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Wednesday, May 07, 2003


Let their way be dark and slippery:
and let the angel of the LORD persecute them.
7 For without cause have they hid for me their net in a pit,
which without cause they have digged for my soul.
8 Let destruction come upon him at unawares;
and let his net that he hath hid catch himself:
into that very destruction let him fall .
-Psalm 35

You could not, in words, writing, or printing, legally curse Queen Elizabeth. To do so put you on the road to having one ear removed, or half a tongue taken for fishbait -- that is if the hangman caught you. Guy Fawkes was prosecuted partly for saying that James was accursed. Progress has brought it about that you can legally curse George Bush, but you can't legally threaten him.

So our question tonight is: what does that mean?

Cursing has definitely socially declined from the old days. Once it implied traffic with divine or demonic powers, and now it simply implies street level babbling, the unalterable fuck of all the movie script drug dealers. Once it was mixed up with blasphemy, slander, and a whole set of verbal crimes -- crimes that were, by their nature, eerie, insofar as they were hints of a black logos that operated just under the surface, just out of sight of the angels in paradise, that bunch of stinking losers.

There's always been a bit of a mixup, within Christianity, about cursing. On the one hand, Jesus, in Matthew, seems to come out against it:

"Again, ye have heard that it was said to the ancients, Thou shalt not perjure thyself: but thou shalt perform to the Lord what thou hast sworn. 34. But I charge you, swear not at all: neither by heaven, for it is the throne of God: 35. Nor by the earth, for it is his footstool: nor by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King: 36. Nor shalt thou swear by thy head: for thou canst not make one hair white or black. 37. But your speech shall be, Yes, yes; No, no for what is beyond these comes from evil." (Matthew 5). On the other hand, our savior enjoyed a good curse himself. Coming upon a fig tree that bore no fruit, he cursed it. Later it was observed to be dead -- quid erat demonstratum, or however the Latin goes. And then there are the Psalms, which are full of the most beautiful curses. And there are the Prophets. Nowadays, the secret service would definite pay an unexpected visit to Isaiah, to say nothing of Ezekial. These were men who knew how to wield a curse.

Shakespeare's Richard III dramatizes the curse the way The Merchant of Venice dramatizes the contract. There's a nice essay about cursing in the Studies in English Literature, winter 03 (unavailable on line, alas), by Mary Steibel, which takes the case of Jane Shore. Jane Shore was King Edward the IV's concubine. She was stripped of her goods by Richard III, and according to the anti-Richard III literature that flooded the Tudor market (Richard being an inveterate enemy to the Tudors, and conveniently Punch-like), Jane replied with a good many curses that, in the way of a good curse, came true. Steibel examines some accounts of Jane's curses, and shows how Shakespeare substituted Margaret's curses in his play. Margaret was the widow of Henry VI, and a grande dame at the court. Steible makes some excellent points about the way Margaret figures in the play as the spokesperson for the curse. She quotes Little, a scholar who has researched liturgical curses:

"Pope Gregory the Great, says Little, concluded in his study of scripture that "God is said to curse and yet man is forbidden to curse, because what man does from the malice of revenge, God does only in the exactness and perfection of justice." (40) The kind of cursing undertaken by Shore and Margaret is not of the divine sort, and therefore, in the strictest sense, could not be regarded as prophetic, even if they do foresee the known end of Richard's mortal life. Little concludes from his study of curses that the Church's position is that "[o]rdinary cursing by ordinary people [is] decidedly not legitimate. (41)"
Shore curses Richard over loss of position, fame, property--material goods. Margaret, to be sure, lost much more than Shore, but she wants vengeance, not the "perfection of justice." Her ravings are human, not divine. Shore's are equally human. Indeed, the uncontrolled anger of each woman implies the disorder that results from loss of control, and, in some ways, parallels the loss of control that leads Richard to his fated end.

Steibel tries to infuse a feminist color to her view of cursing:" If words, just words, could cause harm--earthly or otherwise--to others, anyone who could speak could acquire a power that superseded rank, gender, physical strength, and so on. Perhaps curses were feared to "touch the hidden order of things," especially in regard to the divinely sanctioned order of the monarchy; Shore and Margaret both use words with the intent to wish ill upon Richard's body, their curses being directed against his birth, his bo dy, and his soul. The king's body natural is stigmatized, dismembered even. Speaking through their characters, Churchyard and Shakespeare both protest Richard, both make treasonous noises. Embedded in the dominant discourse of the divinely provident, the subversive speech act of cursing is voiced by politically weak figures, "historical" women who are little more than disaffected players in the pre-Tudor court. Having further de-mystified the kingship of Richard through curses, their job is done. Cursed themselves with charges of witchcraft and stigmatized by their own foul cursing, Shore and Margaret are authorized to speak like women in the historical narrative, that is, like witches."

Well, we aren't sure about this. Is the curse really subversive? And is that subversion really tied up with the woman's position -- and is that position most typically that of a witch? This seems an overhasty conclusion, especially when the most powerful sequence of curses in the play come at the end, and they come not from women, but from Richard's victims. These curses are definitionally pure, in a sense, because they are so starkly contrasted with the curse's opposite: blessing. Thus, Edward, and Clarence, and the young Princes, and all of Richard's dead victims visit him in his vision and pronounce his sentence, and then pronounce a blessing on Harry, progenitor of the Tudor line and Richard's opponent. It is as if one geneology -- Richard's cursed one -- is being formally replaced by another - Harry's blessed one. As the little Prince's say, "thy nephews souls bid thee despair and die!"

Richard is too modern a man to think that the curse has power. "Soft, I did but dream/O coward conscience, how dost thou afflict me." Once the curse is so rationalized, it loses its magical power -- and in its downfall brings all magic with it.

Which brings us to De Quincey's strange essay on Modern Superstitions. The architecture of DeQuincey's essays is always Piranesian, a descent from the tower to the dungeon by an infinite amount of stairs. In this essay he takes us, by degrees, from those superstitions later comprised under Ruskin's term, the pathetic fallacy -- that projection onto the natural of the human - to the superstitions of the ominous. The ominous, according to De Quincy, was as much the ancient's burden as colonialism was the white man's. He is particularly feverish (De Quincey is always supremely feverish) about the the accidental coincidence of a given name with some ill thing, in which the ancients saw malign powers. De Quincy instances the refusal of a Roman legion to go into Germany under the command of a man named Umbrius Ater -- a "pleonasm of darkness," as he puts it: Shadow Black. Offering a series of similar anecdotes, De Quincy gets to the paradoxical crux: that crossing of sign and accident, language itself: "These omens, derived from names, are therefore common to the ancient and the modern world. But perhaps, in strict logic, they ought to have been classed as one subdivision or variety under a much larger head,viz. words generally, no matter whether proper names or appellatives, as operative powers and agencies, having, that is to say, a charmed power against some party concerned from the moment that they leave the lips."

The essay probes the very texture of God's invisibility, which is, of course, symboled, modeled, consistes in logos -- the word, out of spit and air. That movement from the silent movie world of our apishness to the incredible communications of our never stilled tongue -- it has left a scar inside us. Richard III was right: it is our conscience, superstition's last stronghold.

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