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  • Goethe’s Archaeology of the Modern Curse (Orest, Faust, Manfred)
  • Frauke Berndt (bio) and Sebastian Meixner (bio)
    Translated by Anthony Mahler

Today the curse has disappeared from epistemological memory. We curse people and things without an institution that would guarantee its success. Because of this, curses also cannot fail; instead, they have degenerated into profanities and insults. The curse has become historical. The current interdisciplinary ensemble of cultural studies has explored an archaeology of the curse based on speech-act theory.1 In this context, there has primarily been an interest in pre-modern literature and especially for Shakespeare’s royal dramas, in which the institutions of the curse serve as the background.2 But even Johann Wolfgang Goethe—the Enlightenment humanist and classicist—can impart significant insights into the archaeology of the curse since his dramas show how the institutions constitutive of the curse have changed. After (I) elucidating the theoretical background of the curse, we will describe (II) the paradigmatic structures of the curse in Iphigenie auf Tauris: Ein Schauspiel (1787) and (III) its syntagmatic variations in both Faust: Eine Tragödie (1808) and Goethe’s partial translation (1823) of Lord Byron’s Manfred: A Dramatic Poem (1817). [End Page 601]

I. Theories of the curse

The Handwörterbuch des deutschen Aberglaubens notes: “Fluch ist eine Redeformel, durch welche man Unheil auf einen anderen oder auf dessen Habe oder auch auf sich selbst herabwünscht.”3 Such imprecations are based on a “magical worldview” in which words become or can become actions.4 This definition presupposes a model of communication that takes the curse, cursers, and accursed into account; it coincides with a model of communication that is also foundational for analyzing drama, so a methodological perspective already suggests a continuity between the curse and drama. And there is cursing in dramas; for this reason, drama is in a position to impart insights into the economy of curses and cursing. Drama reacts to “real” cursing by constantly observing and reflecting on it. Expressed differently, dramatic curses are second-order curses, and so they always have a dramaturgical and poetological dimension.

On the basis of communication theory, the curse is assigned two semantic roles: the curser takes on the role of the grammatical agent and the accursed that of the grammatical patient.5 In cultural studies, the two are problematically called the perpetrator and the victim, which presupposes a moral valuation. In contrast, Maximilian Oettinger refers to the curser as the victim and the accursed as the perpetrator. The curse would then be the ultima ratio defense after all other legal means have been exhausted, allowing the powerless victim to make a stand against suffered injustices and, at least to some extent, to regain agency. The curse is also the highest punishment and most powerful weapon. Because of the affectivity that such a communicative situation creates, the curse veers into the vicinity of revenge.6

But the perpetrator–victim model can just as legitimately be reversed. The curser is the perpetrator who expels the victim from the social community, because the victim has committed a wrong. Either this expulsion is connected to a violation against the world order, so that the curse repels a threat to the community from within, or the curse [End Page 602] blindsides the victim because the perpetrator represents the “Other” of the community, as in fairy tales where the perpetrator is usually an “evil” that threatens the community from the outside. In brief, the perpetrator–victim model relies on a moral or judicial valuation of the situation, while the formal model of semantic roles starts with the curse itself and makes attributions based on its structure.

In any case, both models presuppose an institution that makes the curse a curse. This institution must be recognized within the community from which the accursed is excluded and into which the curser is included. This institution is ordinarily represented by gods, a god, or other higher powers that support the curse and ensure its enforcement.7 Such institutions must be absolute institutions for those that are cursed—they are a matter of faith. The concept of performativity mediates between the speech act and the institution, a performativity...


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