Michael Aiken, Satan Repentant. Crawley, WA: UWAP, 2018. ISBN: 9781742589770
Of Monsters and Men: Poesis, the grotesque and defiance of the Creation Myth in Michael Aiken’s Satan Repentant
Better to reign in Hell, then serve in Heav’n.
Such are the words of Lucifer in John Milton’s Paradise Lost, the classic verse novel that has shaped modern understandings of the devil’s character. But what happens when Lucifer grows tired of reigning in Hell? This is the question that Michael Aiken seeks to answer in his verse novel Satan Repentant. Using an impeccable wit, Aiken subverts the dichotomy between natural and unnatural, heavenly and demonic in the war between Heaven and Hell. The two forces are portrayed as two sides of an eternal battle who are not inherently good and evil, with forces willing to stoop themselves (and raise themselves) in the plight to condemn Lucifer-as-human. Aiken structures his verse novel into ‘books’ with an ‘argument’ prefacing each stage of Lucifer’s journey in homage to Milton. This forms the skeleton for an exploration into morality, religion and poesis which Aiken handles with outstanding finesse.
Satan’s decision to redeem himself in the eyes of God, and God’s decision to test Satan’s resilience by being reborn as a human child, sets off a chain of events leading to utter Armageddon. God exiles Lucifer to earth to prove his redemption by surviving as a human, ‘to transcend, imagine / understand’ (23). From an ecopoetry perspective, earth is merely the stage on which this drama unfolds. Aiken does, however, use natural imagery to distort his heavenly players and juxtapose them with demonic agents: Beelzebub commands his spies to ‘conceal that hideous loveliness / beneath a Gregorian cloud’ (18); meanwhile Satan retreats from God’s ‘awful grace, headed / for some tree or stone’ (24). Nature serves all manner of purposes from refuge to veil to a medium with which angels and demons alike terrorise young Lucifer-human.
While Satan becomes Lucifer-human, angels and devils alike plot to sabotage his earthbound journey: angels don’t want him in Heaven, and the devils want their Prince back to punish his insolence. From haunting the child-Lucifer from the shadows, to possessing trees and his human companions, nature and humanity are pawns in this divine game of chess. As Beelzebub plots a way to foil Satan’s plans to redeem himself, he seeks counsel from the ‘virtuoso of sadism’ (60). In a damning portrayal of Teresa of Calcutta, the cultural icon is reduced to an abject, ‘outgrown and monstrous’ form. The shattering contrast of natural, maternal imagery with the horrid monstrosity of Teresa’s ‘true form’ throws into question the preconceptions of her nature:
her tentacled mouths consume the souls of babies
born starving to unliveable homes
This portrayal references longstanding criticism of the supposed saint, of which the most prominent critic is Dr. Aroup Chatterjee who describes Teresa of Calcutta as ‘a medieval creature of darkness’ (Sherwood, 2016). Rather than a saint watching over the plagued masses here Teresa is ‘ministering over near-death victims’, leading innocents to their doom. Aiken uses the shock of grotesque to construct a powerful moral criticism of the nun and her philosophies.
The unrealistic perfection of Heaven and the hypocrisy of Hell are thrown into the spotlight in Aiken’s divine comedy of errors. Likewise, Aiken’s image of God is akin to that of Milton’s despotic, authoritative figure. As more angels fall from Heaven, God appears more impotent despite his immense power, a king with no subjects. As a foil to God, Beelzebub presents a vindictive leader who loses followers almost as swiftly. The charges of Heaven and Hell defect from their leaders, seeking ‘some third way’ (93) from the binary of good and evil. Beelzebub, thinking the manipulation of Lucifer-human into murder reveals his true nature, considers himself triumphant. However, the pig-king’s tactics mirror earlier manipulations by heavenly forces, which he condemned as ‘unclean methods’ (86). As Lucifer-human poignantly observes, Hell is simply a reflection of Heaven’s flaws.
Lucifer-human’s plunge into poesis serves as his dowsing rod into the human condition. Channelled by his forays into ‘wilderness and isolation’ (69), Lucifer-human comforts himself with his imaginings. Poetry grants Lucifer-human the confidence to ‘unsay / you, or you, or Him’ (81). Art becomes Lucifer’s own world, but one that he quickly becomes dissatisfied with in his later adulthood. The conclusion that Lucifer-human reaches from his small-scale creation myths and his encounters with angels and fiends, is to reject the whole of it. Lucifer-as-human takes to the street to proclaim his message to humanity – and to us, as readers:
‘… Make it
today. Make it your life. Do without God,
You no longer need an after-life,
for you are here.’
That is, to cease sacrificing our happiness for a promised land, to embrace the life we currently have, and to reject a God that ‘doesn’t have / what he gave away, and he gave us all this life!’ It is a roaring anthem for a secular humanism, but one that is ultimately cut short when the barriers between worlds are wrenched down.
Lucifer faces his final moments as a human, a flawed creature of earth, not shirking away from his suffering or his own crimes. Ironically, it seems that Teresa of Calcutta’s plans for the human Lucifer have reached fruition: ‘Make them think it noble / to rot in bed while the world lives on’ (61). Estranged from Hell, and swearing himself against God, Lucifer embraces his newfound mortality by starving himself to death. Lucifer-as-human rejects his original deal with God in the face of his own impending death. Echoing his Miltonian predecessor, Lucifer spites God’s offer: ‘I reject Hell; I reject Heaven; I reject you’ (121). Lucifer sees in God his own flaws, finding him unworthy of granting the redemption he originally sought.
Torn asunder by the cosmic battle, Earth is reduced to a barren battlefield. All resemblance to the lush wildernesses of Lucifer’s youth is lost. Lucifer, now a purgatorial angel, observes a ‘sea / of mud, horizon to horizon bare spires ejecting / through pools, craters, pits and vesicles’ (127). The final feud leads to Jesus usurping his father and, perhaps the most gruesome moment of all, wearing his father’s visage as skin-armour. Much like his portrayal of Teresa, Aiken’s Jesus is a sharp detour from the benevolent, pacifist figure of modern Christianity. Jesus is an autocratic perfectionist ‘seeking cracks to criticise’ (131), who would rather see no earth at all than an imperfect one.
The chilling final moments where Jesus unspeaks the world, the universe, and all Creation speaks to the fragility of life at the mercy of an apathetic master. Much like a frustrated poet balling up papers, Jesus’ erasure of all existence is at once an utter cataclysm and a muted pathos. What Aiken’s Lucifer stands for is not a creation – both earth and art itself – that is too perfect to exist, but an imperfect attempt at it. Life and art, like Lucifer-human, has value as ‘something that always will be having been’ (140). The human life Satan experienced may have been imperfect and full of suffering, his drive for art unfulfilled, but its having happened remains. This life cannot be taken away, even as Jesus unspeaks himself. That, like the language Lucifer-human strove so hard to master, speaks for itself.
Milton, J. 1667, Paradise Lost, University of Adelaide, retrieved 12/03/2019, eBooks@Adelaide database.
Sherwood, H. 2016, ‘Mother Teresa to become saint amid criticism over miracles and missionaries’, The Guardian, retrieved 12/03/2019.
Stephanie Downing is a writer hailing from Geelong, Victoria. She studied her Honours degree at Deakin University where she developed a keen interest in magical realism and the Gothic.Stephanie’s work has been published in WORDLY Magazine, Geelong Writers Anthology and Cordite Poetry Review. When she is not writing, Stephanie can be found musing over a cup of tea.