Sympathy for the Devil
In this song Mr. Jagger demonstrates a profound understanding of evil in political history. He could not possibly be an advocate in sympathy with the Devil, unless he were indeed so wicked as to advocate the worst regimes the earth has ever seen, the Communist and Nazi, regimes guilty of more deaths than any in the history of the world. Jonathan Cott, in his preface to the 1975 Rolling Stone interview of Jagger, suggests that the Stones “attacked the vice of the spirit of society itself in such songs as Sympathy for the Devil and 2000 Man.” The song presents the Devil as a dramatic character. In his plea for sympathy, this character reveals things about the nature of the diabolical and its involvement especially in the politics of the Twentieth Century.
Please allow me to introduce myself
I’m a man of wealth and taste
I’ve been around for a long long year
Stolen many a man’s soul and faith
I was around when Jesus Christ had his moments of doubt and pain
Made damn sure that Pilate washed his hands and sealed his fate
Pleased to meet You / Hope you guess my name
But what’s puzzling you is the nature of my game.
In the first set of eight lines, the Devil introduces himself. Contrary to our mythical expectation of an obvious ugly beast, he is, like Goethe’s Mephistophiles, a refined character. As Edgar, in disguise, says in Shakespeare’s King Lear, “The Prince of Darkness is a gentleman” (Act III, iv, 134). He claims to have been around for a long time. Yet it is not clear that he existed as a figure in history until the incarnation, when, as is told in the scriptures, he tempted Jesus (Matthew 4). The song addresses the period of history from this date, early in the first century. He claims to have been present in all the moments of doubt and pain Jesus had, such as the agony in the garden and the entire crucifixion. Throughout the song, he does not claim to have caused or done anything, but only to have been present when humans did certain things. This is a theologically profound point about the character of evil, which in some sense “is not,” or cannot simply and properly be said to exist as the beings or principles do. It may be more like a hole humans fall into, and dependent on humans to have any effect. The name that it is hoped we guess is Lucifer, and the question of the song is that of what on earth it is he thinks he’s up to.
Stuck around St. Petersburg when I saw it was time for a change
Killed the Tsar and his ministers, Anastasia screamed in vain
I rode a tank, held a General’s rank
When the blitzkrieg raged and the bodies stank
Pleased to meet you / Hope you guess my name.
Ah what’s puzzling you is the nature of my game.
The second set of lines jumps immediately to the twentieth century, where he was present in the two forms of twentieth century ideological tyranny, or what has been called “Totalitarianism.” These are the two places where, in addition to stealing souls, the Devil is said to have acted or done something. Though anticipated by aspects of the French Revolution, this new kind of tyranny is a political phenomenon entirely peculiar to the twentieth century. It is here that we see that Mr. Jagger, or the writer of these words, could not possibly be a Satanist, or a genuine proponent of the Sympathy for the Devil which the main character requests. The Devil was present in the communist revolution of 1917, when the family of Tzar Nicholas was murdered. The family included the prince who would have been the next Tzar, and, most heinously, the princess Anastasia, a young girl shot to death on the orders of the communist revolutionaries, headed by Lenin. Had he lived, he would always have represented a claim of the monarchy contrary to the Communists. The bodies of the prince and princess were apparently located recently, confirming the murder. Stalin took over from Lenin in 1924, and the number of dead, killed by their own government in Russia, averaged about one million per year until the breakdown of the Soviet Union in 1989. This pace is about equal to the pace at which the Nazis murdered Jews and others, including German citizens. And it is no surprise, then, when the song shifts abruptly to the claim that he was present as a general in Hitler’s army when the blitzkrieg bombed London and the corpses lay rotting in the camps. Hitler followed the example of Stalin in the organization of the camps, though their residents were not especially the bourgeoisie or the enemies of the communist revolution, but rather the Jews and any others who did not fit into the racial utopia envisioned as the cause for seeking to kill large groups of people. The understanding that both these forms of government were influenced by the presence of the diabolical in an unprecedented way is a profound insight, something most politicians do not see, with rare exceptions such as Winston Churchill. The two are extreme opposites of the political left and right, and enemies, even while sharing certain striking similarities. Both arose out of German philosophy, both are utopian, with the vision based in one case on race and in another on class, held up to move the revolutionaries to what becomes like a diabolic inversion of religious sacrifice inserted into the political realm. The vision of Fatima occurred in 1917 while the Communist Revolution was introducing this new form of tyranny into the world. There is no suggestion that the poet advocates the murders of the princess Anastasia referred to in the song, or that, having revealed the presence of the diabolical in twentieth century history, he could possibly be understood to advocate it. What then could be the meaning of the song or the songwriter, as distinct from the character portrayed in the song?
I watched with glee while your kings and queens fought for ten decades for the gods they made.
I shouted out “Who killed the Kennedys” when after all it was you and me.
Let me please introduce myself / I’m a man of wealth and taste
And I lay traps for the troubadours who get killed before they reach Bombay.
Pleased to meet you, hope you guess my name.
But what’s puzzling you is just the nature of my game.
Meanwhile, most of the world does not see what is occurring. Referring for the first time to a period outside the twentieth century, he says that he looked on while the oblivious monarchs fought wars over gods, or religious doctrines and idolatries that are in fact of human making, not eternal but rather made by man. He claims at least partial responsibility for raising the question of who is the true murderer of the Kennedys, and then says it was after all “You and me.” This at first seems to mean all of us, the many, but on second thought appeared to mean that “you,” or all of us, together with “him,” were the cause. The deep truth here is that the diabolical is effective only because of the people (apparently because “it” does not strictly speaking exist without the malice of humans to give it what effect it has.) Assuming that there is not some more particular reference, troubadours are the medieval poets of courtly love, or the writers of love songs. Bombay is the capital of India, the spiritual destination of the love poets, similar to the other shore as discussed above. The devil is opposed to the goal of the lovers or love poets, and says he lays traps for them, or that he has laid the traps for those who do not make it to India. You see, the troubadour Jagger is not confused about the subject he is addressing, and the song intends to convey this caution of one who knows what they are dealing with.
Just as every cop is a criminal / And all the sinners saints,
as heads is tails, just call me Lucifer / ‘Cause I’m in need of some restraint.
So if you meet me have some courtesy have some sympathy and some taste
Use all your well learned politesse or I’ll lay your soul to waste.
Pleased to meet you hope you guess my name
But what’s puzzling you is the nature of my game.
The fourth set of lines is a proper conclusion, in which the character helps out the one addressed by giving us his name. The set begins with another of the song’s profound points in the theological understanding of evil and the human soul: Human virtue or goodness usually depends on the inner opposition to the bad or vicious, and he claims that every cop is in a way a repressed criminal, or something of the sort. Jung explains that the cultivation of perfection leads to or is accompanied by a corresponding shadow that accumulates in the unconscious (Answer to Job). All the sinners are then said to be in the same way saints in the opposite or upside-down world of Lucifer. A curiosity of history is that Stalin and Lenin were both failed students of the priesthood. He tells us to call him this as if the name will limit or restrain him, all other limits or restraints having disappeared with the supposed realization that virtue is really vice, or is accompanied by vice. One even wonders if we, or human beings, do not give these things existence by naming them, in which case the character has tricked humans into giving existence to one who otherwise would not be. Attempting to restrain it, we focus on it rather than the good, fueling it with our opposition, giving “it” an existence it otherwise would not have (Revelation 17:8). Evil in its mythical forms is not real, but has effect only through humans, who fall into it as into a cavern or pit. The opposite truth is how the divine has no visible or particular form, at least in our contemporary world, except through the members of what is something like the body of the Lord.
The set and the song ends with a warning: If we meet him, we ought be very courteous, sympathetic and tasteful, summoning all our “well learned politesse” or cautious politeness, or he will destroy our souls. The word “politesse” enters the English language from the French, and means politeness, usually with a derogatory connotation of false appearance or courtly flattery. It can also refer to prudence or practical wisdom, as distinct for example from “letting it all hang out.” The diabolical identifies all political virtue with mere appearance, and as a “gentleman,” shares in common with the genuine statesman a mastery of appearance. The diabolic assumption that there is no more to the gentleman than the artificial will, however, be tested by the consequent events, as in King Lear. We are told to use all our well learned politesse, or he will lay our souls to waste.
Here again, then, though not as dramatically as in the case of “Louie, Louie,” we see a surprising depth to the lyrics of our music, a high and uncommon meaning that is not pernicious, but rather understands and genuinely warns against things truly evil. Mr. Jagger is said to hold a Masters degree in Political economy, which would have brought him a familiarity with these things, though we’d be surprised if the insight underlying this song were present in the curriculum, and not the poet’s own profundity.