September 28th, 2010 / 1:02 pm
I Like __ A Lot


a cardinal's instruments

One thing I’ve meant to do more frequently as an HTMLGIANT contributor is simply to post about books I love, especially ones that didn’t just come out, especially ones that don’t get flogged constantly here already.  I’ve got a mental list, but when there’s no publication date to which a post is tied… well, shit gets away.

But I read something in the past two weeks that absolutely got me by the throat, and I want to write about it: The Devils of Loudun by Aldous Huxley.  It came out in 1953 and I’d never heard of it until a few weeks ago.  I’ve rarely read a book that gnaws so thoroughly — and simultaneously — at the intellect and the viscera.

It concerns the persecution of Urbain Grandier, a French Catholic priest who was accused of sorcery in the 1630s and burned at the stake after being tried and tortured by a group of nightmarishly Orwellian* clerics puppeted by Cardinal Richelieu.  It’s impossible, of course, to read the book without seeing echoes of religious and political persecutions today and throughout history.  (Huxley actually taught Orwell when Orwell—then Eric Blair—was a teenager at Eton.  He kept track of Orwell’s career and even name-checks him in Devils.)

Beneath its surface, Devils reads like the chronicle of a ravenous intellect, Huxley searching history for philosophical truth and the roots of human frailty.  He wrote Devils just before he first took mescaline, the experience he would describe in detail in The Doors of Perception.

In one passage, after Grandier’s burning, Huxley follows one of his persecutors (a tragic figure, as Huxley describes him, because he was both profoundly intelligent and genuinely spiritual, and he actually believed the supernaturalisms he and his fellow judges and exorcists spouted) and describes a moment of mysterious revelation that echoes the experience he, Huxley, would have in the spring of 1953 when a doctor named Humphry Osmond (who later coined the word “psychedelic”) gave him his first dose:

“There was no wind, and the silence was like an enormous crystal, and everywhere was a living mystery of colors merging, of forms distinct and separate, of the innumerable and the one, of passing time and the presence of eternity.”

Huxley’s Grandier is like a great figure of literature.  Strikingly handsome and compellingly erudite, he was a kind of sorcerer—one of elocution and seduction.  And because he cared nothing for vows of celibacy, he slept with quite a few of the local widows… and then he started in on the virgins, seducing the nubile daughters of his powerful allies—one of whom was the public prosecutor, who had asked Grandier to tutor his daughter in Latin.  Grandier did, impregnating her in the process.

Of course, he made enemies… and, according to Huxley, took a certain perverse pleasure in doing so.

“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 by the unattractive for his success with women–what a tribute to his universal superiority!”

Unfortunately he made political enemies, too.  Richelieu wanted the king to destroy all the fortresses in rural France, fearing they could be used in a rebellion.  But Grandier opposed him and helped save Loudun’s keep (for a time).  So when the sexually repressed nuns in the local Ursuline convent—many of whom were obsessed with Grandier—reported that he bade devils to inhabit their bodies and make them do obscene things, Richelieu and his lieutenants were quick to support a trial.

First, however, they went through a circus of public exorcisms.  These read like grotesque jokes, except they really happened.  (And are, FYI, depicted in gruesome detail in Ken Russell’s film The Devils, from which the picture accompanying this post comes, and which you should definitely see if you can find it.)

“M. Adam came, bringing with him the classical emblem of his profession, the huge brass syringe of Molièresque farce and seventeenth-century medical reality. A quart of holy water was ready for him. The syringe was filled, and M. Adam approached the bed on which the Mother Superior was lying. Perceiving that his last hour was at hand, Asmodeus threw a fit. In vain. The Prioress’s limbs were pinioned, strong hands held down the writhing body and, with the skill born of long practice, M. Adam administered the miraculous enema. Two minutes later, Asmodeus had taken his departure.”

Grandier’s torture at the hands of the judges—the judges!—is described in horrifically matter-of-fact detail.  Not much disturbs me, in fiction or onscreen.  This did.  The sheer evil of Jean de Laubardemont, Richelieu’s tool, honestly made me get up and pace the room… as I read the things he did, I hated this man.

Richelieu, too, is a pretty memorable and Dickensian figure:

“Cardinal Richelieu comported himself as though he were a demigod. But the wretched man had to play his part in a body which disease had rendered so repulsive that there were times when people could hardly bear to be in the same room with him. He suffered from tubercular osteitis of his right arm and a fissure of the fundament, and was thus forced to live in the fetid atmosphere of his own suppuration. Musk and civet disguised but could not abolish this carrion odor of decay. Richelieu could never escape from the humiliating knowledge that he was an object, to all around him, of physical abhorrence.”

“During the Cardinal’s last hours, when the relics had failed to work and the doctors had given him up, an old peasant woman, who had a reputation as a healer, was called to the great man’s bedside. Muttering spells, she administered her panacea–four ounces of horse dung macerated in a pint of white wine. It was with the taste of excrement in his mouth that the arbiter of Europe’s destinies gave up the ghost.”

I got The Devils of Loudun from the public library, essentially on a whim, but it’s the most transporting nonfiction book I’ve read in years.  I can’t stop thinking about it, or telling people about it.  And now I’m telling you.

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  1. Tim

      Nick! You convinced me! I think–somebody commented about this I think a week or so ago and I totally bought the hell out of it.

  2. stephen

      i want to read aldous huxley. particularly “the doors of perception” and “island.”

  3. Scottmcclanahan

      The Russell film is amazing.

  4. Nick Antosca

      Yep, I think I mentioned in a post maybe last week. Hope you enjoy!

  5. Nick Antosca

      Yes — really… vivid. Oliver Reed’s great. And those images of the broken bodies on wheels like weird trees all over the landscape.

  6. Ken Baumann

      Have you seen Antichrist?

  7. I. Fontana

      Spectacular. (Emphasis on “spectacle.”) Ken Russell had his moments.

  8. I. Fontana

      Spectacular. (Emphasis on “spectacle.”) Ken Russell had his moments.

  9. Nick Antosca

      I have, and had pretty mixed feelings about it