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Aldous Huxley was the premier twentieth-century English novelist of ideas, a rare calling among his countrymen; but perhaps it is in his non-fiction masterpiece, The Devils of Loudun (1952), that his beloved ideas live most vividly. There he recounts the apparent demonic possession en masse in an Ursuline convent in a French village in 1633. By the history’s end, the reader becomes well-acquainted with “Radical Evil,” which is found not in the malign workings of the Principalities and Powers, but in the hearts and minds of ordinary men and women. To Huxley, the ordinariness of evil appears to be an inescapable feature of our life on earth. However the accepted facts about human nature may have changed over the centuries, this malignancy—the fundamental human need to have someone to hate and to persecute—has never been eradicated, and perhaps never can be.

Supernatural or metaphysical evil was the favorite object of human terror and hatred at the time that Huxley was writing about. But matters would change over the next several generations. Although witchcraft, sorcery, and demonolatry have lost their power to frighten civilized people into spasms of insane violence to defend their souls, the Enemy has altered only in form, not in essence. Political and economic theorizing—Marxist, Stalinist, Maoist, Fascist, Nazi—has superseded religious teaching as the source of acceptable mass rage against the unclean: “From about 1700 to the present day all persecutions in the West have been secular and, one might say, humanistic. . . . And that Radical Evil now incarnates itself, not in sorcerers and magicians (for we like to think of ourselves as positivists), but in the representatives of some hated class or nation.” Today, religious belief offers the sturdiest bulwark against these modern enormities; but there was a time when Christian belief, particularly in its obsession with supernatural evil, became the fountainhead of abominations.

The evil ramified and assumed various new shapes as it emanated from the commonplace lust and vanity of a debonair Loudun parish priest, Fr. Urbain Grandier: “Grandier was the average sensual man—only a little more so. His universe, as the record of his life sufficiently proves, was ‘the world,’ in the sense in which that word is used so frequently in the Gospels and Epistles.” The life Grandier wanted was the life of pleasure that most everybody wanted, and he saw no reason why his priestly collar should keep him from it. 

Grandier’s reputation as a rake made him all but irresistible to women denied every sexual pleasure but the imaginary. In the seventeenth century, most nuns found themselves in the convent faute de mieux: In Loudun, nearly every sister was a young noblewoman unable to make a suitable marriage because her family could not afford a dowry sufficient to satisfy a suitor of acceptable rank. Sr. Jeanne des Anges, the Mother Superior, was such a one; with no real vocation and a low threshold of boredom, she fell into a chronic erotic delirium inhabited by a man she would never meet. Daydreams became nocturnal visitations that defiled her sleep or kept her wide awake in unspeakable excitation. The unspeakable in due course became the stuff of convent gossip. Her accounts of these adventures in lewdness readily corrupted some of her eager listeners, and in short order the hallucinations spread throughout the nunnery and grew ever gamier.  

Halloween-like pranks by some of the sisters started the rumor that the convent was haunted, and its denizens were in an uproar. The convent’s confessor, Canon Mignon, a bitter rival of Grandier’s, heard of all these goings-on and saw the chance to do his enemy real harm. He told the nuns that the supposed ghosts were actually devils and the erotic visitations were the work of an incubus. Who could say he was wrong? Mignon proceeded to gather a cohort of exorcists, and the game was on in earnest. In good time the exorcisms were opened to the public, and the afflicted young women’s thrashings and moanings on cue provided cheap first-rate entertainment. 

Someone must be responsible for this demonic infestation—the sisters were innocent victims—and certain appointed representatives of law and order, secular and sacred, proclaimed Grandier a sorcerer. However, Loudun’s chief magistrate, Guillaume de Cerisay, determined that evidence of genuine possession was lacking—there was “only a sickness, improved by some little fraud on the part of the nuns, by a good deal of malice on the part of Canon Mignon and by the superstition, fanaticism and professional self-interest of the other ecclesiastics involved in the affair.” The Archbishop of Tours concurred, and ordered that the public exorcisms be suspended; the bughouse consternation at the nunnery subsided. But the pro-demonolatry forces persisted, and they had on their side Cardinal Richelieu, the most powerful man in France. Grandier had crossed him years before when he was only a bishop, by justly but imprudently claiming precedence in a church procession; and His Eminence had a long memory.

Huxley’s rendition of the torture that was supposed to make Grandier confess his diabolism is terrifying. His legs were systematically shattered until no knees or ankles remained, and he was required to walk somehow to the fatal pyre.  Grandier knew the charges of sorcery were purest fantasy and maintained his innocence, heroically. When he publicly called on God in his agony, the priestly executioners assured the crowd that he was really invoking the devil. There surely were devils present: They had assumed the form of holy men dealing out punishment.

The nuns’ diabolical symptoms persisted after Grandier’s death, when they should have been gone; and vexed Loudun authorities enlisted the Jesuits, famous for their unsurpassed priestly intellect, to prove that the young ladies were really possessed. Although three of the four Jesuits who came were inclined to skepticism, the chief exorcist, Fr. Jean-Joseph Surin, arrived in town with no doubt in his mind that the mass possession was absolutely genuine and Grandier absolutely guilty. The supernatural was Surin’s native ground, the demonic his bailiwick. Sr. Jeanne would be under his particular care, and his perfervid absorption in her case would thrust him into madness.

To be regarded as a lunatic, Surin came to believe, would certify his own authenticity. He prayed that the demons infesting Sr. Jeanne’s soul would enter his own; and he had his wish. He was a troubled character going into the investigation and he drove himself into madness. Fr. Surin would endure hysterical partial paralysis and near catatonia for several years, and worst of all became convinced that he was damned, his eternal fate sealed with no hope of forgiveness. His attempted suicide—he jumped from a window high above a river’s edge, badly breaking his leg—led to his confinement in a Jesuit infirmary as incurably crazed: His attendants treated him brutally, and curious priests came to goggle at and mock the loathsome evil madman. 

Then, one day in confession, Fr. Surin observed that as a lost soul he felt duty-bound to do evil, but he was capable only of doing good, which in his circumstance must be a graver sin than premeditated murder. The confessor answered simply and gently that, although no clairvoyant, he had a strong sense, perhaps even an inspiration, that in the end all would be well for Surin, who would realize he was mistaken, resume normal human functioning, and would die in peace: “From that moment the suffocating cloud of fear and misery began to lift.”

Little by little, sanity edged out hysteria. Surin recovered the ability to write, then to walk. He was able to see again the beauty of the natural world—a gift he had despised as diversion from the one fact on this earth worthy of wonder, the Incarnation: “But the highest Gift is by means of the given. The Kingdom of God comes on earth and through the perception of earth as it is in itself, and not as it appears to a will distorted by self-centered cravings and revulsions, to an intellect distorted by ready-made beliefs.” Old obsessions dissolved as the real world came into focus, and Surin lived the rest of his life as a whole man.

Aldous Huxley was in certain respects a modern disenchanted intellectual, and he had no use for actual demons; but there are persons as serious and sane as he was who can state with authority that demons and demonic possession are real. The Church is careful to rule out medical and psychological explanations before confirming a case of demonic possession. But the ordinary “Radical Evil” of man can be just as destructive and damning. It can, however—as Fr. Surin found—be overcome by the hope one places in God, and the ordinary goodness of the real and given world—the beauty of creation. The malignancy of man need not be the last word. 

As for the other victims of possession, they too returned to normal once the royal treasury gave up funding the exorcists. “Left to themselves such devils as remained soon took their leave. After six years of incessant struggle, the Church Militant gave up the fight. Its enemies promptly disappeared. The long orgy was at an end.”

Algis Valiunas is a fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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