“If you’re at a party with a hundred people and one of them is the devil, he’ll be the last one you’d suspect” – Dean Koontz
It must have been a slow news day at The New York Mirror and Ladies Literary Gazette on February 7, 1824. Under the headline “Delusion”, they printed an uncited and anonymous excerpt from the 1716 publication Letters from a Lady at Paris to a Lady at Avignon, where it was originally titled, “Judge not by Men’s Apparel, nor their Mein, For Excellency is not Always Seen”, penned by no less than Anne-Marguerite Petit du Noyer (1663 -1719), the leading Gossip Girl (she was big on scandals) and female journalist (her coverage of the negotiations of the Peace of Utrecht were lauded all over Europe) of 18th Century France. The re-printed text concerned a Mister Graverol’s strange encounter with what was interpreted to be the Devil, and Du Noyer received the report directly from Graverol himself.
After a little digging based on some sparse facts (dates, locations) sprinkled through the story, our Mister Graverol appears to be Protestant theologian Jean Graverol (1637-1718) of Nîmes, France – reported as “Nismes” by the New York Mirror (clearly a compromise from its ancient Roman name “Nemausus” because they didn’t have a printer’s block for the i-circumflex). The event described actually had to have happened prior to 1685, as he fled to Amsterdam after the repeal of the Edict of Nantes which basically gave Catholics free reign to kick around the nearest Protestant.
So, sometime before 1685, our theologian was no doubt ensconced in his study doing what theologians do with their afternoons, presumably thinking deep thoughts about religion and then writing articles on what it all means for the unwashed masses. While translating his complex musings into palatable tracts, Graverol was informed a visitor had arrived.
Mr. Graverol was alone n his study one day, about 2 o’clock in the afternoon, when a stranger was ushered in. As soon as he was seated, a conversation started up between the two. The stranger addressed Mr. G. in elegant Latin, saying that he had heard of his learning spoken highly of, and he had come from a distant country to converse with him on things which had embarrassed the ancient philosophers. After Mr. G. had replied suitably to the compliment offered to his talents, some very abstruse subject was introduced, and handled in a very scientific manner. The stranger did not confine himself to the Latin language, but he spoke Greek and some Eastern tongues, which Mr. G also understood perfectly. The latter was astonished and delighted with his guest’s profound information; and from dear some person should call on him and interrupt it, he proposed a walk, which was readily acceded to by the stranger. The day was delightful, and you know there are some beautiful walks in the neighborhood of Nismes. They left the house with the design of going through the gate called the Crown-gate, which leads to some gardens and a very fine avenue of noble trees; but as Mr. Graverol’s house was a considerable distance from the place above-mentioned, they were obliged to cross several streets before they reached it. During the walk, Mr. G. was observed by many of his acquaintances, he being well known in the city, to use much gesture, and he was also noticed to be speaking at intervals; what added to the surprise was that no person was seen accompanying him. Some of his friends sent to his wife, expressing their fear that he was deranged, describing the manner in which he was noticed to pass through the streets. She being greatly alarmed at intelligence so extraordinary, dispatched several persons in search of him; but they could not find him, as he had gained the shady walks outside the city with his new acquaintance. After expiating on the subjects of ancient and modern philosophy, and reasoning on the secrets of nature, they entered on the wide fields of magic and enchantment. The stranger argued with great ingenuity and power, but exceeded the bounds of probability; and Mr. G. cried out ‘Stop, stop! Christianity forbids us proceeding to such lengths – we should not pass the prescribed boundaries’. He had no sooner said this than the stranger vanished (New York Mirror, 1824, p221).
Well, it definitely sounds like some sort of intellectual “temptation” was being proffered to the stunned Mr. Graverol, which he rejected, so it’s no wonder that this got interpreted as an encounter with the devil, who obviously would speak any language necessary, but apparently has a lot of free time in Hell to read up on theology and philosophy. Given that there is no reported history of insanity in Graverol previously or subsequently, the vanishing stranger is a bit puzzling. Even more quizzical are the reports of those who saw Graverol during his stroll with the Devil.
On turning around and not perceiving his companion, he became generally alarmed, and uttered a dreadful shriek, which brought some men who were employed in pruning the trees, to him. When these people perceived how pale and frightened he was, they gave him some wine which they had in a flagon, and used all the means they could devise to restore him to himself. As soon as he recovered his recollection, he inquired if they had noticed where the gentleman had gone with whom he had been walking. He was very much agitated when these good people informed him that there was no one with him when he passed under the trees where they were at work; neither had a single individual been in his company since he came on their sight, and they had observed him for some distance before he reached them. They added, moreover, that when he passed, it struck them as being somewhat singular that he should be so deeply engaged in apparent conversation, although he was alone (Munn, et al., 1851, p323)
Graverol was clearly flabbergasted, and was quoted as saying he didn’t know who the stranger was for sure, but he was clearly quite learned and eloquent. I suppose we have Shakespeare to fall back on if we need, suggesting “the devil can cite Scripture for his purpose”, but apart from the vanishing at the mention of theological boundaries that Graverol was unwilling to breach, it seems a bit of a reach to immediately jump to the conclusion that the Devil popped in for a visit and a little philosophical debate. There seems to be an element of absurdity to many preternatural encounters, and the absurdity often seems to be by design. Maybe there is a corps of tricksters out there trying to let us in on how the universe works, for as Argentinian writer Julio Cortazar said, “Only by living absurdly is it possible to break out of this infinite absurdity”.
Du, Noyer. Letters from a Lady at Paris to a Lady at Avignon: Containing a Particular Account of the City, the Politicks, Intrigues, Gallantry, and Secret History of Persons of the First Quality in France. Written by Madam Du Noyer. the Third Edition. to Which Is Added, an Account of the Author’s Person and Writings. London: Printed, for W. Mears at the Lamb, and J. Browne at the Black-Swan without Temple-Bar, 1716.
“Delusion” The New York Mirror: A Weekly Gazette of Literature and the Fine Arts v1. No.28. New York: G. P. Morris, 1824.
Munn, Apollos, R. P Ambler, and Harry Houdini Collection (Library of Congress). The Spirit Messenger: A Semi-monthly Magazine Devoted to Spiritual Science, the Elucidation of Truth, And the Progress of Mind v1, no 41. Springfield, Mass.: R.P. Ambler, 1851.