I am preoccupied with the nature of oaths and vows. How is it that we come to find promises binding? What is it about words, about language, that utterances take on the status of fiat. There is the associated magic of the written word, the manner in which suddenly the affixed sign turns a dull document from insignificance, from an inert object to a living document that has power and authority.
When I was a boy, it was not rare to witness somebody, touch their right index finger to the ground, raise it to the sky and say “Yasin”, to confirm the truthfulness of a statement. This act was filled with utmost significance. It spoke of something grave, something precious and compelling. I suppose the touching of the earth with the index finger and then the pointing to the heavens was a ritualised enactment avowal. We stand on the solid earth and then the heavens that promises everything and that controls destiny is called to witness an honest assertion. I never quite ever learnt where the utterance “Yasin” came from or what it meant.
It was also not unusual, in a marketplace, in the context of a dispute to see a person take a cutlass in hand, raise it to the sky and then bite into the blade with his front teeth and swear to his honesty and ask that if he was lying (and it was mostly if not entirely men involved in this invocation) may Ogun, the God of Iron and of War, take his revenge, usually taken to mean death by way of iron or steel. This was a most primordial act, and as a child both fascinating and terrifying and also awesome in the true original sense of the word.
There is something extraordinary going on here. Ritualised acts that are performances that attest to truthfulness. In the European tradition, the equivalent is the swearing on the Bible. But often mere words are enough. Promises, seem to depend on mere words, and no further performances are needed to make the words binding.
It was being in Dorset, Thomas Hardy’s Wessex, that brought these matters to the fore once again. Much in Jude the Obscure and in Mayor of Casterbridge turns on wedding vows, on promises and betrothal, or exchange of money in a transaction or of wedding vows on the status and obligations of chattel.
The background to this thinking was a walk from Worth Matravers to St Aldhelm’s Chapel, an 800-year-old chapel at the headland overlooking the sea. Inside, there was a central buttress holding up eight arches begrimed by time. The air inside was dampened by salt air and the coolness on a hot sunny day provided asylum from the windswept outside. Here was a pulpit, lit by a narrow slit of a window, the casement housing pale blue, pale yellow glass. The flagged floor, the oaken pews, the censers that hung over the stillness proved that human artefacts could endure even if austere and severe in form. Was this then the physical, structural embodiment of something grander and more enduring, something counterposed against our frailty and mortality? Something that emphasises our need to submit to something grave and harsh, something that bolsters the fragility of mere words.
In Jude the Obscure, we have Jude coming to terms with the permanence of the binding of his marital vows even though the vows had been made on false grounds
“There seemed to him, vaguely and dimly, something wrong in a social ritual which made necessary a cancelling of well-formed schemes involving years of thought and labour, of foregoing a man’s one opportunity of showing himself superior to the lower animals, and of contributing his units of work to the general progress of his generation, because of a momentary surprise by a new and transitory instinct which had nothing in it of the nature of vice, and could be only at the most called weakness. He was inclined to inquire what he had done, or she lost, for that matter, that he deserved to be caught in a gin which would cripple him, if not her also, for the rest of a lifetime? There was perhaps something fortunate in the fact that the immediate reason of his marriage had proved to be non-existent. But the marriage remained.”
But Sue, his true love, said in regard of marriage
“I think I should begin to be afraid of you, Jude, the moment you had contracted to cherish me under a Government stamp, and I was licensed to be loved on the premises by you — Ugh, how horrible and sordid!”
And also, the prediction that in due course
“Everybody is getting to feel as we do. We are a little beforehand, that’s all. In fifty, a hundred, years the descendants of these two will act and feel worse than we. They will see weltering humanity still more vividly than we do now”
Confirming how oaths are binding as in the sense of a straight jacket, something constraining, something stultifying
“However different our reasons are we come to the same conclusion; that for us particular two, an irrevocable oath is risky. Then, Jude, let us go home without killing our dream!”
But recognising the reality of the present, namely that
“Our ideas were fifty years too soon to be any good to us. And so the resistance they met with brought reaction in her, and recklessness and ruin on me!”
But, it is the same principle at play, the same transformation of words, written or spoken, into something that alters reality, fundamentally and irrevocably. In The Mayor of Casterbridge, Henchard sells his wife Susan and she said of the affair
“foolishly I believed there was something solemn and binding in the bargain; I thought that even in honour I dared not desert him when he had paid so much for me in good faith.”
Contracts, like marriage vows, are also dependent on the same principle, the same fastness and grip even when plainly unfair and unjust. I will return to this.
The walk from St Aldhelm’s Chapel to Winspit was up on a ridge tacking along the coast. Cabbage had flown from the fields across the footpath and seeded itself, down the cliff face, like lemmings swooping to their deaths. The invisible divide between field, path and cliff edge like a porous border failed to keep the cabbage constrained to its place, its supposed natural habitat. Just above Bonvil, there was a breast-like hill with a tuft of bush for nipple. And, the sea, all blue and iridescent, the sky the same blue with a few clouds and yachts with white sails glinting in the sun.
Sometimes, on other days, here the sea is an array of glinting points of light, sometimes of pools of light. Ever dazzling. With sun overhead, an inland breeze lifted the edges of my shirt like flags on a pole flapping on a parade ground. Thistle down was floating and spinning in the breeze, dispersing towards the sea, aiming for a ledge to settle on and to thrive.
On the way back, from Durlston Castle, the sea was like beaten pewter, textured like crenelations, a different sea from earlier. A dozen or so yachts again with their white sails, the horizon blurred and smudged and this time, the sun behind a veil of clouds. Every so often the breeze would swell and then pause. It would flap against my earlobes, swirling and puffing out of breath. The grass swaying and trembling, their ears leaning towards the sea. Suddenly, a perfectly tranquil moment, an inner stillness against the threshing of the wind.
Hardy’s talk of vows and oaths took me by strange byways to Carlos Fuentes’ The Old Gringo. I had sympathised with General Tomas Arroyo when ‘he removed a long flat box of worn green velveteen and splintered rosewood’ and opened it to reveal ‘papers as brittle as old silk’. Arroyo said
“You see, gringo General? You see what’s written here? You see the writing? You see the precious red seal? These lands have always been ours, ours, a handful of working men granted protection against the encomienda system and against the attacks of the Toboso Indians. The King of Spain himself said so. Even he acknowledged it was ours. It says so right here. Written in his own hand. This is his signature. I am the keeper of these papers. The papers prove that no one else has a right to these lands.”
So once again, we have this magic, the abracadabra, the words that turn nothing into something, that deprive and or bequeath, that sentence or release, that damn. And in Arroyo’s case, it damned. And I am very sensitive to the misuse of language, for I was born in Lagos and the shame of the British, the Act of Cession of 1861, still rankles because it was all chicanery, yet we acceded to it and our futures like Tomas Arroyo’s was determined by it, in an irrevocable manner.
Dorset in August was wonderful. Hardy’s family home with its lush gardens was spectacular. Of course, in Hardy’s time the garden was a builder’s yard. The family stories heard in parallel to reading Jude the Obscure and The Mayor of Casterbridge opened up other aspects of the books -his mother Jemima, advised her 4 children not to marry and only Thomas Hardy of the four married. His two sisters were independent women. Jude the Obscure is thought to reflect his unhappy marriage and like Tolstoy’s Kreutzer Sonata, and for the same reason was not liked by his spouse, Emma.
Well, I am no further forward in my understanding of the psychological mechanisms that transform an utterance from mere noise to fiat.
Photos by Jan Oyebode