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The Devils of Loudun, Page 2

Aldous Huxley

  Huxley also acquired new readers through his support of the marginal and unconventional, and his detractors, hitherto exercised by what they saw as his immorality or preachiness, began to pour scorn on his alleged faddism. In 1942 he published The Art of Seeing, a passionate defence of the Bates method of eye training which aroused a storm of protest from the optometrist lobby. Even more outrageous, for many, was his suggestion in The Doors of Perception (1954) and its sequel, Heaven and Hell (1956), that mescalin and lysergic acid were ‘drugs of unique distinction’ which should be exploited for the ‘supernaturally brilliant’ visionary experiences they offered to those with open minds and sound livers. The Doors of Perception is indeed a bewitching account of the inner shangri-la of the mescalin taker, where ‘there is neither work nor monotony’ but only ‘a perpetual present made up of one continually changing apocalypse’, where ‘the divine source of all existence’ is evident in a vase of flowers, and even the creases in a pair of trousers reveal ‘a labyrinth of endlessly significant complexity’. Not surprisingly, The Doors of Perception became a set text for the beat generation and the psychedelic Sixties, the Doors naming their band after the book which also earned Huxley a place on the sleeve of the Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper album.

  Maria Huxley died in February 1955, shortly before Huxley published his penultimate novel, The Genius and the Goddess, in which John Rivers recounts the brief history of his disastrous involvement, when he was a ‘virgin prig of twenty-eight’, with the wife of his colleague Henry Maartens, a Nobel Prize-winning scientist. Not for the first time, Huxley’s theme is the havoc which ensues when a man with an idealistic misconception of life born of a cloistered and emotionally deprived upbringing experiences the full, sensual impact of human passion.

  Huxley married Laura Archera, a practising psychotherapist, in March 1956. Two years later he published Brave New World Revisited, in which he surveyed contemporary society in the light of his earlier predictions. Huxley’s knack of keying in to the anxieties of the moment was as sharp as ever, and this touch is also evident in a series of lectures on ‘The Human Situation’ which he gave at Santa Barbara in 1959, published in one volume in 1977. Both books address problems which are no less pressing today, such as overpopulation, the recrudescence of nationalism and the fragility of the natural world. Huxley’s last novel, Island, was published in 1962, the year in which he was made a Companion of Literature, and the year after his Los Angeles home and most of his personal effects had been destroyed in a fire which, Huxley said, left him ‘a man without possessions and without a past’.

  Island is the story of how the offshore utopia of Pala, where population growth has been stabilised and Mutual Adoption Clubs have superseded the tyranny of the family, and where maithuna, or the yoga of love and moksha, an hallucinogenic toadstool, ensure that the Palanese have little reason to feel disgruntled, falls victim to the age-old menaces of material progress and territorial expansionism. Island is perhaps Huxley’s most pessimistic book, his poignant acknowledgement that in a world of increasing greed, mass communication, oil-guzzling transport, burgeoning population and inveterate hostility, a pacific and co-operative community like Pala’s ‘oasis of freedom and happiness’ has little hope of survival. Soon after Island was published Huxley commented that the ‘weakness of the book consists in a disbalance between fable and exposition. The story has too much weight, in the way of ideas and reflections, to carry.’ But, while some readers would agree with this criticism, for others Island exemplifies Huxley’s particular contribution to twentieth-century letters. In his early days the highbrow incarnate and a reluctant lecturer for the Peace Pledge Union, Huxley became for many a companionable polymath, a transatlantic sage at large, whose unending quest for synthesis and meaning in an ever-more perplexing and violent world provided a paradigm for their own search for peace and understanding.

  Before his eyesight was damaged, Huxley’s ambition was to specialise in the sciences, and it is significant that in his last published work, Literature and Science (1963), he pleads yet again for a rapprochement between the two cultures, arguing passionately against the contemporary stress on their dichotomy. The book begins by emphasising the wide-ranging erudition of T.H. Huxley and Matthew Arnold. Their descendant, one of the most stimulating and provocative writers of the twentieth century, proved himself a worthy inheritor of their abilities over the course of his long and varied career.

  Huxley died of cancer at his home in Hollywood on 22 November 1963, unaware that President J.F. Kennedy had been assassinated earlier that afternoon in Dallas. In 1971 his ashes were returned to England and interred in his parents’ grave at Compton in Surrey.

  David Bradshaw

  Worcester College, Oxford



  Acknowledgements are made to Oxford University Press for permission to quote the last six lines of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem, ‘I awake and feel the fell of dark.’



  T was in 1605 that Joseph Hall, the satirist and future bishop, made his first visit to Flanders. “Along our way how many churches saw we demolished, nothing left but rude heaps to tell the passenger, there hath been both devotion and hostility. Oh, the miserable footsteps of war! . . . But (which I wondered at) churches fall, and Jesuits’ colleges rise everywhere. There is no city where these are not rearing or built. Whence cometh this? Is it for that devotion is not so necessary as policy? These men (as we say of the fox) fare best when they are most cursed. None so much spited of their own; none so hated of all; none so opposed of by ours; and yet these ill weeds grow.”

  They grew for a very simple and sufficient reason: the public wanted them. For the Jesuits themselves, ‘policy,’ as Hall and his whole generation knew very well, was the first consideration. The schools had been called into existence for the purpose of strengthening the Roman Church against its enemies, the ‘libertines’ and the Protestants. The good fathers hoped, by their teaching, to create a class of educated laymen totally devoted to the interests of the Church. In the words of Cerutti—words which drove the indignant Michelet almost to frenzy—“as we swathe the limbs of an infant in the cradle to give them a right proportion, so it is necessary from his earliest youth to swathe, so to speak, his will, that it may preserve through his life a happy and salutary suppleness.” The spirit of domination was willing enough, but the flesh of propagandist method was weak. In spite of the swaddling of their wills, some of the Jesuits’ best pupils left school to become free thinkers or even, like Jean Labadie, Protestants. So far as ‘policy’ was concerned, the system was never as efficient as its creators had hoped. But the public was not interested in policy; the public was interested in good schools, where their boys could learn all that a gentleman ought to know. Better than most other purveyors of education, the Jesuits supplied the demand. “What did I observe during the seven years I passed under the Jesuits’ roof? A life full of moderation, diligence and order. They devoted every hour of the day to our education, or to the strict fulfilment of their vows. As evidence of this, I appeal to the testimony of the thousands who, like myself, were educated by them.” So wrote Voltaire. His words bear witness to the excellence of the Jesuits’ teaching methods. At the same time, and yet more emphatically, his entire career bears witness to the failure of that ‘policy,’ which the teaching methods were intended to serve.

  When Voltaire went to school, the Jesuit colleges were familiar features of the educational scene. A century earlier their merits had seemed positively revolutionary. In an age when most pedagogues were amateurs in everything except the handling of the birch, their disciplinary methods were relatively humane and their professors carefully chosen and systematically trained. They taught a peculiarly elegant Latin and the very latest in optics, geography and mathematics, together with ‘dramatics’ (their end-of-term theatricals were famous), good manners, respect for the Church and (in France, at least, and after Henri IV’s convers
ion) obedience to the royal authority. For all these reasons the Jesuit colleges recommended themselves to every member of the typical upper-class family—to the tender-hearted mother, who could not bear to think of her darling undergoing the tortures of an old-fashioned education; to the learned ecclesiastical uncle, with his concern for sound doctrine and a Ciceronian style; and finally to the father who, as a patriotic official, approved of monarchical principles and, as a prudent bourgeois, counted on the Company’s backstairs influence to help their pupil to a job, a place at court, an ecclesiastical sinecure. Here, for example, is a very substantial couple—M. Corneille of Rouen, Avocat du Roy à la Table de Marbre du Palais, and his wife, Marthe le Pesant. Their son, Pierre, is such a promising boy that they decide to send him to the Jesuits. Here is M. Joachim Descartes, Counsellor of the Parlement of Rennes. In 1604 he takes his youngest—a bright little fellow of eight, called René—to the recently founded and royally endowed Jesuit college of La Flèche. And here too, at about the same date, is the learned Canon Grandier of Saintes. He has a nephew, son of another lawyer not quite so rich and aristocratic as M. Descartes or M. Corneille, but still eminently respectable. The boy, called Urbain, is now fourteen years old and wonderfully clever. He deserves to be given the best of educations, and in the neighbourhood of Saintes the best education available is to be had at the Jesuit college of Bordeaux.

  This celebrated seat of learning comprised a high school for boys, a liberal arts college, a seminary, and a school of advanced studies for ordained postgraduates. Here the precociously brilliant Urbain Grandier spent more than ten years, first as schoolboy, and later as undergraduate, theological student and, after his ordination in 1615, as Jesuit novice. Not that he intended to enter the Company; for he felt no vocation to subject himself to so rigid a discipline. No, his career was to be made, not in a religious order, but as a secular priest. In that profession a man of his native abilities, pushed and protected by the most powerful organization within the Church, could hope to go far. There might be a chaplaincy to some great noble, the tutorship of some future Marshal of France, some Cardinal in the bud. There might be invitations to display his remarkable eloquence before bishops, before princesses of the blood, even before the Queen herself. There might be diplomatic missions, appointments of high administrative posts, rich sinecures, juicy pluralities. There might—though this was unlikely, considering that he was not of noble birth—but there conceivably might be some princely bishopric to gild and gladden his declining years.

  At the outset of his career circumstances seemed to authorize the most sanguine of these expectations. 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 behaviour. 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 to clímb.

  Loudun, as its new parson rode slowly towards his destination, revealed itself as a little city on a hill, dominated by two tall towers—the spire of St. Peter’s and the mediaeval keep of the great castle. As a symbol, as a sociological hieroglyph, Loudun’s skyline was somewhat out of date. That spire still threw its Gothic shadow across the town; but a good part of the townspeople were Huguenots who abhorred the Church to which it belonged. That huge donjon, built by the Counts of Poitiers, was still a place of formidable strength; but Richelieu would soon be in power and the days of local autonomy and provincial fortresses were numbered. All unknowing the parson was riding into the last act of a sectarian war, into the prologue to a nationalist revolution.

  At the city gates a corpse or two hung, mouldering, from the municipal gallows. Within the walls, there were the usual dirty streets, the customary gamut of smells, from wood smoke to excrement, from geese to incense, from baking bread to horses, swine and unwashed humanity.

  Peasants, and artisans, journeymen, and domestics—the poor were a negligible and anonymous majority of the city’s fourteen thousand inhabitants. A little above them the shopkeepers, the master craftsmen, the small officials clustered precariously on the lowest rung of bourgeois respectability. Above these again—totally dependent upon their inferiors, but enjoying unquestioned privileges and ruling them by a divine right—were the rich merchants, the professional men, the people of quality in their hierarchical order: the petty gentry and the larger landowners, the feudal magnates and the lordly prelates. Here and there one could find a few small oases of culture and disinterested intelligence. Outside these oases the mental atmosphere was suffocatingly provincial. Among the rich, the concern with money and property, with rights and privileges, was passionate and chronic. For the two or three thousand, at the most, who could afford litigation or needed professional legal advice, there were, at Loudun, no less than twenty barristers, eighteen solicitors, eighteen bailiffs and eight notaries.

  Such time and energy as were left over from the preoccupation with possessions were devoted to the cosy little monotonies, the recurrent joys and agonies of family life; to gossip about the neighbours; to the formalities of religion and, since Loudun was a city divided against itself, to the inexhaustible acerbities of theological controversy. Of the existence at Loudun, during the parson’s incumbency, of any genuinely spiritual religion there is no evidence. Widespread concern with the spiritual life arises only in the neighbourhood of exceptional individuals who know by direct experience that God is a Spirit and must be worshipped in spirit. Along with a good supply of scoundrels, Loudun had its share of the upright and the well-intentioned, the pious and even the devout. But it had no saints, no man or woman whose mere presence is the self-validating proof of a deeper insight into the eternal reality, a closer unison with the divine Ground of all being. Not until sixty years later did such a person appear within the city walls. When, after the most harrowing physical and spiritual adventures, Louise du Tronchay came at last to work in the hospital of Loudun, she at once became the centre of an intense and eager spiritual life. People of all ages and of every class came flocking to ask her about God, to beg for her advice and help. “They love us too much here,” Louise wrote to her old confessor in Paris. “I feel quite ashamed of it; for when I speak of God, people are so much moved that they start crying. I am afraid of contributing to the good opinion they have of me.” She longed to run away and hide; but she was the prisoner of a city’s devotion. When she prayed, the sick were often healed. To her shame and mortification, Louise was held responsible for their recovery. “If I ever did a miracle,” she wrote, “I should think myself damned.” After a few years she was ordered by her directors to move away from Loudun. For the people there was now no longer any living window through which the Light might shine. In a little while the fervour cooled; the interest in the life of the spirit died down. Loudun returned to its normal state—the state it had been in when, two generations earlier, Urbain Grandier rode into town.

  From the first, public sentiment in regard to the new parson was sharply divided. Most of the devouter sex approved of him. The late curé had been a doddering nonentity. His successor was a man in the prime of youth, tall, athletic, with an air of grave authority, even (according to one contemporary) of majesty. He had large dark eyes and, under his biretta, an abundance of crinkly black hair. His forehead was high, his nose aquiline, his lips red, full and mobile. An elegant Van Dyck beard adorned his chin, and on his upper lip he wore a narrow moustache sedulously trained and pomaded so that its curling ends confronted one another, on either side of the nose, like a pair of coquettish question marks. To post-Faustian eyes his portrait suggests a fleshier, not unamiable and only slightly less intelligent Mephistopheles in clerical fancy dress.

  To this seductive appearance Grandier added the social virtues of good manners and lively conversation. He could turn a compliment with easy grace, and the lo
ok with which he accompanied his words was more flattering, if the lady happened to be at all presentable, than the words themselves. The new parson, it was only too obvious, took an interest in his female parishioners that was more than merely pastoral.

  Grandier lived in the grey dawn of what may be called the Era of Respectability. Throughout the Middle Ages and during the earlier part of the Modern period the gulf between official Catholic theory and the actual practice of individual ecclesiastics had been enormous, unbridged and seemingly unbridgeable. It is difficult to find any mediaeval or Renaissance writer who does not take it for granted that, from highest prelate to humblest friar, the majority of clergymen are thoroughly disreputable. Ecclesiastical corruption begot the Reformation, and in its turn the Reformation produced the Counter-Reformation. After the Council of Trent scandalous Popes became less and less common, until finally, by the middle of the seventeenth century, the breed died out completely. Even some of the bishops, whose only qualification for preferment was the fact that they were the younger sons of noblemen, now made a certain effort to behave themselves. Among the lower clergy abuses were checked from above by a more vigilant and efficient ecclesiastical administration, and from within, by the zeal radiating from such organizations as the Society of Jesus and the Congregation of the Oratory. In France, where the monarchy was making use of the Church as an instrument for increasing the central power at the expense of the Protestants, the great nobles and the traditions of provincial autonomy, clerical respectability was a matter of royal concern. The masses will not revere a Church whose ministers are guilty of scandalous conduct. But in a country where not only l’État, but also l’Église, c’est Moi, disrespect for the Church is disrespect for the King. “I remember,” writes Bayle in one of the interminable footnotes of his great Dictionary, “I remember that I one day asked a Gentleman who was relating to me numberless Irregularities of the Venetian Clergy, how it came to pass that the Senate suffered such a thing, so little to the Honour of Religion and the State. He replied, that the public Good obliged the Sovereign to use this Indulgence; and, to explain this Riddle, he added that the Senate was well pleased that the Priests and Monks were held in the utmost contempt by the People, since, for that reason, they would be less capable of causing an Insurrection among them. One of the Reasons, says he, why the Jesuits there are disagreeable to the Prince is because they preserve the Decorum of their Character; and thus, being the more respected by the inferior People, are more capable of raising a Sedition.” In France, during the whole of the seventeenth century, state policy towards clerical irregularities was the exact opposite of that pursued by the Venetian Senate. Because it was afraid of ecclesiastical encroachment, the latter liked to see its clergymen conducting themselves like pigs and disliked the respectable Jesuits. Politically powerful and strongly Gallican, the French monarchy had no reason to fear the Pope, and found the Church very useful as a machine for governing. For this reason it favoured the Jesuits and discouraged priestly incontinence, or at least indiscretion.1 The new parson had embarked on his career at a time when clerical scandals, though still frequent, were becoming increasingly distasteful to those in authority.