Demons. Not a common subject for a philosopher. Derrida wrote of ghosts, but that is not exactly the same. Ghosts haunt, and it is a matter of moral and psychic health to deal with them. If we do not deal with them, if we ignore them or try to conjure them by declaring they don’t exist, we might lose something, we might bring ourselves into danger, but that is not immediately certain. It is a matter of dispute or doubt. Not so with demons. They do more than haunt – they harass, and sometimes very violently. They represent spirits of a still more active and agressive kind. So why are they no subject in philosophy? Is it because they are so intimately connected to ancient (not modern!) theological discourse? A discourse that is commonly viewed to have meaning solely as a part of our cultural history.They are no longer considered a topic of belief, neither from a scientific, nor from a religious viewpoint. When they appear, it is only in the experience of some individual who suffers from them, and an individual who feels he or she should use this ancient name to address what or who harasses.
Having enjoyed, some weeks ago, Felicitas Goodman’s book on spirits, I thought I might try this other title of her, an older book, on the Anneliese Michel case. Even I, who has written several articles and a book on ghosts, felt some hesitation toward the subject – that of a young woman who suffered from demonic possession, and who after a long and difficult search for a cure, through medicine and through exorcism, died, exhausted, it seemed, at the age of twenty-four. I must have heard from the case, perhaps even when it happened, in 1976, as it resulted in juridical procedure against the Roman-catholic priests who conducted the exorcism, and against the parents. All four were convicted of having caused her death by neglect of her physical well-being. More, it resulted in a difficult process of reflection in the Roman-catholic church on the centuries old ritual of exorcism, and a formal change in its approach toward it. My hesitation might have stemmed from that time, when ‘everyone’ shared the view that exorcism was outdated, and that to believe in demons was superstitious (although large crowds went to see the movie The Exorcist) – while I myself would have never wanted to declare someone’s genuine experience away like that. For that I respected experience too much.
I enjoyed this book by Goodman, as I did the other one. She has written down her research in the case almost in the style of a detective novel, and with much respect for the people, dead and alive, who played their role in the drama. As a philosopher, I was curious what her book might contribute to extending reflective discourse to include such phenomena as possession by evil spirits. There are some positive and some negative points to be made in this respect. Positive is her stance that all experience is natural, and connected to observable and potentially understandable phenomena. We do not need mystery, nor talk about the ‘supernatural’ to speak about demons. In her 1981 book, she precedes a development that has gained much in attention as well as in technical possibilities of observation – that of researching the brain processes that go along with these experiences. Although in her book much is still hypothetical in this respect, there is a good chance that the newest measuring techniques could corroborate her view that negative religious experiences, as well as positive ones, are related to certain brain processes. Processes that, in the case of demonic possession, have gone out of control.
Very positive is also how she connects the brain hypothesis with her knowledge of cultural anthropology. Ancient rituals, she argues, comprise not only potent instruments to induce positive possession experiences, used to heal afflictions, but also those that can halt and transform situations of negative possession. They do so by altering the brain processes through means of repetitive sounds and movements (drumming, praying, dancing), by addressing the afflicted psyche in it’s possessed aspect (speaking to the demons, finding out their names, summoning them to leave). Although the rituals may vary widely as to their belief system and practices, they share common features that do real work on the afflicted brain. According to Goodman. Finally she preceded another development, that of a growing hesitancy to think that all psychic afflictions can simply be cured by medication. Revolutionary is her attempt to even describe the effects of medication that messes with the brain in the terminology of possession – where she puts forward the hypothesis that the demons that harass Anneliese in the final stage of her life, the ones who are silent, are the individualized forms of the effects of her medication.
While I find Goodman’s approach interesting for bridging modern and ancient approaches, promising the possibility to combine brain research and cultural anthropological observations – I see some serious lacunae in her approach too. She makes only short references to the psychological aspects in Anneliese’s affliction, like the possible influence of the early death of an older sibling. She doesn’t analyse the possibility that the grief of the parents might have summoned up, in their southern German catholic life world, experiences of evil forces, of a curse, or of something that should be atoned for – that were taken upon herself by the second oldest daughter, Anneliese. Neither does she probe into that political-historical aspect of the case (even while Adolf Hitler is one of the demons said to harass Anneliese) – that of the collective need for atonement among young Germans of the post-war generations. The same need that made some turn to protest and even violence, like the members and sympathethizers of the Rote Armee Fraktion.
When demons appear in some individual’s life, this should not just be a problem for that person, or his close relatives. As it is likely that there is some social and political wrong, searching it’s expression and demanding a ritualistic handling by appearing in an extreme fashion in a highly sensitive individual, like Anneliese apparently was. In this individual the horrors of (recent) history ask for attention – in order for society to go through a process of reconciliation and healing. But when one leaves the social and political aspect out of the analysis, one leaves the individual alone in her suffering, as was the case, I think, with Anneliese, who in the end bore with her suffering by interpreting herself as having to sacrifice her happiness and even her life to save others. This of course was a mental way out for her, as it is for some others (nowadays there are those who make pilgrimage to her grave just because of this supposed sacrifice she made). To my view there are more promising ways to deal with the horrors of war and genocide – ways that look the psychological and political aspects in the eye. They are more difficult to imply, as they ask for collective involvement of the wider society. But they might expell the demons that brought normal human beings to kill, torture, or look the other way, in a more lasting way.
The Exorcism of Anneliese Michel, by Felicitas Goodman, Resource Publications, Eugene, 1981, inspired two movies, Requiem, from 2007 (in German) and The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2006)