Criticism: The Working Language of Good and Evil, Part II

(Part I introduced the idea that in the course of exerting control some persons may use manipulative language, including language formed up as narrative, to achieve their ends. Language framed to control another blinds its target to everything except what the attacker wishes him/her to see. Such “deadly words” may trap, bring a range of illnesses upon, or “kill” their intended victim by creating an illusion of limited options. Part III may be found here.)

How is it that words–incorporeal entities that they are–may threaten another’s wellbeing? Jeanne Favret-Saada, who studied witchcraft in the Bocage region of France, said the most important truth she learned in her research was that words and acts are the same. “Now witchcraft,” she says,

is spoken words; but these spoken words are power, and not knowledge or information. To talk, in witchcraft, is never to inform “¦ For a single word (and only a word) can tie or untie a fate, and whoever puts himself in a position to utter it is formidable. Knowing about spells brings money, brings more power and triggers terror … (Favret-Saada:9-10).

How does language achieve these affects? The answer may be surprisingly simple.

When an angry child shouts, “I hate you!” the speaking of such words is an act of self-defense and perhaps hate. Shot at a vulnerable target, these words may do damage if their intended victim believes he or she is, indeed, hated, and if it matters. A discerning person might recognize that actually in speaking these words the child is attempting to wield power. The child speaks the words I hate you to defend herself or get back on her feet–she’s struggling for control of the situation. In this imposition of will, she shoots arrows of language and unwittingly attempts a primitive spell. It’s a spell because it is an attempt to gain the upper hand through wielded language. It’s primitive because in this case the spell is cast wildly, usually without knowledge of the intended victim’s susceptibility to the poison on the words’ barbs. Knowledge of the victim’s susceptibility to verbal poisons is essential for acquiring control; it’s what informs the spell’s word choice.

Another reason such spells are primitive is because phrases like “I hate you” and “I wish you were dead” aren’t spoken to mean exactly what they say. During a momentary flare-up of emotions where a child reacts to a sudden, short-lived, and common frustration, these words mean something more like, “Stop making a fool of me, I can’t bear it,” or “Stop preventing me from doing what I want to do.” The fact that parents, the usual targets of such darts, don’t sicken with sorrow or die mysteriously afterward relates to their knowledge that the child doesn’t really want them dead. Such words shot forth without skill or real intent fly wide of their apparent marks–and so they may be intended to do.

Of course, some children do become skilled marksmen, having learned early the advantages of manipulative language, and some parents do sicken and die physically, psychologically, or both. Even simple language in the mouths of the immature is activity with varying capacities for power; that is, even simple language is action taken and not commentary upon action or mere information. Because language does things to and for us, it’s a potent element of the animation of our species. As the physical acts of a person may injure another or help another to safety, so may language work either for the good or the evil, for the health or the sickness, and for the wholeness or the fragmentation of an individual and of his or her society.

4 thoughts on “Criticism: The Working Language of Good and Evil, Part II”

  1. J.,

    The next post, Part III, really ratchets up the subject–it’s the last post about language bearing evil intent and it gets more specific than either of the previous two segments. Some readers may be sensitive to the subject matter. Parts IV and V will be about restorative, healing language–sacred language. While none of these posts are Mormon specific I think LDS will be able to make their own applications, draw their own inferences.

    J., I’d appreciate your comments, and, of course, others’ comments, on Part III especially when it comes out!  

    Posted by P. G. Karamesines

  2. (Nov. 1, 2005. I started this Oct. 24, adding and revising over the next week.)

    A brief comment from someone who is never brief. Once on a road trip I was talking with my physical therapist sister about Louis Owens’ novel Bone Game. There’s a beautiful section where the close to 100 year old shaman Uncle Luther and his nephew Hoey McCurtin set out on a road trip from Louisianna to California to rescue Hoey’s son who is locked in a cosmic struggle with a serial killer and a spirit who wants to dice for the soul of the world.

    They run into another Native American elder who tells them to go to a particular place and wait. They get there and some witches come along who have kidnapped a young woman. Uncle Luther and Hoey are able to rescue her and return her to her family.

    I mentioned it because my sister is interested in non-western-European-derived spirituality, and because the scene is very moving. She was offended at the word witch, feeling it was an insult to women. I explained that within the novel a witch is a man who uses his shamanic powers for evil.

    She’s sensitive to discussions of witchcraft because the witches burned at the stake conferences of western Europe were healers like herself, the village bone setters who used their hands and herbs to set things right.

    (14:05 10/26/2005)
    I told her Donna Jo Napoli wrote about that destruction of women in Magic Circle. The narrator is a village healer/herbalist whose desire to heal leads her to sorcery. She tries to extricate herself but ends up tied to a stake in the midst of a fire. She escapes through sorcery then secludes herself deep in the forest to keep away from both her persecutors and the evil spirits who rescued her from the flames but now put more pressure on her to sacrifice a child and become a full-fledged witch.

    She keeps her house clean of spiders and other messengers who might report her whereabouts to the spirits, and succeeds until two children come along one day, a brother and sister who’ve been abandoned in the forest. She takes them in, and tells them how important it is to kill the spiders and keep the house clean, but Gretel, being a little girl, isn’t as diligent as if she were a grown-up. The evil spirits find her and urge her to sacrifice Hansel and Gretel. She triumphs over the evil spirits, but, as my sister pointed out, still ends up getting burned.

    I told her the story because Napoli shows the same kind of concern for women’s history that my sister does, but there’s a difference. I think my sister sees _witch_ and _witchcraft_ as ideas invented by men to demonize women’s spirituality and powers. Napoli demonstrates this in the novel, but her novel’s world contains malevolent supernatural powers, and the name within that world for one group who uses power for evil is witch. Napoli’s character rejects witchcraft, but Napoli believes there are benevolent uses of a woman’s power, and her narrator is someone committed to those uses, just as Louis Owens calls a man who uses his powers for evil a witch, but still shows the benevolent use of shamanic powers. I suspect for both Napoli and Owens the term _witchcraft_ may be analogous to the Book of Mormon term _priestcraft_–using priesthood for gain and power.

    (10:06 10/27/2005)
    What Jeanne Favret-Saada said about witchcraft holds true for both priesthood and priestcraft. Both are accomplished by speaking words.

    (15:16 10/30/2005)
    Margaret Young has a character in Salvador who tries to murder his wife through a priesthood blessing. She’s rescued by another priesthood blessing from a man who is originally presented as the villain of the piece. I ran into Margaret in the temple once when I was there with my niece and mentioned it. My niece asked me later why I had said that, and it was because my niece had told me once something similar about people using their powers against each other.

    I told Margaret another time that the murderous blessing is a very powerful episode is to me, even archetypal. Margaret said something like, “Unfortunately, that really happened.” 

    Posted by Harlow Clark

  3. Harlow,

    It never ceases to fascinate me how you embed narratives within narratives (concentric narratives). Have you read The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind  (gotta love the title) by Julian Jaynes? Not something you can read in one sitting but worth the long ride through a dense and intriguing countryside. This book talks about the role narrative has played in the development of human consciousness over the millenia. Given the recent news that (NO! HOW CAN IT BE!) the human brain is still evolving, the idea that narrative affects its development is especially engaging. One wonders how the narratives of today compare with the ancient Greek narratives in their ability to open up human consciousness for its next ascent (or is it in descent now?).

    Not entirely off point, since my purpose in writing these posts is to suggest that there are good narratives and bad narratives; one kind constricts possibilites and one kind opens up possibilities.

    She was offended at the word witch, feeling it was an insult to women. I explained that within the novel a witch is a man who uses his shamanic powers for evil.

    I have also heard it used to compliment strong women, to express wonder and admiration for their character and power. I suppose that’s to be expected because what words do we have do describe a provocative (in a good way) and compelling woman? If it were a man, we might say, albeit it mild by comparison, “He honors his priesthood.” I think for some people in some cases “You’re a witch!” is the best some can do to express their approval of the sort of woman described above. (Disapproval is expressed nowadays through use of the b-witch word.)

    She’s sensitive to discussions of witchcraft because the witches burned at the stake conferences of western Europe were healers like herself, the village bone setters who used their hands and herbs to set things right.

    In the past, and sometimes now even, calling a woman “Witch!” was certainly a way to put an end to her.

    In my Good and Evil posts “witch” is used for both men and women who seek to enhance their personal power or fulfill ambitions by taking power away from others. In which case, calling someone a witch is itself often an act of witchcraft–in fact, it’s the real act. Furthermore, name-calling of this sort is a common way to control a conversation, to cut off the language of the targetted individual. In logic, such linguistic behavior is considered a logical fallacy and there’s a term for it–ad hominem–the personal attack on the man (or woman) rather than on the reasoning at hand.

    What Jeanne Favret-Saada said about witchcraft holds true for both priesthood and priestcraft. Both are accomplished by speaking words.

    Thank you for making this point. I am not Mormon-specific in my language because I don’t want to say, “Mormons ought to think this about that.” I think any given LDS is quite capable of figuring out whether or some point is applicable.


    Posted by P. G. Karamesines

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