by Aaron Ross
Instructor: Dr. William Moritz
Few artists have so masterfully depicted the underworld of religious and sexual perversity as did Ken Russell in his 1971 feature film, The Devils. Russell's treatment of the historical characters and events from the book The Devils of Loudun, by Aldous Huxley, reveals a deep understanding of the mechanisms of pathological repression on both the personal and collective levels. The film makes such a powerful statement regarding the disastrous effects of unconscious denial that it was bound to be censored, especially in a society as repressed as the United States. When Warner Brothers censored the film's most extremely perverted sequences, they succumbed to the very sort of denial that Russell was critiquing, and once again demonstrated that ignorant minds always meet the unknown with hostility and fear.
The Devils takes an unflinching look at how the repression of undesirable psychic contents inevitably leads to mental imbalance and hysteria. It clearly elucidates the principles governing pathological polarities such as "good" and "evil," and provides an enlightened overview of the consequences resulting from failure to integrate conflicting psychic impulses. The film's most literal expression of this process is found in the madness of Sister Jeanne, whose repressed sexual desire is transformed into obsessive fantasies, negative and positive projections, and finally hatred and self-loathing. Her physical deformity makes consummation of her desires impossible, so she denies her sexuality. This denial of fundamental animal drives can only lead to emotional instability, which easily spirals down into the abyss of insanity. As Huxley wrote:
Sister Jeanne and her fellow nuns had had religion and chastity drummed into them from childhood. By induction, these lessons had called into existence ... a psychophysical center, from which there emanated contradictory lessons in irreligion and obscenity .... At ordinary times these negative thoughts and feelings were repressed, or, if they rose into consciousness, were by an effort of will denied any outlet of speech or action. Weakened by psychosomatic disease, made frantic by her indulgence in forbidden and unrealizable fantasies, the Prioress lost all power to control these undesirable results of the inductive process. Hysterical behavior is infectious, and her example was followed by the other nuns. Soon the whole convent was throwing fits, blaspheming and talking smut.(1)
The other "possessed" nuns in St. Ursula's convent are similarly hysterical, the difference between them and their Superior being one of degree. Their descent into depravity, having been exacerbated by Father Barre and his cronies, is not as intensely and autonomously pathological, but its causes are the same. Principle among these are the notorious Catholic dogmas which declare the human body evil, and sexual desire a sin. Since sexuality is an unavoidable and universal human quality, attempts to ignore or destroy its power are useless. The perverse behavior of the nuns is fueled by the power of the libido, which, when repressed, can manifest itself in extreme hysteria.
This dynamic also works on a larger, cultural scale. During the late medieval period, the entire continent of Europe was swept with mass hysteria regarding sexuality and religion: the witch-hunts. And, of course, we still see this process of negative projection on a collective level. Perhaps the clearest example of this in present times is the persecution of homosexual men. Mass society has blamed gay men for the AIDS crisis, without regard for reason or compassion. They are the new scapegoats.
Clearly, any attempt to limit or control the sexual behavior of a consenting person is the action of a repressed and unhealthy consciousness. The same holds true in the realm of artistic expression. Those who would deny others the opportunity to communicate are acting out of fear and unresolved psychic tension. Regardless of content or consequences, free expression is a basic human right that must not be infringed upon by unbalanced minds. Censorship is repression.
The Devils is a shining, glorious example of censorship at its worst. The director's indulgence in orgiastic visions was not met with the studio's approval, and thus the audience can never experience this film as it was intended. Most likely, the studio acted in its own best interests, because there can be little doubt that a mass audience would be outraged at the sight of a nun performing fellatio on the figure of Christ. ("Give the people what they want.") Yet still, the artist's vision was compromised, his message diluted. Is this an acceptable solution?
The debate over censorship is hardly new. However, little or no progress has been made in the centuries since Plato's Republic demanded a ban on all art with negative contents. Many otherwise intelligent persons still believe in the fallacious argument of "like begets like." The premise of this philosophy is that the mind is so easily influenced that images and sounds can determine individual behavior. Thus, artists must refrain from depicting overtly negative or undesirable things and events.
While it's true that human beings are amazingly easy to manipulate, it's also true that people cannot be hypnotized against their will. Any psychic resonance with an artwork must take place with full consent of the spectator. After all, semiology has shown that the final creation of meaning is in the mind of the reader. Ultimate responsibility for behavior still lies with the individual, and no barrage of images, however extreme in negative content, can be said to cause psychological abberation.
Besides, who is to determine what is "negative" in the first place? In the case of The Devils, there has obviously been a mistake. Ken Russell's use of sex and violence does not serve the purpose of titillating the audience — just the opposite. Yet exploitation films with zero artistic merit, such as Rambo, easily get the censor's stamp of approval. This should be proof enough that we live in a fascist state. And, while my personal opinion is that films like Rambo should not be produced or consumed, it is not my place to demand a halt to their production. If people are willing to succumb to mind control, no amount of counter-propaganda will turn them around. All I ask is that the state permit a free flow of information, so that those persons seeking to enlighten themselves and improve the conditions of society may have access to the proper tools. We need Ken Russell and his depictions of perversion to remind us of the reality of life. From the point of view of the repressive ruling class, this is a dangerous and subversive intent.
(1) Huxley, Aldous, The Devils of Loudun. First Perennial Library, New York, 1971 (first published 1952), p. 205.