The Devils of Loudun Page 84


WITH Sœur Jeanne’s pilgrimage we emerge for a few brief weeks from the shades of a provincial cloister into the great world. It is the world of the history books, the world of royal personages and intriguing courtiers, the world of duchesses with a taste for love and prelates with a taste for power, the world of high policy and high fashion, of Rubens and Descartes, of science, literature, learning. From Loudun and the company of a mystic, seven devils and sixteen hysterics, the Prioress now stepped out into the full glare of the seventeenth century.

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 the personages of other times and alien cultures we recognize our all too human selves and yet are aware, as we do so, that the frame of reference within which we do our living has changed, since their day, out of all recognition, that propositions which seemed axiomatic then are now untenable and that what we regard as the most self-evident postulates could not, at an earlier period, find entrance into even the most boldly speculative mind. But however great, however important for thought and technology, for social organization and behaviour, the differences between then and now are always peripheral. At the centre remains a fundamental identity. In so far as they are incarnated minds, subject to physical decay and death, capable of pain and pleasure, driven by craving and abhorrence and oscillating between the desire for self-assertion and the desire for self-transcendence, human beings are faced, at every time and place, with the same problems, are confronted by the same temptations and are permitted by the Order of Things to make the same choice between unregeneracy and enlightenment. The context changes, but the gist and the meaning are invariable.

Sœur Jeanne was in no position to understand the prodigious developments in scientific thought and practice which had begun to take place in the world around her. Of those aspects of seventeenth-century culture represented by Galileo and Descartes, by Harvey and van Helmont, the Prioress was totally unaware. What she had known as a child, and what she now rediscovered in the course of her pilgrimage, was the social hierarchy and the conventions of thought and feeling and behaviour to which the existence of that hierarchy gave rise.

In one of its aspects the culture of the seventeenth century, especially in France, was simply a prolonged effort, on the part of the ruling minority, to overstep the limitations of organic existence. More than at almost any other period of recent history, men and women aspired to identify themselves with their social persona. They were not content merely to bear a great name; they longed to be it. Their ambition was actually to become the offices they held, the dignities they had acquired or inherited. Hence the elaboration of baroque ceremonial, hence those rigid and complex codes of precedence, of honour, of good manners. Relations were not between human beings, but between titles, genealogies and positions. Who had the right to sit in the royal presence? For Saint-Simon, at the end of the century, the question was one of capital importance. Three generations earlier, similar questions had preyed upon the mind of the infant Louis XIII. By the time he was four he had come to feel very strongly that his bastard half-brother, the Duke of Vendôme, should not be permitted to eat his meals with him or remain covered in his presence. When Henri IV decreed that “Féfé Vendôme” was to sit at the Dauphin’s table and keep his hat on while dining, the little Prince was forced to obey—but with the worst possible grace. Nothing more vividly illuminates the theory and practice of the Divine Right of Kings than this matter of the royal hat. At nine years of age Louis XIII passed from the care of a governess to that of a governor. In the presence of a being who was, by definition, divine, the King’s tutor remained permanently hatless. And this rule held good even when (as the late King and the Queen Mother had charged him to do) he was inflicting corporal punishment on his pupil. On these occasions the monarch, with his hat on, but his pants off, was birched till the blood ran by a subject, reverently bare-headed, as though before the Sacrament on the altar. The spectacle, as we try to visualize it, is unforgettably instructive. “There’s a divinity doth hedge a king, rough-hew him how we may.”

The longing to be something more than mere flesh and blood reveals itself very clearly in the arts of our period. Kings and queens, lords and ladies, liked to think of themselves as Rubens represented their persons and their allegorized characteristics—as superhumanly energetic, divinely healthy, heroically commanding. They were ready to pay through the nose in order to see themselves as Van Dyck portraits—elegant, refined, infinitely aristocratic. In the theatre they loved the heroes and heroines of Corneille, loved them for their mere size, loved them for their monolithic and superhuman consistency, their cult of the will, their worship of themselves. And ever more strictly, as the years went by, they insisted on the unities of time, place and action; for what they wished to see in their tragic theatre was not life as it is, but life corrected, life reduced to order, life as it might be if only men and women were something other than what in fact they are.

In the field of domestic architecture the desire for a more than human grandiosity was no less conspicuously displayed. The fact was remarked by a poet who was a boy when the Palais Cardinal was building and who died before Versailles was completed—Andrew Marvell.

Why should, of all things, man unrul’d

Such unproportioned dwellings build?

The beasts are by their dens express’d

And birds contrive an equal nest;

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