Language Is the Spell: Kathryn Nuernberger’s The Witch of Eye
“I’m committed to believing women,” Kathryn Nuernberger writes toward the end of a book that begins by identifying women with the earth—both of them similarly at the mercy of a patriarchal paradigm. “I will not bow down just because some man who withered a fig is passing by. I am going to spill every last leaf into the ear of this endless wind.” It becomes clear that this “some man” she’s referencing is actually Jesus, and Nuernberger declares herself, in power and resistance, very much in collusion with the wild, natural world. The aspen, by the way, is the tree that supplied the wood from which the cross was made—and it is also the wood used “to pierce the buried body of a witch through the heart to prevent her from rising again.”
This is quintessential reading not just for the wannabe witches among us, but for its nuanced telling of a cruel and silenced history. A compendium of pungent and poignant biographical narratives of numerous so-called witches, The Witch of Eye is difficult to put down. Nuernberger deftly weaves memoir with well-researched material to create a fascinating, idiosyncratic intellectual history, plucked from the annals of science, medicine, theology, and feminist and critical theory. Within her rich ruminations about “cunning women” across time and space, she embeds her own story, including a critical analysis of her wedding, a reference to an incident of abuse (to which, for reasons of legality, she can only hint at), and a serious impasse in her marriage—a narrative that binds the essays together, contains an arc, provides conflict—which in one sense boils down to whether or not to have the affair, and in another sense has nothing whatsoever to do with an affair—crisis, and resolution. All taboo topics are on the table.
The prose is visceral and heady at the same time, compelling as only a poet can manage: this is Nuernberger’s second book of essays, and she has also written three books of poetry. The language bristles with a rare freshness of intimacy and humor. It pulls the reader close to the one on the other side of the words, the writer breathing life into them. And what girl worth her pudendum does not relate to the archetype of the witch?
These essays are disparate but interconnected, written with reference to nearly a hundred sources ranging from archival works of the sixteenth century to contemporary works of scholars from which Nuernberger gleans a monumental amount of information. We learn a lot reading this modest book.
From the start, we hear of the patriarchal, savage punishments doled out to so-called witches, who are often midwives, those most in touch with the bodies of the community, and healers, those with cures, potions, spells, notions. We hear their forced confessions. We learn of the midwife Walpurga Hausmannin, who confessed to taking a night ride with the devil on a pitchfork and “[digging] up the bones of children to make hail over the county.” She would likely say anything, Nuernberger reasons, in hopes they might remove “that hot poker off her back.” Walpurga is burned and tortured—forced to walk as the crowd ritually dismembered her, in spite of the numerous apologies she offered to those German records for “every stillbirth, every miscarriage, every sick cow.” Nuernberger brands this practice of sadism as privileging symbology over cruelty: “The medieval Europeans were such an allegorical people… Her breast and arms were torn because it was believed the devil took away almost all of a witch’s capacity to feel. And the fire because ‘none shall suffer a witch to live’ and ‘their portion will be in the lake that burns with fire.’” There are things that you would never know about the persecution of women unless you have read this book or the books from which Nuernberger has gleaned the gems she offers us.
There are stories, and shards of stories, as we witness the pervasiveness of this economy of power and its cost upon the bodies of powerful women. There is the story of “the great botanist and first ecologist, Maria Sibylla Merian,” who discovered and documented insect metamorphosis in the 1600s—and had to “keep her laboratory of silkworms very secret” in order not to be assigned witch status due to the belief that a witch could transform into “a butterfly and spoil the milk.” There is an analysis of Medea that powerfully challenges the dominant reading, a hair-raising dismemberment story of Furra, a queen in medieval times in current-day Ethiopia, and, among the hundreds of witches murdered in Bamberg in the 1600s, there was a Johannes Junius—a man, who, unlike most, was able to send a letter of apology to his daughter, which Nuernberger offers for us to read, for us to feel the limits—and yes, the power—of words to hold a history.
And then there is the investigation of magic itself, as Nuernberger considers the transference that happens between two speakers, between writer and reader, informed by the linguist Maurice Merleau-Ponty, who writes that “language is the spell.” To that end Nuernberger introduces a favorite witch, the Scottish Isobel Gowdie, who used words as hexes and performed as a “flyter, a flinger of insults as a literary art form… You can almost see her spit as you read the dozen and more names of neighbors she says she pierced with fairy arrows as she flew through the sky like a straw in a whirlwind.”
It’s partly defiance that Nuernberger regards so highly in Isobel Gowdie, whom she says was “likely a real witch, if by ‘witch’ you mean a shamanic specialist operating at the social margins and employing syncretized folk traditions that incorporated elements of an ancient agrarian cult with the medieval Catholicism that had been forced on her people by English colonization.” Isobel Gowdie met her end for removing the sickness of a child by transferring it to a dog, the magic itself anathema to Calvinism, Nuernberger suspects, which criminalized it as a means of exerting dominion over those who farmed the land but did not own it. Nuernberger herself was raised with “an oppressive Catholicism” that she eventually rejected. “When I meet a witch,” Nuernberger writes, “I try to find a passage from the world I understand into the one they do.”
Nuernberger does not flinch when it comes to the details of torture, nor does she shrink from analysis, from trying to see beyond: “Psychologists theorize that those who torture suffer from an isolating sickness of not being able to derive a sense of others’ emotions from cues of facial expression, body language, and tone of voice.” How to understand the paradox and sorrow of our species, the flaw, the inability to empathize? Is it all just a mad drive for dominance? And what about the witnesses? She directs us to an image found in the British Library’s collection where she describes the gaze of onlookers, both the people and the “bridled horses they sit astride,” as cold, except for the one peasant who sheds tears. She instructs herself to remember, as in dreams, that “every character is a different version of” the self. As a reader, I take this as a warning for myself not to look at the oppressor as someone I could never be.
Part of what is so winning about this book is Nuernberger’s often deadpan perspective on her material. She writes of an image: “The cherubic boy-man with curly locks has a boner so big it almost interferes with his capacity to turn the wheel that pulls the woman’s arms unaccountably backwards…” For that cherub, as for others in these narratives, the erotic is not far from the violent.
There are descriptions of these tortures, though, that will make the reader wish to turn the page or close her eyes. Nuernberger, ever gentle, ever sensitive, ever wise, writes: “Though it is the case that making someone look is sometimes used as a form of torture and is sometimes used in the making and training of torturers, nevertheless, there is something to be said for recounting the truth of what was done and also for opening yourself up to the pain of knowing it.” She turns to the paintings of Turner and Whistler in the essay titled “The Invention of Fire,” speaking of the power of art: “Hard to look and hard to look away, they are images that make you want to undo time. The power in such radical allegories is that they simplify what is and what it means to the same breath: Everyone is as fragile as you are.”
She is poet as art historian, psychologist, philosopher; poet as doctor, poet as synthesizer, even poet as lawyer. She quotes a Supreme Court ruling (Frazier v. Cupp) that allowed police to “use deception in the course of interviewing a suspect,” to contextualize the forced confessions of witches—forced, perhaps, like many of those recently executed by the outgoing administration. She enlists Foucault to remind us that it’s the powerful who make the laws and that “wrongful convictions” were determined such that “researchers found that eighty-five percent of juvenile false confessions were given by Black children.” Here, she also notes that it was “slave patrols” rather than “well-regulated militias” that comprised the “earliest forms of law enforcement.”
In “Titiba & the Invention of the Unknown,” Nuernberger invokes the historian Michel de Certeau, who asked, “What makes something thinkable?” “Titiba” is the one we all know as “Tituba,” the one at the heart of the Salem witch trials. Inasmuch as this series of essays and this book itself serves—on so many levels—as a corrective, this essay is an attempt to restore an identity and a name that has been at best distorted and at worst maligned as it survives in the records. In the American story as it has passed through generations, Titiba is associated with the demonic; she is seen as the instigator. “So let’s observe,” Nuernberger writes, “that Titiba never points the finger at anyone else. This is the only thing about the trials in Salem that is actually unusual at all.” While the identities of “the white people of Salem… have remained fixed” and specific, Titiba’s has morphed from “Titiba in the trial records to Tituba in the popular culture”—and while her ethnicity is so-named “‘Indian’ in court,” Nuernberger reminds us, she is “fictionalized” in Longfellow’s poems as “the daughter of a man all black and fierce.” The essay also considers the position of the enslaved and the Native American in the imagined utopia of Salem, expressly with regard to the “bloodshed their utopia seemed to require”—the same “power-hungry people who conjured the myth of the crone.” Here, Nuernberger interrogates the what and how of history, integrating the scholarship of three historians. Elaine Breslaw’s research locates Titiba’s ancestry as likely coming from an Arawak enclave of slaves near the Orinoco River; Michel de Certeau questions the difference between what we call history and a simple narrative; and M. Jacqui Alexander cautions us to “destabilize that which hegemony has rendered coherent or fixed” for its own purposes to maintain its “gestures of power.’” Titiba survives the trials only to live a servant’s life in which she is separated from her child, who is passed down to serve Reverend Parris’s children. Nuernberger pairs this fact with the statistics of those mothers and children currently separated at the border, the cages the current manifestation of medieval torture. She tells us of the children of the Indigenous, separated from their families and their nations to attend school, and reminds us of the children of the Japanese internment, and yes, the “five centuries of the transatlantic slave trade,” where more than one quarter of those stolen were children. What is it that makes all this thinkable?
Nuernberger’s ponderings move beyond gender, through gender, through to the nature of time, desire, knowledge, power—and much more. In the eponymous essay, Margery Jourdmayne is the “witch of Eye,” and her demise came about in the 1400s, burned for an astrological chart she rendered (and admitted to) in addition to a ritual meant to influence the death of the king (which she did not) commissioned by the wife of a would-be successor. Needless to say it didn’t end well for either of the women, although the well-born wife would survive, albeit in exile on the Isle of Man. Nuernberger, however, stops to wonder whether, while “on the scaffold,” the witch with her all-knowing eye might have looked at the still-living king and asked herself, “Why should it be you and not me?”
One does not read a book like this to “see what happens,” but rather to understand what has happened and what is still happening. The last essay of the collection offers a happy ending, namely the many accomplishments of Marie Laveau of New Orleans in the mid-1800s. She was an abolitionist “known as a Vodou Queen… a conjure woman,” a Black snake-tamer and hairdresser whose life is not cut short, whose work to “untie those knots” of white supremacy—helping other women find homes, adopting children to keep them from being sold, the profound work of social activism—”feels like magic to read.” We should try “our own hands,” Nuernberger writes, “at such a simple spell as this.”
“The history of witches is a history of need,” Nuernberger writes, along with that of the “social contract.” It connects again with us—to the world in which we currently find ourselves, still trying to process an insurrection. We cannot forget that while they had a noose for the vice president, who refused to do a maniac’s bidding, they were also looking to kidnap and murder two women. As tempting as it is to look with the detached thrill of amusement and horror at those witch torturers of long ago, Nuernberger instructs us to look more closely. We are still in this world of accusers and executioners. We are not laughing but sobbing.
This is a book for our time, to help us unpack what we are seeing before our eyes, on our screens, a book to help us survive—to see beyond the smokescreen of what we have been told is true. To be fearless, and by our resistance and our actions, to contest these economies of power that play out on women’s bodies. Nuernberger’s book itself is a charm, as she pulls these disciplines together, weaving them like an artist, like a magician, like a healer, like a witch, her words like stitches into a tapestry.
Yes—you must read The Witch of Eye slowly and with astonishment, not unlike the way you witness the work of a camera placed next to a bud that slowly and inexplicably blossoms before your eyes.