The Devils Of Loudun, By Aldous Huxley Essay, Research Paper
‘The Devils of Loudun’, by Aldous Huxley
The Devils of Loudun is a historical account of religious fanaticism and sexual hysteria in seventeenth century France, and an investigation into the circumstances that led to the torture and execution of a local parson who, during a farcical ecclesiastical trial, was accused of having commerce with devils , and of bewitching a whole convent of nuns.
Huxley s erudition was legendary (it was even said of him that he knew everything ), and the range of his knowledge is apparent when one considers the variety of references and digressions he uses to support his inquiries and perspicacious observations; he quotes with equal ease from enlightenment works like the Provincial Letters of Pascal to the contemplative writings of the Zen Buddhists. As a psychological study The Devils offers a clear and convincing portrayal of unusual minds caught up in still stranger circumstances. As for the story, it is not at all surprising that Huxley chose to write about this particular episode in French history, as many of the events described exemplify themes that dominated his polemical novels and celebrated essays: present is the issue of man s ongoing obsession with self-transcendence which was so pertinent in the excellent, infamous Doors of perception ; the dilemma that recurs throughout his fiction, that of the cloistered and suppressed mind dealing with passionate human emotion, is here in extremis. On a functional level, The Devils of Loudun seeks to oppose humankind s tendency towards hypocrisy, malice and self denial, and expose some of the terrible results of those failings specific to the case: mutual temporary madness (or near madness) for nearly all concerned, and, when a scapegoat is found, death.
Aldous Leonard Huxley was born on July 26, 1894, into an eminently academic family. His grandfather was T.H. Huxley, the nineteenth-century biologist and contemporary of Darwin, who was famous for popularising and defending the theory of evolution. His mother, who died when he was just fourteen, was a niece of the poet Matthew Arnold, and Aldous was a nephew to the Victorian novelist Humphry Ward. He suffered another blow upon the suicide of his brother Trevenen in 1914. The second illness to affect him early in life, after his Mother s cancer, was an eye infection which he contracted at the age of sixteen while studying at Eton. His vision was left permanently impaired, thus preventing any possibility of a scientific career. His brother Julian went on to become an eminent zoologist, while he recovered enough of his sight to study English at Balliol College in Oxford.
He was unfit for service during the war, and spent his post-Oxford years visiting and working for lady Ottoline Morrell, the famous Grande-dame of literary circles and patroness of the arts. He met a great many literary figures at this time, such as D.H. Lawrence and Bertrand Russell, and several of them appeared as characters in his early novels. His early collections of poetry, such as The Burning Wheel , are characterised by a reliance on French symbolism and a growing interest in mysticism and the inner spirit . Altogether he published over fifty complete works, the most enduringly popular being Brave New World , a satire on the domination of science and state control, and The Doors Of Perception , an essay on his first encounter with mescalin.
By 1919 he had met his first wife, Maria, and they spent the twenties and thirties living first in Italy, then France and finally California, where he spent the remainder of his life. He worked on film scripts for a time, but America eventually left him disillusioned: he described it as all waste . The Devils Of Loudun was published in 1952, three years before Maria died of cancer. It was adapted for the stage by John Whiting in 1961, and for the screen in 1971, by Ken Russell. He remarried a year after his wife s death, this time to Laura Archera, who was present by his bed when he died in 1963.
Chapter one places a young man -who would later become curate at Loudun- in his social and historical context. Urbain Grandier was educated at the Jesuit College in Bordeaux, and was ordained a secular priest after the necessary post-graduate studies. While his teachers purpose was to create well-rounded Catholics, in practice some of the Jesuits best pupils left school to become free-thinkers or even, like Jean Labadie, Protestants.
Deprived of any other information regarding Grandier s youth, Huxley shrewdly turned instead to the autobiography of Jean-Jacques Bouchard, which provided him with an account of a seventeenth century boyhood and ecclesiastical education so clinically objective that nineteenth century scholars could publish it only privately, and with emphatic comments on the author s unspeakable depravitity. This was an ostensibly pious (if divided) age for France, but in reality everyone from the Dauphin at Versailles to the peasant in the field were regularly indulged:
At school, under the good Fathers, there are no strenuous games, and the boys superfluous energy can find no vent except in excessive masturbation, and the practice, on half-holidays, of homosexuality.
At age twenty-seven, Grandier was assigned one of the parishes at Loudun. Most of the fairer sex approved of him -he was as handsome as he was clever- and this inspired jealousy in their husbands. The threat of reproach from the newly strict clerical authorities could not quell Grandier s concupiscence; he was determined to live the well-rounded life , even in the age of respectability . He soon acquired a reputation as a consummate, unrepentant seducer of virgins and widows alike. Congenitally aggressive and powerfully eloquent, Grandier did his best from the beginning to provoke his enemies, for, like Martin Luther, he was never happier than when he had an excuse to be angry.
Huxley highlights two instances of impertinence which may be said to have sealed his fate: in 1618, during a religious conference being held in his parish, he went out of his way to offend a visiting Bishop by overtaking him in a solemn procession through the streets, unaware that the sickly dwarf he had so grievously offended would later become the most powerful man in France- Cardinal Richelieu; a year or two later he managed to seduce the daughter of the public prosecutor- a man who also happened to be his best friend among the predominantly Huguenot populous of the town. In order to extrapolate Grandier s reasons for committing the latter outrage (besides lust, which could easily be relieved elsewhere), the author proposes the phenomenon of induction : on every level of our being, from the muscular and sensational to the moral and the intellectual, every tendency begets its corresponding opposite. i.e. the unspeakable blackness of committing such a crime as the betrayal of his friend s trust was his very reason for doing so. By the time the public prosecutor joined the Parson s ever-widening circle of enemies (after he discovered that his innocent lamb was pregnant), they had already organised themselves into a kind of cabal , and were holding weekly conspiratorial meetings in the shop of an apothecary whom Grandier had insulted. (The Anti-Grandier society even succeeded in having him arrested over a minor offense, but he stubbornly appealed to a sympathetic Bishop and was released)
In the late nineteen-twenties, while Grandier oscillated between triumph and defeat against his enemies, a Jesuit novice was embarking on a difficult spiritual journey, the ultimate prize of which would take him nearly thirty-five years to achieve. Jean-Joseph Surin was a quietist or contemplationist, whose devotion to God was exceeded only by his belief in his own damnation. His deep-seated urge to self-transcendence -his need to achieve Christian perfection- was as powerful as Grandier s supercilious urge to self-assertion.
The Christian perfection so coveted by men like Surin, was, in their own vocabulary, complete union with the holy trinity . Huxley defines it as vertical self-transcendence i.e. the gradual or instantaneous shedding of the outer layers of the psyche, until one may perceive things untouched or infinite. This was what Blake meant by seeing the world in a grain of sand . It is exactly what the Buddha meant when, in reply to the question “what is the ultimate reality ?”, he simply pointed at a flower, or what Jesus meant when he said “look at the lilies.” Huxley believes that this kind of enlightenment, or something akin to it, holds the answers to most of humanity s problems. He spent much of the latter part of his career elucidating his thoughts on the subject.
If there can be vertical or upward self-transcendence, then it stands to reason that downward – may be possible also. This downward path concludes in an insulated, personal hell similar to that suffered by paranoid schizophrenics. Some of the symptoms of this most severe of mental illnesses are displayed in The Devils Of Loudun by all those who are believed to be possessed by the eponymous devils, but in distinguishing those who are merely affecting possession from those who really have fallen prey to their subconscious demons, Huxley has his funniest moments, as he presents the reader with one scenario of utter hypocrisy after another, and as the churches protagonists in the drama descend to yet another level of rabelaisian humiliation.
After Grandier s legal success, his enemies searched desperately for another weapon to use against him. This soon presented itself in the form of a hunchbacked prioress from the local Ursuline convent named Souer Jeanne des Anges. Forced into a life of austerities because of her deformity, Souer Jeanne had been plagued by sexual and emotional frustration long before the arrival of Fr.Grandier, but since hearing of his womanising exploits about the town had nurtured a growing obsession with him (perhaps as a result of the same moral induction mentioned in relation to Grandier s seduction of his best friends daughter). All convents of the kind she lived in had to have a male confessor and when the post at the Ursulines was made vacant by a felicitous demise, Souer Jeanne immediately invited Fr.Grandier to take it up. When he refused, and the cousin of the public prosecutor appointed instead, her frustrations became finally unbearable. The moment of catharsis came in the confessional, when the pious sister told the newly arrived canon Mignon of Grandiers incubus-like nocturnal visitations, of his visage and personage inhabiting her every waking thought – That s easy, he replied, You are possessed by devils, and Grandier is the cause.
The parson s enemies had the upper hand from the start. Not wanting to disappoint anyone, Souer Jeanne began to behave like a true demoniac -contorting, frothing, blaspheming etc., and it was only a matter of time before the first exorcist had to be called in. He subjected the unfortunate hunchback to a public exorcism, an ordeal which Huxley compares to a rape in a public lavatory , involving as it did (among other things) a forcibly administered holy-water enema. This was really the last straw for poor Souer Jeanne, who, finding herself in the enviable position of being able to behave as badly as she liked as long as the devils could be blamed, began to release all those years of pent-up hellfire (accumulated again, through induction) in regular sessions . Pretty soon all the other nuns followed suit, and orgiastic revelry ensued (that is not to say that the devils were all faked -after her torture by the Church Militant Souer Jeanne s mental health went into a gradual decline, and left her in a position from which she never fully recovered). The public exorcisms persisted on a regular basis for about six years; they were helped to a great degree by profits from tourism, and soon the convent grew quite rich.
Things weren t as cosy for Grandier, however, who had to answer for the nun s excesses. His coven of enemies manipulated the trial, and the eventual master of his fate turned out to be a Cardinalist – a supporter of Cardinal Richelieu. Among the most serious of the crimes of which he was accused of committing was presiding over a Witch s Sabbath -a kind of Dionysian ritual involving orgies and bloody sacrifices. He was burnt at the stake and his ashes scattered to the four winds.
After the death of Grandier, the exorcisms became a kind of local institution, with masters and novices all getting to grips with the demons in the convent. One of the priests asked to come and preside over these sessions was Fr. Surin. Under his tutelage Souer Jeanne gradually recovered her former insincerity enough to pretend a kind of religious exaltation. She became a national celebrity in her own right, and went about France brandishing her homemade relics and talking about her visions.
After the final demon had departed, things should have returned to normal. But after a while the zealous exorcists themselves began to behave strangely, many of them eventually becoming demoniacs themselves. What had happened was that after so many years of screaming at devils and talking about -and concentrating on- purely infernal subjects, the preachers had worked themselves up into a passionate incantation to subconscious human ugliness that reached its pinnacle after the exorcisms had stopped. Two of them actually died from the seizures and unbearable pain that they had brought on psychosomatically.
Fr. Surin went to take his mortification of the senses to ridiculous heights, resulting in a near madness and an inability to move for several years. But in the end he did manage to reach Christian perfection by dwelling on the infinite beauty of the sea, which was the only thing in nature which he had not been taught to be contemptuous of by Jesuit theologians.
Huxley ends the book with an essay in amplification of his earlier topics of vertical and downward self-transcendence. In it he discusses the dangers of lowlier substitutes for divine grace, such as drug abuse, elementary sexuality (i.e. orgiastic & excessively promiscuous), and her-intoxication (i.e. mob-mentality). The essay intelligently pre-empted any accusations of irresponsible promoting of drugs that came after The Doors Of Perception .