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The Devils of Loudun

Not if my life depended on it could I tell you how I found out about Aldous Huxley's 1953 classic, The Devils of Loudun. And I should say at once that, fifteen years after publication, it did seem to wear the appellation "classic" very well. Maybe it was an "underground classic." It was certainly not studied; it appeared on no curricula. (This was before the appearance of Women's Studies, which I gather has blown fresh wind into the story, if not into Huxley's reputation.) I read the book twice, once in college and once shortly afterward.

And now I've read it three times. Something pricked me during the spring. It was the story of the Rumanian nun who was crucified by her abbey's priest. Truly horrific! But what happened at Loudun, France, in Richelieu's palmiest days, was also truly horrific. I couldn't quite remember just what it was that did happen. Somebody got burned at the stake, I was pretty sure. I decided that I'd better look into Huxley's book once again. But where was it?

Soon I was ordering a copy from Alibris, and when the book arrived, I thought I had better read the whole thing. Books are never the same twice, but they can change a very great deal in thirty years. The book itself doesn't change at all, of course, but your recollection of it changes, and so does whatever use you have made of it. You're certainly different. It is to be hoped that you know rather more than you did thirty years ago, that you have become better at weighing, sifting, and measuring your thought. The ways in which The Devils of Loudun have and haven't changed strike me as providing a useful measure of what's valuable about the book, and what's not.

Undoubtedly, The Devils of Loudun owed something of its réclame to its "interdisciplinary" construction. It is a history book that can't be bothered with dates. It is a work of completely undocumented sociology, backed up by Huxley's credit alone. It is a non-fiction novel that also expounds metaphysical philosophies. If I neglect to mention demonic possession, that's only because the author doesn't believe that it actually occurred. He doesn't to believe that there was ever any good reason to believe that it occurred. It's the fact that the case for possession was able to proceed without solid evidence that interests him. I believe that the book is going to be reissued this fall, but only in England. I wonder what sort of an impression it will make, if any.

In the summer of 1634, Urbain Grandier, a Jesuit-trained parish priest, was burned in the town of Loudun for having arranged the demonic possession of a convent of Ursuline nuns. He had never met any of these nuns, who were cloistered; and they in turn had never laid eyes on him. Fr Grandier had many enemies, however, in Loudun. Ever since his arrival at St-Pierre nearly twenty years earlier, Grandier had been bruising egos and dishonoring bourgeois families with a crushing wit and an unchecked libido. Perhaps he was uniquely foolish in his dealings with the good people of a provincial town (I doubt it). But he made himself a hostage to fortune when, at a religious convention in 1618,

Grandier went out of his way to offend the Prior of Coussay by rudely claiming precedence over him in a solemn procession through the streets of Loudun. Technically the parson's position was unassailable. In a procession originating in his own church, a Canon of Sainte-Croix had a right to walk in front of the Prior of Coussay. And this right held good even when, as was here the case, the Prior was at the same time a Bishop. But there is such a thing as courtesy; and there is also such a thing as circumspection. The Prior of Coussay was the Bishop of Luçon, and the Bishop of Luçon was Armand-Jean du Plessis de Richelieu.

As the infernal machine of Grandier's destruction cranks its inevitable way to the stake, Huxley makes sure that we never forget Richelieu for long, or lose track of his determination to punish the man who had offended him over precedence at a time when his own career wasn't entirely settled. This is not to say that Richelieu had anything to do with the preliminaries of accusation. He simply took advantage of something that came along, and then exploited it to demonstrate his own power. Grandier was, in retrospect, a fool, a man who traded too glibly on his gifts but couldn't be bothered to cultivate his character. He didn't see what was coming until it was upon him.

The nuns in the tale are equally sordid. We get to know one of them very well. Of their very young Reverend Mother, Huxley writes,

Her name in religion was Jeanne des Anges; in the world it had been Jeanne de Belciel, daughter of Louis de Belciel, Baron de Coze, and of Charlotte Goumart d'Eschillais, who came of a family hardly less ancient and eminent than his own. Born in 1602, she was now in her middle twenties, her face rather pretty, but her body diminutive almost to dwarfishness and slightly deformed - presumably by some tubercular infection of the bones. Jeanne's education had been only slightly less rudimentary than that of most young ladies of her time; but she was possessed of considerable native intelligence, combined, however, with a temperament and a character, which made her a trial to others and her own worst enemy.

They are poor, they are bored. When their canon died, Soeur Jeanne invited Grandier to take his place, but he declined, as he already had enough to do. This made an enemy of the Reverend Mother. How implacable is a matter of speculation that Huxley has no compunction about clarifying. No historian would be allowed to recreate the likely course of events in which Jeanne, indulging in parlor gossip with pious visitors, learned of Grandier's reputation and conceived a crush on the beneficed swordsman. There are records of the episode, but they're stilted and unreliably self-serving. Huxley is not held back by their silence, but appears to welcome the chance to fill in the blanks. He is, after all, a skilled novelist. His specialty as a novelist was the intersection of manners and ideas. The romance of Soeur Jeanne, if held in the right light, assumes a comic aspect.

It is with a prank that Grandier's doom is sealed. The nuns stage a ghostly apparition in which they half believe, and about which they make sincere confessions. Their confessor, a member of the anti-Grandier faction, calls for a conference of potentates hostile to the priest, and resolve to implicate Grandier in a case of demonic possession. "This time, they all felt, they had hiim - on toast."

Soon the nuns are putting on a circus. When the Prince de Condé visited Loudun, he was treated to a show.

Condé drove in state to the convent, was received by [Canon] Mignon and ushered into the chapel, where a solemn Mass was celebrated. At first the nuns observed the most perfect decorum; but at the moment of communion, the Prioress, Soeur Claire and Soeur Agnès went into convulsions and rolled on the floor, howling obscenities and blasphemies. The rest of the community followed suit and for a n hour or two the church looked like a mixture between a bear-garden and a brothel. Greatly edified, the prince declared that doubt was no longer possible...

This is all very entertaining. Alternating with chapters that tell us of events at Loudun, however, there are others that step back from the Grandier story and, interestingly at times but undeniably, pontificate. The third chapter is devoted to the urge to self-transcendance.

Obscurely, we know who we really are. Hence our grief at having to seem to be what we are not, and hence the passionate desire to overstep the limits of this imprisoning ego. The only liberating self-transcendence is through selflessness and docility to inspiration (in other words, union with the Son and the Holy Spirit) into the consciousness of that union with the Father in which, without knowing it, we have always lived.

Huxley by no means writes from a Christian perspective; in this passage, he is simply showing how Christianity accommodates the urge to self-transcendence. But the extrusion of such material, while it makes the lurid and entertaining story respectable, has more than a whiff of the cult about it. Huxley writes as if his readers already accept his principal metaphysical positions and are eager to follow him as he applies them to a particular case. While I am not a student of the spiritual, I suspect that much of Huxley's terminology is dated or defunct. A second strand of this chapter weaves in literary criticism, observing, correctly, that seventeenth-century poets took little interest in natural phenomena.

Chapter Five covers witchcraft; Chapter Seven, madness. For the most part, these remote chapters are worth slogging through, if only because Huxley is a writer of great appeal. (Saying that, however, I wonder if younger readers will agree.) Doubtless it was Huxley's ability to juggle big ideas with titillation that made The Devils of Loudun so popular in the late sixties. (I have since discovered my second copy of the book, a Book of the Month Club Edition, no less.) There is a fair amount of twaddle, as for example Huxley's understanding of the uses of shock treatment. He may have been expressing the best views of 1953, but medicine, very happily, has eclipsed his thinking on this subject forever.

Most of us find it very hard to believe that we could ever have enjoyed the spectacle of a public execution. But before we start to congratulate ourselves on our finer feelings, let us remember, first, that we have never been permitted to see an execution and, second, that when executions were public, a hanging seemed as attractive as a Punch and Judy show, while a burning was the equivalent of a Bayreuth Festival or an Oberammergau Passion Play - a great event for which it was worth while to make long and expensive pilgrimages. When public executions were abolished, it was not because the majority desired their abolition; it was because a small minority of exceptionally sensitive reformers possessed sufficient influence to have them banned. In one of its aspects, civilization may be defined as a systematic withholding from individuals of certain occasions for barbarous behavior. In recent years we have discovered that when, after a period of withholding, these occasions are once more offered, men and women, seemingly no worse than we are, have shown themselves ready and even eager to take them.

Huxley's account of the agony and death of Urbain Grandier, from which the foregoing is part of the prelude, is an unsurpassed Passion, ranking with the Carl Dreyer's film, La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc and even with Bach's contributions to the genre. I will not recapitulate the gruesome details here, but only attest that they are related with the surest of hands. Grandier seems to have transcended himself at the end, and died quite nobly. It is almost a pity that the book does not end here, with Richelieu's minions bearing the brunt of extremely adverse public opinion. I am told that Grandier's house can be visited today, and that Loudun's central square is named for him.

But Huxley has more heavy lifting to do, in connection with the person of Joseph Surin, a Jesuit, several years behind Grandier at school, who was called in to help the nuns after the first exorcists dramatically died in the wake of Grandier's execution. Surin is not an appealing figure, even in this book that rather lacks them overall. After a wrapping-up chapter in which we're told about the deodorizing publicity tour that was arranged for Soeur Jeanne and her exorcist - a pilgrimage to the shrine of St François de Sales at Annecy that including some fêting with the royals in Paris - Huxley takes us into the gloomy unhealthiness of Surin's long and, in Huxley's view, self-induced madness. The illness occasions a good deal of sensible talk about the importance of accepting nature instead of expecting it to conform to our categories, but the presentation is a mistake, at least at this point in what has been a somewhat nasty book. Father Surin apparently cured himself and died beautifully, but I for one had to struggle to appreciate this detail. I was as happy to close the book as any kid on the last day of class.

The Devils of Loudun, in other words, consists of rather different constituent parts, some of which have aged better than others. The chapter on the death of Grandier, as I say, is timeless; the discussion of madness ancient and modern is doubtless superseded. I'm keenly aware, as I write this, that I read the book because "everybody else" was reading it, too. (Well, hardly; but some of the people whom I admired were.) It's a relatively early imprint, so far as my contact with serious literature goes. Many of the things that I know about the architect of the French state I heard here first. None of these factors will carry the slightest weight for other readers, and I point them out in a form of anti-recommendation. I got a good deal out of the third reading, but I was primed to do so. At times it was not unlike listening to a pop song that was momentarily thrilling to a small in-crowd. Then again, it may turn out to be a perennial college-student favorite. You tell me. (August 2005)

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