Podium: Facing demons in our own image

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The Independent Culture
Steve Connor

From a lecture by the professor of modern literature to the `Becoming Human' conference at Birkbeck College, London

WE ARE accustomed to think of the "demonomania" of the 16th and 17th centuries in Europe as the expression of a wave of irrationality, unleashing itself in the form of a gynocidal frenzy directed at women and various forms of outsider, and legitimating a judicial savagery on a massive scale.

I will content myself with drawing attention to a strikingly persistent sub-theme which accompanies all the writings on witchcraft, demonology and spirit possession - namely, the difficulty of distinguishing real from pretended effects.

It has always been obvious to even the most credulous viewers how easy it is to counterfeit the signs of possession: the roaring, foaming, convulsion, the disgorging of pins, the ventriloquial voices from the belly. Exorcists were thus at pains not only to specify measures for the expulsion of demons, but also to distinguish the infallible signs of real, as opposed to counterfeited, possession - signs which, of course, made the job of the counterfeit much easier and the necessity of testing the reality of the demon all the more imperative.

The one simulating the signs of demonic possession is hard to distinguish from the real victim of demonic possession, because possession is an act of simulation; the one who pretends to have a devil, pretends to have been occupied by a spirit whose nature it is to pretend to existence. This means that even the simulator is genuinely occupied by the spirit of counterfeit. The practice of simulating possession is seen as the work of the devil.

This also explains why it is that Protestant sensibilities are so much more in awe of the demonic than Catholics in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. On the whole, Protestants such as the Bishop of London, Samuel Harsnett, who mounted a campaign in the early 1600s to banish the practice of exorcism from the English Church as unholy, pagan and politically subversive, did not attach much credence either to the power of demons, or to the pretended power of the priests who claimed to dismiss them. Harsnett published his Declaration of Egregious

The more enthusiastic Catholic exorcists readily drew or drove the demon into utterance, in order either to score sectarian points (Catholic devils are always boasting of their intimate relations with Huguenots), or to demonstrate the necessity even for demons to acknowledge the apostolic power of the Catholic priest as the representative of Christ, or the magical sanctity of the host and other holy objects.

Once the devil has a name and a number (Catholics were keen on multiple possessions, and on identifying all the participants in a particular case), its days were numbered.

The flood of narratives of possession, from Invasion of the Body Snatchers onwards, through the Omen films, the Friday 13th sequence and the stories of alien abduction, are accompanied by representations of the Victorian supernatural, from the fairies of Conan Doyle, through to the fascination with mesmerism in novels such as Alias Grace, along with the revival of interest in seances and spiritualism. The haunting is, we might say, transactive, rather than transitive: it is we who are haunted or obsessed with the belief that others might have been haunted and obsessed.

In all this the demon threatens to lose his name and shape, precisely through being generalised and familiarised. In philosophical thinking, the demon becomes associated with impersonal forces which haunt and thwart the power of rational self-determination: with illusion and error in Descartes; with the operations of chance in Maxwell's demon, with will and power in Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, and sexuality in popular Freudianism; and finally, perhaps, with Serres's parasite.

The power of the demon is the power of human reason to make itself powerless before counterfeits of its own making, so the power of the idea of power consists in the acts of representation which act as a magical prophylactic against the fear that power may be dissipated by those very acts of representation. Or, in short: we need human bearers of the inhuman force of power, lest the bracing force of the inhuman vanish altogether.

All that would remain would be for me to call for an end to this infantile mummery, this submission of our human reason and responsibility to fantasms of inhuman powers that are powerful in proportion to their unreality.

Only by first looking the seemingly inhuman full in the face, will we be able at last to avert our eyes from its fascination, so that, tomorrow, we can become human.