The Devils of Loudun Page 37

In the autobiography which she wrote some years later, Sœur Jeanne assures us that, during the first months of her possession, her mind was so confused that she could remember nothing of what had happened to her. The statement may be true—or it may not. There are many things which we would like to forget, which we do our best to suppress, but which in fact we go on remembering only too vividly. M. Adam’s syringe, for example. . . .

From insulated selfhood there are many ways of escape into a larval condition of subhumanity. This state partakes of the Nothingness which is the theme of so many of Mallarmé’s poems.

Mais ta chevelure est une rivière tiède,

Ou noyer sans remords l’âme qui nous obsède,

Et trouver le Néant que tu ne connais pas.

But for many persons, absolute Nothingness is not enough. What they want is a Nothing with negative qualities, a Nonentity that stinks and is hideous, like Baudelaire’s:

Une nuit que j’étais près d’une affreuse juive,

Comme au long d’un cadavre un cadavre étendu . . .

This also is an experience of Nothingness—but with a vengeance. And it is precisely in Nothingness-with-a-vengeance that certain minds discover what is, for them, the most satisfying kind of experienced otherness. In Jeanne des Anges, the longing for self-transcendence was powerful in proportion to the intensity of her native egotism and the frustrating circumstances of her environment. In later years she was to pretend to try, and even actually to try without pretence, to achieve an upward self-transcendence into the life of the spirit. But at this stage in her career the only avenue of escape that presented itself was a descent into sexuality. She had begun by deliberately indulging in the imagination of an intimacy with her beau ténébreux, the unknown but titillatingly notorious M. Grandier. But in time deliberate and occasional indulgence turned into irresistible addiction. Habit converted her sexual phantasies into an imperious necessity. The beau ténébreux took on an autonomous existence that was altogether independent of her will. Instead of being the mistress of her imagination, she was now its slave. Slavery is humiliating; and yet the consciousness of being no longer in control of one’s own thoughts and actions is a form, inferior no doubt, but effective, of that self-transcendence to which all human beings aspire. Sœur Jeanne had tried to free herself from her servitude to the erotic images she had conjured up; but the only freedom she could achieve was freedom to be the self she abhorred. There was nothing for it but to slide down again into the dungeon of her addiction.

And now, after months of this inward struggle, she was in the hands of the egregious M. Barré. The phantasy of a downward self-transcendence had been transformed into the brute fact of his actually treating her as something less than human—as some queer kind of animal, to be exhibited to the rabble like a performing ape, as a less than personal creature fit only to be bawled at, manipulated, sent by reiterated suggestion into fits and finally subjected, against what remained of her will and in spite of the remnants of her modesty, to the outrage of a forcible colonic irrigation. Barré had treated her to an experience that was the equivalent, more or less, of a rape in a public lavatory.1

The person who was once Sœur Jeanne des Anges, Prioress of the Ursulines of Loudun, had been annihilated—annihilated, not in the Mallarméan fashion, but in the Baudelairean, with a vengeance. Parodying the Pauline phrase, she could say of herself, “I live, yet not I, but dirt, but humiliation, but mere physiology liveth in me.” During the exorcisms she was no longer a subject; she was only an object with intense sensations. It was horrible, but it was also wonderful—an outrage but at the same time a revelation and, in the literal sense of the word, an ecstasy, a standing outside of the odious and all too familiar self.

At this period, it should be noted, Sœur Jeanne had no intimate sense of being a demoniac. Mignon and Barré told her that she was infested by devils and in the ravings induced by their exorcisms she herself would say as much. But she had, as yet, no feeling of being possessed by the seven demons (six after the departure of Asmodeus) who were supposed to be encamped in her tiny body. Here is her own analysis of the situation.

“I did not then believe that one could be possessed without having given consent to, or made a pact with, the devil; in which I was mistaken, for the most innocent and even the most holy can be possessed. I myself was not of the number of the innocent; for thousands upon thousands of times I had given myself over to the devil by committing sin and making continual resistance to grace. . . . The demons insinuated themselves into my mind and inclinations, in such sort that, through the evil dispositions they found in me, they made of me one and the same substance with themselves. . . . Ordinarily the demons acted in conformity with the feelings I had in my soul; this they did so subtly that I myself did not believe that I had any demons within me. I felt insulted when people showed that they suspected me of being possessed, and if anyone talked to me of my possession by the demons, I felt a violent emotion of anger and could not control the expression of my resentment.” This means that the person who could not help dreaming of M. Grandier, the person whom M. Barré was treating as a kind of laboratory animal, was not conscious, outside the exorcisms and during waking hours, of being in any way abnormal. The ecstasies of humiliation and of hallucinatory sensuality were being inflicted upon a mind that still felt itself to be that of an average sensual woman who had had the bad luck to land in a convent, when she ought to have married and reared a family.

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