death and the evil eye

George Foster long ago wrote a delightful article on envy and the evil eye. He spelled out exactly how the phenomenon works, particularly in Tzintzuntzan, but he claimed it extended throughout peasant society worldwide. The critics, primarily Marxists, claimed that he was wrong — but claimed it in such a way the affirmed his essential hypothesis.

By now, it is commonplace to equate the evil eye with envy. That casting a covetous eye on what does not belong to you can, quite literally, make the object of your envy ill — sometimes terminally. And so, the solution in such societies is, for the rich, redistribution of a portion of their wealth for ‘the people’ to enjoy, ie, for the common good. This diffuses the envy by impoverished peasantry, reinforces established hierarchies, and helps prevent peasant revolts. Supposedly. Except, adds Fanon, in the case of Western dominance and colonialism, in which case revolution is de rigeur.

So. How does this help me with my love life?

After all, evil eye manifests primarily at the micro level. In little earthen gourbis and thatch-roofed huts around the world. Where a covetous eye is cast upon somebody else’s wife, someone else’s child. Where longingis the primary emotion in play. And there’s nothing you can do about it.

Twice in my life I’ve been offered someone else’s partner. Yup. The first time it was temporary. Here’s the key to my apartment, here’s the bed. Keep her warm and safe while I am gone. Right. No way. But I thought it was very sweet. Considerate. And thoughtful. The second time, was more serious. When I’m dead, take my spouse. Yes, ma’m I said, instantly. I mean, how can you say no to that? There’s so much at stake. Especially when this is someone you already love.

Preemptive redistribution. I think that’s what Foster would call it. Or maybe I’m putting words in his mouth. The fortunate one protects what could be coveted by giving it away, kind of.

Mrs Tzaddik did this recently. As a result of a brain injury, she fell into a delusion in which the Tzaddik, before his death, had built — brick by brick, so to speak — an exact duplicate of her house, along with everything in it exactly in its place. And she herself was living in the wrong house, trying to get home. When my birthday came around, she offered me a marble and bronze statue she greatly admired to be my birthday present. “Take it from the other house,” she said. A brilliant way to both give and not give. To be generous and have it cost nothing at all.

I see the reallocation of one’s partner not quite in such baldly pecuniary terms, but as an attempt at protection against the evil eye. We give away that which we treasure, but give it in such a way as to hold on tight — maybe tighter — than we did before. The thing we really cannot control is what happens after we die. It drives us mad, from time to time. And the rest of the time, we just let it go. Remain unprepared. Or write up a bunch of legal documents that we’ll forget to revise at the time they’re really needed.

The offer I received is actually not unknown in human history. Levirate marriage is based upon this principle. Social welfare systems are as well. Life insurance policies might be good for financial health, but they don’t keep you warm at night.

I feel honored to have been considered for such a serious and deeply felt responsibility. I also feel cleansed of my own envy of such a perfect couple, such a pretty pair! I don’t think this has anything at all to do with what will or will not take place in the distant future. Surely, I will precede them both into the hereafter, long before their own demise. I’m not willing to think about that or alternate futures at all.

What I do think about is honor. Protection. And the brilliant ways in which humans attempt to ward off the inevitable, protect their young, protect their partners — and try, against all odds, to keep them warm and safe.

By mira

Mira Z. Amiras is Professor of Comparative Religious Studies and founder of the Middle East Studies Program at San Jose State University. She is past-president of the Society for the Anthropology of Consciousness, and has served on the Executive Council of the American Anthropological Association. She is co-founder, with Ovid Jacob, of Beit Malkhut, a study group in Jewish sacred text. She's most attached to the creatures of her body and her household — first and foremost, her kids, of course: Michael and Rayna — and then the other folks large and small of various species, including Roshi and Vlad, a whole lot of hummingbirds, the old parrot who lives next door, and a beautiful garden that does what it will.

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