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Communion With Pazuzu

SPOILER ALERT: Plot details for The Exorcist follow.

Photo by Insomnia Cured Here. Some rights reserved. Source: Flickr.

“That I am regularly hauled out of my burrow every Halloween like some furless and demonic “Punxsatawney Phil” always brings a rueful smile of bemusement to my lips as I lower my gaze and shake my head, for the humiliating God’s-honest truth of the matter is that while I was working on “The Exorcist,” what I thought I was writing was a novel of faith in the popular dress of a thrilling and suspenseful detective story — in other words, a sermon that no one could possibly sleep through — and to this day, I haven’t the faintest recollection of any intention to frighten the reader, which many will take, I suppose, as an admission of failure on any almost stupefying, scale.”

- William Peter Blatty (1928–2017)

“Farewell, but not for ever! brother dear!
Be brave and patient on thy bed of sorrow;
Swiftly shall pass thy night of trial here,
And I will come and wake thee on the morrow.”

- Blessed John Henry Newman, “The Dream Of Gerontius”

The Exorcist brought a return to the humanity of the Christian faith which was first signified by the crucifixion of Jesus. Ben-Hur explored the dissatisfaction of vengeance. The Last Temptation displayed the internal struggle of being both divine and human. William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist lays bare our most grievous faults and how they may be overcome.

It is rare that we see The Exorcist described as a Christian film, since most commentary on the story has focused on the frightening aspects. Indeed, it is routinely referred to as the scariest movie ever made. While I find Kubrick’s The Shining superior in this regard, this is not meant to be a knock on The Exorcist. While the film is certainly chilling, upon repeated viewings or a careful reading the novel, it becomes clear the scares are only a means of spreading a different message. That to accept Christ is to accept the human flesh.

Most Catholics, such as Blatty, believed that during communion, in which the devoted partake of the bread and of the wine, they are partaking of the actual flesh and blood of Christ. This is referred to as transubstantiation. What does it mean to commune with Christ? Catholics also believe that the Son was the Father. What did it mean for God to become Man? Nikolas Kazantzakis, and later, Martin Scorsese, explored this question in The Last Temptation. In that case, the contradiction was spiritual. If God truly became Man, then he would be subject to all of Man’s temptations. In the case of The Exorcist, if God became Man, he would then be subject to all the bodily humiliations of Man: sweat, spittle, urination, ejaculation, defecation, vomit, and flatulence.

This interpretation is hardly an obvious one. The mutilation of Regan into Pazuzu, with such scenes as the projectile vomiting at Father Karras, have been the focus of some negative reaction. When the film was first released in 1973, Vincent Canby called it, “occultist claptrap” and “a new low for grotesque special effects.” Indeed, barf bags were infamously offered in the theaters. Literary extraordinaire, James Baldwin, saw the exaggerated depiction of evil as a means of evading the evil inside, particularly when it came to race,

“For, I have seen the devil, by day and by night, and have seen him in you and in me: in the eyes of the cop, the sheriff and the deputy, the landlord, the housewife, and the football player: in the eyes of some governors, presidents, wardens, in the eyes of some orphans, and in the eyes of my father, and in my mirror. It is that moment when no other human being is real for you, nor are you real for yourself. The devil has no need of any dogma — though he can use them all — nor does he need any historical justification, history being so largely his invention. He does no levitate beds or fool around with little girls: we do.

“The mindless and hysterical banality of evil presented in The Exorcist is the most terrifying thing about the film. The Americans should certainly know more about evil than that; if they pretend otherwise, they are lying, and any black man, and not only blacks — many, many others, including white children — can call them on this lie, he who has been treated as the devil recognizes the devil when we meet.”

If one closely examines the Christ of the Gospels, his godliness lied with squalidness. He broke bread with lepers and with prostitutes. He admonished the rich and elevated the poor. He died naked, nailed to a cross. Christians don’t like to think of their Christ as one who urinates, defecates, or vomits, but were he Man, then he did all of these things. Yet even in such a state, he was able to produce divine works, an example for others to follow. What Baldwin didn’t seem to grasp was that evil in The Exorcist isn’t about levitating beds or mortified girls, it was about putting into question the validity of Christ’s mission. They say that Man is the image of God, yet if we find the image distasteful, what does that say about God? If we cannot embrace our own bodies, as Christ did, then how can one embrace God? When Pazuzu makes a mockery of Regan’s body, he makes a mockery of Christ. Of God. Of Man. Take the gruesome scene where Regan repeatedly jams a crucifix into her vagina in a perverse form of masturbation. This is a parody of the believer’s devotion to Christ. Was it not the mystic St. Teresa of Avila who aspired to ecstasy with the divine? Is prayer nothing more than ephemeral masturbation?

Father Karras is just as befuddled by these grotesque acts as many moviegoers who first saw the film. Yet in the Director’s Cut, as well as in a passage from the book, the elder Father Merrin explains the sinister motive behind the Devil’s madness,

“Yet I think the demon’s target is not the possessed; it is us…the observers…every person in this house. And I think — I think the point is to make us despair; to reject our own humanity, Damien: to see ourselves as ultimately bestial; as ultimately vile and putrescent; without dignity; ugly; unworthy. And there lies the heart of it, perhaps: in unworthiness. For think belief in God is not a matter of reason at all; I think it finally is a matter of love; of accepting the possibility that God could love us”(369)

“The Dead Christ” by Andrea Mantegna

Father Karras struggles with this, the frailties of the human flesh. When a homeless beggar asks for his help in the subway, Karras is too repulsed by his appearance to extend a hand. As Blatty wrote in the novel, “He could not bear to search for Christ again in stench and hollow eyes; for the Christ of pus and bleeding excrement, the Christ who could not be,” (52). Karras also struggles with the failing health, and eventual death of his mother. He left her to pursue the solitary life of a priest, and this is how he is rewarded. When he visits his mother for the last time at the hospital, he sees a patient lying in a pose reminiscent of Andrea Mantegna’s The Dead Christ. All ponder why bad things happen to good people, all the more frustrating is this problem when one believes in a just and loving God. In the novel, Karras’s frustrations are explicit, “The raising of Lazarus was dim in the distant past. No one now living had heard his laughter,” (55). It is difficult to be righteous, when righteousness seems to only create suffering. Christ did not offer a life of convenience, narrow is the gate, straight is the way. These are anxieties Pazuzu exploits when he mimics their voices before him, as film critic Mark Kermode wrote, “Regan will appear to Karras during the final exorcism as a vision of his mother, mimicking her voice and saying, ‘Dimmy, why you do this to me?’ This attack will prove to be the most devastating, hitting the spot where Karras’s faith is weakest.”

Karras’s spiritual journey is based on whether or not he can love the unlovable. Whether or not he can embrace the Christ of Crucifixion as easily as he does Christ of the Resurrection. To Karras, and perhaps to Blatty himself, the whole world is crucified. The secular realm, as seen through the lens of his mother’s neighborhood, is seen as degenerate and uncaring. Not place to be alone. Blatty writes,

“Pausing by the steps that led up to the door, he eyed the children on the stoop. Unkempt. Ill-clothed. No place to go. He remembered evictions: humiliations: walking home with a seventh-grade sweetheart and encountering his mother as she hopefully rummaged through a garbage can on the corner. He climbed the steps and opened the door as if it were a tender wound. He remembered the visits to Mrs. Choirelli and her tiny apartment with the eighteen cats. He gripped the banister and climbed, overcome by a sudden, draining weariness that he knew was caused by guilt. He should never have left her. Not alone,” (53).

Rationalism, too, fails to provide consolation with its scientific marvels, as Gadfly magazine wrote, “We find science totally inadequate in the face of ancient religious forces.” Indeed, it’s easy to forget that a great deal of this story is spent in trying to find a scientific explanation for Regan’s behavior. When none is found, it becomes clear that Blatty is saying that Man cannot thrive by reason alone, but by every word of God. Bishop Robert Barron has interpreted the story similarly, writing, “it shows how a young priest moved, slowly and painfully, from a cramped rationalism to a keen sense of dimension that transcends our ordinary experience.” Blatty, I surmise, saw all persons as yearning for religion, even if they did not know it. Those who cannot have religion indulge themselves in its imitations. Take the nosy detective Kinderman, who is constantly goading others into watching films with him, or take Regan’s mother, Chris, whose career is spent acting in them. Is it not often said that the theater is a secular temple?

In the thrilling finale, after Merrin’s death, Karras realizes the only way to defeat Pazuzu, is to absorb him. All the blood, pus, urine, defecation, and vomit that he for so long ignored, is now a part of his very flesh. “Come into me!” he cries, as he face is distorted into necrosis itself. He leaps out the window, fatally breaking his body on the Georgetown steps, but successfully exorcising Pazuzu. In this one, altruistic act, he truly takes on the body Christ. Just as God took on the flaws of Man to save the multitude, so too did Karras take on a Devil to save a single girl. Perhaps, through the Crucifixion, God redeems Himself for allowing the Fall of Man, as Jack Miles wrote in Christ: A Crisis In The Life Of God, “In its broadest outlines, the story of the Bible is the story of how God first turned his blessings of fertility and dominion into curses and then turned his curses back into blessings.” In a similar vein, Karras redeems himself of his aversions to the least of thee, by becoming their epitome. Ego te absolvo. Ego te absolvo en toto. Bishop Barron has offered a similar interpretation, writing,

“Secondly, “The Exorcist” shows that the mission of a priest finds its fullest expression in the willingness to sacrifice one’s life for the good of the other. Both priests died in battle, defending a little girl whom they barely knew but who had been entrusted to their care. The very last scene of the film is arresting. As Regan and her mother are pulling away in a car, happily leaving the place where they had endured so much suffering, the girl spots a priest in a Roman collar. She asks the driver to stop, and she runs out, throws her arms around the priest and kisses him. It was her tribute to the men who had saved her.”

Before his death, Merrin revealed that he, too, suffered the same struggles that Karras did, “Long ago I despaired of ever loving my neighbor. Certain people…repelled me. How could I love them?” (369). Yet he overcame this very human struggle by realizing that the love God demanded of him was neither eros nor philia, but agape. That to “love your enemy” is not to love him as you would a lover or friend, but to treat him with the same respect deserving of all persons, “He was asking that I act with love; that I do unto others; and that I should do it unto those who repelled me, I believe, was a greater act of love than any other,” (369).

Then, Merrin ironically echoes many of the very same criticisms that Baldwin had of the film, telling Karras that possessions are less often seen in spinning heads, projectile vomit, or otherworldly voices, but in the little ways we all fail to love one another,

“There it lies, I think, Damien…possession; not in wars, as some tend to believe; not so much; and very seldom in extraordinary interventions such as here…this girl…this poor child. No, I see it most often in the little things, Damien: in the senseless, petty spites; the misunderstandings; the cruel and cutting word that leaps unbidden to the tongue between friends. Between lovers. Enough of these and we have no need of Satan to manage our wars; these we manage for ourselves…for ourselves…” (370).

Yet after each Crucifixion must follow a Resurrection. Karras has resolved his internal contradictions and made peace with his cloth. Chris and Regan have become witnesses to the reality of the supernatural. Kinderman and Father Dyer, in a scene that echos Casablanca, begin a new friendship. About as much was foreshadowed by a passage that Karras reads aloud from Chris’s bookshelf, which Blatty said was inspired by Cardinal John Henry Newman,

“We have familiar experience with the order, the constancy, the perpetual renovation of the material world which surrounds us. Frail and transitory as is every part of it, restless and migratory as are its elements, still it abides. It is bound together by a law of permanence, and though it is ever dying, it ever coming to life again. Dissolution does but give birth to fresh modes of organization, and one death is the parent of a thousand lives. Each hour, as it comes, is but a testimony how fleeting, yet how secure, how certain, is the great whole. It is like an image on the waters, which is ever the same, though the waters ever flow. The sun sinks to rise again; the day is swallowed up in the gloom of night, to be born out of it, as fresh as if it had never been quenched. Spring passes into summer, and through summer and autumn into winter, only the more surely, by its own ultimate return, to triumph over that grave towards which it resolutely hastened from its first hour. We mourn the blossoms of May, because they are to whither; but we know that May is one day to have its revenge upon November, by the revolution of that solemn circle which never stops — which teaches us in our height of hope, ever to be sober, and in our depth of desolation, never to despair,” (342).

One not need be Christian, or even religious, to find value in The Exorcist. Though Blatty may very much have preferred that any who take in the story will be reborn as believers in the Living Word, I think that many more may come away with belief of another sort. The Exorcist teaches us to accept our own flaws, but that despite our personal prejudices, we can treat others in a way that respects their dignity and humanity. It teaches us that the products of righteousness are not always present in an enviable life, the life of movie stars, but in a life that best fulfills that needs of our conscience. That from the bleakest shadow, can emerge a new flame, that even the presence of insurmountable evils can affirm the existence of unstoppable virtue. As Merrin told Karras before his final confrontation with Pazuzu,

“And yet even from this — from evil — will come good. In some way. In some way that we may never understand or ever see. Perhaps evil is the crucible of goodness. And perhaps even Satan — Satan, in spite of himself — somehow serves to work out the will of God.”

Amen.

Bibliography

Blatty, William Peter. The Exorcist. Bantam Books: United States of America, 1971. 52. 53. 55. 342. 369. 370. Print.

Originally published at http://sansuthecat.blogspot.com on February 4, 2017

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Sansu the Cat

Sansu the Cat

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I write about art, life, and humanity. M.A. Japanese Literature. B.A. Spanish & Japanese. email: sansuthecat@yahoo.com