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Keeping the Devil Down in the Hole: by David Barnes

‘If you walk with Jesus
he’s going to save your soul.
You gotta keep the devil
Way down in the hole’.

As the whole of the chattering classes emerges bereft from the last series of the American police drama The Wire (screened on BBC2 years after the original series ran in the States), it’s worth asking what, if anything, the series’ message was. The lines quoted above are from its theme tune, the Tom Waits song ‘Down in the Hole’.

‘Down in the Hole’ itself is taken from Waits’ album Frank’s Wild Years, a work that reflects musical influences such as cabaret and Kurt Weill’s musical theatre. As such, ‘Down in the Hole’ is performed in the persona of a crazed preacher, one of many ‘voices’ that Waits adopts on the album. In this sense, the song appears to ‘perform’ belief, the lyrics a theatricalisation of faith. Waits seems to perform what it is like to believe in Jesus (and the devil) rather than actually believing in them.

So we might think of Waits’ song, and The Wire, as exercising a sort of ironic distancing. In the ‘real world’, simplistic beliefs about morality, good and evil, and God are naïve and as such can only be ‘performed’. Going down this route, The Wire’s world of cycles of drug addiction, narcotics dealing, police and political corruption is left untouched by its ironic preface. In other words, we may want to be able to ‘keep the devil down in the hole’, but it ‘ain’t gonna happen’.
But here is the problem. For The Wire seems to strive to find moral and ethical solutions to the problems it describes. Its cynicism has a limit; it still allows the viewer to hope. Indeed its very anger at the world is also a longing for things to be different, to be right. So perhaps could the song’s role be not to shrug off the certainties of faith but rather to kindle a nostalgia for faith?

Slavoj Žižek, the Slovenian psychoanalyst, Marxist and ubiquitous cultural commentator is one of the most prominent intellectuals to articulate this nostalgia for Christianity. Except, for Žižek, it isn’t really nostalgia; on the contrary, the ethical core of Christianity allows this radical Marxist to critique the vapid spirituality of late capitalism, embodied in fads for the New Age and pseudo-buddhism.

Instead, he argues for the radical-revolutionary heart of Christianity to be rediscovered. In contrast to modernity’s insistence on keeping faith as a private ‘obscene secret’, he follows his master G.K. Chesterton in recommending the topsy-turvy public values of Christianity. Here, strong moral boundaries are the way to true pleasure, belief in mystery the only way to really rational thinking.

Following this thread, The Wire’s ‘nostalgia for faith’ becomes more than misty-eyed. It is real; churches (black ones especially) are some of the few places in the series where real good can be accomplished. Individuals are redeemed. The heroin addict Bubbles’ speeches at the Narcotics Anonymous meetings in Series Five are framed beneath a central crucifix. In the third series the rogue detective Jimmy McNulty is told by his colleague Lester Freamon that ‘the job won’t save you’. But what will?

It is in this space that the radical, redemptive message of Christianity can step in. In breaking the cycles of corruption and violence what may be needed is the kind of regeneration that can’t be dreamt up by property developers and politicians. I mean by this not to urge a bland ‘let’s all understand faith’, à la Tony Blair. The core of Christianity is much more radical and world-changing than that, and the flattening of all religions into one-size-fits-all does none of them any favours.

I acknowledge this reading of The Wire as my own, and partial. But is the space between The Wire’s keeping ‘the devil down in the hole’ and the Anglican Book of Common Prayer’s ‘beating down Satan under our feet’ so big?

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