Possessed by Demons or Become Your Own?

It is of course famously difficult to say exactly what happens in [Philip K Dick’s The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch], because the essential question that the major characters have is always: What is actually happening? But at least one major potential timeline, perhaps the most likely timeline, tells a story like this: Palmer Eldritch is a titan of capitalism, in many respects the Jeff Bezos of this world, and he travels to Proxima Centauri on a quest that is ambiguous in character but certainly involves financial motives. Eldritch discovers on Proxima Centauri a substance that the sentient beings of that solar system use in their religious rituals — a substance he thinks he can manufacture and sell and thereby win a victory over the currently dominant corporation called PP Layouts. But on his return from the Proxima system he is — well, perhaps the word is possessed by a sentient creature from some other part of the galaxy. And this creature is at least for a time interested in distributing its consciousness, through the mediation of Palmer Eldritch and the substance he has discovered, into the consciousness of human beings…

…Of course, this is not the only possible explanation of what is happening in the book. It is certainly possible that there is no alien being possessing Palmer Eldritch; rather, Eldritch himself has, through a combination of economic leverage and biotechnology, assumed equivalent powers. That is, it may be possible for surveillance capitalism to generate its own demons. Whether this is a better or worse fate than the one I previously described I leave as an exercise for the reader.”

-Alan Jacobs, “It’s Palmer Eldritch’s world, we’re just living in it.” ayjay.org. April 8, 2021.

Given the choice between being possessed by demons from some other culture or possessed by demons generated from one’s own, both are bad options, and your answer is probably determined by how much novelty you prefer. I think the more interesting question is whether you’d rather be possessed by a demon or become one yourself. Neitzsche hits on the point:

““Beware that, when fighting monsters, you yourself do not become a monster… for when you gaze long into the abyss. The abyss gazes also into you.”

― Friedrich W. Nietzsche

Most people can’t imagine being (or that they are) a monster. So, this choice is really about one’s self-concept. Are you good? Then, you may be more willing to be possessed, so you aren’t responsible for acting like a monster. But, choosing to be a monster? The first casualty is conscience, and then the body count goes up from there. Still, it’s probably true most people, even good people, would rather be predator than prey. This fact probably explains a lot about the human condition.

Abdiel’s Party

“In my case, I found that my interest was most vividly caught by the meaning of the temptation-and-fall theme. Suppose that the prohibition on the knowledge of good and evil were an expression of jealous cruelty, and the gaining of such knowledge an act of virtue? Suppose the Fall should be celebrated and not deplored? As I played with it, my story resolved itself into an account of the necessity of growing up, and a refusal to lament the loss of innocence. The end of human life, I found myself saying, was not redemption by a non-existent Son of God, but the gaining and transmission of wisdom. Innocence is not wise, and wisdom cannot be innocent, and if we are going to do any good in the world we have to leave childhood behind.”

-Phillip Pullman, “The Sound and the Story Exploring the World of Paradise Lost.” The Public Domain Review. December 11, 2019.

I read Milton’s Paradise Lost over two decades ago. And while I loved it, my interest was most vividly caught by the scene of Abdiel, a single voice among the infinite host of the rebelling angels, who rose up to answer Satan’s arguments, and stood alone against him:

"Among the faithless, faithful only hee;
Among innumerable false, unmov'd,
Unshak'n, unseduc'd, unterrifi'd
His Loyaltie he kept, his Love, his Zeale;
Nor number, nor example with him wrought
To swerve from truth, or change his constant mind
Though single. From amidst them forth he passd,
Long way through hostile scorn, which he susteind
Superior, nor of violence fear'd aught;
And with retorted scorn his back he turn'd
On those proud Towrs to swift destruction doom'd."

Everyone imagines that they would stand up, as Abdiel did, against the mob in the cause of what is right. Everyone wants to believe that they are, or could be, the guy who refused to join in the Nazi salute:

But, maybe there can be only one. Or, they are only few and far between. Like the appearance of a Buddha or a Bodhisatva living in limbo, trying to save everyone.

I like to imagine that Abdiel, in a scene not in Paradise Lost, arguing against God, his Son and the heavenly Host about throwing Satan and the other rebelling angels into Hell, and just as he resisted the rebelling angels, he remained as the only rebelling angel in Heaven, a loyal Opposition.

Note: Standard Ebooks has a good epub edition of Paradise Lost. There is also a BBC Paradise Lost audio drama from 1993 available via Archive.org.