Tuesday, June 01, 2010

The Devil and Miss Prym - Paulo Coelho

The Station Arts Centre

Paul Coelho’s “Novel of Temptation,” The Devil and Miss Prym, is an alternative way of looking at the functioning of the human brain (alternative, that is, to my previous commentary on the Charlie Rose series on Detroit Public Television—thanks, GF for providing me with the name of the moderator of that series on brain function). Coelho’s characters have the devil on their left shoulders, an angel of light on their right. The temptation coming from their left shoulders, in this case, is to sacrifice (read murder) an apparently useless member of the village in exchange for unheard-of wealth. Unapologetically contrived, this plot nevertheless constitutes a parable worth reading about the wrestling match between the demons of fear, aggression and self-preservation with the angels of social decency.

A wealthy arms dealer concocts an experiment to prove to himself that humans are basically and intractably evil. He’s come to this conclusion as a result of the kidnapping and murder of his family in an aborted attempt to extract money from him. His bet is that if he offers ten bars of gold to a certain staid and steady village—if they will murder one of their members—they will conclude that the sacrifice will be worth it. Oh, they will rationalize it somehow—even so far as to say that since Jesus was sacrificed for the benefit of the many, the sacrifice of the old widow (who may be a witch, in fact) follows that precedent!

Temptation and human fallibility are, of course, ubiquitous themes in the body of our literature, from Genesis to Macbeth to Faust to Rudy Wiebe’s Peace Shall Destroy Many. Coelho employs that ancient metaphor where temptation is personified as“the devil,” virtually another god competing shoulder to shoulder with the good God. The panel on Charlie Rose on PBS would likely describe temptation as the urge to ignore civilization-imposed limits on genetically or environmentally transmitted impulses (like sexual lust, or greed).

Some of Coelho’s “sidebars” end up being meatier than his story, actually. Here’s one that I read a few times, probably with a quizzical look on my face. “Playing the part of a charitable soul was only for those who were afraid of taking a stand in life. It is always easier to have faith in your own goodness than to confront others and fight for your rights . . . and it’s only at night . . . that we can silently grieve over our own cowardice (p. 44) .” Coelho raises the possibility that piety arises from fear, not from strength. Not a new argument, actually.

This theme is repeated frequently. Historically, Coelho’s fictional village was inhabited by bandits and murderers and it was only cleaned up after a huge gibbet was constructed in the town square for all to contemplate on a daily basis. At one point, “the devil” says, “There is no such thing as Good: virtue is simply one of the many faces of terror . . . (p. 84).

When goodness is boiled down to the basics—reverence for creation and abiding consideration for those around us—the ancient tension between God and Satan and the more current biological explanations are generally pulling us in the same direction. I, for one, would like to see us carry less of the baggage of good-evil-sin-guilt in favour of more of the light that science has been shedding on the human condition. Biologists, geneticists, after all, are working at the same task as the prophets, namely, understanding what God has made.

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