The great Washington novel: The Exorcist
In the new issue of City Journal, Christopher Hitchens observes that there has never been a literary masterpiece about Washington, D.C. Despite a history with “Advise and Consent” and efforts by Gore Vidal and Henry James, the nation’s capital has never produced a classic novel. As Hitchens sees it, D.C. is a town with a lot of social and political color that no one has managed to capture with timeless brilliance.
If it hasn’t produced a masterpiece, D.C. has produced a great, timeless novel. It’s called “The Exorcist,” and next year marks its 40th anniversary.
And no, that’s not a set-up to a joke about demonic liberals or hell-bent Tea Partiers. Hitchens, like too many other observers, equates Washington with politics. To him a book about the city calls for the drama of geopolitics and power. But Washington is a largely apolitical city. Walk through the 90 percent that does not comprise Capitol Hill and you see it’s a town of churches, jazz clubs, and old neighborhoods — even ones that predate the federal city itself.
One of those neighborhoods is Georgetown, a beautiful neighborhood whose old row houses and quiet side streets give it a spiritual charge. In 1971 a writer named William Peter Blatty, who had been a student at Georgetown University, published a horror novel called “The Exorcist” about a girl who may or may not have been possessed by a demon — or by the devil himself. The book and subsequent movie were smashes.
While Christopher Hitchens looks to politics as a canvas for the great Washington novel, the irony is that politics, for all its noise, just isn’t a big enough theme for a great book. By making “The Exorcist” about good and evil, faith and its loss, and the boundary where science ends and the mysterious begins, Blatty reached deeper than any political novel could (perhaps it is difficult for Hitchens the atheist to grasp this). “The Exorcist” is mostly set in a few blocks in Georgetown, far from the monuments and Capitol Hill, but it manages to still loom larger in the collective consciousness than last week’s beach book about “Absolute Power” or Washington intrigue. I was born in D.C. and my family has deep roots here, and growing up there was only one real literary landmark: the long, steep stairs in Georgetown where the character Fr. Damien Karras plunges to his death at the end of the movie.
With the 40th anniversary of “The Exorcist” approaching, I revisited the book for the first time since high school. It still terrifies, probably because Blatty based the book on a real case of demonic possession that occurred in Maryland in the 1940s. There are some dated elements — at one point a character speculates that the trouble with Regan, the possessed girl, may have something to do with the “hippies” who are into the occult and hang out in the bars on Wisconsin Avenue — but for the most part the book deals with themes that are relevant today.
Indeed, you could even argue that “The Exorcist” is a more important Washington novel today than when it was published, considering how our politics and media have changed, becoming more diabolical and rancid. Rereading the book I was deeply moved by the part near the end, when Fr. Lankaster Merrin, an older priest, is explaining evil to the younger Fr. Karras. The demon’s target, he says, is not the innocent girl he takes over. Rather, the target “is us,” the observers. “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; unworthy.” Fr. Merrin then explains that the devil is not so much in wars or on great geopolitical dramas, but in the small, quotidian cruelties: “in the senseless, petty snipes; the misunderstandings; the cruel and cutting word that leaps unbidden to the tongue between friends, between lovers.” Enough of these, he says, and “we don’t need Satan to manage our wars.”
In “The Exorcist,” the demon refers to Regan’s mother, a famous actress named Chris, as “Pig,” and Regan as “Piglet.” This is part of the dehumanization that Fr. Merrin talks about — the way evil attempts to make us despair and consider ourselves animals unworthy of God’s love. This is particularly effective in the story because Fr. Damien Karras is having a crisis of faith — he both doubts the existence of God and feels his sins have made him unworthy of love. The demon, as Fr. Merrin notes, “knows where to strike.” Two years after “The Exorcist” was published, Roe v. Wade was handed down by the Supreme Court. It wasn’t long before abortionists and their allies were comparing young humans to lower life forms, including, yes, pigs.
Forty years after “The Exorcist,” it is not the wars or espionage that hack novelists mine for bestsellers that marks our era as much as brittle, hateful snark and petty rage. When the Tea Party movement began a year ago, liberal activists Rachel Maddow and Ana Marie Cox spent seven minutes on the air simply repeating variations on the word “tea bagger,” which is a slang term for a degrading sexual act. Liberals who howl, or more likely smirk, at what they would perceive as the overblown comparison of a sexual double entendre with the devil just don’t get it. The power of the final argument of “The Exorcist” is that it shows that it is not as much in the wars or the natural calamities or the Capitol Hill deals that the demonic is revealed; rather, it is in the smug put-down, the dehumanizing sexual smirk, the cruel — and cowardly — personal attack. These can cut deeper than an actual physical assault. And it crosses political boundaries. At one point in “The Exorcist,” the demon harangues Regan’s mother Chris for not caring about her daughter. This is the voice of the merciless conservative who fails to reach out with love to a person who may be tired and vulnerable and is trying the best she can.
In many ways, but one particularly crucial, Blatty’s book is deeper and more hopeful than the movie based on it. At the end of the book, there is a hint that, at the moment of his death, Fr. Karras has a glimpse of heaven. His eyes reflect a short flash of love itself, and his doubts are at last resolved. I still think of that moment when I drive past what us Washingtonians call “the Exorcist stairs.” I’ll remember it long after other Washington novels have been forgotten.
Mark Gauvreau Judge is the author of several books, including Damn Senators and God and Man at Georgetown Prep. His articles and essays have appeared in various publications.