The Devils of Loudun Page 53

The coming of Descartes and the general acceptance of what at that time seemed a more ‘scientific’ theory of human nature did not improve matters; indeed, in some respects it caused men’s thinking about themselves to become less realistic than it had been under the older dispensation. Devils passed out of the picture; but along with the devils went any kind of serious consideration of the phenomena once attributed to diabolic agency. The exorcists had at least recognized such facts as trance, catalepsy, split personality and extra-sensory perception. The psychologists who came after Descartes were inclined either to dismiss the facts as non-existent, or to account for them, if they did not permit themselves to be dismissed, as the product of a something called ‘imagination.’ For men of science, ‘imagination’ was almost synonymous with ‘illusion.’ The phenomena attributed to it (such as the cures which Mesmer effected during the magnetic sleep) might safely and properly be ignored. Descartes’s mighty effort to think geometrically about human nature had led, no doubt, to the formulation of some admirably ‘clear ideas.’ But unhappily these clear ideas could be entertained only by those who chose to ignore a whole class of highly significant facts. Pre-Cartesian philosophers took account of these facts and were compelled by their own psychological theories to attribute them to supernatural causes. Today we are able to accept the facts and to explain them without having recourse to devils. We can think of the mind (as opposed to the ‘spirit,’ or ‘pure ego,’ or ‘Atman’) as something radically different from the Cartesian and pre-Cartesian soul. The soul of the earlier philosophers was dogmatically defined as simple, indivisible and immortal. For us, it is manifestly a compound, whose identity, in Ribot’s words, “is a question of number.” This bundle of elements can be disintegrated and, though it probably survives bodily death, it survives in time, as something subject to change and to ultimate dissolution. Immortality belongs not to the psyche but to the spirit, with which, if it so chooses, the psyche may identify itself. According to Descartes, minds have consciousness as their essence; they can interact with the matter in their own body, but not directly with other matter or with other minds. Pre-Cartesian thinkers would probably have agreed with all these propositions except the first. Consciousness, for them, was the essence of the rational soul; but many of the operations of sensitive and vegetal souls were unconscious. Descartes regarded the body as a self-regulating automaton, and therefore had no need to postulate the existence of these subsidiary souls. Between the conscious ‘I’ and what one may call the Physiological Unconscious, we now infer the existence of wide ranges of subconscious mental activity. Moreover, we have to admit, if we accept the evidence for extra-sensory perception and psycho-kinesis, that on the subconscious level minds can and do act directly upon other minds and upon matter outside their respective bodies. The queer happenings which Descartes and his followers chose to ignore, and which his predecessors accepted as facts, but could only explain in terms of diabolic infestation, are now recognized as being due to the natural operations of a mind whose range, whose powers and whose weaknesses are all far greater than a study of its conscious aspect would lead us to believe.

We see, then, that if the idea of fraud were excluded, the only purely psychological explanation of what was happening at Loudun was an explanation in terms of sorcery and possession. But there were many who never thought of the matter in purely psychological terms. To them it seemed obvious that such phenomena as were manifested by Sœur Jeanne could be explained in terms of physiology and ought to be treated accordingly. The more Draconian among them prescribed the application to the bare skin of a good birch rod. Tallemant records that the Marquis de Couldray-Montpensier withdrew his two possessed daughters from the hands of the exorcists and “had them well fed and soundly whipped; the devil took his leave immediately.” At Loudun itself, during the later stages of the possession, the whip was prescribed with increasing frequency, and Surin records that devils who merely laughed at the rites of the Church were often routed by the discipline.

In many cases old-fashioned whipping was probably just as effective as modern shock treatment, and for the same reason: namely, that the subconscious mind developed such a fear of the tortures prepared for its body that, rather than undergo them again, it decided to stop behaving as though it were crazy.1 Up to the opening years of the nineteenth century, shock treatment by whipping was regularly employed in all cases of unequivocal insanity.

In the bonny halls of Bedlam,

Ere I was one-and-twenty,

I had bracelets strong, sweet whips ding-dong,

And prayer and fasting plenty.

Now I do sing, “Any food, any feeding,

Feeding, drink or clothing?

Come dame, or maid, be not afraid,

Poor Tom will injure nothing.”

Poor Tom was a subject of Queen Elizabeth. But even in the days of George III, two hundred years later, the two houses of Parliament passed a bill authorizing the court physicians to scourge the lunatic king.

For simple neurosis or hysteria, birching was not the invariable treatment. These maladies were caused, according to the medical theories current at the time, by too much black bile, in the wrong place. “Galen,” says Robert Burton, “imputeth all to the cold that is black, and thinks that, the spirits being darkened and the substance of the brain cloudy and dark, all the objects thereof appear terrible, and the mind itself, by these dark, obscure, gross fumes, ascending from black humours, is in continual darkness, fear and sorrow.” Averroës scoffs at Galen for his reasons; so does Hercules de Saxonia. But they are “copiously censured and confuted by Aelianus Montaltus, Lodovicus Mercatus, Altomarus, Guianerius, Bright, Laurentius Valesius. Distemperature, they conclude, makes black juice, blackness obscures the spirits, the spirits obscured cause fear and sorrow. Laurentius supposeth these black fumes offend especially the Diaphragma, or midriff, and so, consequently, the mind, which is obscured as the Sun by a cloud. To this opinion of Galen almost all the Greeks and Arabians subscribe, the Latins new and old; as children are affrighted in the dark, so are melancholy men at all times, as having the inward cause with them, and still carrying it about. Which black vapours, whether they proceed from the black blood about the heart (as Thomas Wright, Jesuit, thinks in his treatise of the passions of the mind) or stomach, spleen, midriff, or all the misaffected parts together, it boots not; they keep the mind in a perpetual dungeon, and oppress it with continual fears, anxieties, sorrows, etc.”

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