Sense and Nonsense: Selling Your Soul

Selling one’s soul to the devil to acquire riches, political or intellectual power, or pleasure is a theme as old as Adam and Eve. It is what the tempting of Christ in the desert was about; it is what Faust is about. The issue can come up in amusing ways. In Elmore Leonard’s novel Tishomingo Blues, we find the Detroit Mafia seeking to take over the Dixie Mafia at a casino in Tunica, Mississippi. During the bloody operation, seven men are wiped out, including the heads of both the Detroit and Dixie Mafias. Indeed, every crook rubs out every other crook in a perfect round of quid pro quo. There is a kind of distorted justice about it all.

The hero of the book is a mild-mannered high diver named Dennis Lenahan. While on the perch of his 80-foot-high dive platform next to the casino, Dennis witnesses the murder of the shiftless Floyd, by all accounts a “no-count,” except that he knew how to rig the high-dive ladder for Dennis’s safety. The fact that he witnessed the murder makes Dennis a dangerous man. So the local Mafia, who did Floyd in, lets Dennis know in no uncertain terms what will happen if he talks to the cops about what he saw. The shooter turns out to be the thoroughly unpleasant Arlen, who is the number-two man in the Dixie Mafia.

The Iago of the plot is a very sharp, young black man named Robert Taylor. He is the brains behind the Detroit Mafia capo. At the same time Robert is stealthily pursuing an affair with the capo’s wife. Robert wants to take over the drug traffic of the South from the Dixie Mafia, and he wants to use Dennis’s high-dive show as a front through which to launder drug and gambling money. For this to work, Dennis would have to play along with the crooks, something he is not quite ready to do. Robert assures him that he will be well paid for his cooperation, and he will not have to shoot anyone. He can live in luxury wherever he wants. The offer is hard to refuse.

Still, Dennis cannot decide whether to accept this lucrative offer. He hasn’t told the cops that he saw Floyd’s murder, and this failure to cooperate with the police is itself a crime. Here follows the snatch of dialogue in which we hear what is really at issue underneath the surface of the plot: “And then Robert said, ‘You ever think about selling your soul?’ And Dennis bit; couldn’t help it. ‘How do you do that?’ `You stand up and say, when the time comes, Enough of this s—, I’m gonna do what I want. Or I’m gonna get me what I want. It’s how you turn your life around.”

It would be difficult to put the matter of what is at stake with our souls more clearly. Selling one’s soul is a kind of conversion, a turning our lives around—but away from God, not toward Him. It is a choice to do and get whatever we want.

In an essay titled “Truth and Language” (in Truth in Aquinas), Catherine Pickstock writes about the postmodern French philosopher Jacques Derrida: “He simply repeats the assumption that human will can only be construed as something that issues from a self-identical subject which commands all that it will.” In more theoretical terms, this brief remark of Pickstock sheds light on the “selling of one’s soul” in the Leonard novel. A human subject, claiming no debt or obligation to anyone but himself, commands himself to do what he pleases. He “turns his life around” by excluding any notion of responsibility. It is a scary step, which is why Dennis hesitates. But the time comes in all our lives when we can be tempted to make such a choice.

What is valuable about seeing the choice represented by a novelist rather than a philosopher is that it reminds us that the choice to sell our souls could happen anywhere, even in a casino in Mississippi. It is of course important to understand the philosophic depth of things, both good and bad. But we also need to be reminded that the ultimate dramas—even the selling of one’s soul—happen in everyday life.

In Charles Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal, there is a poem called “The Rebel.” It is about a guardian angel who “lovingly” whacks a recalcitrant soul around so that he will be good. After he does so, “Mais le damne repond toujours: ‘Je ne veux pas!’”—He will not. What the devil gets in every “soul” purchased is someone exactly like himself.


  • Fr. James V. Schall

    The Rev. James V. Schall, SJ, (1928-2019) taught government at the University of San Francisco and Georgetown University until his retirement in 2012. Besides being a regular Crisis columnist since 1983, Fr. Schall wrote nearly 50 books and countless articles for magazines and newspapers.

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