I came across this very interesting London Review of Books discussion of Brian Levack’s The Devil Within Possession and Exorcism in the Christian West by Terry Eagleton. According to the jacket copy by one of my erstwhile employers, Yale University Press, Levack’s examination of the epidemic of reported demonic possessions in Reformation Europe takes into account “the diverse interpretations of generations of theologians, biblical scholars, pastors, physicians, anthropologists, psychiatrists, and historians.”
The “common sense” model today of course ascribes what was believed to be or presented as possession to the symptoms of mental or physical illness. But Levack’s contextual approach argues that “demoniacs and exorcists—consciously or not—are following their various religious cultures, and their performances can only be understood in those contexts.”
Eagleton, a prominent literary critic who delivered the Terry Lectures in 2008, homes in on this cultural contextualization as a problematic method:
“In [Levack’s] view, falling prey to the lures of the Devil is always culturally specific. One cannot, he claims, use contemporary psychological models to explain the mentality of people who lived several centuries ago. This is surely implausible. Psychological ailments, like physical ones, display a degree of continuity across the ages….All illnesses, Levack writes, ‘are socially constructed, and can be understood only if they are studied in the cultural context in which they took place’. Yet cancer is not a social construct in the sense that melancholy is, and a German physician could treat an arthritic Peruvian peasant without knowing much about his or her cultural context.
In capitulating to a fashionable culturalism, Levack is unclear about what part if any he considers mental illness to play in demoniac behaviour. On the one hand, he is deeply suspicious of universalist claims, regards the modern definition of hysteria as far too protean to be useful, and dismisses too briskly the notion of mass hysteria, which would seem a reasonable explanation for the various epidemics of diabolical invasion which erupt from time to time. On the other hand, he concedes that psychological disturbance may account for some aspects of the business in hand. His book thus combines a scepticism of medical explanations with the concession that hysteria and demonic possession may be closely related.
I’m also intrigued by Levack’s focus on the “performative” aspects both of those possessed and of the rituals devised to exorcize them. According to Eagleton, Levack believes that “demoniacs have to be understood as acting out a script encoded in their religious cultures, in a theatrical performance which involved themselves, the exorcist and the community as audience. Though the performance was predetermined, the occasional ad lib was permissible. People mugged up on their roles by reading accounts of other possessions, so the growth of printing played a vital role in the whole business.”
But Stuart Clark, author of Thinking with Demons: The Idea of Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe, finds Levack’s thesis of possession as the expression not of illness but of the religious cultural context in which it is rooted to be plausible. Clark writes that this explanation “restores a powerful sense of agency to those affected and gives meaning to their bizarre behaviour.”
Eagleton, on the other hand, while he admires Levack’s “erudite, absorbing account,” comes to a very different conclusion about possession and agency:
The idea of being appropriated by alien powers challenges the modern concept of individual autonomy. In its own way, it recognises that there is a level at which men and women do not belong to themselves. Our relation to ourselves is not like our relation to a piece of property. As the concept of the unconscious would suggest, there are destructive forces over which we have only precarious mastery, and which can assume a deadly momentum of their own. It is just that there are more productive ways of recognising that at a certain level we do not belong to ourselves than spewing up frogs.