Aldous Huxley was the first English novelist of ideas of the twentieth century, a rare vocation among his countrymen; but it may be in his non-fiction masterpiece, The Devils of Loudun (1952), which his beloved ideas live most vividly. He recounts the apparent demonic possession en masse in an Ursuline convent in a French village in 1633. By the end of the story, the reader becomes familiar with “Radical Evil”, which is not to be found in the perverse workings of Principalities and Powers, but in the hearts and minds of ordinary people. men and women. For Huxley, the ordinariness of evil seems to be an inescapable feature of our life on earth. No matter how the accepted facts of human nature have evolved over the centuries, this malignity – the basic human need to have someone to hate and persecute – has never been eradicated, and perhaps cannot be eradicated. never be.
Supernatural or metaphysical evil was the favorite object of human terror and hatred at the time about which Huxley was writing. But things would change over the next few generations. Although sorcery, sorcery and demonolatry have lost their power to frighten civilized people into spasms of senseless violence to defend their souls, the Enemy has changed only in form, not in essence. Political and economic theories – Marxist, Stalinist, Maoist, Fascist, Nazi – have supplanted religious teaching as the source of an acceptable mass rage against the impure: say, humanist. . . . And that Radical Evil now incarnates, not in sorcerers and magicians (because we like to think of ourselves as positivists), but in the representatives of a hated class or nation. Today, religious belief offers the strongest bulwark against these modern enormities; but there was a time when Christian belief, especially in its obsession with supernatural evil, became the source of abominations.
The evil branched out and took on various new forms because it emanated from the banal lust and vanity of a good-natured priest of the parish of Loudun, Father Urbain Grandier: “Grandier was the average sensual man, only a bit more. His universe, as the account of his life sufficiently proves, was “the world,” in the sense in which that word is so frequently used in the Gospels and the Epistles. The life Grandier wanted was the life of pleasure that almost everyone wanted, and he didn’t see why his priestly collar would stop him.
Grandier’s reputation as a rake made him almost irresistible to women deprived of all but the imaginary sexual pleasure. In the 17th century, most nuns met in the convent for want of anything better: In Loudun almost every sister was a young noble woman unable to make a suitable marriage because her family could not afford a sufficient dowry to satisfy a suitor of acceptable rank. Sr Jeanne des Anges, the Mother Superior, was one of them; without a real vocation and with a low threshold of boredom, she falls into a chronic erotic delirium inhabited by a man she will never meet. Daydreams became nocturnal visits that sullied her sleep or kept her awake in unspeakable excitement. The unspeakable in due course became the stuff of convent gossip. His tales of these adventures in lust easily corrupted some of his eager listeners, and before long the hallucinations spread throughout the convent and grew increasingly playful.
Halloween-like pranks by some of the sisters started the rumor that the convent was haunted and its inhabitants were in turmoil. The convent confessor, Canon Mignon, a bitter rival of Grandier, heard of all these events and saw an opportunity to do real harm to his enemy. He told the nuns that the supposed ghosts were actually demons and that the erotic visitations were the work of an incubus. Who could say he was wrong? Mignon proceeded to gather a cohort of exorcists, and the game was serious. In due time, the exorcisms were opened to the public, and the beatings and groans of the afflicted young women at the right time provided top-notch entertainment on the cheap.
Someone had to be responsible for this demonic infestation – the sisters were innocent victims – and certain designated representatives of law and order, secular and sacred, proclaimed Grandier a sorcerer. However, Loudun’s chief magistrate, Guillaume de Cerisay, determined that proof of genuine possession was lacking – there was “only a disease, ameliorated by a little fraud on the part of the nuns, by much malice on the part of Canon Mignon and by the superstition, fanaticism and professional interest of the other clerics involved in the affair. The Archbishop of Tours acquiesced and ordered the suspension of public exorcisms; the consternation of the insect shack at the convent subsided. But pro-demonolatry forces persist, and they have Cardinal Richelieu, the most powerful man in France, at their side. Grandier had met him years before, when he was only a bishop, rightly but recklessly claiming precedence in a church procession; and His Eminence had a long memory.
Huxley’s interpretation of the torture meant to make Grandier confess to his devilishness is terrifying. His legs were systematically broken until there were no knees or ankles left, and he had to somehow walk to the fatal pyre. Grandier knew the witchcraft accusations were pure fantasy and maintained his innocence, heroically. When he publicly invoked God in his agony, the executioner priests assured the crowd that he was actually invoking the devil. Surely there were demons present: they had taken the form of holy men inflicting punishments.
The diabolical symptoms of the nuns persisted after Grandier’s death, when they should have disappeared; and the vexed authorities of Loudun enlisted the Jesuits, famed for their unparalleled priestly intelligence, to prove that the maidens were truly possessed. Although three of the four Jesuits who came were inclined to skepticism, the chief exorcist, Fr. Jean-Joseph Surin, arrived in town with no doubt in his mind that the mass possession was absolutely genuine and Grandier absolutely guilty. . The supernatural was Surin’s native land, the demonic his bailiwick. Sr Jeanne would be particularly cared for, and her assiduity towards her would drive him mad.
To be considered a madman, Surin thought, would certify his own authenticity. He prayed that the demons infesting Sr. Jeanne’s soul would enter his; and he had his wish. He was a troubled character at the start of the investigation and he drove himself mad. Pr. Surin would endure hysterical partial paralysis and near catatonia for several years, and worst of all became convinced that he was damned, his eternal fate sealed with no hope of forgiveness. His suicide attempt – he jumped from a window over the edge of a river, badly breaking his leg – led to his incarceration in a Jesuit infirmary as incurably insane: his attendants treated him brutally, and curious priests came to watch and mock the loathsome evil. mad.
Then, one day in confession, Fr. Surin observed that as a lost soul he felt compelled to do evil, but was only able to do good, which in his situation, must have been a greater sin than premeditated murder. The confessor replied simply and softly that, although not clairvoyant, he had a strong feeling, perhaps even an inspiration, that in the end all would be well for Surin, who would realize that he had deceived, would resume normal human functioning, and die peacefully: “From that moment, the suffocating cloud of fear and misery began to lift.
Gradually, common sense prevailed over hysteria. Surin regained the ability to write, then to walk. He could see again the beauty of the natural world – a gift he had despised as a diversion from the only fact on this earth worthy of wonder, the Incarnation: “But the highest gift is by means of the given. The Kingdom of God comes to earth and through the perception of the earth as it is in itself, and not as it appears to a will distorted by self-centered cravings and revulsions, to an intellect distorted by ready-made beliefs. Old obsessions dissolved as the real world became clear, and Surin lived out the rest of his life as a full man.
Aldous Huxley was in some ways a disenchanted modern intellectual, and he had no use for real demons; but there are people as serious and sensible as he can assert with authority that demons and demonic possession are real. The Church is careful to rule out medical and psychological explanations before confirming a case of demonic possession. But ordinary human “radical evil” can be just as destructive and overwhelming. He can, however—like Fr. Surin found — being overwhelmed by one’s hope in God, and the ordinary goodness of the real and given world — the beauty of creation. The malignity of man need not be the last word.
As for the other victims of the possession, they too returned to normal once the royal treasury gave up funding the exorcists. “Left to their own devices, the remaining demons soon took their leave. After six years of relentless struggle, the Church Militant gave up the fight. His enemies quickly disappeared. The long orgy was over.
Algis Valiunas is a member of the Center for Ethics and Public Policy.
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