What's the best trick of "the devil"?

Baudelaire, with horns.

The story The Generous Gambler is the origin of the phrase: "The devil's best trick is to persuade you that he doesn't exist." That line is also used in the movie The Usual Suspects, about the character Keyser Söze. This story has variously been classified as horror, fantasy, supernatural and science fiction. It's a short “prose poem” by Charles Pierre Baudelaire, found in his book Paris Spleen published in 1869.

Baudelaire believes that the devil does exist, but he is not what we imagine him to be.


The Generous Gambler

Yesterday, while making my way through the crowd on the boulevard, I was brushed by a mysterious being whom I had always wanted to know, and whom I recognized immediately, even though I had never met him before. He undoubtedly also felt, in relation to me, an analogous desire, for as he passed he signalled to me with a meaningful wink and I hastened to obey him. I followed him attentively, and soon I descended behind him into a dazzling subterranean dwelling, in which shone a luxury the equal of which was not furnished by any of the superior residences of Paris. It seemed peculiar to me that I could have passed by this prestigious landmark so often without having noticed its entrance. An exquisite if heady atmosphere reigned there, which made one forget almost instantly all of the wearisome horrors of life.  There one breathed in a somber beatitude, analogous to that which lotus eaters must feel when, debarking on an enchanted island lit by the glimmers of an eternal afternoon, they feel being born within themselves, to the soporiferous sounds of melodious waterfalls, the desire to never return home, to their wives, to their children, and to never again climb the high crests of the ocean's waves.

There I saw strange men's and women's faces, marked with a fatal beauty, and which I seemed to have already seen at times and in places it was now impossible for me to remember exactly, and which inspired in me a fraternal sympathy rather than the fear that ordinarily arises at the sight of the unknown. If I had wanted to somehow describe the singular expression in their gazes, I would have said that I had never before seen eyes shining more energetically with the horror of boredom and with the immortal desire to feel alive.




My host and I were already, as we sat down, old and perfect friends. We ate, we drank immoderately all sorts of extraordinary wines - and, no less extraordinary, it seemed to me, after several hours, I was no more drunk than he. Meanwhile, gambling, that superhuman pleasure, had interrupted at different intervals our frequent libations, and I must say that I had gambled and lost my soul with a heroic insouciance and sprightliness in a game with him. The soul is such an impalpable thing, so often useless, and sometimes so bothersome, that I did not feel, as regards that loss, any more emotion than if I had lost my visiting card while out for a walk.

For a long time we smoked cigars whose incomparable flavor and scent lent to the soul a nostalgia for unknown lands and happinesses, and, drunk with all of these delights, I dared, in a fit of familiarity which did not seem to displease him, to shout out as I grabbed a glass full to the brim: "To your immortal health, old Goat!"

We also talked about the universe, about its creation and about its future destruction; about the great idea of this century, that is to say, of progress and perfectability; and, in general, about all of the forms of human infatuation. On this subject, His Highness never ran out of light and irrefutable pleasantries, and he expressed himself with a suaveness of diction and with a tranquil humor that I hadn't found in any of the most celebrated conversationalists in all of humanity. He explained to me the absurdity of the different philosophies which had, up to the present, taken possession of the human mind, and even deigned to confide to me several fundamental principles whose benefits and propriety it would not be appropriate for me to share with anyone. He did not complain in any way about the bad reputation he enjoyed all over the world, assured me that he himself was the person the most interested in the destruction of superstition, and admitted to me that he had only been afraid for his own power one time, and that was the day when he had heard a preacher, more subtle than his colleagues, shout out from the pulpit:

"My dear brothers, never forget, when you hear the progress of enlightenment vaunted, that the devil's best trick is to persuade you that he doesn't exist!"

The memory of that famous orator led us naturally to the subject of the academies, and my strange companion affirmed to me that in many cases he did not disdain to inspire the pen, the words, and the conscience of educators, and that he attended almost all academic meetings in person, even if invisible.

Encouraged by so much indulgence, I asked him for news of God, and whether he had seen him recently. He replied, with an insouciance shaded by a certain sadness: "We greet each other when we meet, but like two old gentlemen in whom an innate politeness cannot completely extinguish the memory of ancient rancors."

It is doubtful that His Highness had ever given such a long audience to a simple mortal, and I was afraid to abuse this privilege. Finally, as the shivering dawn began to whiten the windows, this celebrated character, sung by so many poets and served by so many philosophers who work to his greater glory without knowing it, said to me: "I wish you to retain a fond memory of me, and to prove to you that I, about whom so much evil is said, am sometimes a good devil, to use one of your vulgar allocutions. In order to recompense you for the irremediable loss of your soul, I will award you the stake that you would have won if chance had been on your side, that is to say, the power to alleviate and vanquish for your entire life that bizarre attachment to Boredom which is the source of all of your illnesses and of all of your miserable progress. Never will you voice a desire without my helping you to attain it; you will rule over your vulgar peers; you will be showered with flattery and even worship; silver, gold, diamonds, fairy palaces, will come to you and beg you to accept them, without your having made any effort to earn them; you will change fatherland and country as often as your fancy ordains; you will get drunk on sensual delights, without ever being tired out, in charming lands where it is always hot and where the women smell as good as the flowers, - etc., etc. ...", he added, rising and dismissing me with a kindly smile.

If it hadn't been for the fear of humiliating myself before such a grand assembly, I would willingly have fallen at the feet of this generous gambler, to thank him for his unheard of munificence. But little by little, after I left him, incurable mistrust returned to my breast. I no longer dared to believe in such prodigious good fortune, and, as I went to bed, saying my prayers out of the remnants of imbecilic habit, I said, half-asleep: "My God! Lord, my God! Please make the devil keep his word!"

1 comment:

  1. It's far more likely that the devil's best trick is to persuade you that he's God.

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