There Will Be Blood

December 21, 2009

Do you not know that if you present yourselves to someone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness?

-Romans 6:16

Winter break has been quite productive so far. I just saw There Will Be Blood. Now I know why everyone is always saying “I drink your milkshake.” If you haven’t seen it, don’t read past this sentence, because the next sentence is going to be a spoiler.

Why does Daniel kill Eli? The final scene features Daniel running around his home bowling alley, comically throwing pins and balls at Eli. Hilarious! Then Daniel clubs him to death.

Okay, so why does Daniel kill Eli? Well, what happened just before that? Daniel forced Eli to declare himself a false prophet. So there are two more questions. First: How does Daniel know that Eli is a false prophet? Second: Why does that make Daniel so angry?

Here’s how Daniel knows: Daniel is possessed by a demon, and Eli didn’t cast that demon out. He promised Daniel he would, he made a big production out of it and told everyone he had cast out the demon, but his cure was just a show. And that pissed Daniel off, because his possession has made his life miserable.

These days, demon possession has gone out of fashion. Still, even though we know that literal demon possession isn’t possible, it’s reasonable to ask what such a possession would look like. Perhaps it’s cheating to use the word inhuman now that I’ve sworn off the word demon, but even so, that’s the word that comes to mind when I try to describe Daniel Plainview. His speech, his strength, his ambition, everything about Daniel is at once impressive and repulsive. It’s hard to describe exactly what is repulsive about him, but watching him I just got the sense that something about him was not quite right.

At first, I wanted to write him off entirely, as a person who was truly evil, had lost or never had anything human about him. But it’s clear from his relationship with his son or his experience in the church, that’s just not right. There is something of human feeling inside of Daniel, but there’s something else as well.

A demonic possession looks like a person who would do anything to achieve his goals. The goals themselves aren’t evil; what’s evil is the decision to sacrifice anything in order to achieve them. And that’s Daniel. It’s not all an act. There is someone inside of him striving to be good and lead a fulfilled life. But it’s not this person who rules Daniel’s life on a daily basis. It’s the demon.


One Response to “There Will Be Blood

  1. Rrrobert! Says:

    It seems to me that demonic possession has always been given short shrift by the modern medical community. For real – it’s a much better model of mental illness, and of evil generally, than choice-based sin. The key element is that it reflects the experience of doing something even though you don’t will it, which more modern conceptions of choice and culpability don’t adequately address. The demon model identifies the locus of moral choice as the struggle between the better angels of our nature and the elements of ourselves which drive us by circumstance from beyond our control, and (crucially) doesn’t insist that this struggle always (or ever) presents an actual choice. It’s conforms to my experience better than the temptation/choice version, where if I struggle against my instincts and lose, it’s because I’ve failed to choose correctly.

    Sidenote: That’s probably not a fair description of what I’m calling temptation – it’s possible to conceive of original sin as a kind of workaround, since the inevitability of failure at moral choices softens the blame while not being totally exculpatory. But it seems to me this is trying too hard to fit the square free will peg into the round determinism hole. It seems more likely that my free will, if any, is strongly bounded by situations where I seem to have a choice but really don’t. And though questions of culpability then get much harder, to me that’s preferable than choosing the less likely model that results in easier assignment of blame.

    Back: In any case, the demon model is useful both for workaday human weaknesses, particularly all-consuming ones, like addiction or Daniel’s megalomania. But it’s also useful for the problem of evil – what to do with real, conscious malice, beyond reach of standard-order frailties and hurt-based malice. If you’re invested in the idea of a humanity that’s good but weak, demonic possession for evil (literally or as metaphor) does a lot to help your worldview cohere (though it doesn’t resolve the problem entirely, of course).

    Also, this post raises a point against Ayn Rand and her ilk. It’s tempting to think of captains of industry as the best and brightest, the result of a Darwinian struggle to get to the top of the heap. But you can also think of the very rich as merely competent people with unusual (or, if you want to be judgmental about it, defective) moral conceptions. The very rich don’t seem to experience diminishing marginal returns for money in the way normal people do. They value money or power more than most. So if they get more money and power, it’s not because they’re better, or even smarter or more capable than other people – it’s because they just have a different set of priorities, one most people probably wouldn’t endorse. Hence your (and my) simultaneous awe and revulsion at Daniel – his demons drive him to accomplishments we might replicate if not for our humanity, but we like our humanity more than our oil empires.

    And as a disclaimer, I should note that I don’t subscribe to a “rich people are moral defectives” view. It is certainly more complicated than that.

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