“Because they do these things for the sake of a group which is, by definition, good and even sacred, they can admire themselves and loathe their neighbours, they can seek power and money, can enjoy the pleasures of aggression and cruelty, not merely without feeling guilty, but with a positive glow of conscious virtue. Loyalty to their group transforms these pleasant vices into acts of heroism….”
I recently re-read Aldous Huxley’s The Devils of Loudun, expecting to find instructive parallels and commentary relevant to our contemporary world of twitch hunts, “call-out culture,” and internet mobbery, but not, perhaps,expecting to find quite so much of that sort of thing. I’ve pulled some quotes, which are below (after what turned out to be a much lengthier preamble than intended — ed.)
The Crucible is, of course, the usual go-to text when literary allusions of this kind are called for, but for my money there is no better, more compelling exploration of the social dynamics of moral panic, intolerance, and mass hysteria than Huxley’s book. It does not present a reassuring or comforting lesson, but if you’re interested in the nature of witch hunts, how they occur and develop, and why we enjoy them so much, you might as well start with the unvarnished truth.
Like much great literature, this book does several things simultaneously: it is a compelling historical “non-fiction novel”, a gripping sort of period courtroom drama, a genuine work of history, an imaginative animation of documentary evidence revealing with great sensitivity an underlying human story, a lurid account of human barbarism, and of judicial and political corruption and malfeasance, and… well, it is this and many other things all at once. Above all, though, I believe, it is an oblique, understated, and elegant plea for tolerance, love, and rationality, and an earnest one despite acute awareness of the paradox that rationality, while often regarded as a defining faculty of the human soul, is always precarious and tenuous when the behavior of human beings is concerned.
I don’t intend to describe or analyze the book in any detail (I’ll just let the quotes speak for themselves) but the basic story concerns a parish priest named Urbain Grandier in the 17th-century French village of Loudun, who was accused of seducing an entire convent of nuns with the aid of devils summoned through his command of the dark arts and the practice of witchcraft. It is a complex, many-layered tale of parochial and world politics, of jealousies petty and grand, of ambitious and unscrupulous men and women, with lurid accounts of debauchery, superstition, and ignorance, as well as the interplay of corrupt institutions, the madness of crowds, sexual repression, mass hysteria, forged (er, yeah) documents “stolen from Lucifer’s pact cabinet” by the demon Asmodeus, the lure of the unexplained and the paranormal, the problem of good and evil, the streak of cruelty and delight in the suffering of others that runs through every human heart, and the meaning and end of religion, so to speak.
It’s more of a page-turner than you probably think, even through the denser philosophical-theological bits. Urbain Grandier was quite likely guilty of hubris and arrogance, and no doubt of sexual impropriety as well. We might call it abusing the power differential of institutional privilege emodied in supra-penumbral emanations of hegemonic authority or somesuch nowadays. (I don’t know what kind of contemporary book we’d get on the devils of Loudun, but I doubt very much it would be a plea for tolerance.) Of the witchcraft, though, he was clearly not guilty, even granting the existence of witchcraft and the possibility of summoning demons to assist in seductions.
But technical innocence made no difference to the subsequent course of events. Abetted by the machinations of ambitious and corrupt officials and of one aspiring to the stardom of sainthood, and with outlandish, theatrical public displays of possession and an audience eager to be entertained while yet being played like so many violins, the result was fore-ordained from the moment the accusation was made: brutal public torture followed by burning alive.
Now, I said I’d “re-read” the book, and — sorry for further extending this already over-long preamble — I have a comment on that. I first read this book when I was around fifteen, and I would say I got practically nothing of importance out of the experience. I fancied myself a budding sort of intellectual type, and pushed my way through many a book of this kind without much regard to the specific contents simply so I could say I’d got it under my belt and put the “kicked” book on the shelf. And it occurs to me that that’s the case with most of the “important” books I even now consider myself to have read. One reads most books of this sort in the high school and college years, and thereafter usually (unless I’m mistaken) that kind of reading tends to trail off. The result is that I — maybe you as well? — walk around with impressions and unexamined opinions on books formed at a time when I was, not to put too fine a point on it, an inattentive idiot. Yet the opinions remain. Let’s have a discussion about, say, Camus one day and we will both be able to observe the profound depth of ignorance upon which I formed my nevertheless confident understanding of the corpus never realizing the failing till the point of having to articulate it. No, actually, let’s not.
The only cure would be to re-read everything. And there isn’t time to do that. It’s too late. So you just have to muddle through, reminding yourself from time to time, if you’re humble and honest enough, that your own opinion is not to be trusted.
On my initial reading of The Devils of Loudun, very little of the plea for tolerance got through my thick skull. No doubt I skimmed past the oblique homilies and passages like those I quote below, noting them only as rote clichés of the sort customarily mentioned to point out how terrible it was that decent hardworking Communists got blacklisted in Hollywood yon some years ago. I was, as any adolescent might be, in it for the sex; the torture; the demons; perhaps also to indulge in the pleasure of superior, self-flattering and very misguided cultural-intellectual chauvinism (“look how stupid all these ignorant old-timey dumbos were way back then”); and (as a youth of my time, the ‘70s) above all I was in it for all the magic, witchcraft, and demonology. Possibly the spectacle of injustice, though unanalyzed, did prick through my overconfident, incurious shell just a bit — that’s always something that has exercised me, even back then, for some reason. This emphasis, that I now characterize as essentially adolescent, is by and large that of the Ken Russell film (The Devils, 1971) which turns Huxley’s subtle, complex analysis of the human condition into a florid counterculture horror film. It’s just the film I’d have made at fifteen as well.
Most importantly, I missed the brilliant ambiguity of the title. You begin the book thinking you’ll be reading about the devils who have, or who possibly have not, possessed the hapless Ursuline nuns. By the end, you realize: the devils are just as plausibly understood as the accusers, the prosecutors, and their willing accomplices, the audience. That is: us. We are the devils.
I think part of the problem there is that the social dynamic of moral panic and mob behavior had never been visible to me directly and it didn’t quite seem real enough to care about. McCarthyism was long past, and everyone seemed to agree it was a sin long vanquished, the good guys having won, despite the rote tropes mentioned above. The child daycare abuse “Satanic panic” hysteria of the ’80s was just getting started, and though I was aware of it enough to laugh at the silliness of trying to save the children by banning heavy metal albums and the absurdity of Geraldo’s Satanic network exposés and such, for some reason, the reality that multitudes of innocent people were being rounded up and imprisoned on the basis of the most ludicrous, sometimes literally physically impossible, allegations (many of them closely paralleling the sorts of accusations in the Urbain Grandier trials)… well, that somehow never managed to penetrate my consciousness in a meaningful way, certainly not with the horror that it does now. (nb. Some of these “Satanists” rot in prison to this day. We’re monsters. It’s funny how no one remembers being part of it now that it’s recognized as an outlandish spasm of madness. Satanic panic was very popular and got great ratings at the time. Chances are, had you been around then, that you’d have been in on it.)
But now we have the internet to reveal our failings inescapably. If we do it, if we think it, it’s out there. There has never been anything close to the kind of comprehensive document of mass psychology and human group dynamics that we’ve got in the mess that is our social media. And while no one’s being burnt alive or anything like that, and while we won’t be able assess the phenomenon, whatever it is, properly, or to identify its contours till it is behind us — it is, in fact, a great muddle, resisting reliable analysis or even precise description while we’re in the midst of it — many people have noticed the qualities of moral panic and its associated mob behaviors in the way we conduct ourselves “virtually.” It’s hard not to notice it. And maybe that’s the difference between now and the ’70s, between now and any previous time; you don’t need Aldous Huxley to tease it out of dusty archives and write it up with splendidly understated irony in pristine prose 400 years later. You just need to log on to Twitter.
(And, by the way, if you think this mob dynamic afflicts the behavior only of members of reference-groups opposed to your own, or afflicts your reference group less so because you’re “the good people” who are “on the right side of history,” let me just quote myself here: of course you think the “other side” does it all the time while yours does it hardly at all; thinking that is part of “it.”)
Now, what to do with this all? You could simply salute Huxley’s genius and marvel at the fact that his mid-20th-century work illuminates our 21st-century experience through reference to a 17th-century case; and you could indulge in grim satisfaction, perhaps, at the confirmation of there being, as you may have suspected all along, nihil sub sole novum. (Misanthropes and social pessimists find that sort of thing oddly comforting.) There’s value in recognizing and facing our essential human frailty and capacity for evil and folly, if only as a basis for seeking redemption, which even devils like us can do. We might like to imagine that someone, somewhere, could take Huxley to heart and, when next presented with the opportunity to join a virtual auto-da-fé, simply decline to participate. But of course, that’s not the nature of this beast. People in such mobs, those dancing around the auto-da-fé, don’t tend to grasp that that’s what they’re doing; and then, long after, somehow, they manage to forget about their participation entirely while they turn around and condemn the auto-da-fé after the fact along with everyone else. Following the herd is a hard habit to break, and amnesia, no less than madness and cruelty, is part of human nature. Once one might have looked to education in the liberal arts to mitigate these excesses. But we seem largely to have dismantled that nice, nice idea. Have a great day.
Maybe there’s nothing to be done but wait till it all blows over and burns itself out, when vituperative mobbings will have finally become less fashionable, less respected, more susceptible to reproach, less profitable, and less appealing, even, perhaps, simply embarrassing to admit to being a part of— as such episodes always have done thus far in history. Or perhaps the internet has fundamentally changed us, and this is just the way we behave towards each other now, whatever the matter at hand, permanently, forever. I sure hope not, though.
Now, the quotes.
Partisan loyalty is socially disastrous; but for individuals it can be richly rewarding — more rewarding, in many ways, than even concupiscence or avarice. Whoremongers and money-grubbers find it hard to feel very proud of their activities. But partisanship is a complex passion which permits those who indulge in it to make the best of both worlds. Because they do these things for the sake of a group which is, by definition, good and even sacred, they can admire themselves and loathe their neighbours, they can seek power and money, can enjoy the pleasures of aggression and cruelty, not merely without feeling guilty, but with a positive glow of conscious virtue. Loyalty to their group transforms these pleasant vices into acts of heroism. Partisans are aware of themselves, not as sinners or criminals, but as altruists and idealists. And with certain qualifications this is in fact what they are. The only trouble is that their altruism is merely egotism at one remove, and that the ideal, for which they are ready in many cases to lay down their lives, is nothing but the rationalization of corporate interests and party passions.
Montaigne concludes with one of those golden sentences which deserve to be inscribed over the altar of every church, above the bench of every magistrate, on the walls of every lecture hall, every senate and parliament, every government office and council chamber. “After all,” (write the words in neon, write in letters as tall as a man!) “after all, it is rating one’s conjectures at a very high price to roast a man alive on the strength of them.”
Individually and in the co-ordinated and purposive groups which constitute a healthy society, men and women display a certain capacity for rational thought and free choice in the light of ethical principles. Herded into mobs, the same men and women behave as though they possessed neither reason nor free will. Crowd-intoxication reduces them to a condition of infrapersonal and antisocial irresponsibility. Drugged by the mysterious poison which every excited herd secretes, they fall into a state of heightened suggestibility, resembling that which follows an injection of sodium amytal or the induction, by whatever means, of a light hypnotic trance. While in this state they will believe any nonsense that may be bawled at them, will act upon any command or exhortation, however senseless, mad or criminal.
Since Lauberdemont’s time, evil has made some progress. Under Communist dictators, those who come to trial before a People’s Court invariably confess the crimes of which they have been accused — confess them even when they are imaginary. In the past, confession was by no means invariable. Even under torture, even at the stake, Grandier protested his innocence. And Grandier’s case was by no means unique. Many persons, women no less than men, went through similar experiences with the same indomitable constancy. Our ancestors invented the rack and the iron maiden, the boot and the water torture; but in the subtler arts of breaking the will and reducing the human being to subhumanity they still had much to learn…
For the totalitarians of our more enlightened century there is no soul and no Creator; there is merely a lump of physiological raw material moulded by conditioned reflexes and social pressures into what, by courtesy, is still called a human being. This product of the man-made environment is without intrinsic significance and possesses no rights of self-determination. It exists for Society and must conform to the Collective Will. In practice, of course, Society is nothing but the national State, and as a matter of brute fact, the Collective Will is merely the dictator’s will-to-power, sometimes mitigated, sometimes distorted to the verge of lunacy, by some pseudo-scientific theory of what, in the gorgeous future, will be good for an actuarial abstraction labeled ‘Humanity.’ Individuals are defined as the products and the instruments of Society. From this it follows that the political bosses, who claim to represent Society, are justified in committing any conceivable atrocity against such persons as they may choose to call Society’s enemies. Physical extermination by shooting (or, more profitably, by overwork in a slave labour camp) is not enough. It is a matter of observable fact that men and women are not the mere creatures of Society. But official theory proclaims that they are. Therefore it becomes necessary to depersonalize the ‘enemies of Society’ in order to transform the official lie into truth. For those who know the trick, this reduction of the human to the subhuman, of the free individual to the obedient automaton, is a relatively simple matter. The personality of man is far less monolithic than the theologians were compelled by their dogmas to assume. The soul is not the same as the Spirit, but is merely associated with it. In itself, and until it consciously chooses to make way for the Spirit, it is no more than a rather loosely tied bundle of not very stable psychological elements. This composite entity can quite easily be disintegrated by anyone ruthless enough to wish to try and skillful enough to do the job in the right way.