The Devils of Loudun Page 6

Hardly less gratifying than the friendship of these choice spirits was the enmity displayed by all the others, the outsiders. To be mistrusted by the stupid because he was so clever, to be envied by the inept because he had made good, to be loathed by the dull for his wit, by the boors for his breeding and by the unattractive for his success with women—what a tribute to his universal superiority! And the hatred was not one-sided. Grandier detested his enemies as heartily as they detested him. “‘Damn’ braces, ‘bless’ relaxes.” There are many people for whom hate and rage pay a higher dividend of immediate satisfaction than love. Congenitally aggressive, they soon become adrenaline addicts, deliberately indulging their ugliest passions for the sake of the ‘kick’ they derive from their psychically stimulated endocrines. Knowing that one self-assertion always ends by evoking other and hostile self-assertions, they sedulously cultivate their truculence. And, sure enough, very soon they find themselves in the thick of a fight. But a fight is what they most enjoy; for it is while they are fighting that their blood chemistry makes them feel most intensely themselves. ‘Feeling good,’ they naturally assume that they are good. Adrenaline addiction is rationalized as Righteous Indignation and finally, like the prophet Jonah, they are convinced, unshakably, that they do well to be angry.

Almost from the first moment of his arrival at Loudun, Grandier was involved in a series of unseemly but, so far as he was concerned, thoroughly enjoyable quarrels. One gentleman actually drew his sword against the parson. With another, the Lieutenant Criminel, who headed the local police force, he indulged in a public slanging match, which soon degenerated into physical violence. Outnumbered, the parson and his acolytes had to barricade themselves in the chapel of the castle. Next day Grandier complained to the ecclesiastical court and the Lieutenant Criminel was duly reprimanded for his part in the scandalous affair. For the Curé it was a triumph—but at a price. An influential man who had merely felt an unreasoned dislike for him was now his mortal and inveterate enemy, on the watch for any opportunity to be revenged.

As a matter of elementary prudence no less than of Christian principle, the parson should have done his utmost to conciliate the enmities by which he was surrounded. But in spite of all those years with the Jesuits, Grandier was still very far from being a Christian; and in spite of all the good advice he received from d’Armagnac and his other friends, he was incapable, where his passions were involved, of acting with prudence. A long religious training had not abolished or even mitigated his self-love; it had served only to provide the ego with a theological alibi. The untutored egotist merely wants what he wants. Give him a religious education, and it becomes obvious to him, it becomes axiomatic, that what he wants is what God wants, that his cause is the cause of whatever he may happen to regard as the True Church and that any compromise is a metaphysical Munich, an appeasement of Radical Evil. “Agree with thine adversary while thou art in the way with him.” To men like Grandier, Christ’s advice seems like a blasphemous invitation to make a pact with Beelzebub. Instead of trying to come to terms with his enemies, the parson set to work to exacerbate their hostility by every means in his power. And his power, in this respect, amounted almost to genius.

The Good Fairy, who visits the cradles of the privileged, is often the Bad Fairy in a luminous disguise. She comes loaded with presents; but her bounty, all too often, is fatal. To Urbain Grandier, for example, the Good Fairy had brought, along with solid talents, the most dazzling of all gifts, and the most dangerous—eloquence. Spoken by a good actor—and every great preacher, every successful advocate and politician is, among other things, a consummate actor—words can exercise an almost magical power over their hearers. Because of the essential irrationality of this power, even the best-intentioned of public speakers probably do more harm than good. When an orator, by the mere magic of words and a golden voice, persuades his audience of the rightness of a bad cause, we are very properly shocked. We ought to feel the same dismay whenever we find the same irrelevant tricks being used to persuade people of the rightness of a good cause. The belief engendered may be desirable, but the grounds for it are intrinsically wrong, and those who use the devices of oratory for instilling even right beliefs are guilty of pandering to the least creditable elements in human nature. By exercising their disastrous gift of the gab, they deepen the quasi-hypnotic trance in which most human beings live and from which it is the aim and purpose of all true philosophy, all genuinely spiritual religion to deliver them. Moreover, there cannot be effective oratory without over-simplification. But you cannot over-simplify without distorting the facts. Even when he is doing his best to tell the truth, the successful orator is ipso facto a liar. And most successful orators, it is hardly necessary to add, are not even trying to tell the truth; they are trying to evoke sympathy for their friends and antipathy for their opponents. Grandier, alas, was one of the majority. Sunday after Sunday, in the pulpit of St. Peter’s, he gave his celebrated imitations of Jeremiah and Ezekiel, of Demosthenes, of Savonarola, even of Rabelais—for he was as good at derision as at righteous indignation, at irony as at apocalyptic thunder.

Nature abhors a vacuum, even in the mind. Today the aching void of boredom is filled and perpetually renewed by movies and radio, television and the comic strips. More fortunate than we, or else less fortunate (who knows?), our ancestors depended, for the assuagement of their ennui, on the weekly performances of their parish priest, supplemented from time to time by the discourses of visiting Capuchins or travelling Jesuits. Preaching is an art, and in this, as in all other arts, the bad performers fa • outnumber the good. The parishioners of St. Peter’s in the Market could congratulate themselves or possessing, in the Reverend Grandier, a superb virtuoso, ready and able to improvise entertainingly on the sublimest Christian mystery as well as on the most touchy, the most delicate and scabrous of parochial issues. How roundly he denounced abuses, how fearlessly he reproved even those in high places! The chronically bored majority were delighted. Their applause merely served to increase the fury of those who had been made the victims of the parson’s eloquence.

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