Friday, October 21, 2011

By Jesus' Nails

Searching for the best and most inventive of curses he could find to make a point against the visitor who had just too severely cursed his manservant, Walter Shandy settles upon the Roman Catholic form of excommunication. Explains Walter:  

"I have the greatest veneration in the world for that gentleman, who, in distrust of his own discretion in this point, sat down and composed (that is at his leisure) fit forms of swearing suitable to all cases, from the lowest to the highest provocation which could possibly happen to him — which forms being well considered by him, and such moreover as he could stand to, he kept them ever by him on the chimney-piece, within his reach, ready for use. . . .

[S]o rising up and reaching down a form of excommunication of the church of Rome, a copy of which, my father (who was curious in his collections) had procured out of the leger-book of the church of Rochester, writ by Ernulphus the bishop—with a most affected seriousness of look and voice, which might have cajoled Ernulphus himself—he put it into Dr. Slop’s hands."
              (Laurence Sterne, "The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gent." - Bk.II, ch.II)

Bishop Ernulphus's Anathema, which Sterne then writes out in its entirety in both Latin and English, contains such passages as this:

May the holy choir of the holy virgins, who for the honour of Christ have despised the things of the world, damn him — May all the saints, who from the beginning of the world to everlasting ages are found to be beloved of God, damn him — May the heavens and earth, and all the holy things remaining therein, damn him, or her.’

 Boat Ride to the Other Side

Colorful stuff, that - a pure and unadulterated stream from a Golden Age of Cursing, surely one of the grander legacies of the Judaeo-Christian tradition. I had long been meaning to work up a helpful practicum of curses and cursing, recognizing (as must any civilized person) that the art of swearing has fallen into a sad state in the past several centuries, and wishing to add my small effort gratis to the cultural revival that must surely overtake this once-great nation. 

Stumbling on a Huffington Post story about Jesus' nails, this passage in Sterne sprang immediately to mind. "By Jesus' nails!" I thought, seeming to remember that I must often have read some such Shandean passage as: " 'Pon Our Lord's nails!" cried my father, "I would not give a fiddlestick for it!" T'was a round papish oath - my Uncle Toby blush'd." Alas, the oath appears nowhere in Sterne, though many just as fine are found there.

A moment's reading and it dawned that the report concerned no such trenchant manner of speech, nor even Our Lord's grooming habits, but a new documentary concerning the alleged discovery of some of the nails used at the crucifixion. The nails turned up most recently in the laboratory of a Tel Aviv anthropologist who is an expert on ancient bones. Science, for all its pretensions, seems to be as often an unwitting dupe to superstition as it is a font of knowledge. 

The premise of the film, "The Nails of the Cross," is that some nails were discovered in a Jerusalem tomb (supposed to be the tomb of the high priest who surrendered Jesus to the Roman authorities), then mysteriously disappeared for 20 years and were rediscovered in a Tel Aviv laboratory by a journalist named Simcha Jacobovici. The filmmaker is trying to establish that these were very likely the nails used to secure Jesus to the cross.

Several thoughts spring to mind - recall the once-brisk trade in "wood of the true cross." Historians have always scoffed at this phenomenon by pointing out that enough of the true cross exists in the reliquaries of the faithful to build an armada of ships. It seems a reasonable corollary to suspect that there is also ballast enough in the crop of extant holy nails to sink the entire fleet. The Church wisely forbids the sale of these holy relics.

Nonetheless, the curiosity for relics is immemorial in the species - and in truth it seems a natural urge to want some connection to those we regard with particular veneration as especially wise, holy or good. Hipbone connected to the thighbone, thighbone connected to the legbone, legbone connected to the footbone - close is good enough in the veneration business. But, as Thoreau famously (and somewhat mystifyingly) remarks, "Some evidence is circumstantial, like trout in the milk." Even circumstantial evidence would be strong by comparison with the speculations that typically afix the provenance of a relic, Jesus' nails being no exception.

 The Radius of St. Ulna

But just as important, relics have been a part of our language for milennia - they are the very stuff of oaths. Our forefathers have sworn by the bones of St. Hilarion, or by the chains/keys/watchfob/spectacles/truss of St. Peter, or by the chasuble of St. Chrysostom or the nickers of St. Bridgid. 

A good oath belongs to any person of imagination touched with a gift of the logos - it should enter the conversation like an aged cheese. Here, as a foretaste and advertisement of my intended "Panopticon, Thesaurus and Amanuensis to the Ancient and Revered Art of Swearing Like a Bloody Gentleman (Classical Method)," I have included a handy exercise - see if you can replace the sample captions with oaths riper, more penetrating and memorable.

 "By the ballocks and braces of Pitt the Elder." 

 "By all the mystical appurtenances of St. Cunagunda."
 (This isn't as easy as it seems)
"Ministering saints and angels of mercy preserve us!"

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