My trade paperback copy of Huxley’s Devils of Loudun has the subject classification “religion” on the cover. I suppose that’s fair, but it hardly registers the scope of this highly digressive microhistory of alleged diabolical possession in a 17th-century French convent, and the indictment (et sequae) of the local parson as the instigating sorcerer for the outbreak. There are many discussions of the political situation, reflections on the nature of mysticism, and expositions of psychological phenomena that are introduced in an effort to contextualize and explain the events treated in the book. Although Huxley sometimes provides a level of detail that seems almost novelistic, he has clearly done exhaustive archival work to accurately represent the historical events involved. (His Latin quotes are translated in footnotes, but not his French.) He credits the now-derogated notions of Murray’s Witch-Cult in Western Europe, but they are really peripheral to his subject and his conclusions about it.
There is an “Epilogue (in amplification of material in Chapter Three)” where Huxley presents a theory and catalog of “Grace-substitutes” by which individuals seek to escape the prison of their individuality. This lively essay is the author’s contribution to a conversation that runs from Plato’s “Phaedrus” through Aleister Crowley’s “Energized Enthusiasm.” It is just barely possible that Huxley may have read the latter, and he seems unaware of the connection of his musings with the former.
The story is not told in a way that invites the modern reader to look back on the cruel and blinkered deeds of earlier centuries with any sense of superiority. In fact, there are multiple points where the author pauses to observe that the 20th century far exceeded that earlier age in its ruthless destruction of individuals singled out by the machinations of despotic power:
“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.
“In the seventeenth century this particular kind of ruthlessness was unthinkable, and the relevant skills were therefore never developed” (209-210).
Which is not to say that Huxley romanticizes the truly horrific episodes that he recounts, nor that he detaches them from human weaknesses that afflict us and our societies today.
It is tempting to compare Huxley’s European Devils to The Crucible by Arthur Miller, a play about the Salem witch trials written only a year after Huxley’s book. Miller’s drama was expressly a parable about the Red Scare and McCarthyism, while Huxley’s 20th-century comparanda are overt totalitarianisms such as Nazism and Stalinism. Also, Miller’s play takes the form of a straightforward tragedy centered on John Proctor. Within the historical narrative offered by Huxley, there is a tragedy with parson Urbain Grandier at its focus, a grim comedy starring prioress Jeanne des Agnes, and even a strange romance about the mop-up exorcist Jean-Joseph Surin. (Huxley himself explicitly classifies Surin as a tragic figure contrasted with the comical Jeanne in pp. 280-282.)
Director Ken Russell’s production of Huxley’s book as the film The Devils (1971) has been cinematic unobtainium for decades, with a restored video release appearing in the last year or so. I have not seen it, despite my fervent wish to do so. Now having read the book, my appetite for that is only increased. The Devils of Loudun is recommended on its own strengths, for its historical interest, for the gripping passages of storytelling, and for Huxley’s sage appraisals of the human condition. [via]
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