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Book Review: The Devil Notebooks by Laurence A. Rickels

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I came across The Devil Notebooks by Laurence A. Rickels and was intrigued with the idea of examining the place of the devil in our culture, especially contemporary pop culture. I knew with Rickels’ background as professor of German and Comparative Literature at the University of California, the book would draw heavily on critical theory, but also hoped the sheer charisma of the title character would make the narrative a lively read.

Unfortunately, for the most part, that doesn’t happen, not due to a lacklustre history of the Prince of Darkness, but rather to Rickels’ tendency to emphasize his semiotic approach by making his writing unnecessarily convoluted and opaque. The average reader will find this book rather tough going, despite the author’s obvious knowledge of his subject.

Rickels’ title is a riff on Church of Satan founder Anton Lavey’s 1992 observations on the place of the devil, called The Devil's Notebook. Rickels’ take on the subject draws on Freud, Nietzsche, Foucault , pop culture, and Rickels’ own class on Satan to argue that the devil is "something literal, something projected: that’s what Devil fictions are made of." The devil stands for the primal father, and a pact made with him grants “a certain deadline and, in exchange, a finite quantity of time, time unhaunted by missing persons.” In other words (and Rickels does love alternate uses of language), the devil’s left hand rule is a threat to and a way to rise above the right hand rule of the oppression of self based on guilt.

Rickels argues his point by drawing on actual news stories and depictions of the devil (primarily in film but also drawing on folklore, music, theatre and literature) and interpreting them through various lines of philosophical thought (Freud plays a large role, as does semiotics, particularly in terms of interpretation of "the other"). The exploration is thorough and can be an interesting read — Aleister Crowley is a fascinating case to dissect — but the references to films and news stories are so numerous and the language used to analyze them so self-consciously convoluted, the book read too much like a text book to hold my interest, and I have a background in literary criticism. Even so, I felt I needed to bone up considerably in that area to really get to grips with Rickels, and I wasn’t inspired to do so.

It’s a shame, because clearly Rickels knows his stuff. I did come away from The Devil Notebooks thinking that Rickels' class on Satan would be well worth taking.

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