Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Michelet - La Sorcière

"Figure to yourself, on a broad moor, and often near an old Celtic cromlech, at the edge of a wood, this twofold scene: on one side a well-lit moor and a great feast of the people; on the other towards yon wood, the choir of that church whose dome is heaven. What I call the choir is a hill commanding somewhat the surrounding country. Between these are the yellow flames of torch-fires, and some red braziers emitting a fantastic smoke. At the back of all is the Witch, dressing up her Satan, a great wooden devil, black and shaggy. By his horns, and the goat-skin near him, he might be Bacchus; but his manly attributes make him a Pan or Priapus. It is a darksome figure, seen differently by different eyes; some suggesting only terror, while others are touched by the proud melancholy wherein the Eternally Banished seems absorbed".

The previous text is taken from French historian Jules Michelet's 'La Sorcière' (literally 'The Sorceress'). It is a history of witchcraft, published in 1862.

In this book, Michelet painted a very sympathetic picture of witches. He portrays them as wise peasant women who sacrifice to pre-Christian gods, gods who had fallen into the state of spirits. Only because they are the victim of brutal feudal and ecclesiastical supression, these women turn to malefice. The witch's Sabbath, the Black Mass, is presented as a feast of liberty, as a festive revolt. But malificent the witch is: no benign wiccan, she is truly evil, dabbling in murderous poisons, dolls stuck over with needles, cursed potions, necromancy, incest, vampirism, sodomitic debauchery, madness-inducing drugs. This evil-doing backfires against the witches, igniting popular resentment which in turn sets flame to the pyres of the witch hunters.

'La Sorcière' is written in a very florid style; it's heady brew of academic history and literary texts foreshadows the "historiographic metafiction" of John Fowles's "The French Luitenant's Woman" by more than a hundred years.

'La Sorcière' caused a public scandal when it was first published and was seized from bookshops by the Napoleonic police. The book was published in Brussels by the publishers Lacroix et Verboeckhoven, who published many controversial French authors whose work could not be published in France. They published "Les Chants De Maldoror" in 1869, seven years after 'La Sorcière'. Lacroix and Verboeckhoven were the publishers whom Baudelaire tried in vain to attract during his ill-fated 1864-1867 stay in Brussels.

You can taste the unusual style of 'La Sorcière' for yourself, because here is a link to an 1863 English language edition, via Google Books. Here is a link to the original French-language edition, also via Google Books.

The florid style of the book ascertained that the book had very little influence in academia. However, outside the walls of universities, it's influence was all the greater. 'La Sorcière' was a major influence on Margaret Murray's 1921 book "The Witch-Cult in Western Europe" which proposed the theory that the festivities of witches were the survival of a pan-European, pre-Christian pagan religion that revolved around a 'Horned God'. Through this book, Michelet was indirectly responsible for the birth of Wicca.

Michelet's book was one of the influences on Danish director Benjamin Christensen's 1922 Expressionist documentary about the history of witchcraft, "Häxan" ("Witches"). Interestingly, like Michelet, Christensen employed a variety of styles in making "Häxan" - from slide-show illustrations to docu-drama. Häxan in turn influenced Surrealism. In "La Révolution Surréaliste" nr. 11 Louis Aragon and André Breton stated: “Those who saw the very fine film Witchcraft through the Ages will certainly feel much livelier instructed than from the books of Hippocrates and Plato…” (via Ombres Blanches).

In 1957 Georges Bataille published a short booklet called "La Litterature Et Le Mal" ("Literature And Evil"). The book can be characterized as a series of essays on writers who dealt with the theme of Evil in their literary work. The essays are loosely connected by Bataille's polemic against Sartre. One of the books essays is dedicated to 'La Sorcière', calling the author " of the men who have spoken most humanely about Evil" - here Bataille refers to Michelet's portrayal of the witch as a victim of supression. In writing the book, Michelet was "...guided by the ecstasy of Evil" - and certainly, Michelet's style gives the impression that witches made him lose his head.

In the essay, Bataille implicitly reworks Marcel Mauss's ethnological theory of sacrifice. The eminent French ethnologist Mauss defined sacrifice as a procedure which "...consists in establishing a means of communication between the sacred and the profane worlds through the mediation of a victim, that is of a thing that in the course of the ceremony is destroyed". To put it in more contemporary terms: the destruction of the physical boundaries of the victim brings about the destruction of the symbolical boundaries between the sacred and the profane. This destruction of boundaries spills over into the boundaries between individuals, who coalesce into a community ('communitas'). Bataille stresses the affective aspects of sacrifice: for him, the emotional intensity of moments of excess and horror of sacrifice fuses separate individuals into a community - in the case of the Black Mass, the community of witches.

Michelet: "Just as the crowd, grown dizzy together, was led, both by the attraction of the women and by a certain vague feeling of brotherhood, to imagine oneself as one body, the service was resumed at the Gloria. The altar, the host, became visible. These were represented by the woman herself. Prostrate, in a posture of extreme abasement, her long black silky tresses lost in the dust; she, this haughty Proserpine, offered up herself. On her back a demon officiated, saying the Credo, and making the offering".

The physical boundaries of the sacrificial victim are destroyed not by killing, but by eroticism. The intimacy between the sacred and the profane world, which sacrifice seeks to restore, is achieved through physical intimacy between the Witch and the officiating demon. However, where usually the sacrificial victim is replaced by an effigy, here the sacrifier, the officiating demon, is merely a false image. Satan is "...a great wooden devil...", a straw-man for the Witch herself. In the final analysis, the Witch sacrifices herself. She is a truly tragic figure.

Post scriptum

In 1973, 'La Sorcière' was made into an anime (Japanse animated cartoon) called 'Kanashimi no Beradona'. I haven't seen it, but it certainly looks interesting.

Here is a link to an interesting French-language article on "Le Corps De La Sorcière" (The Body Of The Sorceress").


Anonymous said...

Somehow I never came around to formally introduce me to you. This post is really great. It's interesting to note here that the other great influence for Christensen's film was the work of neurologist Charcot.
Thanks for the link.

valter said...

Andrej, Thanks for the formal introduction - and thanks for the link to my post on chain letters. I want you to know that I greatly admire your blog, and I am proud to be one of the first to add it to a blog roll. Valter

Unknown said...

this long, languid animated film journeys through a midieval witch hunt, the sexual feminist revolution of the 70's, rape and subjugation in mideival times, a tragic love story, and one last piece of history. It is a very sexual slow film, but the art transitions, metaphor and use of watercolor and minimalism are stunning. if you ever have a lazy night and you just want to watch art move and tell the story of the awful reality of a woman's life in a time of misogyny when she decides to stand alone against corruption...and how she would be viewed as no less than a devilworshiper...and watch something with pretty classic music- watch this all the way through. I think you'll appreciate it.

it's called "Belladonna" ( ironic but very natural name....maybe a metaphor for the vagina)

just download (tis free and easy and doesn't take up much comp space) the veoh media player to watch it all the way through. lovely film- made me sad/happy- especially the powerful ending

your welcome

Leonard Mangani Zulu said...

So who does jules michelet blame for views about women in mediaval europe n hw do u xplain the background to his stance?