- “Things that used to be familiar . . . become strange”:de Certeau and the Possession at Loudun
They appear at first almost as lovers. He whispers in her ear of the most intimate things. She is lost to herself and is moved by his tenderness toward her. But she belongs to another and guards herself carefully, resolving, “not to open her heart to him.” Still, she does not send him away. He spends long hours with her, speaking to her of love. His ardor is fierce. But so is her resistance. Eventually, he finds “the key to enter into [her] heart.” But in crossing that threshold, he risks more than he knows. The intimate space they share proves too volatile, unstable. He loses his balance and begins a long descent into madness. Or something like madness. And she begins to recover herself. But at this moment, as the charged space between these two souls opens up, everything is still possible. Nothing is determined. It is the moment when the story of love, possession, illness, healing, and holiness between Jeanne des Anges and Jean-Joseph Surin—which forms the center of Michel de Certeau’s brilliant and strange The Possession at Loudun—begins.1
“The Devil’s theaters are also centers for the mystics.”2 This simple but provocative observation comes near the beginning de Certeau’s analysis of the outbreak of demonic possession that afflicted the city of Loudun in France between 1632 and 1637. It serves notice early on of his determination to examine the phenomena of demonic possession and mystical experience together and to consider both the seeming incommensurability of these experiences as well as their unexpected and sometimes-troubling kinship. It also drives the dramatic force of his analysis, which draws the reader inexorably from the extended and sometimes violent public spectacle of exorcisms in Loudun to the intimate encounter and eventual rapprochement between the Jesuit, Jean-Joseph Surin (the mystic), and the Prioress of the Ursulines, Jeanne des Anges (the possessed). Here in this encounter, the intermingling and confusion of experience and identity become so pronounced that it is almost impossible to discern the boundaries between them. These two figures will become joined in a terrible struggle that is also an intimate embrace. Jeanne des Anges will be transformed from demon-possessed to mystic and visionary, and Jean-Joseph Surin will (through an extraordinary gesture of exchange), it seems, become possessed. The intense instability that marks their encounter, their respective experiences [End Page 190] and the necessary fluidity between the language of possession and the language of mysticism reveal the immense difficulty facing anyone, especially the historian, who would offer an interpretation of this event.
De Certeau’s self-awareness regarding the complexity of this task marks one of his most significant contributions in Possession. In the time since its original appearance in 1970, other scholars such as Nancy Caciola, David Frankfurter, David Brakke and Moshe Sluhovsky have deepened and extended de Certeau’s insights regarding the intricate and often-confounding relationship between possession and mystical experience.3 But de Certeau’s Possession retains its importance as a model of how to engage and respond critically and sensitively to historical expressions of intense spiritual experience in a way that accounts honestly for their historical, cultural and religious specificity while also remaining open to and curious about the hidden and often unknowable dimensions of such experience. De Certeau refuses to reduce the phenomena in question to categories of interpretation that are too weak to encompass or illuminate them. His work reminds us that the only way to engage such experience fully and honestly is to allow it to emerge in all its complexity—to listen to the many voices and perspectives through which it comes into being, to be suspicious of ideologies that gloss over difference, to remain alert to unexpected contradictions and convergences, and to look for patterns that illuminate the complexity of experience without simplifying or erasing it.
De Certeau’s treatment of the strange events that unfolded among a small group of cloistered nuns in the French city of Loudun beginning in October 1632 has long been appreciated both for the sophistication...