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Bedeviled by Desire: Lucifer in Thrall and in Therapy

AI Art created by Scott Neumeister in Midjourney

Some tarot cards conjure dread in folks who have just a passing understanding of them. Either the image itself or the card’s name can be enough to evoke negative associations. In the major arcana, for example, the Tower and Death cards immediately rouse fatal visions of tragedy. However, neither of these images carries the supernatural or occult connotations of the Devil card. As the embodiment of evil, the Devil lives in the Western consciousness as something far worse than loss or dying—he possesses mysterious powers to actively wreak suffering and pain on humanity, even beyond death. But just as the Tower and Death cards have more subtle and nuanced interpretations than their fearful appearances might suggest, the Devil also has a wealth to reveal when grasped at deeper, more archetypal levels.

I’d like to use a pop-culture reference in my exploration of this topic. For the Devil card, I instantly think of the Fox/Netflix series Lucifer, taken from Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman comic book. In the show, Lucifer (played by Tom Ellis) leaves Hell and becomes a nightclub owner in Los Angeles. The Devil here appears as a handsome, witty, and charming man, not a being bent on humanity’s destruction. However, he cannot escape the one function he performed in Hell: punishing wrongdoers. This leads him to a position as a consultant with the LAPD, in which he can track down criminals and help mete out justice. One of Lucifer’s superpowers is his ability to ask of anyone what they truly desire, and the fact that he always gets a truthful response proves to be useful in detective work and suspect interrogation. Moreover, Lucifer’s own (mostly hedonistic) desires drive his earthly lifestyle, and thus one of the primary themes of the show is desire and its consequences.

The standard Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot presentation of the Devil card carries a strong resemblance to the Lovers: the supernatural figure in the center, flanked by Adam and Eve. But the humans bear the Devil’s horns on their heads and, more tellingly, are bound by chains to the Devil’s perch. Thus, the image insists that bondage and becoming devilish is a consequence of the Devil’s presence. And using the themes suggested by Lucifer, desire itself is the pathway into this slavery. To want something strongly is to become attached to it, and the more intense the desire, the more unbreakable the attachment. In Tibetan Buddhism, the term dö chag means “sticky desire,” the yearning to grasp something or someone that grabs you back when you experience it. Whether we label it adhesion or enslavement, craving fetters us to an external object.

Joseph Campbell viewed desire in its proper place as the flip side of fear—what we are most afraid of is often the opposite of “what we truly desire.” And he related desire and fear back to the Garden of Eden and the Fall: “The fear is that of death and the desire is for more of this world,” he asserts in Thou Art That: Transforming Religious Metaphor (p. 51), “fear and desire are what keep you out of the Garden.” The Devil, then, is what pulls you in the direction of either debilitating fear or excessive desire, often linked to a common root. Between those two sides lies “the Garden” or, as Campbell references in his conversation with Bill Moyers in the first episode of The Power of Myth, nirvana: “the condition that comes when you are not compelled by desire or fear, or by social commitments, when you hold your center and act out of there.” 

The ”center” that Campbell refers to resides purely in neither the ego nor in the persona. It is the integrated aspect of the psyche, one that moves beyond the strong pull toward or avoidance of the pairs of opposites in life. The most powerful creator of the Devil, or the demonic, is the psyche’s natural tendency to repress the very powers it contains, the gods of our polytheistic soul. “My definition of a devil,” Campbell posits, “is a god who has not been recognized … a power in you to which you have not given expression, and you push it back” (An Open Life, p. 28). We often do not even recognize our unconscious gods/devils that drive us within the desire/fear dichotomy. Much of the mystery and supernatural qualities we ascribe to the concretized images of both the divine and the demonic are due to the power we ourselves give them through extremes of attachment or avoidance.

One of the many aspects that I appreciate about Lucifer is that the main character goes to therapy. While in daily life he pursues what he himself desires (and avoids what he fears), therapy impels him into self-reflexive spaces where these aspects receive introspection and contemplation. As he experiences the pains of being human for the first time, his acceptance of his unexamined drives leads him toward integration. As Campbell notes, “The demon that you can swallow gives you its power, and the greater life’s pain, the greater life’s reply” (The Power of Myth, p. 202). Lucifer’s painful journey into himself—his self-swallowing, if you will—provides him understanding and power, and we viewers can come along for the journey.

Lucifer may have left Hell to be in Los Angeles, but he continues grappling with his fears and desires from an egoic standpoint, which effectively serves to bring Hell with him. For Campbell, “Hell, properly, is the condition of people who are so bound to their ego lives and selfish values that they cannot open out to a transpersonal grace” (Thou Art That, p. 100). Can the Devil, or we who are chained and wear the Devil’s horns, break free of the shackles and move into grace? For the answer found in the series, I suggest watching it on Netflix. For your own answer, perhaps the same kind of reflections on life’s pain, accompanied by a coach, therapist, or conscious friend, can begin the process of emancipation from the chains of desire.



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