Words, words, words ...

Fierce Language

A Column
by Jason DeBoer

Jason DeBoer

Jason DeBoer currently resides 
in Madison, Wisconsin. His fiction has recently appeared or will appear soon in numerous journals, including Quarterly West, Other Voices, The Barcelona Review, Libido, The Wisconsin Review, The Iowa Review, The Clackamas Literary ReviewExquisite Corpse, Suspect Thoughts, CrossConnect, and Linnaean Street. At the moment he is working on Stupor, his debut novel.

E-mail: tremblingsun@yahoo.com

 

Previous columns:

Laure: The “True 
Whore” as Muse

Edgar Saltus: Forgotten Genius of American Letters?

Sublime Hatred: 
Nietzsche’s 
Anti-Christianity

Eschatology 
and Orgasm

The Fatal 
“Theory-Fiction”
 of Jean Baudrillard

Masochism
and Regicide

Bataille 
versus Theory

Introduction

Fierce Language
   

   

Blood, Fuck, God: 
The Prodigal Crimes of Gilles de Rais

Gilles de Rais was perhaps the most infamous sexual criminal in history, responsible for the rape, mutilation, and murder of more than 150 children (some estimates put the figure as high as 800). A fifteenth-century French nobleman, noteworthy as a brave lieutenant to Joan of Arc during the sieges of Orléans and Paris, Gilles de Rais experienced significant renown and prestige before his eventual downfall, trial, and execution in 1440. The story of Gilles de Rais is that of the squandered life par excellence, of a life devoted to squandering and destroying everything around him. As did most nobles, he possessed large estates, but his prodigal nature would eventually lead him to debt and financial ruin. He engaged in a lifestyle of prodigious waste and dissipation, spending vast sums of money on huge entourages and senseless luxuries. Of course, his extravagance regarding wealth was echoed by his extravagance in vice…

It is likely that the murders first began as far back as 1426. Gilles had his most loyal servants procure his victims, and they usually scrounged for unaccompanied children in the countryside or nearby villages. When they brought them back to their master’s nearest castle, there would ensue a night of unimaginable debauches that would always end in murder. In his in-court confession at his trial, Gilles described how he and his lackeys “inflicted various types and manners of torment; sometimes they severed the head from the body with dirks, daggers, and knives, sometimes they struck them violently on the head with a cudgel or other blunt instruments, sometimes they suspended them with cords from a peg or small hook in his room and strangled them; and when they were languishing, he committed the sodomitic vice on them,” before or even after death. Such a sexual preference may have symbolic significance beyond Gilles’ homosexuality: it is another gesture of wasteful expenditure, compounding the already wasteful act of killing. As Pierre Klossowski, who translated the 1440 trial documents from the Latin, wrote (in his book on Sade), sodomy “strikes precisely at the law of the propagation of the species and thus bears witness to the death of the species in the individual. It evinces an attitude not only of refusal but of aggression; in being the simulacrum of the act of generation, it is a mockery of it.” When boys could not be found, girls sometimes served as victims, and during intercourse Gilles always disdained their “natural vessel” in favor of sodomy. When Klossowski said, “orgasm in the sodomist act is but a loss of forces, a useless pleasure,” he could easily have been describing one of the many forces within Gilles de Rais that drove him to acts of insane, limitless prodigality.

Always the aesthete, Gilles looked upon his victims with the eye of a connoisseur, remarking on the boys with the finest skin or the prettiest limbs; he would keep the most handsome of the decapitated heads and kiss them with adoration. Wide-eyed and childlike, Gilles was mesmerized by the act of dying, and this fascination spawned erotic perversions: he often stabbed a child in the neck and watched transfixed as the blood streamed down the tiny neck. This slow dissipation of life enhanced his arousal and Gilles sat masturbating on the bloody belly until he ejaculated. This release of sperm seemed to serve as a consecration of the fecundity of crime, as if the vile act itself had led to the genesis of a monstrous, unparalleled example of murder.

The violence continued unabated for years: countless children were procured, raped, killed, then hidden by being burned or buried in cesspools. During this time, the wealth of Gilles de Rais dwindled until he was on the verge of ruin. Out of financial desperation, he turned to demon invocation and alchemy in an attempt to reverse his fortune. His shrewdest servant, François Prelati, duped Gilles into believing that Prelati was able to divine the aid of a demon named Barron, who could be made to fulfill requests for gold. To fuel his wastrel need for more wealth, Gilles desired help from the devil and its alchemy (“the chemical coitus,” as Huysmans called it). But, for all his bloodlust, Gilles was a gullible coward when it came to the black arts: Prelati was consistently able to invent stories about summoning Barron, encounters which were always fruitless—needless to say—yet he was never suspected by Gilles of trickery. There is no evidence to suggest that Gilles ever offered directly to Barron a human sacrifice, but he indulged in much indirect sacrifice: he would send with Prelati the eyes, hearts, and members of victims as tokens to appease the demon. Doubtlessly, Gilles also hoped to favor the devil with his compounded acts of heresy: murder, rape, wasting of semen, unchristian burial, etc. Strangely, despite his monstrosities, Gilles clung to his belief in God and the Church, but, as Joris-Karl Huysmans wrote, “he carried his zeal for prayer into the territory of blasphemy.” Gilles refused to offer up his soul to the devil, although in his written pacts to Barron he offered everything else. In moments of fear, Gilles resorted to crossing himself or entreating God, and, during his final hours, he still firmly believed that after his execution he and his accomplices would ascend to heaven.

 

Georges Bataille, who edited and prepared a record of the trial, saw no incongruity between Gilles’ murderous behavior and his Catholic faith, seeing them as symbiotic to one another. He wrote: “Perhaps Christianity is even fundamentally the pressing demand for crime, the demand for the horror that in a sense it needs in order to forgive. …Christianity implies a human nature which harbors this hallucinatory extremity, which it alone has allowed to flourish.” Thus, the moral limits set by Christianity contain the necessity of their own transgression, so that the religious institution may then return and offer solace, penance, forgiveness, etc. In fact, Bataille’s view is exactly congruent with the trial itself, during which—although found guilty of heresy and sodomy—Gilles’ contrite confession kept him in the relative good graces of the Church: he was briefly excommunicated but then reinstated; he was hanged but his body was removed before being burned at the stake. Apparently, the severity of his crimes was not enough to earn more drastic condemnations from the bizarre, hypocritical justice of the Catholic Church. Bataille wrote: “Gilles de Rais’ contradictions ultimately summarize the Christian situation, and we should not be astonished at the comedy of being devoted to the Devil, wanting to cut the throats of as many children as he could, yet expecting the salvation of his eternal soul…” It appears that, from a theological perspective, Gilles’ expectations for salvation were realized. Before Bataille, this accommodating stance by the medieval Church had been criticized by Aleister Crowley, who in 1930 lectured on Gilles de Rais at Oxford. He explained it thus: “Whenever questions arise with regard to black magic or black masses, invocations of the devil, etc., etc., it must never be forgotten that these practices are strictly functions of Christianity. Where ignorant savages perform propitiatory rites, there and there only Christianity takes hold. But under the great systems of the civilized parts of the world, there is no trace of any such perversion in religious feeling. It is only the bloodthirsty and futile Jehovah who has achieved such monstrous births.” This lurking violence, this Christian complicity with crime, leads Crowley to go even further and accuse the Church of a conspiracy: “I think, then, it is not altogether unfair to assume that Gilles de Rais was to a large extent the victim of Catholic logic. Catholic logic: and the foul wish-phantasms generated of its repressions, and of its fear and ignorance.” Crowley believed that the crimes were exaggerated or even fabricated, and that Gilles was a political “victim” of the Catholic Church; still, Crowley’s evidence is suspect and his view is based largely on his assumption that so many child murders could not go unnoticed for such a long period of time.

In the end, Gilles de Rais’ obsession with prodigal destruction led him to his own doom, along with his spent wealth, his wasted heroism, and the many lives he threw away. Despite being a learned man, his childish nature seems quite apparent, and, to be sure, his vicious acts often resemble the same mindless attraction to evil that a young boy shows when stirring the guts of a murdered frog. These medieval crimes still resonate today as hideous, self-negating acts, as the strange gestures of a nobleman and hero transformed by his own ruinous desires into a wastrel and murderer.

Works Cited

Georges Bataille, The Trial of Gilles de Rais, trans. Richard Robinson 
(Amok Press, 1991).

Jean Benedetti, The Real Bluebeard 
(First Day Books, 1981).

Aleister Crowley, The Banned Lecture on Gilles de Rais 
(Oxford, 1930).

Joris-Karl Huysmans, Là Bas, trans. Keene Wallis 
(University Books, 1958).

Pierre Klossowski, Sade My Neighbour, trans. Alphonso Lingis 
(Quartet Books, 1992).

  

©2001 Jason DeBoer

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