If weirdness were an Olympic sport, the American nineteenth century would have a closet full of gold medals.
But out of that weirdness comes the strange and compelling figure of Orestes Brownson, a Catholic convert who wrote an equally strange and compelling book: The Spirit-Rapper: an Autobiography. Newly reissued by Cluny Media under the (improved) title Like a Roaring Lion, Brownson’s 1854 book dissects some of the biggest bad ideas of his day, and warns of a menacing darkness that lurks beneath them. But Brownson’s novel also speaks to us today about the errors and practices that open our souls to the work of the devil.
The mid-nineteenth century was an era of “progress” and a time of religious and social upheaval. While some American intellectuals read mystical German metaphysics and ancient Hindu texts, others founded strange and short-lived utopian communes. Radical reform movements campaigned against everything from chattel slavery to the evils of “demon rum.” Transcendentalists such as Ralph Waldo Emerson turned away from the divinity of Christ to embrace the divinity of Man, and new technologies including the telegraph and the railroad promised to transcend both space and time. Before the Civil War left over 600,000 Americans dead, there were those who believed in humanity’s infinite potential for progress. It was an age of excitement, invention, experimentation, and no little quantity of absolute nuttiness.
Gerald J. Russello’s scholarly introduction and explanatory notes place Orestes Brownson and his book within the context of these restless decades in American culture. Brownson (1803-1876), a prolific writer and brilliant intellectual, rubbed shoulders with some of the foremost experimental thinkers of his day. He tutored Henry David Thoreau in German, and he helped found the Transcendentalist Club with Emerson. He even stayed frequently at the Transcendentalist utopian community at Brook Farm (where none other than Nathaniel Hawthorne lived for a time). A relentless religious searcher, Brownson served as a minister for the Universalists and then for the Unitarians, before his ultimate conversion to Catholicism in 1844.
But alongside the new scientific and religious ideas of the nineteenth century, there sprang up an interest in something called mesmerism. Taking its name from the German physician Franz Mesmer, mesmerism proposed to use hypnosis to cure disease, but it was also believed to bestow preternatural abilities such as long-distance sight, mind-reading, and much more. The mesmerized person sometimes showed unusual physical strength, could speak languages of which she had no prior knowledge, and could even speak with the dead.
If you’re thinking that sounds a lot like demonic possession, Brownson thought so too.
Thus arrives one of most eclectic Catholic books in American letters, written to warn the American public that they might just be tinkering with demonic powers. Brownson bases most of his book on research, but he also draws from his own experience. He admits in his Preface to having “at one period of my life made myself acquainted with more deviltry than ever did or ever will do me any good.”
Brownson’s book defies categorization. As the author himself acknowledges:
It is not a novel; it is not a romance; it is not a biography of a real individual; it is not a dissertation, an essay, or a regular treatise; and yet it perhaps has some elements of them all, thrown together in just such a way as best suited my convenience, or my purpose.
Framed as the fictional deathbed confessions of a former mesmerist, Like a Roaring Lion retells one man’s contact with evil spirits through mesmerism, his growth in supernatural power, and his attempt to inaugurate a new world order. Mortally stabbed by the husband of a woman he once held captive through mesmeric power, the narrator now tells his story as he waits to die of his wound.
Why, we might ask, does an odd book denouncing nineteenth-century occultism still matter today? It’s talky; it’s slow-moving; it’s a novel of ideas. And yet Brownson’s book has something fascinating about it, as he picks apart the grave errors that render men vulnerable to the devil—errors that are alive and well today. Brownson rightly shows that modernity remains just as hospitable to demons as any superstitious era from the past.
Our first mistake, Brownson proposes, happened when we abandoned religion. Secularism becomes a fertile field for the occult because man is an inherently religious animal. As one of his characters states, “The people cannot live in absolute irreligion; and where they have not religion, they will have superstition.”
Likewise, our materialism and skepticism make us vulnerable to demonic deception. The narrator takes a purely scientific interest in mesmerism, and initially dismisses the supernatural. As such, he wanders right into the devil’s trap. For when he hypnotizes himself and begins to communicate with an intelligence in the immaterial realm, he receives a startlingly satanic promise:
I was informed that I was on the eve of gratifying my most secret and ardent wish and should have, in full measure, the knowledge and power I craved.
Here the narrator reenacts the fall of man, seeking the fruit of knowledge in the belief that he can become like God. And he makes, as he later realizes, “a covenant with death.”
Once his power grows, he joins a movement of progressive reformers working to establish a new world order. Along with the beautiful freethinker Priscilla, he goes to Europe to place groups of men under his mesmeric influence and prepare for revolution. Their goal: to tear down Church and State, and anything that hinders the total autonomy of the human race. Their enemy: God. Their ally: Satan. As Priscilla puts it:
It was therefore not a friend but an enemy that imposed upon our first parents the prohibition to eat the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. It was a friend, not an enemy, that inspired Eve with the thought and the courage to disregard the prohibition.
But the revolutions of 1848—although (in Brownson’s rendering) supported by demonic forces—ultimately fail. Even Priscilla, long enslaved to the narrator’s terrible power, finds herself liberated by the prayer and blessing of a martyred priest. When the narrator tries to hypnotize her again, her husband intervenes and stabs him. As the protagonist later concludes, “The devil always leaves us in the lurch.”
The book has its Poltergeist moments, as the narrator wreaks his revenge upon a Christian minister’s family. One mesmerist hypnotizes his betrothed and sees in her face the face of a demon, before she dies. We see floating tables and hear messages from the realm of the dead. But the real drama of the novel becomes the battle of truth against the lies of the devil—lies that remain in the air we breathe today. Brownson knows that the devil wants us to believe he does not exist. When we doubt his reality, we find ourselves at a terrible disadvantage in the spiritual struggle. Brownson warns, “persuade yourselves that there exists no devil, and he in turn will laugh at you and take quiet possession of you.” As St. Paul reminds us in his Epistle to the Ephesians, “our struggle is not with flesh and blood but with the principalities, with the powers, with the world rulers of this present darkness, with the evil spirits in the heavens” (Eph 6:12).
Finally, we need to recognize Brownson’s book as an unexpected and even prophetic warning against what happens when we submit our intellect and will to anything other than God. Hypnotism may not enjoy the dangerous vogue it once did in the mid-nineteenth century; but reading Brownson’s book should make us rethink the causes and effects of our contemporary love of mind-altering substances. In America, in particular, we face the opioid crisis, and we watch as state after state falls to the marijuana industry. Drawing on Scripture, Tradition, and common sense, the Catechism teaches not only of the morally grave offense of drug use (CCC 2291) but also of the serious obligation of the political community to protect us from the spread of drugs (CCC 2211). As Like a Roaring Lion shows, entering the mind-altered state of hypnotism places our intellect and will within the grasp of demons. If we voluntarily throw away the God-given powers of our soul on drunkenness or drugs, and if we permit or support their spread in our society, we may just find ourselves, as Brownson warned, making a deal with the devil.
Like a Roaring Lion: A Tale of Demonic Possession and Redemption
by Orestes Brownson
Introduction and Notes by Gerald J. Russello
Cluny Media, 2017
Paperback, 374 pages