Andrei Codrescu holds forth taking the devil to task

On Books

April 02, 2000|By Michael Pakenham

Andrei Codrescu's stature, I believe, is ill-served by a decade of being primarily identified as a commentator on National Public Radio. He is a genuine all-fronts skeptic, whose heart pulls left of the center line. But he does not deserve to be swept together with his colleagues on what is often called Big Brother Radio -- a choir whose voices range from Old Faith Liberal True Believers to the fullest-flowering Loony Left.

Codrescu does a glorious job of being expressively loony -- but as a deep doubter, the very antithesis of doctrinaire zealots.

He is at it again -- delightfully and courageously -- in his eighth volume of reflective pieces: "The Devil Never Sleeps and Other Essays" (St. Martin's Press, 244 pages, $27.95).

He is rather hard on God, and for some tastes a bit too celebratory of the devil. Fine. It's virtually a literary truism that dinner with Satan is more delectable than supping at the Heavenly table. But Codrescu leaves little room for sane people who still find one or both forces believable.

For all its wonderful levity, however, the early part of the book seriously traces the devil back into pre-history, through early Judeo-Christian institutions and doctrine. He was particularly strong in the Middle Ages. Then rationality, science and indeed psychoanalysis began to make him disappear. By early in the 20th century, according to Codrescu, that devil had been almost driven out of advanced societies by modernity.

"And then, surprise! Hitler!" he writes. "Hitler embodied every repressed aspect of the devil since the early Middle Ages. All that had been laughed away came back concentrated inside a little man with a tiny mustache who magnetized all the unfocused evil in the world and made the business of hell both serious and modern."

The devil that Codrescu takes seriously today is, of course, evil, an abstraction, which takes forms both hideous and absurd -- from Hitler to the likes of the villains of a Dilbert board room.

Make no mistake, this is a dead-serious book. A book written by a dead-serious man -- who happens to exemplify and practice the gift of irony, which I would argue is the closest available approximation of a key to truth. Codrescu sees the living devil taking many forms at the end of the 20th century. Witness:

"The modern Devil operates both nakedly and in disguise. Nakedly, he speaks through secular humanists, one-world orderers (agents of ZOG -- Zionist Occupation Government), Democrats, urban dwellers, clubbers of Rome, freemasons, Catholics, the Queen of England, rock 'n' roll, lab-coated scientists (both above and under the earth's crust), number crunchers, educations boards, fetus killers, sexual deviants, media mavens, idolaters, image makers, evolutionists, and ironists. In disguise, he tries not to look or sound like any of the above to the extent that he sometimes sounds like a man of God."

Codrescu emigrated from the Transylvanian village of Sibiu, Romania, to New York in 1966, at the age of 19. Now 53, he writes of himself, "I am both European and American, so the Devil is for me both comic and serious."

He is a self-declared "liberal humanist" -- but rejects ideology as vigorously as he does doctrine. "The avant-garde," he writes, "as we know, always ends up at Wal-Mart sooner or later." He adds,"I am of the school that says that life is not worth beans if something interesting doesn't happen every few hours."

He did a stint as a writer in residence at Johns Hopkins University in the late 1970s. In the 1980s and early 1990s, he was editor of Exquisite Corpse, a literary journal published by Illinois State University. From the early 1980s until 1990, he wrote a biweekly column and other essays and reviews for The Sun. He has written five books of memoirs, seven previous collections of essays, five volumes of fiction and 16 books of poetry. He is a professor of English at Louisiana State University and lives in New Orleans. His wife, Alice, is a painter whom he met in the 1960s in New York.

This book contains lots of bits and pieces that are only tangentially related to his broader examination of evil. As a writer, as an observer, Codrescu seems to collect everything, to let no moment pass unnoted, unpreserved, unused in some bit of reflection.

He writes wonderfully about New Orleans, which he treasures as a sort of quintessential island of civilization. One of the sweeter essays celebrates the cemeteries of New Orleans, and graves in general. Another is based on the 1997 Third National Elvis Conference in Memphis, Tenn. Another: the coronation of San Francisco's poet laureate. A second Presley-focused piece deliciously explores a "Jungian Elvophile houseboat party."

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