Yesterday I argued that the underlying worldview of The Exorcist is part Christian, in the form of the theology of Teilhard de Chardin, and part dualistic, and the two are not ultimately reconcilable.
I think this is reflected in the conclusion, which for me has always been problematic: after Fr. Merrin’s heart attack, Fr. Damien must face the demon alone. Abandoning the rite of exorcism, Damien invites the demon to enter his own body, and jumps out the window trying to outwit the devil when God fails. Granted, the inspiration for this scene is Biblical: Jesus once sent several demons into a herd of swine who then drowned themselves in the Lake of Galilee, but the spirit of the scene is not Biblical. The message is a pessimistic one: in the end you are alone, and the best you can hope for is a temporary, Pyrrhic victory against the forces of evil. This is a common theme in exorcism movies.
Out of curiosity, I looked up the actual Rite of Exorcism on the internet to see what it really consists of. It is long but straightforward, consisting of prayers addressed to God, Bible readings, and several speeches directed at the devil. This is a typical excerpt:
I adjure you, ancient serpent, by the judge of the living and the dead, by your Creator, by the Creator of the whole universe, by Him who has the power to consign you to hell, to depart forthwith in fear from this servant of God who seeks refuge in the fold of the Church. I adjure you not by my weakness but by the might of the Holy Spirit, to depart from this servant of God, whom almighty God has made in His image. … Make no resistance nor delay in departing from this man, for it has pleased Christ to dwell in man. Do not think of despising my command because you know me to be a great sinner. It is God Himself who commands you.
You would think the content would be pessimistic since the very idea of exorcism implies the existence of an evil spiritual being that exercises influence on human behavior. But if you read it carefully, the rite of exorcism is surprisingly positive: here and elsewhere, several key concepts are frequently repeated:
- God’s power is infinite; the devil’s is finite, so his defeat is inevitable.
- The exorcist is not the protagonist, but a simple instrument of Christ’s authority.
- The person who is possessed is not a sinner, but a beloved child of God.
- God alone has the capacity and the right to dwell in the human heart; the devil is an interloper who can only manipulate the possessed person’s body.
Why is it that movies about the devil or exorcism are fundamentally pessimistic, while the actual Rite of Exorcism is fundamentally optimistic?
I think it is a result of a strange juxtaposition in American life: Americans are traditionally a religious people, but American intellectual life is self-consciously agnostic, and this public agnosticism extends to our mass-produced popular culture. For the sake of making a few bucks off a movie, Hollywood can make believe the devil exists but has a hard time pretending that God exists: that would be too personal, too sectarian, and maybe too much of a concession to the dangerous redneck masses who, according to legend, live somewhere between Manhattan and LA. The resulting story is yet another cliched chapter in the ‘never ending battle between good and evil’ in which all victories are tainted and temporary, history is circular, and nothing means much in the end. The vision is essentially the same as the dualism of the ancient Middle East I mentioned yesterday.
Whether or not the devil actually exists and can really take possession of a human body are of course separate questions. I don’t think there is anything logically impossible about disembodied intelligences existing in some way, but now we are not talking about movies, but the very edge of human experience.