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curses

By Diogenes ( articles ) | Feb 29, 2008

Some time ago Jimmy Akin brought to our attention a quote from His Dark Materials author Philip Pullman, taking issue with the Catholic League's William Donohue:

"To regard it as this Donohue man has said -- that I'm a militant atheist, and my intention is to convert people -- how the hell does he know that?" he said, in an interview with Newsweek magazine.

What caught my interest in the quote was Pullman's unexpected use of the word "hell."

"Hell," as Pullman employs it here, is a barely recognizable remnant of a curse. We're told that in all languages, ancient and modern, curse and oath formulas tend to be highly elliptical, chopped almost out of all recognition. This is partly due to a general linguistic tendency to abbreviate conventional formulas, but largely a consequence of the fact that the original expressions in their full form were dreadful to say and shocking to hear. For the oath: "May God damn me to hell if I do (or fail to do) such and such ..." For the curse: "May God damn him to hell if he does (or because he has done) such and such ..."

No one with a theologically complete notion of hell can fail to shudder slightly at such expressions, knowing that he who pronounces them is calling down upon himself, or another, everlasting punishment by an all-powerful and immutable God. The natural reluctance to hear such imprecation contributes to the gradual linguistic process of evasion, euphemism, and ellipsis by which we end up with the nearly meaningless hells and damns that punctuate the speech of angry or thoughtless people.

Yet this doesn't explain Pullman's use of the expression "how the hell." Few persons are more fastidious about their atheism or more pedantic about communicating to the rest of us the precise contours of their unbelief. Pullman rejects the notion of hell and of a God who could dispatch someone thereto (in the quote above, he's objecting to Donohue's labeling him as a proselytiser, not as an atheist). Presumably Pullman forgot himself to the extent of speaking in the idiom he (with the rest of us) inherited, but had he been alert enough to avoid the Christian ghost-words, what would he have put in their place?

The problem is: why would an atheist wish to curse? And how would he do so if he wished to? If there's nothing beyond natural causality and human endeavor to invoke, a curse is as pointless as a blessing, and an oath is vacuous as well. After all, the ill-will or good-will communicated by his speech will be perceptible whether the curse is there or not. Aldous Huxley (in Brave New World) has his godless citizens of the future blaspheme "Ford, no!" and Evelyn Waugh (in Love Among the Ruins) has his exclaim "Great State!" But mega-capitalists and mega-governments belong to the same order of being as their blasphemers, and so the oaths invoked in their names aren't really convincing.

And therein, I think, lies the key. For every man there are times when the Self (and its this-worldly sphere of interests) is too trivial to express the momentousness of what he wants to say -- whether that momentous declaration be a promise or a threat. He needs to mortgage the Self, so to speak, in order to purchase greater power of belief. Thus he plugs his salvation (or, in a curse, the wish for another's damnation) into a chain of causality that no human being can tamper with or deflect. That's why oaths, to be meaningful, necessitate belief in a God who can punish their violation. That's why the hollowest of hollow men are the believing perjurer and the unbelieving blasphemer. For the former, having staked his soul and lost it, there's no Self there. For the latter, there's no "there" there.

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  • Posted by: Pete - Oct. 29, 2009 12:34 PM ET USA

    The Catholic Church MUST stand for TRUTH--that inconveniently unchanging element so missing in today's culture. Jesus spoke about homosexuality when He said, "Keep the Commandments"! The First Amendment right to teach unaltered doctrine is about to be abolished by the "Hate Speech" bill, which will reclassify such teachings as "Hate Speech" rather than "doctrine". Please remove the blinders and notice the downhill direction of the "progress" being made in the U.S. these days!

  • Posted by: Gil125 - Oct. 26, 2009 2:09 PM ET USA

    Wow! In another of those flashes of brilliance that make some of up check this site first thing after our computers come on every morning, Diogenes, in 787 words, sums up the whole problem! Whole books havn't done it better. And I won't say the other thing that came to mind because I see j.jensen has beaten me to it.

  • Posted by: jjen009 - Oct. 25, 2009 10:16 PM ET USA

    Should I stay in a club that would welcome these people as members? One wonders why anyone who considers the Catholic Church a club would want to be a member, in any case.