WHATSAPP WITH WINE
Updated: Dec 5, 2018
WhatsApp With Wine is where I 'WhatsApp' a guest for an interview about a recommended book for secondary school teachers. This book is strictly not about how to teach better: it should be a book that inspires more reading, knowledge, discussion and critical thinking. The interview does not have to take place over WhatsApp and drinking wine is not compulsory. Otherwise I feel that the title is perfect.
Dameon Garnett is a teacher of drama and a playwright. He chose to discuss The Devils of Loudun, by Aldous Huxley
The Devils of Loudun (1952) by Aldous Huxley
It’s about power and the abuse of power
The Devils of Loudon by Aldous Huxley was recommended to me by a colleague, Dameon Garnett. Actually, it was more like an imperative than a recommendation. He has a habit of not talking to you until you have read his prescribed titles, which I happen to think is fair. I had also seen and been wowed by the Ken Russell movie adaptation, The Devils. When I invited Dameon to get opinionated about a book it was me who suggested Loudun. “Actually, yeah, I’ll talk about that,” he says.
“So what’s it about?” I ask, pouring myself a glass of Cab Sav.
“It’s about power and the abuse of power,” responds Dameon. Part novel and part historical narrative, The Devils of Loudun tells the story of Loudun, a small town in seventeenth century France. The handsome and popular local priest, Urbain Grandier, is accused of consorting with the devil by the autocratic and cynical Cardinal Richelieu. When Grandier refuses to confess to witchcraft he is tortured on the orders of the frantic Richelieu whose own reputation becomes threatened by Grandier’s stubbornness.
The real devils are the secular operators, who use witchcraft to control the populace of Loudun.
So where does the theme of power begin? “Cardinal Richelieu was trying to make France a Catholic superstate, ruled centrally from Paris. And the self governing towns were to lose their autonomy.” Loudun had become something of a nest for subversives, or so Richelieu feared. “He (Huxley) was not so interested in big personalities,” says Dameon. The point about Richelieu, within this power dynamic, is that he did not really believe in the witchcraft offences of which Grandier stands accused. Witchcraft becomes a convenient way to deal with non-conformists.
The main power dynamic between Grandier and Richelieu dates back before the event at Loudun. Richelieu wants state control; Grandier resists and has publicly criticised Richelieu. “Grandier is actually a flawed person, but when the chance comes to take a stand, he realises he can redeem himself,” explains Dameon. “All of this is subject to Huxley’s interpretation, so we very much rely upon his narration.”
“The real devils,” Dameon goes on, “are the secular operators, who use witchcraft to control the populace of Loudun.” Writing in the 1950s, Huxley is reflecting upon the secular age and the way that secularism has created a void. Without God, goes the much asked question, what is left? Much of the novel deviates from the seventeenth century to Huxley’s personal reflections on the twentieth century that he inhabited. “At least in the seventeenth century there is a belief in a soul to be saved and Huxley is very mindful of this,” Dameon adds. Compared to the attitude of a dictator like Stalin, there is something liberating about the persecution under religious politicians: Stalin saw a death as a mere statistic; Richelieu at least believes in a soul to be saved.
His mind was so vast
The parallels with today’s society are uncomfortably palpable. It does not take much to demonise and invalidate an opponent in the twenty first century. The labels such as ‘fascist’, ‘racist’ and ‘misogynist’ are cried by the self-appointed reformers of our day, in much the same way as Richelieu in the novel. Perhaps the most alluring aspect of The Devils of Loudun is the way that Huxley offers his wisdom of contemporary society and religion to understand the events at Loudun. Reflections on football violence, Hinduism and self-transcendence are used to contextualise pre-enlightenment attitudes.
“His mind was so vast,” says Dameon of Huxley, “knowledge about science as well as religion.” Extensive knowledge made Huxley especially prescient, realising that those in power, like Richelieu, would come to use superstition as a means to quash dissidence and establish autocracies. Huxley also offers an interesting challenge to the notion of the progressive enlightenment. Whilst many good things came from it, the secular society has created a vacuum which is easily filled by bureaucratic leaders. When leaders become less God-fearing they come to occupy the vacant God.
By this point my glass was not even half full. I need to read The Devils of Loudun again to have any chance of matching Dameon’s knowledge. But I do remember it being a compelling piece of semi-fiction, although the later interrogation passages are not for the faint-hearted.
The Devils of Loudun, by Aldous Huxley is published by Vintage Classics.