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Trouble at the Convent

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‘That men do not learn very much from the lessons of history is the most important of all the lessons that history has to teach,’ wrote Aldous Huxley in 1959. This aphorism feels especially relevant now, when history seems to be repeating itself with a vengeance. In the 1990s, in The End of History, Francis Fukuyama suggested that the ideological battlegrounds of the twentieth century were a thing of the past. History has quickly proved him wrong. We’ve come full circle, with battles raging between left and right, the religious and the secular, each deaf to the other.

So Huxley’s The Devils of Loudun (1952) – a book that could easily be subtitled ‘politically motivated witch-hunts and how to avoid them’ – feels horribly relevant. The Devils is about the supposed possession of a convent of nuns, thanks to the alleged witchcraft of a Catholic priest with a sex life that reads like Les Liaisons Dangereuses. It includes exorcisms, torture and Byzantine political manoeuvrings by an untouchable elite.

The book came to me by an oddly international route. A Brazilian man, much inclined to mystical philosophy, took it to Copenhagen with him and gave it to a French fellow-student. The Frenchman was more interested in science than history but dutifully read the book and then forgot about it. Several years later, I moved in with the Frenchman in London. I was working as an archivist and had just signed up to a course on how to write about history more creatively.

At that point the Frenchman remembered The Devils of Loudun and fished it out of a neglected corner of the bookshelf. And so I learnt that the writing of history can be anything you want it to be: exciting, philosophical, opinionated, witty, dramatic, moving.

The Devils opens with Father Urbain Grandier arriving in the town of Loudun in about 1617. Urbain is handsome and clever and just as urbane as his name suggests. He swiftly seduces as many of the town’s ladies as possible, and he shows off his erudition in magnificent sermons. He is also pugnacious, taking nearly as much pleasure in gathering enemies as he does in acquiring lovers. ‘To be mistrusted by the stupid because he was so clever, to be envied by the inept because he had made good, to be loathed by the dull for his wit, by the boors for his breeding and the unattractive for his success with women – what a tribute to his superiority,’ Huxley has him cr

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‘That men do not learn very much from the lessons of history is the most important of all the lessons that history has to teach,’ wrote Aldous Huxley in 1959. This aphorism feels especially relevant now, when history seems to be repeating itself with a vengeance. In the 1990s, in The End of History, Francis Fukuyama suggested that the ideological battlegrounds of the twentieth century were a thing of the past. History has quickly proved him wrong. We’ve come full circle, with battles raging between left and right, the religious and the secular, each deaf to the other.

So Huxley’s The Devils of Loudun (1952) – a book that could easily be subtitled ‘politically motivated witch-hunts and how to avoid them’ – feels horribly relevant. The Devils is about the supposed possession of a convent of nuns, thanks to the alleged witchcraft of a Catholic priest with a sex life that reads like Les Liaisons Dangereuses. It includes exorcisms, torture and Byzantine political manoeuvrings by an untouchable elite. The book came to me by an oddly international route. A Brazilian man, much inclined to mystical philosophy, took it to Copenhagen with him and gave it to a French fellow-student. The Frenchman was more interested in science than history but dutifully read the book and then forgot about it. Several years later, I moved in with the Frenchman in London. I was working as an archivist and had just signed up to a course on how to write about history more creatively. At that point the Frenchman remembered The Devils of Loudun and fished it out of a neglected corner of the bookshelf. And so I learnt that the writing of history can be anything you want it to be: exciting, philosophical, opinionated, witty, dramatic, moving. The Devils opens with Father Urbain Grandier arriving in the town of Loudun in about 1617. Urbain is handsome and clever and just as urbane as his name suggests. He swiftly seduces as many of the town’s ladies as possible, and he shows off his erudition in magnificent sermons. He is also pugnacious, taking nearly as much pleasure in gathering enemies as he does in acquiring lovers. ‘To be mistrusted by the stupid because he was so clever, to be envied by the inept because he had made good, to be loathed by the dull for his wit, by the boors for his breeding and the unattractive for his success with women – what a tribute to his superiority,’ Huxley has him crow. Grandier’s success cannot last though: one day he oversteps the mark in a pitifully trivial way, taking precedence over someone else in a local religious procession. That someone is Armand Jean du Plessis, soon to become Cardinal Richelieu and the most powerful man in France, and not one given to forgiveness. From then on Grandier’s days are numbered. But how are the disgruntled locals to get rid of their detested priest? They try a number of unsuccessful legal challenges but Grandier cleverly eludes them. Finally, an ingenious solution presents itself. There is trouble at the convent. The nuns, bored and frustrated, are telling each other tall tales about hauntings. Their confessor is one of Grandier’s many enemies. Instead of putting a stop to this nonsense about ghosts and devils he whips the nuns into a hysterical frenzy, and then claims they have been possessed. The person responsible, of course, is Grandier. Soeur Jeanne, the Mother Superior, colludes in this fabrication, but she is also manipulated by the powerful. As Huxley wryly puts it, ‘for those who had no vocation for it, life in a seventeenth-century convent was merely a succession of boredoms and frustrations, mitigated in some slight degree by . . . some innocent but entirely footling hobby’. Soeur Jeanne’s vice, like that of Grandier, is pride. If she cannot be beautiful, she wants to be famous. If she cannot be famous, she will settle for infamous. Her pride is coupled with a great talent for dissembling; she lies to those around her, and also to herself, and so comes to believe that she really is possessed. The public exorcisms begin. Soeur Jeanne takes centre stage as if it were the role she was born to play: cursing, writhing, screaming, yelling obscenities and blasphemies. The other nuns follow her lead. Tourists soon flock to the spectacle. Huxley comments: ‘It was universally agreed that, not since the coming of those travelling acrobats, with the two dwarfs and the performing bear, had poor old Loudun been treated to such a good show as this.’ One of the great joys of The Devils is the gleeful cynicism with which Huxley portrays these ghastly events and his parade of despicable characters. Grandier behaves abominably but Huxley sums up his predicament beautifully. ‘The Good Fairy, who visits the cradles of the privileged, is often the Bad Fairy in a luminous disguise. She comes loaded with presents; but her bounty, all too often, is fatal.’ Grandier is simply too clever for his own good. Then there is Richelieu’s henchman Laubardemont. Huxley does not need to tell us a great deal about him but simply says:

His career was a demonstration of the fact that, in certain circumstances, crawling is a more effective means of locomotion than walking upright, and that the best crawlers are also the deadliest biters. All his life Laubardemont had systematically crawled before the powerful and bitten the defenceless.

Huxley gives us the chance to revel in the awfulness of these people, but he tempers our laughter with an uncomfortable empathy. Don’t laugh too hard, he whispers, because these characters are not so very different from you or me. Grandier’s final days are described in agonizing detail. In prison he has an epiphany: ‘in words and form he had been a Christian . . . in thoughts and acts and feelings he had never worshipped anything but himself’. Now he resolves to bear his humiliations and agonies with dignity and resignation. Throughout the pointlessly long reading of the verdict against him, the ladies in court giggle. While his legs are smashed to a pulp against a wooden frame he repeats, ‘God is here; Christ is now.’ He is paraded through the town and past the thousands of tourists gathered to witness the witch burning. The pyre is lit, ‘and suddenly the divine presence was eclipsed. There was no God, no Christ, nothing but fear.’ Huxley controls the reader so expertly that he makes us regret having laughed at Grandier. Whatever his sins, nobody deserves to die like this. Huxley first became intrigued by the story of Father Grandier while he was working as a screenwriter in Hollywood. He wasn’t the only one to write about a witch-hunt. Arthur Miller’s The Crucible appeared the year after The Devils was published. It investigated a different time and place but it addressed the same questions: why do people engage in witch-hunts? Why do they carry out ideologically sanctioned murder? At a time when Senator McCarthy’s anti-communist witch-hunt was casting a shadow over Hollywood, this was not an academic question. To read The Devils, then, is to read two histories simultaneously ‒ an investigation into a macabre event in seventeenth-century France, but also a window into the mind of a mid-twentieth-century intellectual struggling to make sense of his own time. What comparisons did Huxley draw?

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 . . .

Witch-hunts, Huxley concludes, are the result of an unthinking adherence to dogma. Yet he also struggles with the almost irreconcilable ideals of critical thinking and compassion. And isn’t that the classic liberal dilemma? As Huxley says,

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 . . . 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.

France in the 1600s, America and Europe in the 1950s, the world today: we all face the same problems. We may not agree with all of Huxley’s insights but then we don’t have to. The Devils is a rallying cry for independent thought, for holding ourselves to a certain moral standard that values kindness and anarchic individualism over political ideology. In the end, Huxley came to only one conclusion: ‘It is a bit embarrassing to have been concerned with the human problem all one’s life and find at the end that one has no more to offer by way of advice than “try to be a little kinder”.’ That may not be a sure-fire way to avoid witch-hunts, but it is useful advice, nonetheless.

 Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 55 © Kate Tyte 2017


About the contributor

Kate Tyte worked as an archivist for over ten years, some of them at the Royal College of Surgeons and the Natural History Museum. She now lives, teaches and writes in Lisbon. One day she hopes to write a history book as wonderful and strange as Huxley’s.

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