|The author selling her new book|
Memnoch The Devil
(Random House, 1995)
By David Scott
Somewhere near the end of Memnoch The Devil, Anne Rice’s latest best-selling novel, after you have read about 280 pages that average about a blasphemy per page, you read this:
“‘Lestat,’ He said, His voice so feeble and torn I could scarce hear it. ‘You want to taste it, don’t you?”
“‘Lord, what are you saying?” I cried, my words so full of tears I could scarce control them.
“‘The blood. Taste it. Taste the Blood of Christ… The Blood of God, Lestat,’ He whispered. ‘Think of all the human blood that has flowed into your lips. Is my blood not worthy? Are you afraid?’”
Christ is on the road to Golgatha, stumbling under the weight of his cross, a jeering mob herding Him toward his execution. And on the scene, to add a new Station of the Cross, is the most famous literary vampire this side of Bram Stoker, Rice’s Lestat, who proceeds, on the Lord’s invitation, to plunge his fangs deep into his holy neck and drink his blood.
It is a deliberately outrageous scene from a deliberately outrageous book that Rice says will mark the end of her “Vampire Chronicles”—five number-one best-selling novels about Lestat, the all-too human monster searching for understand and meaning in a world that seems to offer little of either.
Rice’s million-selling chronicles, which began with the 1976 Interview with a Vampire, have tapped into the alienation and sexual insecurities of the times. Whatever the reasons, with their gay overtones and not-too-subtle equation of blood-lust and carnal lust, the Lestat books have made vampires chic and amassed Rice a wide following.
Rice is a born marketeer, and her “very orthodox” Catholic upbringing is as much a part of her interview boilerplate, as is her rap about sexual freedom, her daughter’s death of leukemia at age 6, and the five books of pornography she has written under pseudonyms.
And in several interviews, she even has indicated that she sees herself as some form of a Catholic novelist, or at least a novelist with a Catholic sensibility.
In Memnoch the Devil, Rice offers up her best shot at Catholicism—writing what can only be described as a theological drama that challenges the Catholic and Christian understanding of the struggle between God and the devil.
Memnoch tracks down Lestat, who has been a vampire since the 18th century, has never believed in God or the devil, and propositions him to be his helpmate. Lestat demurs, but does consent to go along on a cosmic journey with Memnoch before making a final decision.
The Big Bang and other big concepts
Thus begins hundreds of pages of clunky speechifying, in which the devil lays out before the wide-eyed Lestat the history of man. Rice’s characters speak in big concepts and they use lots of capitalized words (“Nothing and Misery” and “Matter and Time”) to let the reader know that these are, after all, big concepts.
In long pages of cosmology and angelology, Rice’s devil answers big questions about the Big Bang (there actually were lots of them), “the tunnel of light” that many near-death survivors report seeing (it’s true) and reincarnation (it happens, but not as often as you might think and it’s not as fun).
All of this is done with the seriousness of one imparting a holy wit. Call it Anne-theism.
According to her devil, God created the universe because he didn’t understand Who or Why He Is (big concepts). He created the world “to find out what it would have been like had He been Matter … He was looking for a clue as to how He got where He is … In watching man evolve, He hopes to understand His own evolution.”
God won’t admit he doesn’t know where it’s all heading, of course. Because in Rice’s account, God is kind of a prima donna, “Majestic, Infinitely Creative, and Imperfect,” as Memnoch describes him; an authoritarian and vain chief executive who takes great delight in surrounding himself with choruses of angels who sing his praises all day.
As Memnoch sees it, “God’s plan went horribly wrong,” but God does not recognize it and won’t do anything about it.
The problem, in a word, is “suffering.” Thus Memnoch’s indictment against God:
“He says that the suffering of sentient beings is like decay; it fertilizes the growth of their souls! He looks down from His lofty height upon a massacre and He sees magnificence. He sees men and women never loving so much as when they lose their loved ones, never loving so much as when they sacrifice for some abstract notion of Him, never loving so much as when the conquering army comes down to lay waste the hearth, divide the flock and catch up the bodies of infants on their spears. His justification? It’s in Nature. It’s what He created.”
Memnoch is the one angel in the heavenly court with guts enough to rebel against the Divine Indifference (big concept) and beg God to have mercy on the people he created.
God, for His part, remains impassive. “Why should I?” he sniffs.
In Rice’s tale, the incarnation was the devil’s idea. Memnoch dares God to take human form and see for himself just what a suffering mess he has created. But the way God goes about it—suffering and dying on the cross—only results in turning suffering into a world religion, as Memnoch sees it.
As Memnoch tells it, the history of the world since the crucifixion and resurrection is one long serial murder by monotheism—from witch-hunts to the Crusades to auto-da-fé—people killing people in the name of God.
Memnoch has been grudgingly awarded by God the contract to be sole advocate for suffering humanity. It is Memnoch’s job to warn those on earth of the dangers of hell and to tutor the souls in hell so that they might rise upward to heaven.
Hearts of darkness
Rice is making a serious bid to answer for our time the age-old questions of how a good God can permit evil things to happen and innocent beings to suffer.
It is not clear whether Memnoch speaks for Rice, but really it doesn’t matter. The point is that Rice’s Memnoch is the superior moral character in the novel and his promises are seductive and appealing, especially in our culture:
“I lead men and women from churches and temples to dance, to sing, to drink, to embrace one another with license and love. … The final victory over all human evil will come only when He is dethroned, once and for all, demystified, ignored, repudiated, thrown aside, and men and women seek for the good of the just and the ethical and the loving in each other and for all.”
Memnoch’s is a human-centered vision that blames God for all the world’s failings and ignores the roots of the darkness in the human heart—namely, sin.
Even the noble sounding ambition of seeking “the just and the ethical and the loving” has been tried already with disastrous results: Pol Pot, Hiltler, Stalin, Mao, Hiroshima, Mai Lai, Roe vs. Wade. The harvest of death that these names signify was all carried out in the name of the brotherhood of man, in the name of liberation and love.
Lestat dismisses God as “Mad, a Moral Idiot,” and so God never has a chance to get a word in edgewise. But perhaps if Rice had spent as much time reading the Bible as she had Sumerian agricultural myths and Sybelline oracles, she would have some deeper insights into the meaning of evil.
The Bible, in fact, can be read as one long tract on the meaning of suffering and the problem of evil. There are massacres of innocents, persecutions and exiles, rapes and floods. There is the recurring lament of the Psalms: Why, Lord, do the wicked prosper and the just suffer? There is Job and then again Isaiah’s Suffering Servant.
And there are the letters of St. Paul and St. Peter, who in the face of persecutions framed what remains the answer of Christian faith to evil and the suffering of the innocent.
For the Christian, in the humiliation and agony of the cross, God has elevated all human suffering and gave it divine meaning. God is always and everywhere on the side of suffering—whether it be suffering caused by natural disasters or that caused by human sin, be it the Holocaust, the Gulag, or war.
In the resurrection, God made us a promise of salvation, to deliver us from all evil. Rice’s devil only half understands this answer, but totally rejects it.
Nonetheless, it remains the best and only true answer, no matter how inadequate it may sound to the ears of an age that is dubious about belief and cynical about commitment and human possibility. It is the only answer that respects the truth about the dignity of humanity made in the image and likeness of God.
As Pope John Paul II said in Crossing the Threshold of Hope, his best-seller: “Yes, in a certain sense one could say that confronted with our human freedom, God decided to make himself ‘impotent.’ ”
In other words, you cannot have true human freedom, a truly human life, without the possibility of evil. But that is what this culture so sorely wants, and what Memnoch promises—freedom without limitations and freedom from consequences.
In his promise of a world of song, dance, license, and love, of noble and ethical people, Rice’s Memnoch shows himself to be a creature worthy of the real devil, who prowls about the world setting snares for the ruin of souls.
Going back to that outrageous scene of Lestat biting Christ’s neck, Lestat is, in a curious way, a symbol for what the Pope has called “the culture of death.”
Lestat is the living dead, unable to fully live but unable to cease to be. He is impelled by a vague appetite that can only be satisfied by draining the life out of others. In order for him to live, others must die. Rice’s vampire is then the contradiction of Christ, who shed his blood for others, who died so that all might live.
In real life, too, Christ is offering His blood to Lestat and the whole culture of death he represents. It is the very blood of God, a river that flows with compassion and grace, a blood that will give new life to all who believe.
That’s a lesson Anne Rice learned as a little girl in Catholic school in New Orleans. Perhaps now is th time for her to stop interviewing vampires and start talking to the children of light.
First published in Our Sunday Visitor (November 5, 1995)
© David Scott, 2009. All rights reserved.