The Asmodeus Flight: Voyeurism, Forbidden Knowledge, and Satire

Philippe-Jacques de Loutherbourg, 1740–1812, French, active in Britain (from 1771), The Angel Binding Satan, ca. 1797, Oil on canvas, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection, B1981.25.224

In 1708, the first English version of The Devil upon Two Sticks was published.  It was a loose translation of Alain-René Lesage’s Le diable boiteux, itself a loose adaptation of Luis Veléz de Guevara’s El diablo cojuelo (1641).  Though little-read today, The Devil upon Two Sticks was remarkably popular among eighteenth-century English audiences, launching a kind of microgenre—the Asmodeus flight.  The premise is simple:  a young scholar, Don Cleofas, frees the devil Asmodeo (also known as Asmodeus) from a bottle, in which a highly skilled sorcerer has trapped him.  In gratitude, the devil on two sticks—so called because of a fight with another devil that led to his falling out of the sky and breaking his legs—leads Cleofas on a tour of Madrid over the course of a single night, lifting the roofs from the houses they pass and allowing his human companion to peek at the disreputable behavior going on within them.  This frame narrative enables the unfolding of a compilation of stories and offers readers the perverse indulgence of urban voyeurism.  Over the course of the eighteenth century, sequels, adaptations, further translations, and other related texts capitalized on the concept’s appeal to English readers.  These texts include a number of theatrical adaptations, along with a new translation by Tobias Smollett in 1750, The Devil upon Crutches, and even a sequel, William Combe’s The Devil upon Two Sticks in England (1791).[1]  Asmodeus was sufficiently familiar that Charles Dickens, in American Notes (1842), described New York newspapers as “good strong stuff; dealing in round abuse and blackguard names; pulling off the roofs of private houses, as the Halting Devil did in Spain.”[2]  The “Halting Devil” continued to function as a byword for the uncovering of secrets in the unknowable spaces of the city.

The long life and afterlife of The Devil upon Two Sticks indicates eighteenth-century English literary culture’s ongoing preoccupation with devils and their tantalizing offers of forbidden knowledge.  It also indicates the self-reflexivity of early prose fiction.  As Cleofas’s “Tutelar Daemon,” Asmodeo promises to “learn you whatever you are desirous to know, inform you of all things which happen in the World, and discover to you all the Faults of Mankind.”[3]  In practice, this involves pulling off the flat roofs of houses in Madrid and exposing what people get up to when they believe they’re alone.  The characterization of Asmodeus preserves the traditional association between devils and forbidden knowledge—which extends from Satan’s connection to the serpent in the Garden of Eden to Mephistopheles of the Faust legend—while transforming it for comic purposes.[4]  Asmodeo’s connection to religious terror is tenuous at best, yet his arcane secrets are nonetheless irresistible and dangerous.  The Devil upon Two Sticks and its many successors are invested in thinking through the exchange of knowledge Asmodeus offers, but they also draw readers’ attention to the kind of knowledge one may gain through such an exchange.  The Devil upon Two Sticks is a particularly self-reflexive work of prose fiction at a time when prose fiction was still emergent.  The text foregrounds its own voyeuristic nature and mocks its potential for offering moral instruction.

Asmodeo and Cleofas wander around the city, unseen as they gather intelligence on oblivious individuals.  The text’s frame narrative—not to mention the central figure of a devil, let loose from a sorcerer’s bottle—responds to contemporary taste for oriental tales.  Both Giovanni Marana’s The Turkish Spy (English translation, 1687-94) and the Arabian Nights’ Entertainments (English translation, 1706-21) had recently begun to capture imaginations in England and France.  Its narrative frame resembles both of those works.  Somewhat like Scheherazade’s unfolding of story after story to maintain Schahriar’s interest, in The Devil upon Two Sticks a compelling central figure tells a series of unfolding stories under threat of punishment.  After all, Asmodeo constantly fears being recalled to the bottle by the sorcerer who entrapped him.  But Cleofas is also on the run:  he flees from a group of men who surprised him with a lady, Donna Thomasa, and with whom they intend to marry on pain of death.  The frame tale signals a deeper concern with the kind of alternative knowledge-making associated with the oriental mode:  knowledge that is rooted in storytelling, derives from forbidden or impossible premises, and seems to come with potentially risky consequences.[5]  But rather than a Faustian deal that ultimately damns him, Don Cleofas receives a no-strings-attached guide to the hidden underbelly of Madrid in the form of Asmodeo’s tales of the city.  Indeed, the knowledge he acquires is illicit but not particularly dangerous or diabolical.  Cleofas gives up nothing and suffers no consequences in exchange for the discovery of his fellow citizens’ secrets.  Moreover, references to Asmodeo’s pedagogical prowess are deeply ironic:  the stories that unfold involve intrigue, deception, and romance, which may indeed comprise some of the “Faults of Mankind” but are not necessarily the stuff of a sound education.  All the risk is Asmodeo’s:  if the sorcerer discovers his absence, he says, “I cannot resist his arbitrary Commands, but shall be forc’d, much against my Will, to appear before him, and submit to whatever Pains he pleases to inflict on me.”[6]  This sense of danger, like the concept of peering into people’s houses, contributes to the urgency of his narration.  The urban space of Madrid (like any other contemporary city) allows close proximity to others and potentially produces anxiety about one’s performance of a social role, even in Asmodeo.  He boasts of his high social standing among demons and remains acutely conscious of the sorcerer’s ability to sense and take control of him, no matter where he is.

The people of Madrid, while in public, embrace their own superficial roles and only reveal their true selves indoors. The devil’s exposure of domestic and social secrets suggests the fragility of such superficial performances, but it also indicates the devil’s role in literary responses to the moral tensions associated with eighteenth-century social life.  As a devil, he occupies a distinct position, clearly outside of human society (not to mention the species) yet an influence on it.  For instance, Asmodeo counts luxury and alchemy among his domains and identifies himself as Cupid.  He thus offers a unique vantage point from which to consider human affairs.  Asmodeo’s perspective is, as Jonathan Arac suggests, “truly a devil’s-eye view, that of a destructive satirist with neither sympathy nor a wish to reveal a complex system of social interrelation, preferring the cynical exposure of individuals.”[7]  This kind of exposure may not necessarily reveal a system of social relations, as Arac contends, but it does rely on complex layers of social identities and the expectations and behaviors that accompany those multiple identities.  Every level of society, from the nobility to prisoners, offers frauds and deceptions to uncover.  The Devil upon Two Sticks is utterly uninterested in deliberating on the ethics of its central pair’s behavior; the frame instead links the text’s pleasurable voyeurism to an amoral and satirical devil figure.

As the text presents readers with the social secrets Asmodeo uncovers, it asks them to reflect on the nature of social knowledge. The anxiety and pleasure on which the narrative is built derive from the impossibility of ascertaining the truth about other people, which is also to say the insufficiency of relying on what one can access through the senses alone.  As Asmodeo grants Cleofas fantastical, unlimited access to people’s private lives and secret thoughts, the text suggests the difficulty of actually deciphering the truth:  in this context, because others are deliberately deceitful, what one sees and hears is not trustworthy information.  In one brief chapter, Asmodeo rapidly surveys a number of people engaged in various deceptions:  for instance, a printer working on a book full of “a Libel” that attempts to prove “that Religion is preferable to Point of Honour; and that it is better to forgive than revenge an Affront,” a suggestion at which both Asmodeo and Cleofas scoff.[8]  Afterward, Asmodeo helps Cleofas seek revenge on his pursuers by compelling them all to throw themselves at Don Cleofas’s erstwhile lover and then to become possessed with jealous rage by the others’ behavior.  As the pair watches in amusement, the men start fighting, and the whole lot ends up in jail, Thomasa included.  Asmodeo refuses to allow Cleofas to avenge himself with violence, preferring to make use of a “Violet-coloured Vapour” that incites the men’s feelings[9].  The men cannot trust their own senses, altered as they are by the devil’s vapor.  Similarly, the purple cloud of gossip can distort one’s perceptions and subsequent behavior.  Even as The Devil upon Two Sticks repeatedly indulges such scenes of voyeurism, it prompts reflection on the limitations of the information the devil provides and the perils of acting on it.

The frame narrative of The Devil upon Two Sticks and its satirical mode proved compelling and influential for eighteenth-century English audiences.  Many subsequent Asmodeus flights simply graft the frame onto new stories, but The Devil upon Two Sticks was also a major influence more generally on eighteenth-century fiction, periodicals, and stage productions.  One of its more enduring legacies was the figure of the supernatural assistant who enables narrative discovery, a mechanism that such writers as Richard Steele, Thomas Berington, and Eliza Haywood later adopted.  The Tatler (1709) appeared shortly after the first English translation of The Devil upon Two Sticks, and its eleventh number makes direct reference to it.  Bickerstaff presents a letter from his cousin, “D. Distaff,” that details their family’s genealogy and concludes with the following note:  “N. B. The Canes, the Clubs, the Cudgels, the Wands, the Devil upon two Sticks, and one Bread, that goes by the name of Staff of Life, are none of our relations.”[10]  Bickerstaff refuses to acknowledge any familial resemblance, even if the basic premise of The Tatler is not unlike The Devil upon Two Sticks.  In addition, a likeness does appear in number fifteen in the form of Pacolet, Bickerstaff’s familiar or guardian angel, who has a supernatural origin as one of those “infants [who] are, after death, to attend mankind to the end of that stamen of being in themselves, which was broke off by sickness or any other disaster.  These are proper guardians to men, as being sensible of the infirmity of their state.”[11]  Pacolet serves much the same function as Asmodeo:  both of them guide humans toward otherwise inaccessible knowledge.

Thomas Berington’s News from the Dead (1715-16) presents what purport to be epistles sent by devils to human readers.  This short-lived periodical makes use of an intricate narrative frame, in which Mercury, as messenger of news of human wickedness to the Infernal Court, relays Lucifer’s grand plan:  he declares, “I am so well satisfy’d with the Duty and Service that’s paid up in . . . Christendom; that out of a mere sense of Gratitude and Generosity, I have Thoughts . . . to settle a publick and standing Correspondence with them.”[12]  The issues that follow cover much ground, including infernal geography, Mercury’s biography, and moral warnings to readers.  Yet the frame carries on the notion that devils provide a special perspective on humanity’s secret indiscretions.  Over a decade later, the many texts published about the Scottish fortune-teller Duncan Campbell, such as Eliza Haywood’s A Spy upon the Conjurer (1724) played with the possibility of Campbell’s access to devilish knowledge (and Steele likewise mentions Duncan Campbell in The Tatler).  Haywood also explored the concept of supernaturally enabled narration in The Invisible Spy (1754), which features Explorabilis, the magically endowed figure of the title who travels, and spies, unseen through London.

Even in the twenty-first century, the Asmodeus flight lingers on.  Alan Moore, the novelist, comics writer, and ceremonial magician, has referred to Asmodeus as a guiding influence in his artistic and occult endeavors.[13]  In his recent novel Jerusalem (2016), an expansive and panoramic work that details life, death, angels, devils, and the psychogeography of the Northampton neighborhood known as the Boroughs (among other things), a chapter titled “An Asmodeus Flight” adapts the genre within the broader context of the novel’s metaphysics.  In Moore’s imagining, the devil is “essentially, a field of living information,” a playful and satirical figure who dispenses knowledge, which he cannot help but do given his composition.[14]  Later, we learn that “it was well known that a devil had no more capacity to lie than did a page of hard statistics.  Like statistics, they could only seriously mislead”[15].  As for the Asmodeus flight, it is a multidimensional journey that enables an individual to glimpse the fourth dimension of time as if from outside (an experience that Asmodeus likens to a two-dimensional stick figure suddenly glimpsing the three-dimensional world that surrounds him).  He corrects the notion that Asmodeus lifts the roofs from houses, saying, “You know, whenever they describe this ride I can provide, they always get it wrong.  They tell how the great devil slippery Sam O’Day, if asked, will bear you up above the world and let you see its homes and houses with their roofs gone, so that all the folk inside are visible. . . .  Yes, I bear people up above the world, but only in the sense that I can lift them, if I choose, into a higher mathematical dimension.”[16].  It is a minor episode within this enormous work, but it serves the purpose of instructing its readers how to read the novel.  Jerusalem invokes a host of literary and artistic genres and persistently asks its readers to think beyond traditional categories of knowledge, such as the dimensions of space and time and the afterlife.  Moore uses the Asmodeus flight to signal his literary lineage:  the devil of satire, the devil of forbidden secrets who will make you a deal if you let him, the devil who lets you see beneath the surfaces of things and beyond ordinary human perceptions.

Given the popularity of The Devil upon Two Sticks, it seems likely that Steele and other writers were at least familiar with it and invoked the concept in their own supernatural narrative frames.  Thus, The Devil upon Two Sticks introduced a novel idea into English literature:  a supernatural being who tantalizes both other characters and readers with the glimpse of knowledge that would otherwise be impossible to know.  Such a being makes the mechanics of the narrative explicit.  At the simplest level, Asmodeo, like Pacolet or Duncan Campbell, serves as a narrative device that explains the fantastical logistics of accessing someone else’s mind, and a wide variety of later eighteenth-century narratives adopted or adapted the technique.  More broadly, Asmodeo and his descendants represent one way that devilry captured the English imagination in the eighteenth century, in a form that aligns with devils’ typical roles as purveyors of the forbidden and in texts that satirize human social life while drawing attention to the questionable material they provide.  What is the devil but knowledge itself?  Among the best-known devils, Satan (of course) and Mephistopheles provide human beings with the chance to surpass ordinary limitations on knowledge; it is up to them what they do with it.  Like Eve and Faust, Cleofas accepts the offer, but the difference is that, in The Devil upon Two Sticks, he receives a night of voyeuristic amusement, even if he would do well not to trust what he sees.

[1] Smollett’s translation is available in a modern edition.  See Tobias Smollett, The Devil upon Crutches.  Ed. Leslie A. Chilton and O. M. Brack.  Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2014.

[2] Charles Dickens, American Notes for General Circulation.  Ed. Patricia Ingham.  New York:  Penguin, 2000:  99.  Most recently, Jason Pearl has discussed the ongoing influence of the Asmodeus flight.  Pearl’s primary subject is The Modern Atalantis; or, The Devil in an Air Balloon (1784), a social satire and “modern Asmodeus flight” (277) that reworks the motif by incorporating the new technology of ballooning.  Pearl, Jason, “The View from Above: Satiric Distance and the Advent of Ballooning in Britain.”  Eighteenth-Century Studies 51.3 (2018):  273-287.

[3] Lesage, Alain-René.  Le Diable Boiteux: or, The Devil upon Two Sticks.  London:  Jacob Tonson, 1708:  7.  Though Asmodeus is the more familiar version of the name, when I discuss The Devil upon Two Sticks I use Asmodeo, the name that appears in this text.

[4] The serpent of Genesis began to be associated with the devil in the second century by early Christian figures such as Justin Martyr and Origen.  For more on this association, see Philip C. Almond, The Devil:  A New Biography.  Ithaca, NY:  Cornell University Press, 2014:  34-38.

[5] For more on the oriental mode of narrative and how it influenced English literature, see Srinivas Aravamudan, Enlightenment Orientalism:  Resisting the Rise of the Novel.  Chicago:  University of Chicago Press, 2012.  He contends that Enlightenment Orientalism served as a “fictional mode for dreaming with the Orient . . . a Western style for translating, anatomizing, and desiring the Orient” (8).  The Turkish Spy is a key text for his argument; it “popularized distanced social and cultural observations about strangers made by an observer who is in disguise and passing through” (45).  The Devil on Two Sticks likewise features the observations of an outsider, though Asmodeo reveals to Cleofas the strangeness of the city in which he lives, Madrid.  Asmodeo’s position resembles that of Mahmut, the Turkish spy, but it is notable that he does not become absorbed into the Spanish culture he observes.  Instead, he remains outside, though continually aware of the role that devils play in influencing human lives.

[6] Lesage, 13.

[7] Jonathan Arac, Commissioned Spirits:  The Shaping of Social Movement in Dickens, Carlyle, Melville, and Hawthorne.  New York:  Columbia University Press, 1999:  112.

[8] Lesage, 94.

[9] Lesage, 96.

[10] Steele, Richard.  The Tatler.  Vol. 1, J. Johnson, 1808:  96.

[11] Ibid., 120.

[12] Berington, Thomas.  News from the Dead: or, The Monthly Packet of True Intelligence from the Other World.  W. Needham, 1756:  15.

[13] In an interview with Jay Babcock, Moore details an experience he had with Asmodeus.  He states, “There is a thing which apparently, traditionally he is able to offer one, and this is called the Asmodeus flight.  This is where the demon will pick you up, carry you into the air, into the sky, and you can look down and you can see all of the houses as if their roofs had been removed, so you can see what’s going on inside them.  Now that is not a description of being carried through the air.  That’s not being moved into a higher physical space.  That’s what things would look like if you’d been moved into a higher mathematical space.  If you were actually in the fourth dimension, or if your perceptions were in the fourth dimension, looking down at the third dimension, you wouldn’t see places as if the roofs of the houses had been removed, you’d see around the roofs of the houses.”  See Alan Moore, “Magic Is Afoot,” interview by Jay Babcock, Arthur 4, May 2003,

[14] Alan Moore, Jerusalem.  New York:  Liveright, 2016:  414.

[15] Ibid., 459.

[16] Ibid., 423.