On page 270 of Aldous Huxley’s The Devils of Loudun, there appears this paragraph:
“At Lyon, which they reached fourteen days after their departure from Paris, they were visited by the Archbishop, Cardinal Alphonse de Richelieu, the Prime Minister’s elder brother. It had been intended by his parents that Alphonse should become a Knight of Malta. But all Knights of Malta had to be able to swim, and since Alphonse could never learn to swim, he had to be content with the family bishopric of Luçon, which he soon resigned in order to become a Carthusian monk. After his brother’s accession to power, he was taken out of the Grande Chartreuse, made Archbishop first of Aix, then of Lyon, and given a Cardinal’s hat. He had the reputation of an excellent prelate, but was subject to occasional fits of mental derangement. During these fits he would put on a crimson robe embroidered with gold thread and affirm that he was God the Father. (This kind of thing seems to have run in the family; for there a tradition, which may or may not be true, that his younger brother sometimes himself to be a horse.)”
Do you know what this paragraph is? It’s marvelous. It’s the gift that keeps on giving. It’s fucking Christmas morning, that’s what!
Where to begin?
First of all, Alphonse de Richelieu is described as “the Prime Minister’s elder brother” – that brother, the Prime Minister, is Armand-Jean du Ressis Cardinal de Richelieu, Prime Minister to the King of France from 1624 to 1642, and the fictional nemesis of the three musketeers. He has been played, in movies and on T.V., by Tim Curry, Christoph Waltz, and Charlton Heston. And, we are informed, the good Cardinal apparently spent significant portions of his time under the convicted impression that he was a horse.
Or how about those Knights of Malta? The Knights of Malta, more properly called the Knights of Saint John or the Knights Hospitaller, were a Catholic military order (the other really famous holy military order was the Knights Templar). They were an enormously rich order charged with protecting the church, her pilgrims, and the Holy Land.
And, apparently, they had a swimming requirement. An enforced swimming requirement – you could not become a member of the order, even if you were rich and well-connected, if you couldn’t swim. Which I admire – it’s extremely practical. Who can say when the Holy Mother Church may require amphibious support?
But my favorite part of the above paragraph, far and away, is this: “He had the reputation of an excellent prelate, but was subject to occasional fits of mental derangement.” Specifically, a derangement wherein he put on a fancy red outfit and believed he was God.
I would submit that, perhaps, part of being an “excellent prelate” is not being subject to any confusion about who is, and who is not, God. And however competent the elder Richelieu might have been during his lucid spells, his holidays of announced divinity must have been doctrinally confusing for his flock.
And how about this snazzy red and gold outfit – why did he have it? And what did he make of it when he wasn’t floridly psychotic? Did he recognize it? DId he think, ‘Oh, there’s the red bathrobe I wear when I think I’m God?’ Did he ever wear it when he didn’t think he was God? To claim to be the Lord is blasphemy – why didn’t he throw out the costume of his sin? If your right hand offendth thee..
Huxley is a great writer, and I don’t mean to rob him of any credit for what is a phenomenal book when I say this, but who could go wrong with material like this? In a world where the men who rule France take periodic vacations into horse-space, and their little brothers dress up like the God float in a Mardi Gras parade, and everyone work in the service of a church guarded by swimming knights – in that world, who needs novelists?