I truly did not mean to stay away for a month, my apologies. Every time I think I have a handle on this semester, something else comes along—however, now that we’re in midterms (can you believe it?) I think I might be finding a rhythm. This is a semester where I spent A LOT of time actually in class, which is unusual for graduate school. I’m hoping this is not the case next semester; be patient with me, Reader, and stick around.
I have a great many books that have been piling up and it’s been some time since I did a review, so I present The Devils of Loudun by Aldous Huxley. I don’t remember where or when I got this, but I do remember picking it up solely because Huxley (of Brave New World fame) wrote it and I was fascinated to see what he’d do with devils.
It is, I discovered, a historical overview of a spate of supposed possessions in a convent in Loudun, France, in the 17th century. Or it’s an indictment of 17th century Church corruption. Or it’s a showcase of what happens when you tell people sexuality is bad but then make it enticing. Or it’s religious theory. Or it’s psychology. Or it’s poetry. Or it’s comparative religion, drawing on Taoism and Buddhism as well as Christianity and Judaism.
Or it’s all of that. Huxley isn’t writing a novel (which is what I originally thought this was, especially having read The Devils by John Whiting, which is a play based on these same possessions.) It reminded me a lot of The Cheese and the Worms in terms of taking a historical event/text and extrapolating with stories and theories about the personalities and relationships involved. And Huxley has a lot to work with: as I mentioned, it’s about possessions at a convent in France. A priest named Urbain Grandier was accused of bringing a whole slew of devils to torment (mostly via impure thoughts and some flopping about and such) a nunnery; he was eventually convicted and burned to death as a sorcerer. Along the way, though, Huxley goes through how the politics of religious France allowed this, what relationships Grandier was having that would have set him up for such a claim, what the abbess of the nunnery was doing in claiming such possession, and whether or not the entire affair had any grounding.
Huxley comes down hard on the side of this whole thing being a frame-up because the nuns were sexually frustrated and Grandier slept with all the wrong gals, but fortunately he doesn’t dismiss the reality of the situation for the people involved. He’s pretty good about not judging the actors through 20th century eyes, which not every historian can pull off.
Be warned: there are a lot of times when Huxley will quote from some document or other in French or Latin and just move on without translating. That can be frustrating if you don’t quite know what’s being said, but fortunately it’s never anything on which the argument turns. And there are sparse citations in this book; there are a few footnotes, but they’re as random as the choices to translate.
Huxley goes through so many tunnels to get at his objective of totally dismantling this entire mess and tearing apart the politics of the Church and the fear of evil, especially as it manifests in sexuality. I found myself feeling awful for pretty much all of the characters because they got caught in this machine they’d foolishly started and then couldn’t stop, ground in its gears without mercy or tempered judgment.
Let me share some quotes with you that I found particularly of note:
“A Church divided by intestine hatreds cannot systematically practise love and cannot, without manifest hypocrisy, preach it.” (27; oh modern Church, do you hear?)
“Christ delights in the lilies precisely because they are not prudent, because they neither toil nor spin and yet are incomparably lovelier than the most gorgeous of Hebrew kings…[they] enjoy a glory which has this in common with the Order of the Garter—that ‘there’s no damned merit about it.’ That, precisely, is their point; that is why, for us human beings, they are so refreshing and, on a level much deeper than that of morality, so profoundly instructive.” (85-86)
“Such was the atmosphere in a convent of demoniac nuns, and such the persons with whom, in an intimacy that was a compound of the intimacies existing between gynaecologist and patient, trainer and animal, adored psychiatrist and loquacious neurotic, the officiating priest passed many hours of every day and night…The long-drawn debauch took place in the imagination and was never physical.” (121, on the weird sexual tension between the possessed nuns and the exorcists brought in to cure them)
“[A]ll the evils of religion can flourish without any belief in the supernatural…Few people now believe in the devil; but very many enjoy behaving as their ancestors behaved when the Fiend was a reality as unquestionable as his Opposite Number. In order to justify their behaviour, they turn their theories into dogmas, their by-laws into First Principles, their political bosses into Gods and all those who disagree with them into incarnate devils.” (125; oh, that doesn’t sound familiar at all here in 2016…)
“And Montaigne concludes with one of those golden sentences which deserve to be inscribed over the altar of every church, above the bench of every magistrate, on the walls of every lecture hall, every senate and parliament, every government office and council chamber…’After all, it is rating one’s conjectures at a very high price to roast a man alive on the strength of them.'” (133)
“For the first time in his life he knew the meaning of contrition—not doctrinally, not by scholastic definition, but from within, as an anguish of regret and self-condemnation…Father Ambrose pronounced the formula of absolution…and spoke a little about the will of God. Nothing was to be asked for, he said, and nothing refused. Except for sin, all that might happen to one was not merely to be accepted with resignation; it was to be willed, moment by moment, as God’s will for that particular moment. Suffering was to be willed, affliction was to be willed…And in the act of being willed they would be understood. And in the act of being understood they would be transfigured, would be seen, not with the eyes of the natural man, but as God saw them.” (203)
“At Saintes, for the first time in ten years, Surin found himself treated with sympathy and consideration—as a sick man undergoing a spiritual ordeal, not as a kind of criminal undergoing punishment at the hands of God and therefore deserving of yet more punishment at the hands of men. It was still all but impossible for him to leave his prison and communicate with the world; but now the world was moving in and trying to communicate with him.” (297)