Photo by Annette Batista Day

Self-made demoniacs

Beware of pointing the finger, even at the devil

Artillery Row

The small derelict building atop a grassy mound surrounded by a highway intersection had the shape of a chapel. Inside was a mess of broken masonry and various detritus. I could make out where the altar once stood. It felt both sad and sinister as the Catholic conditioning kicked in. I scanned the walls covered in illegible graffiti tags and shapes. Then I looked back and saw one image all too clearly: a large face sprayed in red, sporting a pair of horns and a malevolent grin. I quickly left.   

Earlier during that day’s stage of my Camino pilgrimage in southern Spain, passing through a bucolic landscape of olive trees and streams accompanied by croaking frogs and birdsong, I had to sidestep a dead sheep sprawled across the track. Its rear end was a gaping red and black open wound covered in swarming flies. It brought back fond memories of Afghanistan another arena of good versus evil, apparently looking as if an IED had detonated inside the sheep, with all the explosive force going in one, scatological direction.    

Then there was that strange ornate lamp post in the middle of a small town’s plaza where I stopped for a water break. Little winged devils sat amid the intricate swirling wrought-iron design, grinning at the world. After about 3,000 kilometers of Camino-ing, I was used to statues and iconography of the Holy Family. This was the first time I’d noticed so many images related to the dastardly opposition. 

Admittedly, I had a copy of Aldous Huxley’s The Devils of Loudon zipped into the top flap of my rucksack. Often described as one of Huxley’s best books, it recounts the real events surrounding the 1634 trial of Urbain Grandier, a handsome and dissolute priest accused of conspiring with the devil to seduce an entire convent of nuns in France. 

The uncompromising message chimed with the culture wars generating such pugilistic moods in the US and the UK

The more immersed I became in Huxley’s brilliant account the sexually charged hysteria that attends the demonic possession provided a welcome change to the current lack of passion the more I spotted signs related to the devil and his role in human affairs. I realized I myself was succumbing to that psychological and moral law that afflicted the Loudon nuns and the priests tasked with exorcising their demons.

“No man can concentrate his attention upon evil, or even upon the idea of evil, and remain unaffected,” Huxley says (by the end of the book, a number of priests have gone insane). “To be more against the devil than for God is exceedingly dangerous. Every crusader is apt to go mad. He is haunted by the wickedness which he attributes to his enemies; it becomes in some sort a part of him.”

That brought to mind another scrawl of graffiti I encountered heading out of Bilbao, Spain’s edgy answer to Belin, about 2,000 kilometers farther back on the Camino. “We show no mercy. ONLY THE HARDEST WILL SURVIVE” was sprayed on a wall. I couldn’t find any other references around this uncompromising message to indicate exactly what it referred to but it chimed with the culture wars generating such pugilistic moods in the US and the UK, with politics and social norms caught between the old and the new, between traditional values and progressive ideologies.

When Huxley switches from the narrative of nuns shrieking obscenities, groping the priests and putting their legs behind their heads, to offering his analysis, he does a great job exploring how the perils of religious extremism and paranoia can just as easily permeate the everyday. It needn’t rely on the devil’s hand. 

“Possession is more often secular than supernatural,” Huxley says. “Men are possessed by their thoughts of a hated person, a hated class, race or nation. At the present time the destinies of the world are in the hands of self-made demoniacs of men who are possessed by, and who manifest, the evil they have chosen to see in others.”

He made this point in 1952. As I have noted before regarding Huxley’s observations, there’s much that relates to the present. Because as virtuous and progressive as we like to think of ourselves, the majority of people certainly in developed countries of the West are still as likely to succumb to that human tendency throughout history to point the finger of accusation and blame. It’s him! It’s her! Burn them!! Admittedly the burning is more figurative these days, but it’s still causing enormous harm to individuals lost careers, the mental toll of vitriolic abuse cascading down while polluting the ecosystem of civic discourse.

The latest sacrificial Urbain Grandier appears to be Kate Clanchy, the poet and teacher behind the award-winning book Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me. She is in the crosshairs due to criticism of various descriptions in the book of her students, particularly ethnic minority and autistic children. Perhaps Clanchy is the wicked witch some seem to be making her out to be; but based on a cursory dive into the “scandal”, combined with the current contextual trend surrounding such accusations, I suspect she isn’t and that she would indeed sink to the bottom of the lake (which is basically what is happening to her writing career and, I imagine, to her mental and emotional state).

Evil does take many strange and even banal forms admittedly. But Clanchy a state school teacher for nearly thirty years who promoted poetry written by her young charges just doesn’t seem to fit the bill. Perhaps there has been some wrongdoing on her part though I can’t spot a clear case for it but even if so, it’s important to make the distinction from actual evil. This seems to escape many of those on Clanchy’s Twitter thread who are righteously admonishing her or worse, in the manner of all the other finger-pointing-pile-on’s happening.

“There are many people for whom hate and rage pay a higher dividend of immediate satisfaction than love,” Huxley says, noting the “aching void of boredom” permeating modern society and how “nature abhors a vacuum, even in the mind”. This combination and the resulting state of affairs which ironically involves most of us never having had it so good materialistically and being as safe as we have ever been from infectious diseases and military conflict seems increasingly capable of driving some people potty.       

Religious and secular persecution often draw from the same playbook

“Congenially aggressive, they soon become adrenaline addicts, deliberately indulging their ugliest passions for the sake of the ‘kick’ they derive from their psychically stimulated endocrines…‘feeling good,’ they naturally assume that they are good,” Huxley says. “Adrenaline addiction is rationalized as Righteous Indignation and finally, like the prophet Jonah, they are convinced, unshakably, that they do well to be angry.”

This trend especially toward commonly accepted rights, freedoms, practices and habits of mind is going in a direction that is “very odd”, says former UK ambassador to Saudi Arabia John Jenkins in Islamists and the Left are linked in rejecting the Enlightenment for the Jewish Chronicle (a paper for a people who know a bit about finger pointing). 

“We now find ourselves in a position where these things, which we once regarded as self-evident, are deemed structurally oppressive and indeed racist both by Islamists who have always been hostile to the secular-liberal order and certain groups on the Left,” Jenkins says. “They have, that is, become allies.”

It’s not that surprising: religious and secular persecution often draw from the same playbook. It was ever thus. Why should it change? As previously discussed in The gift and curse of language, human behaviour has remained remarkably similar across the eons; Huxley puts this down to the “fundamental identity” of all humans, consisting of “incarnated minds, subject to physical decay and death, capable of pain and pleasure, driven by craving and abhorrence and oscillating between the desire for self-assertion and the desire for self-transcendence”.

The result: changing our habits all too often appears to be beyond us, including at a societal level. A more honest appraisal of our baser propensities might at least help mitigate them.  

“Human beings are faced, at every time and place, with the same problems, are confronted by the same temptations and are permitted by the Order of Things to make the same choice between unregeneracy and enlightenment,” Huxley says. “The context changes, but the gist and the meaning are invariable.”

Yesterday’s demons are today’s deplorables.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover