You can tell a demon, because a demon speaks the truth.
And they came over unto the other side of the sea, into the country of the Gerasenes. And when he was come out of the ship, immediately there met him out of the tombs a man with an unclean spirit, who had his dwelling among the tombs; and no man could bind him, no, not with chains: because that he had been often bound with fetters and chains, and the chains had been plucked asunder by him, and the fetters broken in pieces: neither could any man tame him. And always, night and day, he was in the mountains, and in the tombs, crying, and cutting himself with stones. But when he saw Jesus afar off, he ran and worshipped him, and cried with a loud voice, and said, What have I to do with thee, Jesus, thou Son of the most high God? I adjure thee by God, that thou torment me not. For he said unto him, Come out of the man, thou unclean spirit. And he asked him, What is thy name? And he answered, saying, My name is Legion: for we are many. And he besought him much that he would not send them away out of the country. Now there was there nigh unto the mountains a great herd of swine feeding. And all the devils besought him, saying, Send us into the swine, that we may enter into them. And forthwith Jesus gave them leave. And the unclean spirits went out, and entered into the swine: and the herd ran violently down a steep place into the sea, (they were about two thousand;) and were choked in the sea. And they that fed the swine fled, and told it in the city, and in the country. And they went out to see what it was that was done. And they come to Jesus, and see him that was possessed with the devil, and had the legion, sitting, and clothed, and in his right mind: and they were afraid. And they that saw it told them how it befell to him that was possessed with the devil, and also concerning the swine. And they began to pray him to depart out of their coasts. And when he was come into the ship, he that had been possessed with the devil prayed him that he might be with him. Howbeit Jesus suffered him not, but saith unto him, Go home to thy friends, and tell them how great things the Lord hath done for thee, and hath had compassion on thee. Mark 5:1-18
Afterwards, the Gerasene Demoniac tried to explain how it had felt when he was possessed by the unclean spirits, but it was so hard to describe an experience that was so teeming and wordless. The first apostle to the gentiles preached his gospel in all the cities of the Decapolis, but the story he told could never quite match his memories of what had actually happened in that graveyard. No story could, not in any words he knew. Pig screams. Bones shuddering in their tombs. A writhing scaly sky, and the taste of the air as demons poured through the night, like iron and vinegar. The foulness of new words in his mouth. And the face of the Son of Man, standing over it all. The man who once called himself Legion had learned many things from Jesus of Nazareth, but sometimes he thought that in fact there was only one thing he or anyone had learned, which was the art of parable. The teacher had said that the Kingdom of Heaven was a mustard seed, the tiniest of tiny things—but when sown, it grew into the greatest of trees, and all the birds of the air nested in its branches. This was the master parable, the parable that described the other parables, and everything else with them. From a mustard seed, a tiny blot of oil and matter, Jesus had built the Kingdom. He had built it from a pearl, a lost coin, a wineskin, a sheep, and a net. The secrets of the Kingdom of Heaven had something to do with the power Jesus had to make one thing into the image of another. In the end, Jesus was stripped and lashed and crucified, died in sweat and filth like a common criminal, and it was the greatest of his parables. The judicial punishments of the Roman Empire were no longer only themselves. They became an image of the viciousness of humanity in its wholeness, and the sufferings of the weak in their fullness, and the hope and redemption of everything in its infinity. So the Gerasene Demoniac told of his meeting with Jesus in parables. His first attempts were clumsy. When I lived in the mountains and the tombs, he said, it was as if I lived only at the very edges of my skin. When I howled in the night, he said, it was as if I had the mouth of a wolf and the tusks of a wild boar. How could he explain that immediacy? How it felt when he cut into his thighs with sharpened stones, and the fire streamed from his wounds to fill a bright, blank, wordless universe? How the sunlight glinted in points on the stone and points of pouring blood, and nothing was the same as anything else? It is like a fire burning in the depths of the water, he said, where none can see it, and then I was lowered into the depths of my own waters, and I saw. Perhaps, the Gerasene would later consider, the simplest explanation for what happened to me is that I, too, am only a parable. My name is Legion, his words had said. They may as well have said my name is Rome. He had been the captive of a teeming foreign power; he had been in chains. But Jesus had come and liberated him, and he became a man again, and the shores of the Galilee were clotted with dead pigs. The pig is an unclean animal. But the Tenth Legion of the Strait, posted in Judea since the revolt that followed the overthrow of Herod Archelaus, had as its insignia the wild pig. His suffering had been a mustard seed, waiting to take root and grow into an image. But this did not mean that the pigs were really Roman soldiers pretending to be pigs, or that the wounds when he cut himself with stones were really a Judean revolt pretending to be wounds. The mustard-tree has many branches, and every bird in the sky might roost in them. Things split open. They split into twigs, the higher they grow upwards towards the Kingdom of Heaven.
Some questions. One. Why are Jesus and his disciples described as travelling by boat to the country of the Gerasenes, when that country is actually some forty miles from the Galilee? Two. Why do the demons, who know exactly who it is that faces them, demand that Jesus leave them alone in the name of God? Three. Why do the impure spirits beg to be given new accommodations in the herd of swine, and why does Jesus allow them to, if they’re then going to destroy themselves in the lake? Four. What does it mean to be possessed by a demon? What is a demon? What does it mean to be rid of a demon in the name of Jesus or of God? What is a name? What does it mean for a man to wear clothes or to be naked, to wear chains or to be unfettered, to scrabble on hillsides or to sit in peace, to cry in animal noises or to speak in words? What is a man? What caused the Gerasenes to beg Jesus to leave their lands? What really happened when Jesus met Legion, and who was in league with whom? Five. Did the authors of the New Testament really not know that pigs can swim?
Say the lake is a mirror. Like all mirrors, it doubles the world. Like all mirrors, it shows you the same thing, but backwards. The Galilee is not large. From any point on its shore you can see the whole coastline, black beaches and hills of yellow withering grass. The border isn’t quite visible, but it’s there. On one side of the lake, Judea. On the other, the Decapolis. On one side, Jews. On the other, Greeks. The pagans in their cities, the Jews in Jerusalem. Why do we do it all? Why do we burn heifers and blow trumpets and sing psalms? For Him, yes, always for Him. But also, even if we won’t admit it, for them. Our mirrors, our opposites, and our enemies. From either side of the lake, the country opposite is flattened, pressed up tight against the shoreline, as thin as a reflection. To watch. To be watched. In the few short years of his ministry, only once did Jesus of Nazareth walk through the looking-glass and into the land of the gentiles. He travelled to the country of the Gerasenes, and as soon as he came out of the ship he was faced by a figure from the tombs, a creature who had been bound with chains and fetters, a despised man, a man whose skin was marked everywhere by the wounds of his suffering. What do you meet when you walk towards a mirror? The swine-herders were not afraid of the wild man in the tombs and the mountains. He was strong, strong enough to break the chains they put on him, but not strong enough to prevent himself from being chained up in the first place. Four or five rough lads from the village could pin him down, grinding his hands into the dirt with their knees, and snap on the fetters. It wasn’t to protect themselves, their herds, or their children: the wild man was no real danger to anyone but himself—cutting himself with rocks, tumbling spasmodically over rough hillsides, wandering near snakes and wild creatures at night. They chained him up because it was fun. It was fun to watch the dumb naked brute struggle, to hear him bellowing like an ox at the bonds that held him, to see his misery and his incomprehension. A healthy kind of fun, muscular and sexless, that brought the entire community together. Tie the stupid thing up, and take bets on how long it would take him to break himself free. Set dogs on him, and gather round as he tries to swat them away in animal terror. He had no name, no mother and no father, he lived in the wild places, and like any other quarry he belonged to the entire polis, for them to torment. They only became afraid when they woke one morning to find their livestock gone, all dead, all floating upside-down in the lake—and the madman of the hills sitting amicably, one leg folded over the other, dressed like an ordinary citizen, and eager to tell them how Jesus of Nazareth had rid him of his demons. New clothes and a wash can do a lot for a man’s appearance, but nothing could disguise what this man had suffered. Jesus had cured him of his madness, but he had not stopped up his wounds or melted away his scars. Every inch of the man’s skin testified to their innocent noonday fun, which no longer seemed so innocent. They knew that he had not been freed from evil spirits. The evil spirits still surrounded him, and they were ashamed. Their victim didn’t seem to want revenge. He was cheerful, too cheerful; the words tumbled out his mouth like a frothing spring. He was manic. Safer to ignore him entirely, and round on the man that healed him. Who is going to compensate us, they asked, for the loss of our pigs? And when it became clear that this Jesus was a travelling rabbi, one of the Jews from the other side of the lake, who preached a doctrine of charity and poverty, they felt comfortable again. There’s always a great comfort in having been wronged. Get out of our lands, they told him. Go, if you don’t have any money, get back on your little boat, get on your boat and go back where you came from. You and your type aren’t welcome here. But it was clear they hadn’t been forgiven. One last uncomfortable spectacle remained. As Jesus and his disciples returned to their boat, the gibbering man seemed to gibber once more. He threw himself at Jesus’ feet. Don’t leave me here, he said. Don’t leave me with these people who did so much evil to me. Take me with you to Judea, let me be one of your disciples, and I will walk the land with you as your companion and spread your gospel. Even the disciples did not expect the response that Jesus gave. Nah, he said. How about you run along to your friends over there, and have a little word with them about how God sorted you out? Your friends. The men who chained you and tormented you and set dogs on you to tear your flesh. Your countrymen, your friends. It was hard to tell the Son of Man’s thoughts from his expressions, and hard to understand the teacher’s lessons from his parables. But the look that crossed Jesus’ face when the healed demoniac flung himself at his feet was unmistakeable. It was spiced with regret, and shame, and self-reproach. But it was a look of disgust. There had been a storm when they first crossed the Galilee. The lake has its squalls sometimes, when winter winds skitter over from out of the hills to play across its surface, but nothing like this. The lake shouldn’t be big enough for a storm like this: eight miles across at its widest point, a pleasant puddle, not a sea, nothing that should churn with such terrifying waves. But there they were, slamming against the sides of the boat. The disciples had thought they would all drown. But Jesus slept through it all, his face twitching like a baby’s. When they woke him, he didn’t quite understand what the problem was, even as the waves spilled over onto a pitching deck. And when the disciples explained that they were all about to die, he grew angry. Oh fuck off, the teacher said, just give it a rest, would you? It wasn’t clear who he was talking to; only when the wind and the waves suddenly calmed did the disciples realise that they weren’t the ones being told to fuck off, but the sea. And you lot, Jesus said, what are you all so shit-scared of? After all that, after everything you’ve seen, do you still not believe in me? They did not know why they were crossing the Galilee. Jesus had stomped around in the towns on the Judean side, and told a few parables to the masses of people who came out to hear him preach, and then he’d declared that they would cross over. Right, he’d said one day, completely out of nowhere. That’s it then, we’re going over to the other side. As if it were as easy as that, to simply hire a boat from one of the locals, without even being able to tell him when he might get it back. The haggling had lasted hours. And through it all Jesus slept. They were headed to a foreign land where they would not be welcome. The teacher’s little verbal tics—for is it not written, for does the Law not say—would be little use there. These people could not read what had been written, and they did not know the Law. They did not worship the one God, but made sacrifices before their idols, and ate the flesh of pigs. The disciples were afraid. By the time they arrived it was almost night. They stepped from the boat, and the sound that greeted them was an inhuman howl from among the mountains—hills that had looked so small and soft from behind their haze on the other side of the lake, now rock-strewn and terrifying. The scrape of falling pebbles as the thing paced on naked feet down out of the wilderness towards them. The disciples scattered, running back towards the ship, but Jesus stayed perfectly still. It bounded out of the dark towards him, teeth first, and collapsed by his feet. It was a man, naked, bloodied, pitiful. Its mouth flapped open and closed, and tiny guttural noises escaped, wet mucous gulps. Don’t hurt me, it was saying. Jesus of Nazareth, for God’s sake don’t hurt me. Only later, much later, when the bones knocked with terror in their tombs and the pigs were screaming in the night, did Jesus say: what’s your name?
The apostles knew much about many things. But being Jews, they did not know about pigs. Mark reports that the swine were ‘feeding’ on their hillside. The original Greek word, βοσκομενη, literally translates as ‘grazing’. Pigs are not ruminants. They do not graze. They eat roots and berries and other vegetables, but not grass. That word is used only once in the entire corpus of classical Greek literature to refer to the feeding of pigs, and it’s in the Book of Mark. The pigs are described as a herd of ‘about two thousand’. Pigs are not herd animals. They group into small families; a free-ranging herd of two thousand swine could not exist. Once possessed by Legion, this grazing herd of pigs rushes down the hillside, into the water, and drowns. They can swim. They can swim. They can swim. This story is many things. But the first and keenest of those things is an excuse. Jesus and his disciples come over the water to the country of the Gerasenes, a land in which they are strangers, and that very same night two thousand pigs die in an incredible massacre. This story—we cast out a multitude of demons from this man, and the demons went into the pigs and drowned them—has the desperate tenor of something made up very hastily on the spot, a story that everyone still has to stick to, even as it becomes harder and harder to believe. How do you know if you are possessed? We meet many demons in the Synoptic Gospels, but only Legion has a name. At various points in the narrative, our authors pause to tell us that the teacher healed many who came to him and were sick, and many who came to him and were possessed by demons. In the synagogue at Capernaum there is a man with an unclean spirit, and Jesus rebukes the spirit and drives it out. In another synagogue, location unknown, there is a woman possessed by a demon that bends her back, so that she is bent over and crippled. And not far from the mountain of the Transfiguration, we meet a young boy who is moonstruck, a lunatic, afflicted by a demon. The boy foams at the mouth and gnashes his teeth; he falls on the ground and wallows foaming. The disciples had tried to heal the boy, but none of them could cast out the spirit. Jesus heals him immediately, and the disciples ask why it was that their efforts failed. ‘This kind can come forth from nothing,’ Jesus replies, ‘but prayer and fasting.’ Two observations. One: demons come in kinds. There is a taxonomy or a hierarchy of demons. There are demons that come out from prayer, demons that come out from unction, demons that come out from the laying of hands and demons that come out from the speaking of words. Some demons afflict the spine, others the nerves, the mouth, the eyes, the ears. You could make index cards and cross-reference them. You could build a computer database of the demonic. You could stamp demons with a barcode. The infernal system is not adversity and anarchy. It is something legible to the classifying powers of human reason. Or, possibly, something implicit in human reason. Two: what Jesus said is not, strictly speaking, true. The demon that afflicted the young boy does not only come out from prayer and fasting. The boy had epilepsy; today, we would be able to quite effectively manage his symptoms with nitrazepam or phenobarbitol. Was Jesus a pharmacologist? When he straightened the back of the crippled woman, was the Son of Man jobbing as a chiropractor? A demon lives inside you, but it comes from the outside. It is the part of you that is not quite yourself; your illnesses, your intrusive thoughts, your shameful feelings—whatever it is that prevents you from being the whole, complete, and self-contained monad that you think you ought to be. A demon is the deformation of the body, the slow wear of age, the bubbling of sickness. A demon is the porousness of the subject, the indeterminacy between the wilderness and the gut. A demon is the interface between the surging behind your eyes and the world outside. We call it something different now, but the demon remains. According to the Deliverance Ministry, a Christian educational group based in Long Beach, California, the symptoms of demonic possession include not just ‘fear, depression, irrational heaviness in the soul, hearing voices in the mind’, but also arthritis, which is ‘almost always caused by evil spirits,’ along with cancer and HIV. ‘If it cannot be easily cured, then it's almost always a spirit that is causing it.’ Demons are responsible for a sexual attraction to a former lover or someone who is married, or an inability to form close emotional bonds with others. Martial artists capable of breaking ‘a solid oak board with their hand’ are almost certainly ‘using demonic powers’ and in need of deliverance. Similarly, any aesthetic interest in ‘creatures of the dark such as wolves, owls, etc.’ is a sign of goetic bondage. How do you distinguish? If no man is an island, if personality-traits are secret psychoses, if the unconscious is the discourse of the Other, if your howling wolves tshirt was chosen for you by the creature out the Pit, where is the part of you that is simply yourself? The ministry claims to be able to cast out demons through a combination of prayer, exorcism, and spiritual counselling. But once the demons are cast out, how much of the person is left? You can tell a demon, because a demon speaks. In Tell My Horse, her 1938 account of religious practices in Jamaica and Haiti, Zora Neale Hurston observes the machinations of a loa or Voudou spirit called Guedé. ‘Never directly visible, he ‘manifests himself by “mounting” a subject as a rider mounts a horse… The person mounted does nothing of his own accord. He is the horse of the loa until the spirit departs. Under the whip and guidance of the spirit-rider, the “horse” does and says many things that he or she would never have uttered un-ridden.’ What Guedé says is the truth; he says what people want to say, but can’t speak themselves. Under the protection of the loa, servant-horses can insult their masters, peasant-horses can poke fun at politicians, and the lowliest and most despised members of society can come close to divinity. This is, Hurston writes, ‘as near a social criticism of the classes by the masses as anything in all Haiti.’ The Haitians disagree. Hurston reports a saying, muttered in response to Guedé’s insults and accusations. Guedé pas drah; Guedé is not a sheet. The loa is not something that leaves any secrets still hidden, but at the same time the loa is not something to hide behind either. Guedé is not a mask, like the masks of the Venetian carnival, that protect you from the consequences of truth. You are a mask for Guedé. You know that it is Guedé speaking, and not the person in front of you, because his first words are always parlay cheval ou, tell my horse. It’s an unusual thing to say. After all, isn’t the horse the one already speaking? You can tell a demon, because a demon speaks the truth. Demons seem drawn to the figure of Jesus, with something like yearning. He doesn’t have to hunt them in the deserts; everywhere he goes, the demon-afflicted crowd him, and speak. And when they speak, they acclaim him as the Messiah. The unafflicted are a wicked and impetuous generation, but those with demons have no illusions. The Gerasene Demoniac rushes straight for him as soon as he walks off the boat. The demon in the synagogue at Capernaum cries out with a loud voice: ‘I know thee who thou art; the Holy One of God.’ When he heals nameless masses, their demons chorus: ‘Thou art Christ the Son of God.’ How do you identify the demon-possessed? If the Gospels are to be believed, the best way is to see if they loudly testify the divinity of Christ. There are two instances in which the games Jesus plays with his demons get him into trouble. One is the incident in the country of the Gerasenes, the one that ended with two thousand pigs dead in the Galilee. The townspeople were not glad that he had cast out the demon; they wanted him gone. The other takes place not long beforehand. Jesus heals a man whose demon has left him blind and mute, but the Pharisees declare: ‘This fellow doth not cast out devils, but by Beelzebub the prince of the devils.’ Jesus, they said, was achieving his miracles through demonic forces. Jesus replies: ‘If Satan cast out Satan, he is divided against himself; how shall then his kingdom stand?’ But something is significant here. These two unpopular exorcisms are not like the others. Here Jesus does not silence the screaming spirits. In both cases, he takes someone who is mute, and gives them words. The suffering of the man who was Legion is not unknown to modern science. His demons are a developmental disability; he suffers from a profound autism. Autism is a curving-inwards of the subject, healing over its pores, sewing up its mouth and anus. The autistic person is stuck, perhaps not even uncomfortably, inside themselves. Those with milder forms of autism—and given that autism is a spectrum disorder, this could include just about everyone—have difficulty communicating with other people, expressing their subjectivity in words, interpreting nuance, picking up on double meanings. Autistic children will sometimes stare at a pointed finger, rather than the object it points towards; they tend to see things rather than symbols, they tend to literalise. Those with more severe symptoms are often incapable of producing any speech at all. They may communicate in grunts and cries. If they’re not given sufficient care, they may be dressed only in rags, and live in the tombs and in the mountains and in wordless fear. There are therapies that can alleviate some of the symptoms of autism. There is no currently recognised cure. Only the treatment that Jesus gave, the one that led to the mystery of the pigs. And one other. In 1930, the psychoanalyst Melanie Klein described her treatment of ‘Dick,’ a four year old boy suffering from psychosis, whose diagnosis today would almost certainly be severe autism. Dick, she writes, ‘had almost no interests, did not play, and had no contact with his environment. For the most part he simply strung sounds together in a meaningless way, and certain noises he constantly repeated… But it was not only that he was unable to make himself intelligible: he had no wish to do so.’ What Klein discovers is that the root of Dick’s psychosis lies in an interrupted process of symbol-formation. He has no interest in playing with toys, because for him a toy is only a lump of material. (The only exceptions were toy trains and stations, and ‘door-handles, doors and the opening and shutting of them.’) He does not speak, because for him a word is only sound without meaning. Dick sees the world exactly as it is. In other words, he and it have no relation whatsoever. Symbol-formation, Klein writes, is the result of an infantile rage and terror. Objects are the source of a terrible anxiety, concerning the inside of the mother’s body (which contains ‘the father’s penis, excrement, and children’). In his infantile sadism, the child wants to destroy that body, but he’s terrified by the potential repercussions. In the end he does so safely, by passing its qualities onto new objects in an endless chain of new associations and interpretations. ‘A sufficient quantity of anxiety,’ she writes, ‘is the necessary basis for an abundance of symbol-formation and of phantasy.’ And on the basis of this terror ‘is built up the subject’s relation to the outside world and to reality in general.’ But Dick, rather than working through these anxieties, withdrew from them. To treat him, Klein has to give him his symbols herself. She lays out the toy trains for him, a big one and a little one. The big train is the Daddy-train, she says. The little train is the Dick-train. And the station is mummy. ‘Dick is going into mummy.’ And just like that, the child begins to speak. He calls out for his nurse. He’s learned to use her name. He’s learned how to speak in parables.
Jesus asked, what is thy name? And the swirling that surrounded him, the endless chatter of demons, the cacophony of horns and hooves, paper-thin reams of livid purple flesh pullulating in terrible dimensions, eyes snapping open out of the empty night, teeth and tongues lolling from between the stars, claws to scratch the bedrock of the earth, a bodiless swooping that descends from everywhere, the swollen nexus of every abomination and every unclean thing—in its hundreds of voices the demon did not reply. The screams of the pigs grew louder and more frenzied. And soon, Jesus came once more to the demons. Again he asked, what is thy name? The voice, when it came, spoke together and apart. It was a single voice, almost pathetic in its pleading, but on its outer edges it frayed into a thousand writhing worms of sound. Its single voice spoke in all the languages of Babel, and the language of the angels themselves, and the language of the birds, and the endless voiceless languages of those things that have no mouth. What have I to do with thee, it said, Jesus, thou Son of the most high God? I adjure thee by God, that thou torment me not. There are laws, the demon was saying, and you are breaking them; there is a rule set down by the Father, and what you are trying to do will break that rule. But Jesus was full of compassion for the man shivering in the tombs, and the screams of the pigs struck hideously through the night, and then fell away, and stopped entirely, and there was only silence. And Jesus asked, what is thy name? My name is Legion, the demon said, for we are many. A name is a bind. The demon was defeated. And all at once, all through the tombs, the bones of the dead clattered in their graves. The wild man of the mountains stood up, and with his right hand he touched his cheek, and he came towards Jesus and said you are the son of God, and Jesus looked into his face, and saw that it was the same as his own, and he was ashamed of what he had done. A word is a thing that speaks itself out of your mouth, but is never yours. Every language is always foreign to the person that speaks it; every word carries a history that began long before you were born, flowing out of a million other mouths. A word is a symbol. A word is born in fear and hatred. A word is a demon. The man who lived in the mountains and the tombs was not possessed by a multitude of devils. His sickness was that he had none. He needed demons, one demon for every word he did not know. The demons begged not to be tormented. They were not reluctant to come out. They were reluctant to go in. You can cast out demons with prayer and fasting, the laying of hands, holy oil, or the name of Jesus Christ. There’s only one way to force a demon to appear. You need an animal sacrifice. When the morning came, two thousand dead pigs had been cast into the sea.