The Devils – When Church and State are one

December 12, 2010

The Devils is a Ken Russell film from 1971 that I saw a few years after that.  Since I wasn’t eighteen, I don’t know how I was admitted to the theater at the Los Angeles County Art Museum, and I certainly don’t know why they were showing it!  The film was incredibly controversial, heavily cut by censors, and still is not available in an official DVD version, which accounts for the poor image quality of the commercial release I have.  It is a loose adaptation of a book by Aldous Huxley, The Devils of Loudon, that tells the story of demonic possession of a nunnery in 17th century France.

Louis XIII is king, Cardinal Richelieu is master.  Loudon is a ‘free town’, allowed to maintain its independence and the fortifications that guarantee it.  Within their circuit, despite the carnage of the religious wars, Catholics and Protestants have managed to live and work together in peace.  Richelieu will have none of that:  he wishes to concentrate all power in the king; to destroy the independence of towns; and to drive the Protestants from the land so that Church and State may be one in a new France.

Father Urbain Grandier is a charismatic churchman in Loudon who has his own interpretation of Catholic celibacy and the like.  Women of all sorts adore him, and vie to have time with him in church to ‘confess’ their sins.  Some get to be more intimate, including the daughter of an influential figure who becomes pregnant by him and is then set loose.  His arrogance and strong ideas make lots of enemies, and when he defies the Cardinal’s emissary who wishes to demolish Loudon’s walls, he’s made an enemy who will not give up until he’s dead.  The fevered and twisted imaginations of some sex-starved nuns provide a good pretext for trumped-up charges of sorcery, a convenient way to remove Grandier from his position of power.  Church and State – no separation…

The film is lurid, bizarre, sometimes funny, and horrifying in its focus on the brutality of Church ‘justice’.  The orgy scene with nuns gone wild, ‘raping’ Christ, and the visions of Sister Jeanne drove the censors wild.  Anyone who has delved into Gothic literature, or the art and mysticism of the Counter-Reformation will recognize it as a dramatic, but not all that distorted presentation of historical truths.  (Click to enlarge the images.)

The film opens with a bit of royal theatrical diversion.  The Cardinal offers his ring and support for a new France, and “may the Protestants be driven from the land!”

Oliver Reed is great as Grandier.  Vanessa Redgrave, as Sister Jeanne, the hunchback prioress of the convent presides over a bevy of girls who are dying to get a glimpse of the man as he leads a procession through the town.  Remember, most nuns were forced to be such by families that didn’t have means or marriages for them. (See Jacques Rivette’s wonderful adaption of Diderot’s novel, La religieuse [The Nun], for example).   These are all daughters of well-to-do families, essentially imprisoned for life.  The expressionistic set design is fabulous.

Jeanne is obsessed by this handsome man of God whom she glimpses through the grate that gives the women their only view of the world outside.

She has ‘visions’ of him, and of a not all that pure nature.

In her dreams, she is Mary Magdalen, come to wash Christ’s feet, and dry them with her hair.  She is beautiful, not a cripple.

Mystical states come to an end – reality does not disappear.

Grandier is just a man, one who loves his neighbor, and his neighbor’s daughter…and many’s the neighbor’s wife who would love to love him…

An eerie black and white sequence depicts Sister Jeanne’s erotic dream of embracing Christ as he comes down off his cross.  She eagerly licks the blood from his wounds, only to awake to reality and find that she has clutched her rosary so hard that her hands are bloodied.  Religious fervor can go too far.

Grandier confronts the Cardinal’s emissary when he starts to demolish the walls.  He has a paper proving that the king granted the city the right to maintain them.  Richelieu tries to get the king to renege on his word, but no dice.  “Leave Loudon alone,” he is told.  The king is impatient.  He’s having fun taking aim

at Hugenots forced to run the gauntlet dressed as black birds.  Ahh…but if Grandier could be disposed of, there would be no opposition and the Cardinal would have a free hand to work on the king.  A plot is hatched.

An interview with Jeanne gets the inquisition going.  A lunatic devil-chaser with John Lennon glasses stages an exorcism while the town’s élite watches from behind a grill.  Yes, such things did go on.  And much has been made of the tinted Lennon glasses:  was Russell taking a swipe at pop culture icons of the day?  I don’t know.

The chasing out of the devils continues in a full-fledged orgy within the local church, the most controversial scene in the film.  Devils?  Within and without.

Grandier is tortured, but will not confess to witchcraft.  He understands the situation perfectly.

Forced to crawl through the streets to his funeral pyre, he is tormented to the end, but refuses to give in.  His enemies, and just about everyone else, turn out to see him burn.  The father of his former lover holds up his son and shouts, “Lucky bastard!  Not every boy gets to watch daddy burn!

With his death, the Cardinal has his way.  The walls come down.  The woman he secretly married wends her way out of the place of desolation while Sister Jeanne and her girls are shut away forever in their convent, despite promises to the contrary.  Sister Jeanne is given a present of Grandier’s charred thigh bone – you can guess what she does with it.


Saint Augustine, Dunning-Kruger, and rules of debate

June 6, 2010

Smite the unworthy!

Those who waste their time with this blog know that I can be argumentative, but I do try to give the other person a chance to explain and defend alternate views.  Anyone who comments on blogs will certainly be aware that this is not the rule.  Venom, flaming, insult, and complete lack of interest in hearing any dissenting views are very common.  Well, it’s a free cyber-world, and if people only want to engage with those they agree with already, that’s their choice.

Since I am interested in the controversy over climate change – anthropogenic? proven? – I visit blogs that take the so-called consensus view, with which I disagree.  Sometimes I comment.  Generally, the response is anything but measured and polite, and a debate at the level of grade-schoolers ensues.  To be fair, the same has happened on blogs that I do generally agree with when I have begged to differ on some particular point.

How to conduct a rational debate with those you disagree with, even fundamentally, has always been a fascinating question for me.  What are the limits?  Reading Saint Augustine’s City of God, commenting on RealClimate, and following up on the Dunning-Kruger Effect [Full Text] has brought this all together!

If you follow the link to RealClimate, a premier pro-AGW blog, moderated by Gavin Schmidt of the Goddard Institute for Space Science (right around the corner from the Seinfeld diner) you can decide for yourself how well or badly I was treated if you have the patience to follow the thread that begins at comment No. 22.  One fellow suggested I was suffering from psychosis, others intimated that I was a nefarious troll, feigning real interest in the discussion, but intending only to sow dissent and distraction at the site.  (Really, they didn’t have to respond to me – are they that easily sidetracked from their great work?)  Many commented that despite their repeating the obvious logical case for AGW over and over, and presenting me with incontrovertible evidence, I remained recalcitrant.

I was reminded of accounts of witch trials and inquisitorial interrogations I have read – the sinner refuses to recant or confess, maintains innocence, despite being presented with indubitable evidence of his guilt.  His stubborness is further evidence of his sinful, heretical nature – burn him!

As in the period of the great religious wars of 17th century Europe, there is an unwillingness to accept that some matters cannot be settled definitively, at least not yet, and that judgement of men and women plays a part.  For the AGW crowd, it’s all settled, the evidence is in, to maintain that one’s judgement of the evidence leaves one unconvinced simply demonstrates that one is:  stupid; ignorant of science; a shill for the oil companies; psychotic; all of the above…OR, a victim of the Dunning-Kruger Effect!

Ah, now we are getting somewhere!  But before we dive into contemporary academic study of incompetence (I kid you not), let us give an ear to Saint Augustine.  Fine man, but he didn’t suffer fools gladly.  At least, not people he knew were fools!  Here is what he says at the opening of Book II, The City of God. [He was refuting pagan authors who laid the blame on Christianity for the recent sack of Rome.]  Anyone who has read AGW denunciations of skeptics, deniers, denialists, and other ‘crackpots’ will have a frisson of déja vu.

If only the weak understanding of the ordinary man did not stubbornly resist the plain evidence of logic and truth!  If only it would, in its feeble condition, submit itself to the restorative medicine of sound teaching, until divine assistance, procured by devout faith, effected a cure!  In that case, men of sound judgment and adequate powers of exposition would not need to engage in lengthy discussions on order to refute mistakes and fanciful conjectures.  But as things are, the intelligent are infected by a gross mental disorder which makes them defend the irrational workings of their minds as if they were logic and truth itself, even when the evidence has been put before them as plainly as is humanly possible.  Either they are too blind to see what is put before their face, or they are too perversely obstinate to admit what they see.  The result is that we are forced very often to give an extended exposition of the obvious, as if we were not presenting it for people to look at, but for them to touch and handle with theirs eyes shut.

And yet, will we ever come to an end of the discussion and talk of we think we must always reply to replies?  For replies come from those who either cannot understand what is said to them, or are so stubborn and contentions that they refuse to given in even if they do understand.  In fact, as the Bible says, “Their conversation is unrighteousness, and they are indefatigable in folly”  You can see how infinitely laborious and fruitless it would be to try and refute every objection they offer, when they have resolved never to think before they  speak provided that somehow or other they contradict our arguments.

Many of us have had the experience of arguing with someone in thrall to some weird conspiracy theory (men did not land on the moon!) and it is very frustrating.  At some point, you have to give up.  But at what point?  And how do you tell if you are arguing with a person uninterested in reason or someone who just completely disagrees with you?  A certain amount of trust in the good faith of the other is absolutely essential, and a willingness to bend over backwards to try and understand them.  This is rarely present in abundance.

And why bother when the Dunning-Kruger Effect (DKE) is handy?  (I’ve been it’s victim several times, according to some bloggers.)  The simple truth is that those who are incompetent in a field are the least able to judge their own level of expertise.  Moreover, their very incompetence is an obstacle to them realizing how little they know.  (Ignoramuses are famously confident.)

Having a dispute over a complex scientific question?  Your opponent refuses to accept your argument, claiming that your evidence is weak and your logic is full of holes?  DKE to the rescue!  Obviously, your gadfly is one of those who just doesn’t get what science is all about (The argument for AGW is basic physics, duh!) and it’s useless to engage because he hasn’t the mental  tools to  understand how ignorant he is!!  The simplicity, neatness, and unassailable logic of this riposte is simply beautiful!

What do Mssrs. Dunning & Kruger really say?  From the abstract of the article available at the link above (italics mine):

People tend to hold overly favorable views of their abilities in many social and intellectual domains. The authors suggest that this overestimation occurs, in part, because people who are unskilled in these domains suffer a dual burden: Not only do these people reach erroneous conclusions and make unfortunate choices, but their incompetence robs them of the meta-cognitive ability to realize it…Paradoxically, improving the skills of participants, and thus increasing their metacognitive competence, helped them recognize the limitations of their abilities.

The article is a careful academic exercise in experimental social psychology.  I would be very surprised if the authors would endorse the free-wheeling use of their names to silence opponents in scientific disputes.  They are also careful to point out that self-overestimation of competence can have other sources as well.  Finally, their work was concerned with a rather narrow range of phenomena, for which they were able to develop fairly uncontroversial measures of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’.  Even their measure of competence in humor, yes!, was based on a survey of professional comedians’ assessment of a fixed sample of jokes – surely they have a good idea of what’s funny!

The interesting thing about the misuse of this academic article is that it takes a study that assesses peoples’ self-awareness of competence in uncontroversial areas – logical deduction, grammar, etc. – and applies it to a…controversy!  The whole point of scientific controversy is to arrive at the truth, which will then be, perhaps, uncontroversial.

I did have another reaction to this paper, however.  It struck me as similar to saying, “The problem with poor people is they have no money.”  Sort of obvious.  Incompetent people don’t know they are incompetent.  Well, sometimes they do.  And why in heck is it paradoxical that giving people training and tutoring will improve their self-assessment of skill?  I would venture that the notion of competence includes the idea of self-awareness of skill level.  We used to call this wisdom or judgment.

The authors begin their article with the sadly comic story of a man who robbed a bank, thinking he was invisible because he smeared his face with lemon juice.  Obviously, not competent to judge  a lot of things.  They conclude with a cutesy remark:

Although we feel we have done a competent job in making a strong case for this analysis, studying it empirically, and drawing out relevant implications, our thesis leaves us with one haunting worry that we cannot vanquish. That worry is that this article may contain faulty logic, methodological errors, or poor communication. Let us assure our readers that to the extent this article is imperfect, it is not a sin we have committed knowingly.

Ha, ha.  So funny.  Maybe they suffer from the DKE…Boy, good thing they don’t do stand-up comedy.  These are professors at Cornell University by the way.  What do we learn about anything from this article?  Stuff like this is what makes academic a pejorative term.


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