I recently read The Exorcist, the classic 1971 novel by William Peter Blatty (on audiobook and narrated by the author himself!). I imbibed the book, is more what I did. I was immediately drawn into this story of a demon-possessed young girl and her devoted mother whose tireless efforts at finding a remedy for her condition ultimately secure the ministrations of a Jesuit psychologist (Fr. Damien Karras) and a mysterious elderly exorcist (Fr. Lankester Merrin). Blatty’s poetic prose, his evocative scene-setting, character descriptions, and philosophic inner monologues all make the book a delight to read. The subject matter of the novel—a demon possession—also helps to keep the reader riveted, of course. >>Spoilers ahead<<
But on reflecting back on the book now, I think what I ended up being the most compelled by was a strong theme of love that ran throughout it. I think I’d even go so far as to say that love is the central theme of the book. I came to this conclusion myself, but I was later happy to find affirmation of sorts from Blatty, the author, in a 1974 article he wrote in response to some criticisms of the novel and film. He explains:
At the end of The Exorcist, the mother can believe in the devil because “he keeps doing all those commercials”; but [Fr.] Dyer responds: “Then how do you account for all of the good?” And that is the question that my novel and film implicitly ask: namely, if the universe is clockwork and man is no more than molecular structures, how is it there is love as a God would love and that a man like Jesuit Damien Karras would deliberately give up his life for a stranger, the alien corpus of Regan MacNeil? This is surely an enigma far more puzzling and far more worth pondering than the scandalous problem of evil; this is the mystery of goodness.
Blatty’s defense of his story was necessary because many people then and now apparently missed this theme, what with all the projectile vomiting, head spinning, and demonic vulgarities. And boy are there some vulgarities. It’s actually hard not to want to look away when watching the film or to put the book down when reading the novel during some of the more outrageously obscene actions and gestures of the demonically controlled body of Regan, the little girl. And I doubt it’s a stretch to suggest that the shock value of these scenes—and not the story as a whole—is what propelled the book/movie to become a blockbuster classic.
But was all of that over-the-top nastiness and trope-setting terror included for the mere shock value, for the lamentable but predictably popularizing effect it would have for the novel? I don’t think so. I think it was included not to appeal to our baser side, but to offend our gentler side. It’s meant to viscerally repel us, to make us disgusted at this creature that is or was an innocent and cheery twelve year old girl, but that is now putrid, foul, repulsive. Excrement, blood, urine, and vomit soak her surroundings; insults, jeers, lies, and screams issue from her chapped, wretched lips; hatred contorts her face into something loathsome and hate-able. She is the very image of something un-lovable.
And yet, she is loved. She is loved to the end and never given up on. Her mother, her house-keepers and nanny, and two priests—strangers to her—give themselves up to her care and her rescue. The two priests, the two strangers, even give themselves up to death. And lest we think these priests find it any easier to love her simply because that’s their job, or that dying for the sake of this repugnant object was in any way more natural for them as priests, the backgrounds we get for them disabuse us of that notion.
Fr. Damien Karras, the psychologist and one of the main characters, is described throughout the novel as struggling with his faith. This struggle is related to his difficulty in finding love in his heart for people. See, for example, the scene in which he is introduced into the story, where he’s waiting for a subway train alone in New York City and encounters a homeless man:
He glanced to the left. A gray-stubbled derelict, numb on the ground in a pool of his urine, was sitting up, his yellowed eyes fixed on the priest with the chipped, sad face.
The priest looked away. He would come. He would whine. Couldjya help an old altar boy, Father? Wouldjya? The vomit-flaked hand pressing down on the shoulder. The fumbling in his pocket for the holy medal. The reeking of the breath of a thousand confessions with the wine and the garlic and the stale mortal sins belching out all together, and smothering … smothering…
The priest heard the derelict rising.
Heard a step.
Ah, my God, let me be!
“Hi ya, Faddah.”
He winced. Sagged. Couldn’t turn. 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. In an absent gesture, he felt at his coat sleeve as if for an unseen band of mourning. He dimly remembered another Christ.
“I’m a Cat’lic, Faddah!”
The faint rumbling of an incoming train. Then sounds of stumbling. The priest turned and looked. The bum was staggering, about to faint, and with a blind, sudden rush, the priest got to him; caught him; dragged him to the bench against the wall.
“I’m a Cat’lic,” the derelict mumbled. “I’m a Cat’lic.”
The priest eased him down; stretched him out; saw his train. He quickly pulled a dollar from out of his wallet and placed it in the pocket of the derelict’s jacket. Then decided he might lose it. He plucked out the dollar, stuffed it into a urine-damp trouser pocket, then picked up his bag and boarded the train, sitting in a corner and pretending to sleep until the end of the line, where he climbed up to the street and began the long walk to Fordham University. The dollar had been meant for his cab.
And the elderly exorcist? He is first introduced simply as an old man in khaki sipping tea at a Kurdish establishment after an archeological dig in northern Iraq:
Someone wheezed from within the chaykhana: the withered proprietor shuffling toward him, kicking up dust in Russian-made shoes that he wore like slippers, groaning backs pressed under his heels. The dark of his shadow slipped over the table.
“Kaman chay, chawaga?” [More tea?]
The man in khaki shook his head, staring down at the laceless, crusted shoes caked thick with debris of the pain of living. The stuff of the cosmos, he softly reflected: matter; yet somehow finally spirit. Spirit and the shoes were to him but aspects of a stuff more fundamental, a stuff that was primal and totally other.
The shadow shifted. The Kurd stood waiting like an ancient debt. The old man in khaki looked up into eyes that were damply bleached as if the membrane of an eggshell had been pasted over the irises. Glaucoma. Once he could not have loved this man.
He slipped out his wallet and probed for a coin among its tattered, crumpled tenants: a few dinars; an Iraqi driver’s license; a faded plastic Catholic calendar card that was twelve years out of date. It bore an inscription on the reverse: WHAT WE GIVE TO THE POOR IS WHAT WE TAKE WITH US WHEN WE DIE. The card had been printed by the Jesuit Missions. He paid for his tea and left a tip of fifty fils on a splintered table the color of sadness. […]
“Allah ma’ak, chawaga.”
Rotted teeth. The Kurd was grinning, waving farewell. The man in khaki groped for a warmth in the pit of his being and came up with a wave and a mustered smile. It dimmed as he looked away.
Both the nearly faithless Jesuit psychologist, Damien Karras, and the wearied, critical archeologist/exorcist, Lankester Merrin, have the same problem: they are easily repelled by their fellow man. It’s easy for them not to love. But both of them, in the end, give their lives to save what they’re told is a pure-hearted twelve year old girl, but what in their only direct experience is a filthy and loathsome demonic shell.
The meeting of these two priests in their shared purpose only finally comes near the end of the novel. After an excruciatingly protracted and thorough process of excluding every other possibility for Regan’s condition, Fr. Karras at long last alights on the terrible conclusion: her possession is real. Free to finally contemplate the horrible nature of a demon possession, Fr. Karras asks Fr. Merrin, “What is the purpose of possession? What is the point?”
“Who can know?” answered Merrin. “Who can really hope to know?” He thought for a moment. And then probingly continued: “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 I think belief in God is not a matter of reason at all; I think it finally is matter of love; of accepting the possibility that God could love us…”
Again Merrin paused. He continued more slowly and with a hush of introspection: ‘He knows… the demon knows where to strike….” He was nodding. “Long ago I despaired of ever loving my neighbor. Certain people… repelled me. How could I love them? I thought. It tormented me, Damien; it led me to despair of myself… and from that, very soon, to despair of my God. My faith was shattered….”
Karras looked up at Merrin with interest. “And what happened?” he asked.
“Ah, well… at last I realized that God would never ask of me that which I know to be psychologically impossible; that the love which He asked was in my will and not meant to be felt as emotion at all. Not at all. 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.”
It’s here that Fr. Karras realizes what a kindred he has in Fr. Merrin, and perhaps is finally given the moral and philosophical roadmap he needed to navigate his own doubts. Within hours of this conversation (in the narrative) Fr. Merrin will have exhausted himself in the stress and effort of the exorcism and yielded to his heart condition, dying alone on the floor next to the raving demon insulting him to his final breath. And Fr. Karras, upon discovering the body of Fr. Merrin lying beside the thing he died loving, becomes filled with a holy rage and offers himself as the demon’s victim to spare the girl. As he wrestles with the murderous demon inside himself now bent on strangling the girl, he flings his own body through a window to his sure demise, saving the girl and leaving the demon no host. His act of self sacrifice earns him a likeness to his namesake, Fr. Damien of Molokai, the 19th century priest who ministered to a leper colony in Hawaii, finally contracting and dying of the disease himself. And of course both the fictional Damien the exorcist and the real Damien the leper take the likeness of Christ, who took on human nature and human death in order to save us all from the finality of death.
Love, as The Exorcist demonstrates, is not a feeling, but a will, a behavior, an action. Love is self-giving, even unto death.