Sunday, August 15, 2010

The Devils of Loudun by Aldous Huxley

This one has a lot going for it. I stumbled across a reference to it while reading Battle for the Mind by William Sargant. The subject matter seemed to be of particular interest to me—a historical narrative of supposed demonic possession, religious fanaticism, sexual repression, and mass hysteria which occurred in the 17th century in a small French town called Loudun.

But before I get to all of that, take a look at the book’s opening two pages:

It was in 1605 that Joseph Hall, the satirist and future bishop, made his first visit to Flanders. “Along our way how many churches saw we demolished, nothing left but rude heaps to tell the passenger, there hath been both devotion and hostility. Oh, the miserable footsteps of war! . . . But (which I wondered at) churches fall, and Jesuits’ colleges rise everywhere. There is no city where these are not rearing or built. Whence cometh this? Is it for that devotion is not so necessary as policy? These men (as we say of the fox) fare best when they are most cursed. None so much spited of their own; none so hated of all; none so opposed of by ours; and yet these ill weeds grow.”

They grew for a very simple and sufficient reason: the public wanted them. For the Jesuits themselves, ‘policy,’ as Hall and his whole generation knew very well, was the first consideration. The schools had been called into existence for the purpose of strengthening the Roman Church against its enemies, the ‘libertines’ and the Protestants. The good fathers hoped, by their teaching, to create a class of educated laymen totally devoted to the interests of the Church. In the words of Cerutti—words which drove the indignant Michelet almost to frenzy—“as we swathe the limbs of an infant in the cradle to give them a right proportion, so it is necessary from his earliest youth to swathe, so to speak, his will, that it may preserve through his life a happy and salutary suppleness.” The spirit of domination was willing enough, but the flesh of propagandist method was weak. In spite of the swaddling of their wills, some of the Jesuits’ best pupils left school to become free thinkers or even, like Jean Labadie, Protestants. So far as ‘policy’ was concerned, the system was never as efficient as its creators had hoped. But the public was not interested in policy; the public was interested in good schools, where their boys could learn all that a gentleman ought to know. Better than most other purveyors of education, the Jesuits supplied the demand. “What did I observe during the seven years I passed under the Jesuits’ roof? A life full of moderation, diligence and order. They devoted every hour of the day to our education, or to the strict fulfillment of their vows. As evidence of this, I appeal to the testimony of the thousands who, like myself, were educated by them.” So wrote Voltaire. His words bear witness to the excellence of the Jesuits’ teaching methods. At the same time, and yet more emphatically, his entire career bears witness to the failure of the ‘policy,’ which the teaching methods were intended to serve.

When Voltaire went to school, the Jesuit colleges were familiar features of the educational scene. A century earlier their merits had seemed positively revolutionary. In an age when most pedagogues were amateurs in everything except the handling of the birch, their disciplinary methods were relatively humane and their professors carefully chosen and systematically trained. They taught a peculiarly elegant Latin and the very latest in optics, geography and mathematics, together with ‘dramatics’ (their end-of-term theatricals were famous), good manners, respect for the Church and (in France, at least, and after Henri IV’s conversion) obedience to the royal authority. For all these reasons the Jesuit colleges recommended themselves to every member of the typical upper-class family—to the tender-hearted mother, who could not bear to think of her darling undergoing the tortures of an old-fashioned education; to the learned ecclesiastical uncle, with his concern for sound doctrine and a Ciceronian style; and finally to the father who, as a patriotic official, approved of monarchical principles and, as a prudent bourgeois, counted on the Company’s backstairs influence to help their pupil to a job, a place at court, an ecclesiastical sinecure.

Okay. Two things.

First, Huxley does a lot of things like this during The Devils of Loudun—he branches off on an interesting side line to give the reader more context about the times and the people he is writing about. Let’s call them pontifical commentaries. More on them in a moment.

But second, for those you familiar with the devotion some modern alumni have for their Jesuit college alma maters, have you ever read a better description of their theocratic purpose and the source of this sometimes fanatical allegiance?

A big part of Huxley’s main story revolves around a priest named Urban Grandier, who is eventually convicted by church officials for causing the demonic possession of a whole convent of Ursuline nuns, and then tortured and burned alive as a result. Huxley makes the clear case that at least part of the reason Grandier is vilified is because he has made some powerful enemies in Loudun by acting in a chronically un-priest-like fashion with some of their wives and daughters. As Huxley explains:

Grandier lived in the grey dawn of what may be called the Era of Respectability. Throughout the Middle Ages and during the earlier part of the Modern period the gulf between official Catholic theory and the actual practice of individual ecclesiastics had been enormous, unbridged and seemingly unbridgeable. It is difficult to find any mediaeval or Renaissance writer who does not take it for granted that, from highest prelate to humblest friar, the majority of clergymen are thoroughly disreputable. Ecclesiastical corruption begot the Reformation, and in its turn the Reformation produced the Counter-Reformation. After the Council of Trent scandalous Popes became less and less common, until finally, by the middle of the seventeenth century, the breed dies out completely.

And here’s another of those interesting pontifical commentaries Huxley makes, referencing the oratorical power Grandier had been blessed with, and which he used to weave his spells over the minds of his parishioners and conquests.

When an orator, by the mere magic of words and a golden voice, persuades his audience of the rightness of a bad cause, we are very properly shocked. We ought to feel the same dismay whenever we find the same irrelevant tricks being used to persuade people of the rightness of a good cause. The belief engendered may be desirable, but the grounds for it are intrinsically wrong, and those who use the devices of oratory for instilling even right beliefs are guilty of pandering to the least creditable elements in human nature. By exercising their disastrous gift of the gab, they deepen the quasi-hypnotic trance in which most human beings live and from which it is the aim and purpose of all true philosophy, all genuinely spiritual religion to deliver them. Moreover, there cannot be effective oratory without distorting the facts. Even when he is doing his best to tell the truth, the successful orator is ipso facto a liar. And most successful orators, it is hardly necessary to add, are not even trying to tell the truth; they are trying to evoke sympathy for their friends and antipathy for their opponents.

One of the things that makes this book so enjoyable is that Huxley is especially skilled at getting into the heads of his subjects, of seeing the world through their eyes, and explaining their motivations and drives in terms the modern reader can understand. And in doing so, he also usually manages to uncover the dark underbelly of Catholic doctrine—the fundamental belief system that can so easily be twisted into mass hysteria and abuse. Here he comments on the doctrine of Original Sin, and how it effectively removes all innocence from the world.

The purity of the dew-dabbled lily, the innocence of lambs and little children. Yes, the friars would be green with envy. But, except in sermons and in heaven, all lilies fester sooner or later into rottenness; the ewe-lamb is predestined first to the indefatigably lustful ram, then to the butcher; and in hell the damned walk on a living pavement, tessellated with the tiny carcases of unbaptized babies. Since the Fall, total innocence has been identical, for all practical purposes, with total depravity. Every young girl is potentially the most knowing of widows and, thanks to Original Sin, every potential impurity is already, even in the most innocent, more than half actualized.

And it is this half-actualized depravity that is taken to its most diabolical and, in a strange turnabout, holy extreme, as the nuns accuse Grandier of being the cause of their demonic possession. Their confessions are laced with reports of the sexual escapades that the power of Grandier’s sorcery has compelled them to commit, and as they do so, they realize that the baser and more deviant they can claim those acts were, the more power the doctrines of confession, exorcism, and absolution will seem to have. It’s a tight little package that manages to spiral in on itself and create its own abyss. As Huxley writes:

What a cosy squalor, what surgical intimacies! The dirt is moral as well as material; the physiological miseries are matched by the spiritual and the intellectual. And over everything, like a richly smelly fog, hangs an oppressive sexuality, thick enough to be cut with a knife and ubiquitous, inescapable.

But with his long view of human nature, Huxley is careful not to condemn these actions of artifacts of the past, not even as artifacts of the religiously-minded.

But looking back and up, from our vantage point on the descending road of modern history, we now see that all the evils of religion can flourish without any belief in the supernatural, that convinced materialists are ready to worship their own jerry-built creations as though they were the Absolute, and that self-styled humanists will persecute their adversaries with all the zeal of Inquisitors exterminating the devotees of a personal and transcendent Satan. Such behavior-patterns antedate and outlive the beliefs which, at any given moment, seem to motivate them. 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 behavior, 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. This idolatrous transformation of the relative into the Absolute and the all too human into Divine, makes it possible for them to indulge their ugliest passions with a clear conscience and in the certainty that they are working for the Highest Good. And when the current beliefs come, in their turn, to look silly, a new set will be invented, so that the immemorial madness may continue to wear its customary mask of legality, idealism and true religion.

I bolded one sentence above because it really drives home the point that I came to appreciate while reading The End of Faith by Sam Harris—that it’s not religion that creates atrocities, it is dogma; religious, secular, or otherwise—it is blind allegiance to unproven beliefs that creates such havoc in our world and in our human relations.

Huxley’s ability to get inside the heads of his subjects is truly impressive and, in doing so, he helps illuminate one extremely important point.

In the paragraphs which I follow I shall describe very briefly the frame of reference within which the men of the early seventeenth century did their thinking about human nature. This frame of reference was so ancient and so intimately associated with traditional Christian doctrine that it was universally regarded as a structure of self-evident truths. Today, though still most lamentably ignorant, we know enough to feel quite certain that, in many respects, the older thought-pattern was inadequate to the given facts of experience.

Huxley is not a sloppy writer, nor one that chooses words cavalierly. His reference to “self-evident truths,” as in “we hold these truths to be self-evident,” did not go unnoticed by this reader. He is reminding us that what we now hold as self-evident truths are but reflections of the thought patterns that dominate our time. Will ours someday seem just as antiquated as those of seventeenth-century Catholicism?

And it is those antiquated ideas of seventeenth-century Catholicism, as much as modern thinkers would want to ridicule them, that truly dominated and drove the narrative that Huxley describes. The belief that God and the Devil were real, and that their minion angels and demons did battle on earth for the souls of men, was so entrenched in everyone’s understanding of reality that it became one of their culture’s self-evident truths. Every event, no matter how ordinary, could only be seen through that lens. Witness the following from Grandier’s eventual execution—burned at the stake like the demon he was believed to be.

The fire burned on, the good fathers continued to sprinkle and intone. Suddenly a flock of pigeons came swooping down from the church and started to wheel around the roaring column of flame and smoke. The crowd shouted, the archers waved their halberds at the birds, Lactance and Tranquille splashed them on the wing with holy water. In vain. The pigeons were not to be driven away. Round and round they flew, driving through the smoke, singeing their feathers in the flames. Both parties claimed a miracle. For the parson’s enemies the birds, quite obviously, were a troop of devils, come to fetch away his soul. For his friends, they were emblems of the Holy Ghost and living proof of his innocence. It never seems to have occurred to anyone that they were just pigeons, obeying the laws of their own, their blessedly other-than-human nature.

It is a foreign story, told from a perspective we have to struggle to understand, and yet there is something compelling to us about it, about all stories from the past, even though their characters lived in different circumstances and did things different from anything we would contemplate doing. This alluring aspect of history is no mystery to Huxley.

The charm of history and its enigmatic lesson consist in the fact that, from age to age, nothing changes and yet everything is completely different. In the personages of other times and alien creatures we recognize our all too human selves and yet are aware, as we do so, that the frame of reference within which we do our living has changed, since their day, out of all recognition, that propositions which seemed axiomatic then are now untenable and that what we regard as the most self-evident postulates could not, at an earlier period, find entrance into even the most boldly speculative mind. But however great, however important for thought and technology, for social organization and behavior, the differences between then and now are always peripheral. At the centre remains a fundamental identity. In so far as they are incarnated minds, subject to physical decay and death, capable of pain and pleasure, driven by craving and abhorrence and oscillating between the desire for self-assertion and the desire for self-transcendence, human beings are faced, at every time and place, with the same problems, are confronted by the same temptations and are permitted by the Order of Things to make the same choice between unregeneracy and enlightenment. The context changes, but the gist and the meaning are invariable.

Heed this. Inside all that flowery prose, Huxley has hit the nail precisely on the head. He’s talking about history, but the same parallels can be drawn for fiction. They charm us because they illuminate the fundamental truth of our existence.

For it is this desire for self-transcendence that is truly universal in the human species, and the root cause of all our fidelities to the spiritual and religious. This is such a crucial point for Huxley, and so central to his analysis of the events driving The Devils of Loudun, he includes a thoughtful and discursive appendix on the subject. It opens:

Without an understanding of man’s deep-seated urge to self-transcendence, of his very natural reluctance to take the hard, ascending way, and his search for some bogus liberation either below or to one side of his personality, we cannot hope to make sense of our own particular period of history or indeed of history in general, of life as it was lived in the past and as it is lived today. For this reason I propose to discuss some of the more common Grace-substitutes, into which and by means of which men and women have tried to escape from the tormenting consciousness of being merely themselves.

He goes on to describe three primary “Grace substitutes”—intoxication (“beer does more than Milton can to justify God’s ways to man”), sexuality (as was very much the case in Loudun), and herd-intoxication (from which section Sargant quoted in Battle for the Mind). The objective of all three is to transcend the limitations of the individual—the first two typically self-sought, and the last typically imposed by the will of an Other. But whichever road is taken, self-transcendence of these stripes is almost always a trap from which there is no safe return.

This is a descending road and most of those who take it will come to a state of degradation, where periods of subhuman ecstasy alternate with periods of conscious selfhood so wretched that any escape, even if it be into the slow suicide of drug addiction, will seem preferable to being a person.

If you’ve ever seen and were confused by the television show Intervention—this analysis is all you really need to understand an addict’s motivations.

Huxley goes just about everywhere at one time or another during the course of his narrative, including the pagan origins of Christianity. But his take is interesting, as it seems to illuminate that Christianity didn’t just steal from pagan religions and make its rituals its own. Because of its missionary agenda, Christianity in fact blended with a variety of different pagan religions—a different one in every place where it tried to gain supremacy. And this missionary zeal was never entirely successful.

In that year of grace, sixteen hundred and thirty-two, more than a thousand years had gone by since Western Europe was ‘converted to Christianity’; and yet the ancient fertility religion, considerably corrupted by the fact of being chronically ‘agin the government,’ was still alive, still boasted its confessors and heroic martyrs, still had an ecclesiastical organization—identical, according to Cotton Mather, to that of his own Congregational Church. The fact of the old faith’s survival seems somewhat less astonishing, when we remember that, after four centuries of missionary effort, the Indians of Guatemala are not perceptibly more Catholic than they were in the first generation after the coming of Alvarado. In another seven or eight hundred years the religious situation in Central America may have come, perhaps, to resemble that which prevailed in seventeenth-century Europe, where a majority of Christians bitterly persecuted a minority attached to the older faith.

So much of what we think of as Christianity is not pure Christianity at all—but a hybrid of Christianity and the local religion that the missionaries tried to replace. In fact, there is no pure Christianity at all—just one kind of hybrid after another. When the worshippers of the old fertility religion were persecuted by the Church for their beliefs, they weren’t accused of worshipping another god, they were accused of worshipping the devil. But they didn’t worship the devil, any more than the Guatemala Indians did before the missionaries arrived. The Church called it the devil, but it wasn’t really. Just another god who reigned for thousands of years before Yahweh and Jesus.

He also spends a fair amount of time analyzing the philosophical perspective of the time and comparing it to other schools of thought. In doing so, Huxley reveals a kind of penchant for Zen Buddhism, quoting such aphorisms as:

“If you wish to see It before your eyes,” writes the Third Patriarch of Zen, “have no fixed notions either for or against It.”

Which strikes me as inimitably practical advice.

But in the end, in tune with his theses about the ubiquity of human experience, he sees Zen Buddhism and Christianity as exhibiting only differences of degree and not of kind.

But it is only through the datum of nature that we can hope to receive the donum of Grace. It is only by accepting the given, as it is given, that we may qualify for the Gift. It is only through the facts that we can come to the primordial Fact. “Do not hunt after the truth,” advises one of the Zen masters, “only cease to cherish opinions.” And the Christian mystics say substantially the same thing—with this difference, however, that they have to make an exception in favor of the opinions known as dogmas, articles of faith, pious traditions and the like. But at best these are but signposts; and of we “take the pointing finger for the Moon,” we shall certainly go astray. The Fact must be approached through the facts; it cannot be known by means of words, or by means of phantasies inspired by words. The heavenly kingdom can be made to come on earth; it cannot be made to come in our imagination or in our discursive reasonings. And it cannot come even on earth, so long as we persist in living, not on the earth as it is actually given, but as it appears to an ego obsessed by the idea of separateness, by cravings and abhorrences, by compensatory phantasies and by ready-made propositions about the nature of things. Our kingdom must go before God’s can come. There must be a mortification, not of nature, but of our fatal tendency to set up something of our own contriving in the place of nature. We have to get rid of our catalogue of likes and dislikes, of the verbal patterns to which we expect reality to confirm, of the fancies into which we retire, when the facts do not come up to our expectation. This is the “holy indifference” of St. Francois de Sales; this is de Caussade’s “abandonment,” the conscious willing, moment by moment, of what actually happens; this is that “refusal to prefer” which, in Zen phraseology, is the mark of the Perfect Way.

And finally, in another one of his pontifical commentaries, Huxley combines all the analysis of the permanence of the human condition throughout history to provide a startlingly lucid dissertation of post-modern philosophy and the politics that can arise from it. He starts by talking about Grandier’s judge and executioners, people who still worked as they understood things to save Grandier’s soul.

Since Lauberdemont’s time, evil has made some progress. Under Communist dictators, those who come to trial before a People’s Court invariably confess the crimes of which they have been accused—confess them even when they are imaginary. In the past, confession was by no means invariable. Even under torture, even at the stake, Grandier protested his innocence. And Grandier’s case was by no means unique. Many persons, women no less than men, went through similar experiences with the same indomitable constancy. Our ancestors invented the rack and the iron maiden, the boot and the water torture; but in the subtler arts of breaking the will and reducing the human being to subhumanity they still had much to learn. In a sense, it may be, they did not even wish to learn these things. They had been brought up in a religion which taught that the will is free, the soul immortal; and they acted upon these beliefs even in relation to their enemies. Yes, even the traitor, even the convicted devil-worshipper had a soul which might yet be saved; and the most ferocious judges never refused him the consolations of a religion which went on offering salvation to the very end. Before and during execution, a priest was always at hand, doing his best to reconcile the departing criminal with his Creator. By a kind of blessed inconsistency, our fathers respected the personality even of those whom they were tormenting with red-hot pincers or breaking on the wheel.

For the totalitarians of our more enlightened century there is no soul and no Creator; there is merely a lump of physiological raw material moulded by conditioned reflexes and social pressures into what, by courtesy, is still called a human being. This product of the man-made environment is without intrinsic significance and possesses no rights of self-determination. It exists for Society and must conform to the Collective Will. In practice, of course, Society is nothing but the national State, and as a matter of brute fact, the Collective Will is merely the dictator’s will-to-power, sometimes mitigated, sometimes distorted to the verge of lunacy, by some pseudo-scientific theory of what, in the gorgeous future, will be good for an actuarial abstraction labeled ‘Humanity.’ Individuals are defined as the products and the instruments of Society. From this it follows that the political bosses, who claim to represent Society, are justified in committing any conceivable atrocity against such persons as they may choose to call Society’s enemies. Physical extermination by shooting (or, more profitably, by overwork in a slave labour camp) is not enough. It is a matter of observable fact that men and women are not the mere creatures of Society. But official theory proclaims that they are. Therefore it becomes necessary to depersonalize the ‘enemies of Society’ in order to transform the official lie into truth. For those who know the trick, this reduction of the human to the subhuman, of the free individual to the obedient automaton, is a relatively simple matter. The personality of man is far less monolithic than the theologians were compelled by their dogmas to assume. The soul is not the same as the Spirit, but is merely associated with it. In itself, and until it consciously chooses to make way for the Spirit, it is no more than a rather loosely tied bundle of not very stable psychological elements. This composite entity can quite easily be disintegrated by anyone ruthless enough to wish to try and skillful enough to do the job in the right way.

It’s all there for you to see. The next time you’re trying to understand the gossamer divide between the political Right and the political Left, come back and read this section. They’re running different plays, but they’re both using the same playbook.

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Two more bits. Short paragraphs on other miscellaneous topics that are just too good to pass up without notice. First, on the universality of Shakespeare:

In practically any comedy or tragedy of Shakespeare one cannot read twenty lines without being made aware that, behind the clowns, the criminals, the heroes, behind the flirts and the weeping queens, beyond all that is agonizingly or farcically human, and yet symbiotic with man, immanent in his consciousness and consubstantial with his being, there lie the everlasting data, the given facts of planetary and cosmic existence on every level, animate and inanimate, mindless and purposively conscious.

And second, on great men:

By those who serve him, a great man must be treated as a mixture between a god, a naughty child and a wild beast. The god must be worshipped, the child amused and bamboozled and the wild beast placated and, when aroused, avoided. The courtier who, by an unwelcome suggestion, annoys this insane trinity of superhuman pretension, subhuman ferocity and infantile silliness, is merely asking for trouble.

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