To understand totalitarianism, read Aldous Huxley

Recently, I’ve been reading Beyond Totalitarianism (2009), which I’ve introduced at a previous post entitled:

Nazism and Stalinism: What if anything did they have in common?

I began reading Beyond Totalitarianism (2009) after reading Totalitarian Art (1990, 2011), as noted previously:

Totalitarian Art (1990, 2011): Igor Golomstock argues that state-controlled art in Fascist Italy, Nazi Germany, and Soviet Russia shared identical features

Among topics that interest me in Beyond Totalitarianism (2009), and in related studies, are:

  • The role of organized violence in Eastern Europe during and after the First World War in shaping mindsets in Germany and elsewhere
  • The impact of the latter conflict in providing a rupture affecting previous mindsets; related topics concern the positioning, in the public mind, of the Treaty of Versailles
  • The dynamics, which some have characterized as unusual, of military engagement between Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia
  • The concept of extremely violent societies as a way of attempting to make sense of large-scale organized violence
  • Events and circumstances driving distortion of the evidence-based historical record, as well as attempts to negate the historical record entirely
  • Starvation as a weapon of warfare in the Second World War and (as I have noted, as I’ve been reading) in other (e.g. colonial and imperial) conflicts in history
  • Differences in role of party and leader in Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia
  • The choreography of witch trials in the seventeenth and twentieth centuries
  • Claims regarding contrasts between oral and text-based political cultures
  • Differences in how historians come across as writers

Beyond Totalitarianism (2009) articulates totalitarianism clearly

The characterization of totalitarianism is vague in Totalitarian Art (1990, 2011) whereas in Beyond Totalitarianism (2009) it’s articulated clearly. That said, the former study offers great references.

Among such citations, in this case with regard to our understanding of history through the ages, is a work by Aldous Huxley entitled The Devils of Loudun (1952).

Aldous Huxley is a most impressive and remarkable writer; a reading of his work is highly valuable, in enabling a person to understand what totalitarianism actually and in practice entails.

His writing – in a remarkable writing career launched as a consequence of an eye infection giving rise to serious eye-trouble – brings to mind among other things the rise and fall of the Order of the Templars and events and circumstances that gave rise to the French Revolution (with accompanying fanfare and high-sounding slogans).

Aldous Huxley (1894-1963) depicted a dehumanized totalitarian society

The back cover of the book jacket (I have broken the text into shorter paragraphs) for The Devils of Loudun (1952) reads :

Aldous Huxley was born in 1894, the third son of Leonard Huxley (the biographer and editor of the Cornhill Magazine) and grandson of T. H. Huxley. His mother, a niece of Matthew Arnold and sister of Mrs. Humphry Ward, died when he was fourteen.

From a preparatory school (described in Eyeless in Gaza) he went on to Eton, which he left at seventeen owing to serious eye-trouble which left him nearly blind. One eye recovered sufficiently for him to go up to Balliol in 1913, but he had to abandon his hope of becoming a doctor and was debarred from military service in 1914.

He took a first in English in 1916 and spent the rest of the war working on the land (with the Morrells at Garsington), at the War Office and teaching at Eton. In 1919 he married Maria Nys, a Belgian (by whom he had one son); the same year he joined The Athenteum under Middleton Murry.

He now wrote a great deal of journalism, including biographical and architectural articles and reviews of fiction, drama, music and art. Having already published three books of verse from 1916 onwards, he began with Limbo and Crome Yellow the series of stories and novels which combined dazzling intellectual dialogue and a surface cynicism with a ground base of clear moral convictions, and exerted a strong emancipating influence.

In the ’20s Huxley lived mostly in Italy, where he saw much of D. H. Lawrence (portrayed, together with Katherine Mansfield, Murry and himself, in Point Counter Point); in the ’30s his home was at Sanary, near Toulon.

To this period belonged Brave New World­ – a vision of the future in which scientific control has produced an utterly dehumanized totalitarian society yet a perfectly contented population; also Ends and Means, a philosophical work in which he sought a way of securing the benefits of social planning while avoiding authoritarianism.

In the mid ’30s he was deeply concerned with the Peace Pledge Union, but in 1937 the state of his eyes led him to move to California. There he became convinced of the value of mystical experience, the theme of The Perennial Philosophy. In Doors of Perception and Heaven and Hell he described the quasi-mystical effects of L.S.D.

After the death of his first wife in 1955 Huxley married Laura Archera, in 1956. In 1961 their home was totally destroyed by fire. Little survived apart from the manuscript of Island, his last novel, in which he presents an ideal society which repudiates the striving ethos of the West for a more cheerful, balanced quietism, and confines technological advance to eugenics and agriculture.

Aldous Huxley died in November 1963.


The Devils of Loudun (1952) depicts a case of mass ‘possession’

A blurb (from the front inner book jacket; again, I have broken the text into shorter paragraphs) for The Devils of Loudon (1952) reads:

The story of Loudun is perhaps the most astonishing case of mass ‘possession’ in history. It began with a practical joke in a small Ursuline convent and culminated in the trial, torture and judicial murder of the local priest, Urbain Grandier, who was accused of having caused the possession of Prioress and nuns by sorcery.

But for four years after his death in 1634 the ‘devils’ still possessed them; and the Jesuit, Jean-Joseph Surin, while trying to exorcise the Prioress, himself became possessed, and remained in a pathological condition for twenty years before recovering his mental balance.

This is the first telling of the complete story, as exciting as any thriller. Aldous Huxley found his material in contemporary sources, as well as Michelet and Bremond; and his narration of this cause célèbre also leads him to the discussion of witchcraft in the seventeenth century, psychological theory before Descartes, the nature of possession and the theory and practice of the spiritual life.

Thus he makes his ideas the more challenging and forceful by relating them to real events and historical characters. In The Devils of Loudun readers will not only find one of the most fantastic and absorbing stories in the whole of history, but will also see Mr. Huxley’s penetrating, comprehensive mind working at its highest power.

‘Once again I find myself captivated by the range of Mr. Huxley’s knowledge and his even more extraordinary intelligence.’
Sunday Times

‘ Fascinating, erudite and instinct with intellectual vitality.’
Times Literary Supplement


Characterization of lay sisters as conveyers of witchcraft to seventeenth-century French convents

An excerpt from an online article by Mary M. Rowan at, entitled “Lay Sisters as Conveyers of Witchcraft to Seventeenth-Century French Convents,” reads:

With compelling detail, [Jules] Michelet recounts the celebrated trials for sorcery which damaged even well­ established convents like those of the Ursulines of Aix and Loudun or that of Louviers, where the possession of Madeleine Bavent took place. The episode of the hysterical possession of Soeur Jeanne des Anges of Loudun who accused the priest, Urban Grandier, as the Devil’s accomplice appeared first in a French account of the early eighteenth century, then in La Sorciere, and even more recently in The Devils of Loudun, by Aldous Huxley (1952) which reappeared in the theatrical version, about fifteen years ago as a vehicle for the talents of Anne Bancroft, who played Soeur Jeanne des Anger.


A Case of Witchcraft: The Trial of Urbain Grandier (1998)

A blurb for the above-titled study reads:

As a Catholic priest, Grandier was an influential figure in the Loudun community and local government. A brilliant speaker, he was popular with his parishioners. But he had enemies, including Cardinal Richelieu and Louis XIII, who was trying to wrest political autonomy from local governors and centralize power in Paris. Grandier’s support of the governor of Loudun meant that he was seen as an enemy of the crown. In addition, the debonair priest’s romantic intrigues brought him into conflict with some of the town’s most influential power brokers. When a nearby convent of Ursuline nuns began experiencing strange visions and hallucinations, Grandier’s enemies seized the opportunity to orchestrate his downfall. These mass possessions, which spread through the convent despite attempts at exorcism, were regarded as witchcraft and Grandier was accused of having caused them. Condemned by Richelieu and the king, Grandier was tortured and burned at the stake for his alleged crimes. He maintained his innocence to the end. This tale of conspiracy, corruption, and mass hysteria provides a fascinating exploration of human behaviour and community dynamics.


Ivan’s War: The Red Army 1941-1945 (2005)

The above-titled book is among the studies cited in Beyond Totalitarianism (2009). 

A blurb reads:

They died in their millions, shattered by German shells and tanks, freezing behind the wire of prison camps, driven forward in suicidal charges by the secret police. Yet in all the books about the war on the eastern front, there is very little about how the Russian soldier lived, dreamed and died. Catherine Merridale found archives of letters, diaries and police reports that have allowed her to write a major history of a figure too often treated as part of a vast mechanical horde. Here are moving and terrible stories of men and women in appalling conditions, many not far from death. They allow us to understand the strange mixture of courage, patriotism, anger and fear that made it possible for these badly fed, dreadfully-governed soldiers to defeat the Nazi army that would otherwise have enslaved the whole of Europe. The experience of the soldiers is set against a masterly narrative of the war in Russia. Merridale also shows how the veterans were treated with chilling ingratitude and brutality by Stalin, and later exploited as icons of the Great Patriotic War before being sidelined once more in Putin’s new capitalist Russia.


Of related interest among countless other studies: The German Army and Nazi Policies in Occupied Russia (1989).

A blurb notes:

This discussion of the German military occupation of areas of Russia during the Second World War re-evaluates many critical interpretations of Wehrmacht activities and concentrates on the responses of the lower ranks to their policies.


December 2018 Atlantic Monthly article regarding demonic possession

In The Devils of Loudun (1952), Aldous Huxley outlines historical trends related to the concept of demonic possession. Regarding this general topic, a December 2018 Atlantic article is entitled: “American Exorcism: Priests are fielding more requests than ever for help with demonic possession, and a centuries-old practice is finding new footing in the modern world.”

An excerpt reads:

After listening to the priests and poring over news articles, I started to wonder whether the two trends — belief in the occult and the rising demand for Catholic exorcisms — might have the same underlying cause. So many modern social ills feel dark and menacing and beyond human control: the opioid epidemic, the permanent loss of blue-collar jobs, blighted communities that breed alienation and dread. Maybe these crises have led people to believe that other, more preternatural, forces are at work.

History of witch-hunting in Scotland

Am Oct. 3, 2019 City Lab article is entitled: “Mapping Scotland’s Grim History of Witch-Hunting: A new interactive map project from Edinburgh University charts the bloody wave of persecution directed at women accused of witchcraft in Scotland.”

An excerpt reads:

Thanks to a newly published interactive map, a dark passage in the history of Scotland is being brought into the light: the country’s fierce, centuries-long persecution of people accused of being witches. From the mid-16th to the early 18th century, close to 4,000 people in Scotland—overwhelmingly women—were tried for witchcraft. Up to two thirds of this number may have been executed.

This during a period when brutal witch persecution was relatively common in Europe. But in Scotland, the number of accused witches reached four to five times the European average. The new map of Scottish witch trials, created by students at Edinburgh University with data provided by its school of history, doesn’t just highlight the breadth of this persecution. It tells us exactly who the victims were, where they lived or were tried and, in some cases, even what they said.

1 reply
  1. Jaan Pill
    Jaan Pill says:

    More on Descartes: An Oct. 14, 2021 San Francisco Chronicle article is entitled: “Physicist Fritjof Capra charts 50 years of science and philosophy in ‘Patterns of Connection’”.

    I don’t know what the author knows about mysticism, but I find his comments about Descartes of interest; an excerpt from the article reads:

    Q: You’ve long advocated for the abandonment of linear thought and mechanistic views of Descartes. Can you point to efforts that are succeeding in this shift?

    A: Linear, mechanistic science has been very successful from the time of the scientific revolution in the 17th century (Bacon, Newton). This has provided a successful basis for scientific inquiry. But at the same time, the world got more populated and more interconnected. As this happened, it became more evident that we are all living in networks within networks. We discovered 100 years ago the network structure of ecosystems, and subsequently the importance of networks in all living systems.

    Today, everybody knows that social networks are very important. … A network is a certain pattern of links and relationships, and it is nonlinear. In order to understand networks we need to learn to think in patterns and relationships. But this nonlinear way of thinking and acting is something that we are not used to, as most of us have been educated in this nonlinear way. It’s difficult to overcome.


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