For the first time in this blessed blog we are traveling as far as the 18th century. Had I been able to choose, I will surely not have taken lodging in a convent, for the pleasures of secular life are can be often than not powerful enough so as to coax me out of my cell and into places where a God-fearing man should never set foot. The allurements of all that is mundane are irresistibly tempting to my eyes, while the duties of spiritual life appear burdensome
to my sinful soul. But, nosy as I also am, the prospect of a stay in an 18th century convent grew more interesting when I was informed that certain privileges had been granted to me, by virtue of my acquaintance with monsieur Diderot. I was going to be allowed into the very cells of the nuns, only to discover that, as far as cheekiness goes, some of these ladies would have easily dwarfed the most blatant sinner.
The story is well-known so I won’t waste much time explaining it: the book was originally no more than a series of letters sent to the Marquis de Croismare. Apparently this gentleman, who had left Paris for his states in Normandy, was badly missed by Diderot and friends. They came up with an infallible plot to lure their friend back to their Salons: why not make him believe that a young woman had been forced to become a nun by her parents and regarded him as her only salvation? Our Marquis was totally taken in by this cunning machination (what I don’t know is if he actually went back to Paris).
So La Religieuse is the fictional account of the life a nun in the mid-18th century, albeit an exceptional life for that matter, since she underwent a series of experiences that, by the extremeness of their nature, are not likely to have been suffered by many nuns. I do admit that I might be wrong here: certainly, the story is based in the real case of Marguerite Delamarre, born in 1717 and who spent most of her life arguing her case against being forced to remain a nun against her will. Ate any rate, one can presume that what the protagonist (Suzanne Simonin) went through is a “compilation” of the cruelties and misbehaviours that occurred in convents. Whatever the case, the idea of being obliged to take vows is outrageous enough for our modern sensibilities, and I would not hesitate in labelling it “imprisonment”. What I can’t say is whether Marguerite was, like Suzanne, harassed by other nuns, tortured and even molested.
I am nonetheless inclined to think that what Diderot describes in La Religieuse is to a great extent a faithful account of the normal “practices” carried out in such a closed community as a convent is. Insofar as an important number of nuns were forced to take vows, it is quite reasonable to suppose that at least some of them turned out to be a bit too rebellious. It makes all the sense of the word to think that convents, like any other self-regulated communities would, had their spoken and unspoken methods to deal with those elements whose reluctance to fall in line might threaten the normal functioning of the community. If that meant harassment, let it be harassment. Poor Suzanne’s sin is merely to make known to everyone that she doesn’t want to be a nun and to fight for her freedom, but this is enough to start the machine.
In fact, Suzanne is intentionally portrayed by Diderot as a naive young girl. This, apart from being what an 18th century reader might have expected (young girls had to be innocent), worked well to make the story even more outrageous: it is bad enough that a young soul is deprived of the pleasures of life; it is simply unacceptable that such fate befalls an innocent young girl. This is even more obvious when the sexual harassment one mother superior subjects her to passes totally unnoticed to Suzanne until a priest brings her attention to the fact that those cuddles and caresses had the mark of the evil on them. Poor Suzanne lives amidst scenes that might perfectly have inspired a horror film: madness, superstition, cruelty. The little bit of love that there is is either sinful or, at best, furtive. One or two charitable souls help her, but, other than that, Suzanne is hopelessly alone in the dreadful place where these female souls pry for the grace of God.
Of course, here is the key issue. Diderot was only pulling his mate’s leg but let’s not forget that he is one of the uppermost thinkers of the Enlightenment and there is no way he could have written anything not bound to be ultimately interpreted as a criticism to the aspects of his society most detrimental to the well-being of the humankind. The book can be read as a statement against what could be defined as the wrong notion of what a spiritual life must be. Diderot does not challenge religious feelings as such: quite on the contrary, Suzanne doesn’t refuse to be a nun because she doesn’t believe in God. In fact she is capable of very pious feelings. She rather embodies the corruption brought upon any human being driven to isolation on whatever grounds. A convent is and must be a highly damaging place for the human soul as it goes against its social nature. Isolation breeds sin, depravity and immorality. A convent is a contradiction in itself: the very place that is supposed to have been built for the quiet contemplation of the marvels of creation and the infinite goodness of God turns into a jail where the meanest feelings are nurtured. Certainly, Suzanne does not fall into the abysses of moral corruption, but being locked in her cell does nothing to help her attain a spiritual view of the world. Being in contact with nature and society is not only desirable: it is consistent with our very nature.
Literarily speaking the book is quite linear: Suzanne’s childhood and family relations are quickly sketched and then Diderot goes on to narrate her sufferings. The psychological subtleties that would turn the novel into a very sophisticated intellectual artefact are not fully developed in La Religieuse. Certainly, this may be accounted for by the fact that originally Diderot’s intention was not even to publish the letters he sent to his friend. At any rate, what matters here is not the exploration of the complexities of human relations. It is all about speaking out against an injustice, an outrage against human happiness, and atrocity against the human soul.
It has been pointed out by many a man far more intelligent than me that, in its attempt to free the world from the chains of superstition and other such malevolent deviations, the Enlightenment let loose the monster of reason. It is by no means an easy task to conciliate our subjective experience of life with a presumed objective reality. Sometimes I am a bit put off by writers who don’t doubt for a moment that their view over a subject is totally correct. That’s a little bit the problem with the Enlightenment: those guys were so self-confident that it took an earthquake to shake their convictions. But, on the other hand, we bloody need men and women with convictions. Certainly, the subject La Religieuse deals with won’t awake anyone’s conscience to a pressing issue, but it surely did it in the past. There is a bit of the pleasure of the archaeologist in reading this book, but, mind you, it can be also moving. Sad thing is, nuns are scarce nowadays but injustice, torture and loneliness are still rampant out of the convent.