The Devils of Loudon

A provincial priest in the first half of the seventeenth century in France antagonises a significant portion of his community. He does this first through the envy he evokes because of his looks, manners and sophistication, second because his haughty manner alienates as he spoils for fights and third because he amorously transgresses among the town's female population.

So far, so normal...but the mother superior of a local convent has become fixated on the said priest, even though she has never met him, and falls into a hysteric identification, encouraged by the priest's enemies, until soon we have the convent possessed with demons, demons supposedly invoked and manipulated by the said priest, now a sorcerer; and, a case of possession attractive to the powers in France, for their own reasons, the powers being that of Cardinal Richelieu. The poor priest finds his only escape in the dignity he exhibits when he is tortured and burnt. He denies his enemies the confession they were hoping for.

It is this set of events that Aldous Huxley examines with his exemplary intelligence, imagination and wit. He shows that though we might consider such an event simply an archaic historic event, for who now believes in 'devils', an event that merely illustrates the malignancy that always emerges when religion, politics and human envies collide, it is, in truth, only too relevant an occurrence.

The framing belief structure changes - the devils move from the metaphysical to the political plane - but the reality persists. It persists wherever we permit our words to harden into 'dogma' and the idealism with which we zealously manipulate these dogmas overruns our ability to continually greet the world as something wonderingly unknown in which we gently tread, compassionately learning as we go.

As with his 'Grey Eminence' (see here, Huxley is fascinated by the consequence on the development of an individual soul by their possession of a 'bad theology'. In this case that of Fr Surin, one of the Jesuit exorcists, whose incredulity about the nun's possession both, paradoxically, prolonged but ultimately brought to a conclusion, the nun's suffering. In truth, it was a case of induced, and externally reinforced, hysteria that failed to meet the Church's own criteria for possession and the Mother Prioress needed an escape route that yet validated their prior experience as possessed. Thus, she used Surin's credulity to manufacture the requisite 'miracles' that allowed her, and her fellow nuns, to return to a normal life, dispossessed.

Surin was highly gifted and a contemplative but his failure was to be caught up in pursuing 'exceptional graces' (or experiences). Around these, he wove a complex sense of spiritual specialness that isolated him from the world before him. Thus, God, who is to be found in the facts, in the rounded particulars of everyday life - including in disturbed nuns in need of care and loving discipline rather than exorcism - eluded him. Ironically the flip side of exceptional graces became exceptional abandonment and Surin spend years convinced of his own damnation and psycho-somatically paralysed until one day a confessor spoke a word of hope and, whilst staying with a friend, he stepped into the garden and saw it was beautiful!

Weaving through Huxley's telling is a psychologically and spiritually penetrating exploration of the subtle ways we convince ourselves of things, re-writing experience to the pattern of our beliefs, engaging in all kinds of self-justificatory behaviours. We are an extraordinary complexity of competing selves. It is an unflattering portrayal told compassionately and not devoid of hope, of tools of self-understanding. His contemporary parallels are themselves dating namely the totalitarianisms of the last century), however, his analysis of our urge to self-transcendence and its ability to be falsely met - either in the busyness of everyday life or the negativities of driving causes - is exemplary and sobering. You can sadly paint this story across a new set of challenges - wether they be our fear of terror or the provisioners of terror. Bad theology and bad politics and their unholy alliances in our own frailty, as Huxley, says are always with us.


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