Podium: Facing demons in our own image

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.

Arts and Entertainment
Chloe-Jasmine Whicello impressed the judges and the audience at Wembley Arena with a sultry performance
TVReview: Who'd have known Simon was such a Roger Rabbit fan?
News
Rumer was diagnosed with bipolarity, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder: 'I was convinced it was a misdiagnosis'
peopleHer debut album caused her post-traumatic stress - how will she cope as she releases her third record?
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Frost will star in the Doctor Who 2014 Christmas special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Friends is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year
TV
Arts and Entertainment
A spell in the sun: Emma Stone and Colin Firth star in ‘Magic in the Moonlight’
filmReview: Magic In The Moonlight
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams plays 'bad ass' Arya Stark in Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Liam Neeson said he wouldn't

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Meera Syal was a member of the team that created Goodness Gracious Me

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The former Doctor Who actor is to play a vicar is search of a wife

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pointless host Alexander Armstrong will voice Danger Mouse on CBBC

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jack Huston is the new Ben-Hur

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne modelling

film
Arts and Entertainment
Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel are bringing Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street to the London Coliseum

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke's video for 'Blurred Lines' has been criticised for condoning rape

Robin Thicke admits he didn't write 'Blurred Lines'

music
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Damon as Jason Bourne in The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

Review: Cilla, ITV TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars with Cillian Murphy in Peaky Blinders II

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

    Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

    Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
    Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

    Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

    The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
    The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

    Scrambled eggs and LSD

    Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
    'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

    'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

    Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
    Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

    New leading ladies of dance fight back

    How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam