world and all through time, try to conjure these sprites and demons, try to open ourselves to their presence, to hear what they’re telling us. In this way we try to understand what it means to be human on this earth, but we also understand that our role here is small, and ever-changing, and often beyond our control.

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