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August 20, 2000|SUSAN SALTER REYNOLDS

THE POSSESSION AT LOUDUN

By Michele de Certeau

Translated from the French

by Michael B. Smith

University of Chicago Press:

244 pp., $15

Summer's end is nigh. This is an autumn book. On Aug. 18, 1634, in the town of Loudun in France, Father Urbain Grandier was blamed for the possession of the Ursuline nuns whose convent lay steps from his parish, convicted for sorcery and burned at the stake. He was handsome; he had a way with words and with women; he had published several tracts on why celibacy was not necessary for priesthood. The young nuns belonged to a brave new order, fired with a missionary zeal. Stigmata and possession were common among them. Michele de Certeau, who died in 1986 (this book was first published in France in 1970), was a scholar who wove this psychological, social history from the beautiful, carefully documented (endless notes were taken by legal, medical and religious observers at the time) explanation of the possession.

In October of 1632, three out of 17 nuns began to see phantoms in the convent. They began writhing around and behaving "lewdly." By December, nine were possessed. In mass exorcisms conducted for drooling audiences by overzealous priests, nuns were forced into strange postures, forcing the demons out from behind ribs and foreheads, muttering in Latin, smelling of musk rose and garlic.

Certeau uncovers layers of "social anxiety": In 1632 in Loudun, 3,000 people, in a population of 14,000, died of the plague; 70 years earlier, bloody religious battles were fought between the Hugenots and the Catholics. The Ursulines, he writes, were extremely educated, sophisticated women suffocated by the masculine authority of the church. In the end, "erotomania" is one of several explanations offered. Unfortunately for Father Urbain Grandier, it happens to be the best. *

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CLOWNING IN ROME

Reflections on Solitude, Celibacy,

Prayer, and Contemplation

By Henri J.M. Nouwen

Image Books/Doubleday:

109 pp., $9.95

In the late 1970s, the Catholic priest, teacher and author ("The Wounded Healer," "Return of the Prodigal Son") Henri J.M. Nouwen was asked to teach at North American College in Rome. He was given rooms across from the Vatican and spent a great deal of his time among young volunteers helping the poor and handicapped in that city. Nouwen thought of these volunteers as clowns appearing between life's acts. Here are four essays inspired by his clowns: on solitude, celibacy, prayer and contemplation. Unlike so many "inspirational" books, these essays are literary, which means the ideas are arrived at not willfully or even scientifically, and they are not defended. They do not offer solutions. *

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THE MISSIONARY AND THE LIBERTINE

Love and War in East and West

By Ian Buruma

Random House: 324 pp., $25.95

Ian Buruma has dizzying freewheeling powers of observation, often, one suspects, conducted street-side at cafe tables around the world. The cultures of Asia knock on his doors: hard core porn in Japan; Bengali renaissance men, Indonesian elites, decadence in India. The wonderful thing about Buruma, revealed in these essays, is how he's kept one foot in criticism and one foot in journalism. His essays on Mishima and the movies of Bengali filmmaker Satyajit Ray reveal the raisons d'e^tres for these artists, shaped by historical forces as much as they are by their personalities. That's what is so very liberating about Buruma's criticism. And the writing is fine: Phrases like "hoary nationalism" give a human face to historical phenomena. Sometimes he offends, exploring, for example, the potential sexiness of colonialism, and this is an important part of cultural criticism, which is, in the end, a dialogueA fist pounds the table, voices rise, observations are added to the mix. There's nothing passive about it. Buruma is engaged. And it's engaging. *

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FIRST WORDS

A Childhood in Fascist Italy

By Rosetta Loy

Metropolitan Books: 186 pp., $22

"My days haven't changed at all," Rosetta Loy writes of 1939, when she was 7 in Rome, a young member of the Catholic intelligentsia, "the blue furniture in my room, the picture of children skating, the carousel-shaped wooden lamp. . . ." Yet in the previous year, the laws on race were published: no textbooks in schools by Jewish authors, no Jews in vacation resorts, no Jews publishing books, no Jews listing their names in the phone book. And that was only the beginning for the 58,412 Jewish residents in Italy. Loy pairs childhood observations with month-by-month changes in Fascist Italy from 1936 to 1944. As always, the gulf between a child's steady, daily understanding of the world and the reality, the terrible momentum of hatred, astonish on the page.

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