Lacanian Jesuit

David Wootton

  • The Possession at Loudun by Michel de Certeau, translated by Michael Smith
    Chicago, 251 pp, £27.00, August 2000, ISBN 0 226 10034 0
  • The Certeau Reader edited by Graham Ward
    Blackwell, 320 pp, £60.00, November 1999, ISBN 0 631 21278 7
  • Michel de Certeau: Cultural Theorist by Ian Buchanan
    Sage, 143 pp, £50.00, July 2000, ISBN 0 7619 5897 5

In 1632 Loudun was a frontier town, with Catholicism to the north, south and east, and Protestantism to the west. Internally divided, it was in the process of being recaptured by the new religious orders of the Counter-Reformation (the Jesuits arrived in 1606, the Capuchins in 1616, the Ursulines in 1626); while at the same time Richelieu was planning to destroy the town’s castle, thus turning its citizens into subjects of the absolutist state. In October 1632, demons took possession of a group of Ursuline nuns. Exorcists were called in, but exorcism did not drive out the demons; instead, it established a method of communicating with them. For four years the demons testified: although demons are natural liars it was maintained that they had no choice but to tell the truth when commanded by an exorcist. Once or twice a day, simultaneously in five churches and chapels, the demons bore witness to the power of the Catholic Church. While the nuns writhed lasciviously, their demons spoke in strange voices and (on occasion) foreign tongues. (There were demons with Biblical names such as Leviathan and Behemoth; but also ones called Coal of Impurity, Concupiscence, Fornication, Dog’s Dick – this translation of Caudacanis is to be preferred to Dog’s Tail, which is the more usual, literal rendering.) Loudun became a tourist attraction, the theatre of possession the most exciting and puzzling of public spectacles.

The demons testified that they had taken possession of the nuns at the request of a local Catholic priest, Urbain Grandier. Grandier had a reputation for womanising (although he had recently settled into a monogamous relationship – among his papers was a treatise arguing that priests should be able to marry), and had made powerful enemies. But he was certainly innocent of sorcery. He was tried; and then tortured and burned alive on 18 August 1634. No inducement or pain could persuade him to confess. Around the exorcisms, the trial and the execution an extensive literature sprang up – some thirty of the publications that survive date from between 18 August and 31 December 1634. Still, the demons remained, the nuns performed.

The demons now began to enter the exorcists and their accomplices. Father Lacance, who died on 18 September 1634; Maunoury, the surgeon who had examined Grandier and testified that he bore the devil’s mark; Louis Chauvet, one of the judges: these three died distracted and raving, soon after Grandier; Father Tranquille died in 1638, possessed by Dog’s Dick and Leviathan. Among those possessed was Father Jean-Joseph Surin, a Jesuit mystic who had arrived in Loudun in December 1634, and who, instead of participating in the exorcisms, had prayed with the leader of the possessed nuns, the prioress, Sister Jeanne; he had even prayed that her demons would leave her and enter him. Which they did. For twenty years Surin suffered the after-effects, often unable to walk, talk or dress himself, tempted to suicide, and convinced he was damned. At the end of this long nightmare came a series of works that have won an enduring place in the history of Catholic spirituality: the Cantiques spirituels, the Catéchisme spirituel, the Dialogues spirituels, the Science expérimentale.

From the outset, some cried fraud. Learned doctors argued that hysteromania or the force of the imagination could account for the nuns’ performances. Others claimed to have witnessed levitation, a nun speaking in a South American language, and other events entirely inexplicable except by supernatural means. But the sceptics were unconvinced. And they were right. The day after the prioress testified against Grandier, she condemned herself (she dressed in a shirt, with a rope around her neck and a candle in her hand, and stood in a public place, mimicking the penance of the condemned), declared to the Royal Commissioner that Grandier was innocent, and tried to hang herself. The judges interpreted this as proof of the devils’ power.

In 1637, as the devils finally departed from the prioress’s body (Behemoth was the last to go), the words Jesus, Maria, Joseph, François de Sales appeared inscribed on her hand. By now she was in regular communication with an angel, and, known as Jeanne des Anges, she toured France, showing her hand to vast crowds, and to the King, the Queen and Cardinal Richelieu. In 1645, a visitor to Loudun, Balthasar de Monconys, went to see the prioress and her sacred hand. Only he did not simply observe; he reached out his hand to hers: ‘With the tip of my fingernail, with a light touch I removed the leg of the M’ – of the word MARIA – ‘which surprised her greatly . . . I was satisfied with that and took my leave of her.’ Jeanne wrote an autobiography, in which she makes no mention of her attempted suicide or of de Monconys’s visit, but confesses at length to her taste for dissimulation and deception. Perhaps all the nuns were merely performing their parts; but the possessed priests were genuinely beside themselves. Dog’s Dick may have started as a joke, but by the time he inhabited Father Tranquille he was as authentic as a demon can be.

This is the story of Loudun. We already know it, for Aldous Huxley, writing against the background of McCarthyism, told it in The Devils of Loudun (1952), which John Whiting turned into a play, The Devils (1961), which was itself the basis for Ken Russell’s 1971 film of the same name. There is also a more recent account, Robert Rapley’s A Case of Witchcraft (1998). Michel de Certeau’s Possession at Loudun, first published in French in 1970, has been published in English now because Certeau (who died in 1986) is a very fashionable cultural theorist. Six of his many books have been translated into English in the last dozen years (or rather into Frenglish, for Certeau’s translators are transliterators who think un dossier important is an ‘important dossier’, not a ‘fat file’; disséminer is ‘to disseminate’, not ‘to scatter’; un spirituel is a ‘spiritual’, not a ‘mystic’; ‘Guichardin’ is Guichardin, not Guicciardini; une dame is a ‘dame’, not . . .); and there are now two collections of selected essays: The Certeau Reader follows Heterologies (1986). Ian Buchanan’s is the second book to have been written about him, and Buchanan’s main fear is not that we will be unfamiliar with Certeau’s work but rather that we will regard him as already out of date; hence his declared aim ‘to defamiliarise de Certeau’.

What, thirty years after its first publication, is the significance of The Possession at Loudun? Certeau was a Jesuit from 1950, when he was 25, until his death (although in later years he stopped placing the letters SJ after his name). Until the failed revolution of May 1968 he worked quietly on the history of Jesuit mystics, above all Surin. But even then he was no ordinary Jesuit: he was a founder member of the École Freudienne established by Jacques Lacan in 1964, and a faithful Lacanian until the end. To be a Jesuit is difficult; to be a Lacanian is hard work; to be both at once is something extraordinary, for two more demanding collectivities could scarcely be found. Of Lacan, Certeau wrote ‘he never stopped leaving’ – he even left the school he had founded himself. Certeau was determined to be a sticker, not a quitter.

After 1968 Certeau developed into one of the founders of cultural studies. Before the year was out he had published a book on the failed revolution (The Capture of Speech); and in 1980 he produced The Practice of Everyday Life, the book for which he is best known in the English-speaking world, and the only one translated during his lifetime. It seeks to be a counterweight to Foucault’s Discipline and Punish (1975), and to be a study of those aspects of our lives in which we resist regimentation. In this second half of his career, Certeau aspired to give an account of history, ethnology, pedagogy, psychiatry and psychoanalysis as heterologies, or sciences of the Other – defined as disciplines which are parasitic on other people’s speech.

Since The Possession at Loudun first appeared in 1970 it is natural to look in it for the impact of the events of 1968. Loudun certainly provides us, in Certeau’s own formulation, with an opportunity to see ‘the imbalance of a culture’ and ‘the process of its mutation’; the exorcisms stand, he believes, at the point of transition from an old world to a new. For Certeau, the Other was the creation of the years from 1500 to 1650. During this period the Church is divided into Catholic and Protestant; the secular state emerges (this is J.G.A. Pocock’s ‘Machiavellian Moment’); those preoccupations with exotic peoples which were later to become ethnology appear for the first time in Montaigne and Jean de Léry. It is the age of witch trials and also of possession, for Loudun is not unique. It is also the age of Counter-Reformation mysticism, a new attempt to communicate with a hidden God: indeed, Certeau argued that mysticism was an invention of the period, and was then read back into earlier times. It is the first age to be preoccupied with atheism, and one in which ethics breaks free from theology. The Protestant, the Machiavel, the Savage; the witch, the demon, the atheist; the mystic’s God and the secular moralist: these are the first embodiments of the Other. Certeau ends Loudun with Lévi-Strauss’s distinction between societies characterised by anthropophagy (or cannibalism), which seek to absorb individuals possessed by dangerous powers, and those characterised by anthropemy (from emein, ‘to vomit’), which seek to vomit them forth. Loudun is the image of the new anthropemic society. Later, Certeau would write: ‘On the reduced stage of possession a modification of epistemological, political and religious structures of the period is acted out . . . Loudun is successively a metonymy and a metaphor allowing us to apprehend how a “state policy”, a new rationality, replaces a religious reason.’

Certeau’s anthropemic world thus stands in contrast to an earlier anthropophagic world. In that world the cannibalistic sacrament of the Mass united everyone in the true Church, the body of Christ. (Certeau himself does not explicitly link anthropophagy and the Mass, but the connection is there to be made.) That world, Certeau declares, is gone for ever. Christianity is now a religion of the empty tomb. The best one can do is to practise discipleship, a turning away from the world, but this establishes no new community, merely replacing rootedness by vagabondage. Even Catholicism has become a sect. Thus Christians, just like Lacan, must now never stop leaving; indeed, Certeau found in Lacan (not the first place most people would look) a reworking of the teaching of the Christian mystics. Lacan, he says, ‘is haunted by monotheism’; not for nothing did Lacan call his brother, a Benedictine monk, ‘my brother in religion’. (The Certeau Reader introduces us to the Catholic Certeau, Heterologies to the Lacanian Certeau; keeping the two in mind at once is hard for us, and must have been hard for him.) Loudun thus embodies an eschatological moment, comparable to the destruction of the Temple in the Old Testament, when God withdraws from his people.

Certeau’s heterology finds its origin in a double crisis of Catholicism: one of the 1630s and one of the 1960s. But we cannot judge it by its origins. For me, there are three sticking points. First, ‘othering’ was not new in 1530 or 1630: the Jew, the Muslim and the leper were vomited forth by medieval Catholic communities. Second, there are obvious difficulties in interpreting the exorcisms at Loudun as a metonymy or metaphor for modernity, because their significance may be much more local and temporary (as Huxley assumed). Certeau is guilty of the ethnological fallacy: he believes that each early modern society has a single culture, not many different cultures (Protestant and Catholic, medical and theological, Jesuit and Jansenist). Third, at every turn Certeau, sticker not quitter, attributes enormous powers to institutions, as if every profession was a priesthood. ‘The (secret) law of discourse is the (powerful) institution. The relation to the real is introduced into discourse through what the social body supporting it allows or disallows. What first and foremost allows one to adopt a medical, academic or indeed psychoanalytic discourse is belonging to a body.’ Again, ‘“Realism”, or the legitimation of discourse by its “references”, originates with the author, the person legitimised by social credentials, and is transferred from the author to his text . . . Strip the title of professor from the author of a historical study and he is no longer anything but a novelist.’

Huxley’s Devils of Loudun, however, is a history book, and a fine one; it is not a novel (even though its author is certainly a novelist, and certainly invented the occasional conversation). It may seem dated, in that Huxley constantly seeks to describe what really happened, where Certeau gives us the radically incompatible accounts of believers and atheists, doctors and theologians, leaving us to pick our own way between them. But why should we deny ourselves the satisfaction de Monconys felt when he realised he knew what was really going on? In any case, Huxley is proof positive that one can be a historian without being a fellow of the Royal Historical Society. Still, neither Huxley nor Certeau has found his proper place on historians’ bookshelves.

Certeau’s Loudun is an astonishing account of fraud and faith, of superstition and science, of cynical power and heroic resistance, of chastity and sexual passion. It is a story of a distant past which still stubbornly resonates today, even if it is hard to know how best to describe that resonance. As for The Certeau Reader, it offers us a Certeau who is a worthy successor to Surin: sometimes gullible, often astute, always turning to God, the original Other. Certeau is someone for whom ‘prayer is speaking to the wall’ (as he says, quoting a Midrash), but who prays nonetheless, because ‘fundamentally, being a believer is wanting to be a believer.’ This is not true of being a historian.