Aldous Huxley and Modern Political Fanaticism
The effects which follow too constant and intense a concentration upon evil are always disastrous. Those who crusade, not for God in themselves, but against the devil in others, never succeed in making the world better, but leave it either as it was, or sometimes even perceptibly worse than it was, before the crusade began.
Though frequently Manichaean in practice, Christianity was never Manichaean in its dogmas. In this respect it differs from our modern idolatries of communism and nationalism, which are Manichaean not only in action, but also in creed and theory. Today it is everywhere self-evident that we are on the side of Light, they on the side of Darkness. And being on the side of Darkness, they deserve to be punished and must be liquidated (since our divinity justifies everything) by the most fiendish means at our disposal.
Well, I was reading Oswald Spengler’s The Decline of the West on my computer. I don’t download very much, and I always have about half the storage space on the computer free. Then one morning while I was reading, a warning window popped up, informing me that the computer’s memory was almost full. I searched through the computer and couldn’t find this extra data anywhere; on the little storage graph it appeared as “other,” and wasn’t in any of my files, or anywhere I could locate to delete it. Finally, I figured that it was due to a bug in my operating system: Spengler’s book is stored as a scanned pdf file, and every time I highlight something or add a note in the margins, the computer makes a new copy of the file, more than 2gb of data, and doesn’t delete the old file—it just floats around in a kind of digital data limbo on my computer disk, gradually filling it up. So I did a Hillary and wiped the memory, then restored it with a backup from before the problem, and the problem is apparently solved. But…I lack confidence in my own resistance to the temptation/compulsion to highlight and annotate Spengler. And so, to make a long story intolerably longer, I’ve shelved Oswald for awhile and picked up a book that an Indonesian monk friend of mine left behind here recently: Aldous Huxley’s The Devils of Loudun.
I had already read about this strange case of alleged demonic possession, and had already seen the weird but interesting movie (featuring none other than Vanessa Redgrave as the sexually frustrated, hysterical, hunchbacked Mother Superior), and I’ve been reading the book—considered by some to be Huxley’s masterpiece—with great interest.
For those of you unfamiliar with the case, an entire convent, seventeen Ursuline nuns plus some lay sisters, went ravingly, blasphemingly, orgiastically, hysterically mad in the town of Loudun, France, in 1632. Long before then a handsome, cultured, rascally young priest, Father Urbain Grandier, assumed directorship of the local parish. He was ambitious and arrogant, and furthermore had a liking for the ladies entirely unsuitable for a celibate priest…and so before long he had acquired a host of bitter enemies, including the town’s prosecuting attorney, whose young daughter Grandier had seduced, impregnated, and then dumped.
The prioress of the local Ursuline convent, Sister Jeanne of the Angels, was slightly deformed and thus doomed to be an old maid, which probably explains why she became a nun—in fact most of the nuns at the convent were women whose families could not afford a suitable dowry for them, rendering them unmarriageable, and who thus became nuns without a true spiritual vocation. The Mother Superior, Sister Jeanne, had heard of the dashing young parish priest’s sexual exploits and in her celibate frustration began fantasizing about him. Her fantasies became habitual, then obsessional. Finally, the Father Confessor of the convent died, and with a fluttering heart Sister Jeanne sent an invitation to Father Urbain to become the new confessor for the convent. The priest politely declined, claiming that he was too busy with other matters to do the position justice. Her hopes of getting him to herself dashed, Sister Jeanne began hating Grandier with passion—but her obsessional sexual fantasies continued. The new Father Confessor, who hated Grandier and was rather superstitious besides, attributed her sexual obsession to the Devil, with the parish priest serving as his diabolical agent. When the other nuns began hearing of the strange case, they began exhibiting symptoms also; and before long they were all raving and declaring Grandier to be a sorcerer seducing them by black magic in the dark of night. As Huxley succinctly explains it, “Weakened by psychosomatic disease, made frantic by her indulgence in forbidden and unrealizable phantasies, the Prioress lost all power to control these undesirable results of the inductive process. Hysterical behavior is infectious, and her example was followed by the other nuns. Soon the whole convent was throwing fits, blaspheming and talking smut. For the sake of a publicity which was thought to be good for their respective Orders and the Church at large, or with the deliberate intention of using the nuns as instruments for the destruction of Grandier, the exorcists did everything in their power to foster and increase the scandal.”
The whole scandal was quickly taken up by some local dignitaries who hated Grandier’s guts, including the prosecutor with the disgraced daughter, as a means of bringing him down. As it turned out, news of the case reached Cardinal Richelieu, prime minister of France, who had been insulted by Grandier several years previously, when Richelieu was a mere bishop out of favor with the Royal Court. Also, Richelieu was toying with the idea of establishing a kind of French Inquisition as a means of eliminating political enemies and establishing a centralized totalitarian state. The Prime minister took up the case with alacrity, and encouraged the persecution. Thus, a literal witch hunt ensued, with the forgone conclusion of Father Urbain Grandier being accused, arrested, tried before a carefully selected and paid-for panel of partisan judges, tortured extremely, and burned at the stake for the crime of sorcery. He died on August 18, 1634.
The reason why I bring up a 17-century French scandal on a blog devoted to 21st-century political incorrectness is that this sort of hysteria and hypocrisy is still alive and well in the postmodern west. For some faction to cook up scandals (salacious and otherwise) as a political weapon for assassinating the character of a hated (or despised, or feared) rival is a familiar theme in the news even now. Witch hunts are by no means extinct, nor a recent invention. Such behavior appears to be symptomatic of perennial human nature.
Huxley himself was fully aware of this, which is presumably one big reason why he wrote the book in the first place. In the following longish quote the author compares the moral debacle of the Loudun possessions and witch trial with similar events in the 20th century. His mention of persecuted communists in the USA is explained by the fact that the book was first published in 1952.
In medieval and early modern Christendom the situation of sorcerers and their clients was almost precisely analogous to that of Jews under Hitler, capitalists under Stalin, Communists and fellow travelers in the United States. They were regarded as the agents of a Foreign Power, unpatriotic at the best and, at the worst, traitors, heretics, enemies of the people. Death was the penalty meted out to these metaphysical Quislings of the past and, in most parts of the contemporary world, death is the penalty which awaits the political and secular devil-worshippers known here as Reds, there as Reactionaries. In the briefly liberal nineteenth century men like Michelet found it difficult not merely to forgive, but even to understand the savagery with which sorcerers had once been treated. Too hard on the past, they were at the same time too complacent about their present and far too optimistic in regard to the future—to us! They were rationalists who fondly imagined that the decay of traditional religion would put an end to such deviltries as the persecution of heretics, the torture and burning of witches. Tantum religio potuit suadere malorum.* But looking back and up, from our vantage point on the descending road of modern history, we now see that all the evils of religion can flourish without any belief in the supernatural, that convinced materialists are ready to worship their own jerry-built creations as though they were the Absolute, and that self-styled humanists will persecute their adversaries with all the zeal of Inquisitors exterminating the devotees of a personal and transcendent Satan. Such behavior-patterns antedate and outlive the beliefs which, at any given moment, seem to motivate them. Few people now believe in the Devil; but very many enjoy behaving as their ancestors behaved when the Fiend was a reality as unquestionable as his Opposite Number. In order to justify their behavior, they turn their theories into dogmas, their bylaws into First Principles, their political bosses into Gods and all those who disagree with them into incarnate devils. This idolatrous transformation of the relative into the Absolute and the all too human into the Divine, makes it possible for them to indulge their ugliest passions with a clear conscience and in the certainty that they are working for the Highest Good. And when the current beliefs come, in their turn, to look silly, a new set will be invented, so that the immemorial madness may continue to wear its customary mask of legality, idealism, and true religion.
* So great the evil religion has aroused.
Naturally, reading a book about a rascally public figure being hated and persecuted by his enemies, with said enemies casting about fervidly for anything to be used as a weapon against him, immediately casting about for another means of attack if the previous one fails, seeking out, bribing, and suborning accusers, using documents produced by extremely biased officials as “proof,” doing everything possible to control the public narrative of his guilt, even in the face of widespread skepticism and disgust—while at the same time being firmly convinced that they are in the right by doing all this—has continually reminded me of the recent political scene in America, and especially the raging, hysterical witch hunt against the current rascally US President. The last sentence of one of the quotes above, slightly adjusted, could, for example, apply to the behavior of Democrats since Mr. Trump ran for president: “For the sake of a publicity which was thought to be good for their [Party] and the [progressive agenda] at large, or with the deliberate intention of using the [charges of racism, then women accusing him of inappropriate behavior, then the Russia collusion narrative, then appeals to the 25th Amendment of the Constitution] as instruments for the destruction of [Trump], the [propagandists] did everything in their power to foster and increase the scandal.”
Neither side of the American political spectrum is entirely innocent of this sort of behavior. Although the political left is furiously wallowing in it now, the right has also had its moments, some of them rather long ones. A not so different persecution was orchestrated by Republicans against the Democratic President Bill Clinton, for example—although in his case the scandal was based on some rather undeniable evidence, like a semen-stained blouse and some fairly straightforward perjury in denying what was proved to be true by the evidence. But it is probably in large part due to the feelings-driven ideology of the new left that that side of the political spectrum has become much more prone to the mass hysteria involved in witch hunts.
Remember the howling riots and demonstrations in the streets of America when Obama was elected President? Remember the smashed shop windows, burning cars, and busted heads back then? No? Well, that’s probably because it didn’t happen. This is not, as leftists would no doubt prefer to believe, because Obama was unobjectionable and Trump is “literally Adolf Hitler,” as I have seen objections aplenty to Mr. Obama and his presidency, and no evidence that Trump is Hitler incarnate. Many right-wingers despise Obama just as much as left-wingers despise Trump. The anti-Trump riots were more a case of hysterical butt-hurt rage because the left didn’t get what it wanted, and was confident of getting, much like a spoiled toddler throwing a conniption because she couldn’t have ice cream for dinner (although on a much larger scale).
Feelings-driven ideologies, like faith-based religions or postmodern social justice, are apparently more conducive to raging hysteria, in which people may indulge their ugliest passions with a clear conscience and the self-righteous certainty that they are doing it all for the Highest Good. The motives and methods are essentially the same, then as now, because foolish human nature remains foolish human nature, regardless of how many centuries have elapsed. People may be somewhat less susceptible to clinical hysteria nowadays because we are less sexually repressed and, up until recently at least, less compelled to fit into a narrow and frustrating world view; but we are more susceptible to infantile outbursts by practically the same modern token: we are less religious and more superficial, and thus less introspective and self-aware, and thereby less capable of stoicism and forbearance. Also, we have infinitely less faith in the advice an old priest gave Grandier on the night before he was brought before the kangaroo court and inevitably sentenced to death:
Father Ambrose pronounced the formula of absolution, then gave him communion, and spoke a little about the will of God. Nothing was to be asked for, he said, and nothing refused. Except for sin, all that might happen to one was not merely to be accepted with resignation; it was to be willed, moment by moment, as God’s will for that particular moment. Suffering was to be willed, affliction was to be willed, the humiliations resulting from personal weakness and ineptitude were to be willed. And in the act of being willed they would be understood. And in the act of being understood they would be transfigured, would be seen, not with the eyes of the natural man, but as God saw them.
An exhortation from a Buddhist monk might be somewhat different; but a person who practices acceptance of the will of God, or simple Buddhist equanimity, is hardly likely to take postmodern “victim culture” very seriously. A spiritual mind does not blame others for one’s own shortcomings or failures. One blessing we do have going for us, more now than was the case 400 years ago, is that people are capable of seeing hypocrisy and self-righteousness for what it is, and of resenting and resisting said fools and hypocrites who endeavor to perpetrate a farce and travesty of justice. More people are capable, I should say. It would be good if there are enough of them/us to turn the current welter of hysteria and decadence around.
Anyway, I highly recommend the book. Huxley’s discussion of spirituality in chapter 3 especially is really lovely.
The charm of history and its enigmatic lesson consist in the fact that, from age to age, nothing changes and yet everything is completely different.
In other words, the more things change, the more they stay the same.
Gratuitous, Hilarious, True, Useful, and Totally Politically Incorrect APPENDIX: Advice for Men Regarding Crazy Women