Latin for “I will not serve”, this phrase has been traditionally attributed to Lucifer, when he refused to serve God in the heavenly kingdom.
There’s no such instance in the Vulgate, though. (The phrase exists, but in completely different context.) It is sometimes considered to originate in Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667), but in meaning only. The relevant quote is of course in English, and a bit more specific:
“Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heaven.”
The earliest instance of “non serviam” in literature, verbatim and in that context, is in James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916), spoken by Father Arnall in his sermon:
“Lucifer, we are told, was a son of the morning, a radiant and mighty angel; yet he fell: he fell and there fell with him a third part of the host of heaven: he fell and was hurled with his rebellious angels into hell. What his sin was we cannot say. Theologians consider that it was the sin of pride, the sinful thought conceived in an instant: non serviam: I will not serve. That instant was his ruin.”
Later in the book, the protagonist, Stephen Daedalus, reflects the same sentiment in his own stance:
“I will tell you what I will do and what I will not do. I will not serve that in which I no longer believe, whether it call itself my home, my fatherland, or my church: and I will try to express myself in some mode of life or art as freely as I can and as wholly as I can, using for my defence the only arms I allow myself to use — silence, exile and cunning.”
Daedalus will repeat the phrase once more in Ulysses (1922):
“The intellectual imagination! With me all or not at all. Non serviam!”
Meanwhile, back in 1914, the Chilean poet Vicente Huidobro had delivered a lecture on Creacionismo with the title “Non serviam”. This had nothing to do with any of the above – or with modern uses of the word “creationism”. Creacionismo was a literary movement (a movement of one, apparently) and general aesthetic theory “based on the idea of a poem as a truly new thing, created by the author for the sake of itself — that is, not to praise another thing, not to please the reader, not even to be understood by its own author”. Fitting title, then. It didn’t catch on.
Stanislaw Lem used “Non serviam” as the title of a fictional book, in 1971’s A Perfect Vacuum. (One of the weirdest things Lem got into was writing fictitious criticism of nonexisting books.) This particular book is supposedly about an AI (“personoid”) philosopher, considering what it owes to its unknown creator, and concluding: nothing. It has free will, and can therefore say “I will not serve”.
And in Martin Scorsese’s The Departed (2006), there’s this dialogue between Frank (Jack Nicholson) and Colin (Conor Donovan):
FRANK COSTELLO: Church wants you on your place. Kneel, stand, kneel, stand. If you go for that sort of thing, I don’t know what to do for you. A man makes his own way. No one gives it to you. You have to take it. “Non serviam.”
YOUNG COLIN: James Joyce.
FRANK COSTELLO: Smart, Colin.
“Non serviam” is also:
- the title of a collection (1945) by Swedish poet Gunnar Ekelöf. In the titular poem he describes himself as “a stranger in this land”.
- a phrase used by the character Hagbard Celine in The Illuminatus! Trilogy (1975) to express his rejection of (among other things) paying taxes.
- the personal motto of the character Valentine Morgenstern, who is often compared to Milton’s Satan, in Cassanda Clare’s The Mortal Instruments YA fantasy series (2007-2014).
Poetically succinct and heavily loaded, “non serviam” continues to inspire scores of poets, novelists, black (death, doom, etc) metal bands, anarchist groups, and pretty much anyone drawn, like a moth to a flame, to the thrill of defiance and insubordination — or at least the idea of it.
Refusing to serve can be a naive stance, or a brave stance, or both. It can be the first step, or the last stand. It can express narrow selfishness, or unbounded selflessness. Sometimes it makes you an idiot, sometimes it makes you a revolutionary, sometimes it makes you a prick. And sometimes, it makes you a human.
Memorial for the Unknown Deserter, Potsdam, Germany. The plaque reads:
“This is for a man who refused to kill his fellow men.”
[originally posted by Rogue on tumblr]