Aldous Huxley’s The Devils Of Loudun

In August of 1634, a French Catholic priest, Urbain Grandier, was tortured and burned at the stake, accused of ensorcelling an entire convent of Ursuline nuns. Few of the locals, including those who witnessed his body burn, gave much credence to the accusations, but the poor priest had made powerful enemies, inside and outside the Catholic church, for whom credulity was more convenient than skepticism. Three centuries later, the British writer Aldous Huxley revived Grandier’s story for modern audiences. The Devils Of Loudun mines the narrative of possession and exorcism to deliver a powerful meditation on mass hysteria, religious power politics, and the nature of redemption.

Huxley begins by treating us to a rather lengthy exposition of Grandier’s character, from which we swiftly arrive at the conclusion that, though our priest may not be guilty of witchcraft, a half-dozen other sins might be hung on his head. He is charming and intelligent and informed, speaks multiple languages, and delivers his sermons with gusto – all qualities which serve to advance him rapidly through the church hierarchy:

For at twenty-seven, after two years of advanced theology and philosophy, young Father Grandier received his reward for so many long semesters of diligence and good behavior. By the Company of Jesus, in whose gift it lay, he was presented to the important living of Saint-Pierre du Marché at Loudun. At the same time, and thanks to the same benefactors, he was made a canon of the collegial church of the Holy Cross. His foot was on the ladder; all he now had to do was climb.

His journey upward, however, was not without perils. For one thing, the town of Loudun contained a large Huguenot population predisposed to dislike the upstart Catholic priest, and wary of the larger power plays made by the Catholic church in France, led by Cardinal Richelieu, which was working hard to consolidate the nation under the monarchy. “All unknowing the parson was riding into the last act of a sectarian war, into the prologue to a nationalist revolution.” Grandier’s preoccupations, however, are more amorous. “The new parson, it was only too obvious, took an interest in his female parishioners that was more than merely pastoral.” As soon as Grandier arrives in Loudun, he begins a series of seductions: first a widow, one of his parishioners, with whom he has a weekly tryst within the church itself, and then, more wickedly, Philippe Trincant, the teenage daughter of his best friend and the local criminal prosecutor, Louis Trincant. Adding to the baseness of the seduction, Grandier is both Philippe’s tutor and her confessor – positions of trust he does not hesitate to abuse. Ultimately, Grandier is too successful: he leaves the young Philippe Trincant pregnant, scandalizing the town and earning him many enemies. In response, he not only denies his role in the affair, but enters into another seduction, this time with an orphaned woman, whom he also marries – in direct contradiction of the vows he swore as a priest. Grandier, it seems, can comfortably pick and choose which religious strictures he is bound by; Huxley is scorching on the subject of his hypocrisy:

A long religious training had not abolished or even mitigated his self-love; it had served only to provide the ego with a theological alibi. The untutored egotist merely wants what he wants. Give him a religious education, and it becomes obvious to him, it becomes axiomatic, that what he wants is what God wants, that his cause is the cause of whatever he may happen to regard as the True Church and that any compromise is a metaphysical Munich, an appearance of Radical Evil.

Having given us these private insights into Grandier’s character, Huxley also documents his public conduct, including his attempts to wrest power from not only the Protestant elements within Loudun, but the fringe Catholic groups, the Carmelites and Capuchins, whose influence within France undermines the monarchy. How does a seducer of young women, an habitual flaunter of vows, occupy a position of righteous zeal? Huxley’s answer mines human psychology:

[…] partisanship is a complex passion which permits those who indulge in it to make the best of both worlds. Because they do these things for the sake of a group which is, by definition, good and even sacred, they can seek power and money, can enjoy the pleasures of aggression and cruelty, not merely without feeling guilty, but with a positive glow of conscious virtue. Loyalty to their group transforms these pleasant vices into acts of heroism. Partisans are aware of themselves, not as sinners or criminals, but as altruists and idealists. And with certain qualifications, this is in fact what they are. The only trouble is that their altruism is merely egotism at one remove, and that the ideal, for which they are ready in many cases to lay down their lives, is nothing but the rationalization of corporate interests and party passions.

Principles are rapidly abandoned when partisan interests take precedence, and that was as true in the 17th century as it is in the 21st – as our news cycle reminds us daily.

Alas for Urban Grandier, God, it seems, has a sense of irony, for his downfall will be precipitated by this same partisan mindset. A nun, enraged that she has not been the subject of Grandier’s amorous seductions, contrives to fake a demonic possession, which she blames on Grandier. By the power of her influence, the entire convent soon falls under her ruse, spouting obscenities, blaspheming, and writhing on the ground for any and all who will bear witness. Grandier’s enemies within the church seize upon the embarrassing conduct of the nuns as a means of attacking Grandier, and they succeed in forcing forward a blasphemy trial. It is at this point that Huxley’s novel takes an astonishing pivot: where it had been merely an astute psychological profile of lecherous priest and a convent of bored nuns, it now takes on a quasi-spiritual dimension, for in confronting and being punished for crimes of which he is innocent, Grandier is simultaneously forced to confront the crimes of which he is guilty:

They were all old sins, for which he had done penance and received absolution – old sins, and yet brand new; for now, for the first time, he recognized them for what they were: barriers against grace, doors deliberately slammed in the face of God. In words and forms he had been a Christian, he had been a priest; in thoughts and acts and feelings he had never worshipped anything but himself.

Being confronted with death, Grandier must face his life, and in doing so honestly, with humility and sincerity, he becomes a kind of martyr for the truth, a noble figure for whom we can now feel genuine sympathy. The Devils Of Loudun is thus also a story of redemption, built on a religious scaffolding but permitting of a wholly secular reading.