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
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

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

    Armenian genocide: To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie

    Armenian genocide and the 'good Turks'

    To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie
    Lou Reed: The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond the biographers' and memoirists' myths

    'Lou needed care, but what he got was ECT'

    The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond
    Migrant boat disaster: This human tragedy has been brewing for four years and EU states can't say they were not warned

    This human tragedy has been brewing for years

    EU states can't say they were not warned
    Women's sportswear: From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help

    Women's sportswear

    From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help
    Hillary Clinton's outfits will be as important as her policies in her presidential bid

    Clinton's clothes

    Like it or not, her outfits will be as important as her policies
    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
    Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

    UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

    Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
    John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

    ‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

    Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
    Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

    Let the propaganda wars begin - again

    'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

    Japan's incredible long-distance runners

    Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
    Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

    Tom Drury: The quiet American

    His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace