From insulated selfhood there are many ways of escape into the larval condition of subhumanity. This state partakes of the Nothingness, which is the theme of so many of Mallarme’s poems.
But for many persons, absolute Nothingness is not enough. What they want is a Nothing with negative qualities, a Nonentity that stinks and is hideous.
This also is an experience of Nothingness―but with a vengeance. And it is precisely in Nothingness-with-a-vengeance that certain minds discover what is, for them, the most satisfying kind of experienced otherness. In Jeanne des Anges, the longing for self-transcendence was powerful in proportion to the intensity of her native egotism and the frustrating circumstance of her environment. In later years she was to pretend to try, and even actually to try without pretense, to achieve an upward self-transcendence into the life of the spirit. But at this stage in her career the only avenue of escape that presented itself was a descent into sexuality. She had begun by deliberately indulging in the imagination of an intimacy with her beau ténébreux, the unknown but titillating notorious M. Grandier. But in time deliberate, an occasional indulgence turned into irresistible addiction. Habit converted her sexual phantasies into an imperious necessity. The beau ténébreux took on an autonomous existence that was altogether independent of her will. Instead of being the mistress of her imagination, she was now its slave. Slavery is humiliating; and yet the consciousness of being no longer in control of one’s own thoughts and actions is a form, inferior no doubt, but effective of that self-transcendence to which all human beings aspire. Sœur Jeanne had tried to free herself from her servitude to the erotic images she had conjured up; but the only freedom she could achieve was the freedom to be the self she abhorred. There was nothing for it but to slide down again into the dungeon of her addiction.
And now, after months of this inward struggle, she was in the hands of the egregious M. Barré. The phantasy of a downward self-transcendence had been transformed into the brute fact of his actually treating her as something less than human―as some queer kind of animal, to be exhibited to the rabble like a performing ape, as a less than personal creature fit only to be bawled at, manipulated, sent by reiterated suggestion into fits and finally subjected, against what remained of her will and in spite of the remnants of her modesty, to the outrage of a forcible colonic irrigation. Barré had treated her to an experience that was the equivalent, more or less, of a rape in a public lavatory.*
The person who was once Sœur Jeanne des Anges, Prioress of the Ursulines of Loudon, had been annihilated―annihilated, not in the Mallarméan fashion, but in Baudelairean, with a vengeance. Parodying the Pauline phrase, she could say of herself, “I live, yet not I, but dirt, but humiliation, but mere physiology liveth in me.” During the exorcisms she was no longer a subject; she was only an object with intense sensations. It was horrible, but it was also wonderful―an outrage but at the same time a revelation and, in the literal sense of the word, an ecstasy, a standing outside of the odious and all too familiar self.
*In the medical practice of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the clyster (the enema) was employed as freely and frequently as is the hypodermic syringe of today. “Clysters,” writes Robert Burton, “are in good request. Trincavellius esteems of them in the first place, and Hercules of Saxonia is a greater approver of them. I have found (saith he) by experience that many hypochrondriacal melancholy men have been cured by the sole use of the clysters…..
…..More than a hundred and fifty years after M. Barré’s exploit, the heroes and heroines of the Marquis de Sade, in their laborious efforts to extend the range of sexual enjoyment , were making frequent use of the exorcist’s secret weapon…..
…..One thinks of the amorous Sganarelle, in Le Médecin malgré Lui, tenderly begging Jacqueline for leave to give her, not a kiss, but un petit clystѐre dulcifiant. M. Barré’s, with its quart of holy water, was a petit clystѐre sanctifiant. But, sanctifying or dulcifying, the thing remained what it was intrinsically and what, by convention and at that particular moment of history, it had become―an all but erotic experience, an outrage to modesty, and a symbol enriched by a whole gamut of pornographic overtones and harmonics, which had entered into the folkways and become a part of the circumambient culture.
The Devils of Loudon (A true story of demonic possession)
Aldous Huxley 1952