Academic journal article Journal of Men, Masculinities and Spirituality

A Jesuit Mystic's Feminine Melancholia: Jean-Joseph Surin SJ (1600-1665)

Academic journal article Journal of Men, Masculinities and Spirituality

A Jesuit Mystic's Feminine Melancholia: Jean-Joseph Surin SJ (1600-1665)

Article excerpt

This essay on the mysticism of exorcist Jean-Joseph Surin suggests that the depression from which he suffered can be understood as a destabilization of the masculine identity he wished to uphold when his experience was dismissed as "feminine melancholia." By incorporating the suffering of two women he is led into a fluid state in which his relation to the divine will become erotic. The inquiry concludes by juxtaposing feminist psychoanalyst Julia Kristeva's views on melancholia with those of Surin's, bringing into a dialogue these two perspectives.


One day in 1645, French Jesuit priest Jean-Joseph Surin, who some years earlier became famous for delivering from demonic possession the nuns at the convent of Loudun, tried to kill himself by jumping out of a second floor window. The scene at the end of the film The Exorcist (1971), where the Jesuit priest defeats the devil by assenting to become possessed and then committing suicide by throwing himself out the window, down the stairs, is based on Surin's life. The only difference is that Surin survived, only to fall victim to depression. The real aftermath of the story would not have made a captivating Hollywood ending.

The extraordinary events that led to Surin's despair were popularized by Aldous Huxley in his The Devils of Loudun (1952) and by Ken Russell in the film, The Devils (1973). They focus on the lurid aspects of the story. Early modern France was rife with beliefs in demonic activity, so when the relationship between priest Urbain Grandier and the nuns at Loudun, especially the superior Jeanne des Anges, acquires erotic overtones, he is accused of bringing the devil into the convent. He is burned at the stake on charges of witchcraft, while chaos reigns among the nuns who behave erratically, acting out symptoms indicating possession such as rage and increased libido. Perhaps because of its sensationalist appropriations for popular consumption, these events reflecting an important element in the mindset of seventeenth century France have been little studied. The only scholarly study of the Grandier and des Anges case is Michel de Certeau's The Possession at Loudun (2000). (1) While de Certeau exposes the fraudulent activities of those involved and the dangerous superstitions of spectators, he also claims that there is an 'otherness' element that cannot be approached with the historian's tool or reduced to socio-cultural circumstances. As the modern editor of Surin's works, de Certeau is also aware of the forgotten drama of the Jesuit's life after the Loudun episode. Surin's autobiography has not been studied in depth, so its riches remain unearthed. (2)

In his autobiography, Triumph of Divine Love Over the Powers of Hell, and in its more theological sequel Experimental Science of Otherwordly Matters, Surin narrates how he overcame his own demonic possession, which for twenty years led him to believe that he had lost the love of Christ and was damned for eternity. We learn that after he exorcised mother superior Jeanne des Anges, he was thrown into a despair that alternated with occasional moments of mystical consolation. In the books he defends himself against the accusation that his mystical experience is nothing but 'feminine' melancholia. We will see that Surin's mystical melancholia indeed becomes feminized as understood at the time. Moreover, his own masculine identity mutates in a mystical relationship with the divine that subverts preconceived notions of gender stability. Only then was he able to surmount his depression and attain the joy he longed for.

In this essay I will argue that Surin's melancholia involves an incorporation of the suffering of two women. He assimilates the suffering of Jeanne des Anges, transforming it into an erotic and ecstatic joy, by identifying both Jeanne and himself with the longing and mystical ecstasy he found in the writings of Teresa of Avila. His relation with these two women shapes his own experience of demonic possession and affective mysticism, both of which were dismissed by many of his contemporaries as feminine disturbances. …

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