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transgression and the bewitching fallacy Othello, black magic, sexual sorcery, and the power of the fetish

Sure there s some wonder in this handkerchief When black people enter white society as trusted slaves in privileged conditions or as ex-slaves who gain positions of authority, and when these individuals do subversive and extraordinary things, especially when they do revolutionary thing s that threaten white patriarchal sexuality, then sooner, rather than later, the white man smells black magic . When it comes to providing a locus classicus for th inking about the white male mechanisms for responding to the threat of black mal e sexuality, Shakespeare, as is so often the case, gets there first. The follow ing analysis considers how black magic , and specifically the fetishism associated with African cult religions, and their developments within the slave Diaspora, o perates at a series of narrative, metaphorical and mythic levels within the text of Othello. Magic and black male / white female sexuality are brought together in a series of pungent white male fantasies in the early stages of the play. O thello initially seems to play with, indeed to control, the power which this ima gistic inheritance generates. He sets up a complicated series of inflected ling uistic spaces in which his own relation to white sexualised fantasies of black ma gic can both operate and be interrogated. As the play progresses, however, he se ems to lose the power to control the fantasies which are generated, and he is in creasingly the victim of unmediated fetishistic obsession. The ironic distance between fetish magic and his own jealousy is suddenly dissolved when the origins of the fatal handkerchief are finally revealed. Consequently what the loss of the handkerchief means to him is uncovered, and must then be understood, the int erpretative white codes thrown aside, according to the inherited tradition of Af rican fetish magic. The sheer fetishistic power contained within the handkerchi ef becomes uncontrollable. When the handkerchief / erotic-fetish is lost Othell o s ability to control the power of the fetish over his own emotions collapses. O thello ends up murdering the object of his love because she loses an object whic h is quite explicitly both a treasured family heirloom and an African love fetis h of remarkable potency. Othello believes that the physical link between the ha ndkerchief and Desdemona had enabled him to control her love for him. When Des demona loses the handkerchief Othello believes that he has then lost his superna tural powers to command her love. Unless the erotic power generated by the hand kerchief is read within an African evolved symbolic and cultural fetishistic fra me then Othello s murder of the thing he loves must appear as a crazy overreaction , and his construction of the handkerchief will seem bizarre and impenetrable in its extremity. The play is consequently a tragic reality check; Shakespeare d emands that a new sort of magic be taken seriously. He seems to be creating a s pace for African fetishism as something which can reach out beyond the confines of white logical constructions of gender, race and time. Viewed logically Desde mona s murder is ridiculous: that the tragic scenario is touched off by something as apparently trivial as a lost handkerchief covered in images of strawberries i s weird, even comically absurd. By introducing such heightened dramatic inadequ acy around the plot and motivation for the murder, Shakespeare challenges the au dience s preconceptions with regard to witchcraft and race. A black man who has p roved himself mature, successful, articulate and charismatic within the highest power structures of a white European society, a black man who shows himself abl e to operate the power codes of the whites at every level, murders his lovely y oung white wife on account of a misplaced fragment of embroidered textile. Shak espeare demands that we, as white men and women, live through a murder committed according to the logic not of white Christianity, but of black African (and in its Diasporic manifestation slave) fetish religion. How we are meant to approac h interracial sexuality and religion at the play s conclusion is consequently deli berately, and disastrously, unresolved. Iago s black sex fantasies and the mechanism of Brabantio s retreat into magic

Othello opens with sensational confrontation as Roderigo and Iago violently awak en Brabantio, a character whose existence and dramatic function is exclusively d efined by the fact that he is the white privileged father of a white privileged daughter. Critics of the play have always been curious about, and perturbed by , Shakespeare s invention of this initial confrontation, which seems to go on for too long and which is not dramatically necessary. Dr. Johnson recommended its excision, and the fact that when Verdi came to construct his Otello he cuts the scene completely, both indicate that in structural terms the opening is entirely detachable . Shakespeare created the scene out of almost nothing. There is only t he vaguest hint relating to the pre-history of Desdemona s and Othello s relationshi p, and white society s resistance to it, in Shakespeare s primary source, Cinthio s He catommithi. So why did Shakespeare first thrust Othello s relationship with Desdem ona in front of the audience in such excessive, repetitive sexual language? Iag o delightedly advertises Desdemona s elopement and seduction by a black man in the most lurid indeed obscene terms. His imagery and metaphors are especially desi gned to goad the white paternal imagination of Brabantio into living through the penetration of the young white female body of his daughter by the black male. They are also terms which draw in increasingly extreme ways upon one of the bedr ocks of racist rhetoric, amimalisation. Iago, as we are to find out, is abnorma lly excited by fantasies of black-male-on-white-female sexual penetration. Putt ing aside the debates over Iago s homosexual interest in Othello the primary motiv ation for this obsession comes out of the fact that he harbours a fantasy that his own wife has already been sexually used by Othello: I hate the Moor / And it is thought abroad that twixt my sheets / He s done my office. I know not if t be tr ue / But for mere suspicion in that kind / Will do as if for surety . Why would a white man torment himself with a sex fantasy concerning his white wife and a b lack man in the full knowledge that the betrayal probably never happened: why wi ll suspicion do .for surety ? Why, because in the minds of white racially paranoid ma les, it always has. Suspicion as surety has been the basis of Anglo-American white male fantasies elaborating the rape of white women by black men from the sixteen th century, through the extravagant excesses of Thomas Dixon Junior, Margaret Mi tchell and D. W. Griffith, to the present day. The idea that no white woman is safe when there is a black man around is perhaps the lowest common denominator o f white male race fantasy. Suspicion as surety was the basis for the narrative clim ax of Thomas Dixon Junior s The Clansman, and for the majority of lynchings in the white American South during reconstruction. This carefully nurtured paranoia w as, in an absurdly heightened form, precisely what lead to the persecution of th e Scottsborough six. Shakespeare uses Iago to articulate with a morbid precisio n the corrupted white male psychology which enables this madness. The really te lling insight in this context is Iago s confession that it doesn t really matter whe ther the sexual union happened or not, it is enough, indeed infinitely more than enough, that he wants/needs to believe that it has happened. The power of the fantasy, once it is lodged in the white man s mind, goes beyond mere questions of historical veracity, it provides a reason to hate and a reason to fear which is more powerful than fact or truth. Such reasons are crucial to the mechanisms of h ate which keep the machinery of racism up and running. Which is to say that the audience of Othello is confronted, at the play s very ope ning, with the fully-fledged metaphoric fury of Iago s long brewed miscegenetic se x fantasies. Shakespeare created a first act which establishes inter-racial sex uality as the central theme of the play. The extreme negrophobe fantasies gener ated in the white male imaginary, by the thought of black men having sex with wh ite women, unleash extraordinary energies, fears and hatreds. Desdemona is bein g slotted into an imaginative space of sexual activity in which Iago has already obsessively and pornographically, lived through the imagined the union of Emili a, his wife, with Othello. When attempting to outrage Brabantio, Iago s first mov e is to make the father fantasise intercourse between his daughter and Othello, insisting on the contemporaneousness of the moment, on its bestiality, and on th e stark division of black masculinity and white femininity: Even now, now, very now, an old black ram / Is tupping your white ewe! (1, 1, 87-8) The repetition,

with its undertow of the rhythms of intercourse and orgasm - now, now, very now demands the repeated mimicry of the process of sexual union. It is as if the wh ite male can t let this image go, indeed can t get enough of it, he must live in it and through it again and again, indeed he desires to be an eternal witness, and even accessory, to the tupping of the white woman by the black man. Iago s next in tervention is to convert Othello into a horse. The equation of black slave fles h with horse flesh was to become a clich of slave literature but Iago manages the metaphor with typical extremity and relish: you ll have your daughter covered with a Barbary horse; you ll have your nephews neigh to you, you ll have coursers for co usins and jennets for germans! (1, 1, 109-112) The rhetoric of racism has been developed in one crucial respect from the earlier image, now the white ewe has bee n lifted out of the animalism of the earlier vision and become a human daughter on ce more, but now a daughter engaged in an act of bestialism with an African stal lion. A woman copulating with a beast, it s the stuff of legendary male fantasy a nd pornography, Europa and the bull, mules and Mexican women entertaining white punters in the border towns of the Rio Grande, Catherine the great and her limit less sexual capacities. Iago however is immediately intent to set off another f antasy which is the white racist s worst nightmare, and recreates black on white s exual union as unnatural procreation. Miscegenation manifests itself in an ent ire family circle of equine contamination complete with neighing nephews and gal loping cousins. The fantasy ends with the powerfully alliterative jennets for ge rmans , a brilliantly condensed paranoid nugget whereby full blood relatives ( germa ns , etymologically those germinated from the same seed) become small horses or jen nets . Brabantio manages a single interjection before Iago signs off with the mem orable and celebrated your daughter and the Moor are now making the beast with tw o backs . Yet it is crucial to note that this is not, as it is commonly taken, me rely a phrase describing sexual union as animalistic in its energies, a basic dr ive which enforces the animal nature of the human. Iago is setting out black se xuality as bestial, and as capable of inseminating its beastliness into the whit e female form. By this stage the accusation of bestialism carries clear meaning s, in blunt terms Iago is saying: if you let your white women fuck with black an imals, your women become part of those black animals. The image is a sort of we ird sexualised variant of Arnold Schwartzenegger s celebrated assertion in Pumping Iron that if you mix with low foreheads you become a low forehead . Othello, no l onger copulates like a stallion covering the mare, but in order to make a beast wi th two backs the couple, now returned to human form as daughter and Moor , must be fa ce to face, or at least front to front. Othello, the beast with one back, has a transformative sexual power which has absorbed Desdemona and made her part of a new beast with two backs, a literal case of back to front. It is of course sig nificant that Iago breaks from iambic pentameter into this earthy prose to make the last two speeches. The brutal compression of Iago s fantasies has an immedia te traumatic impact on Brabantio. What is fascinating, from the perspective of later white reactions to what is seen as black transgressional behaviour, is the rapid introduction of an explanatory machinery which summons up the magical. Brabantio s immediate reaction to Iago s disturbing metaphorics is confusion , but within eight lines he moves from shock, uncertainty and broken questions t o the certainty that black magic is at the heart of the matter: Is there not cha rms / By which the property of youth and maidhood / May be abused? (1,1, 169-170) . Brabantio s mind is now racing on this course and by the time he first meets O thello he has developed a fully blown witchcraft fantasy: O thou foul thief where hast thou stowed my daughter? Damned as thou art, thou hast enchanted her, For I ll refer me to all things of sense, If she in chains of magic were not bound, Whether a maid so tender, fair and happy Would ever have, t incur a general mock, Run from her guardage to the sooty bosom Of such a thing as thou? To fear not to delight. Judge me the world if tis not gross in sense

That thou hast practised on her with foul charms, Abused her delicate youth with drugs or minerals That weakens motion: I ll have t disputed on, Tis probable and palpable to thinking. I therefore apprehend and do attach thee For an abuser of the world, a practiser Of arts inhibited and out of warrant. In the next scene Brabantio continues in this compulsive vein: She is abused, stolen from and corrupted By spells and medicines bought of mountebanks, For nature so preposterously to err Being not deficient, blind, or lame of sense, Sans witchcraft could not. Again we are deeply embedded in the staple rhetoric of white supremacist patholo gy. Brabantio s take on interracial sex and the law of nature is essentially iden tical to that laid out in the notorious Race and People , chapter of Mein Kampf. Hitler s argument runs that nature demands that like mate with like, and that the beautiful naturally seek each other out, all other unions especially those which cross race, are against nature. A protected, contented, wealthy beautiful youn g white woman would not mate with a sooty thing of her own volition, this is against nature. Her union can only be the result of an abuse, and the name of this abu se is enchantment. The only rational explanation involves the irrational, Braba ntio can only think that the girl has been drugged, then abused, a sort of early case of a date rape drug, with a dose of black mumbo jumbo thrown in. In orde r to desire something so unlike herself she must have been transformed into some thing outside herself. Within this strangely inverted world Desdemona is presen ted not merely as controlled by Othello s magic, but as physically enslaved by it, bound in chains of magic . When Othello appears, Brabantio returns to this obsessiv e refrain, he simply cannot believe that a decent modest white girl could possib ly fall into sexual union with a black man without the use of witchcraft and pot ions: A maiden never bold To fall in love with what she feared to look on? It is a judgment maimed and most imperfect That would confess perfection so could err Against all rules of nature, and must be driven To find out practices of cunning hell Why this should be. I therefore vouch again That with some mixtures powerful o er the blood Or with some dram conjured to this effect He wrought on her. (1, 3, 95-106) Brabantio is in danger of becoming a bore, he even seems aware of his own tenden cy to repetition I therefore vouch again . Why does Shakespeare, in a structura lly lean play, which otherwise demonstrates such a mastery of descriptive compre ssion and thematic economy, have Brabantio make what is basically the same dull point three times over, and at such length? Surely the answer is that he wants to force home the obsessive and tedious nature of this white male cultural myth. This is the repetition of desperation: if you say a thing often enough then it will become the truth, at least in your own eyes. White men have to hold onto their mythological lowest common denominators, and foremost amongst these is the belief that it is fundamentally against the creative laws of nature for young l ovely looking white women to big black men. The use of unnatural forces drawn a nd developed out of the black arts could be the only means by which this sacred law of instinctual apartheid could be broken down.

Othello turns the tables: black abuse as narrative magic When it comes to defending himself and providing a counter argument to Brabantio s accusation of magic, Othello cannily pulls the rug out from under the feet of h is white interlocutor. He opens by arguing that the only witchcraft he used on either father or daughter was to hold them in thrall by the performance of what has a claim to be, if not the first slave narrative in Western literature, then certainly a very early one: She loved me for the dangers I had passed And I loved her that she did pity them. This only is the witchcraft I have used. In this sense Desdemona is enslaved by a peculiar magic, she is bewitched by her empathy with Othello s own history of enslavement. Indeed it seems that this sla ve s narrative exerted its peculiar power over both father and daughter. Othello tells us that Brabantio had an intense interest in Othello s autobiography and dem anded to hear it reiterated over a period of years: Her father loved me, oft invi ted me / Still questioned me, the story of my life / From year to year . As if h e were a prototype of Olaudah Equiano this ex-slave dutifully runs through the exo tic gamut of his experience for a thirsty white male audience: I ran it through, even from my boyish days To the very moment that he bade me tell it, Wherein I spoke of most disastrous chances, Of moving accidents of blood and field, Of hair-breadth escapes I th imminent deadly breach, O being taken by the insolent foe And sold to slavery; of my redemption thence And portance in my travailous history; And of the cannibals that each other eat, The anthropophogai, and men whose heads Do grow beneath their shoulders. This to hear Would Desdemona seriously incline In the penultimate line, to what, exactly, does Desdemona seriously incline, doe s that grammatically suspended This refer to is it the freakish anthropophagi , or to the whole of this narrative of Othello s early career. What he tells us is that as a young African he fought in tribal wars, and that becoming a prisoner of war he was then sold into slavery, and subsequently carried far. Such a story was, after Portuguese contact with Africa, a classic pattern for black enslavement i nto the emerging Atlantic Diaspora. Was Othello carried over the Atlantic in a Spanish or Portuguese slaver? Did Othello s portance follow upon his being sold into slavery following a battle and was he then taken to one of the newly developing sugar colonies of the Luso-American empire? Certainly in the contemporary trave l literature it was not Africa but the New World where Carib anthropophagi flour ish. It is impossible from the evidence of this speech to surmise the exact nat ure of Othello s experiences in war and slavery, and it cannot be proved beyond al l reasonable doubt that he is referring to an early experience of the middle pas sage. Yet, finally, this is not that important to my argument, what matters is that it was the exotic narration of the typical experiences of a young African s lave which made Desdemona fall in love with Othello. This is the magic he possess es, the glamour of slave trauma and its potential as a source of sentimental fic tion for the white imagination. It was, after all, the vast empathetic potentia l of the innocent black slave victim, out of which the entire edifice of aboliti onist sentimental fiction, from Oroonoko to Uncle Tom s Cabin, was evolved. It i s Othello s embodiment of a tremendous and exotic black victim-hood which is the m agic he uses to gain such a hold on the minds of his sympathetic white audience. As long as Brabantio can pity the ex-slave and be entertained by him, he is fa scinated and deeply sympathetic. This is an imaginative move that, in its subs

titutive and expropriatory processes, was to come to lie at the heart of anti-sl avery rhetoric for the next two centuries. In his thirst to feed off the experi ence of slave trauma Brabantio is a sort of proto-abolitionist, hoping to find e ntertainment, sentiment and pity at the heart of the attractive black warrior s na rrative. Yet when Brabantio s daughter extends her empathy for the charismatic v ictim into sexual love, the narrative spell is violently broken and a new sinist er black magic is substituted to explain the process. Shakespeare encapsulates a process of white cultural interpretation which is repeated with variations aga in and again whenever the slave power must digest confrontational and subversive black behaviour. Slave rebellions in particular were to be compulsively re-inv ented as organised and operated through the rituals and charms of African evolve d witchcraft. The powers of the African fetish emerge under the pressures of white anxiety as virtually limitless. And yet when it comes to black magic in Othello Shakespeare does not leave it at that, but takes us into some far more challenging cultural cross currents. Oth ello denies using magic upon Desdemona, seeing a capacity for narrative self-enc hantment as an essential quality of the white mind. Yet as the play develops Ot hello reveals that he has deeper and more disturbing insights that relate not on ly to the practices of black magic , but to compulsive white engagement with those practises. At a dramatic turning point in the play, the point when Desdemona s fa te is sealed, Othello demonstrates a knowledge of, and it seems belief in, Afric an fetish religion. He suddenly reveals his understanding of a world of enchant ment where intimate objects exert strange powers over human love and destiny. D espite the vast analytic literatures generated around this play, and around what must remain the world s most notorious handkerchief, the relation of this talisma nic textile to African and indeed Diasporic fetish religions, and their associat ed witchcraft practices, has not been clearly brought out. What finally gives th e fateful handkerchief such power in Othello s eyes is, quite explicitly, its orig in in African fetish worship: That handkerchief Did an Egyptian to my mother give, She was a charmer and could almost read The thoughts of people. She told her, while she kept it Twould make her amiable and subdue my father Entirely to her love; but if she lost it Or made a gift of it, my father s eye Should hold her loathed and his spirits should hunt After new fancies. She, dying, gave it me And bid me, when my fate should have me wive, To give it her. I did so, and take heed on t! Make it a darling, like your precious eye!To lose t or give t away were such perdition As nothing else could match. DESDEMONA Is t possible OTHELLO Tis true, there s magic in the web of it. A sibyl that had numbered in the world The sun to course two hundred compasses, In her prophetic fury sewed the work; The worms were hallowed that did breed the silk, And it was dyed in mummy, which the skilful Conserved of maidens hearts. (3, 4, 57-77) Shakespeare lifted the basic idea of the handkerchief directly from his source, Cinthio. Yet in the source the origins of the handkerchief are never discussed, the object is alluded to only once in a passage which recounts how Desdemona: ca rried with her a handkerchief embroidered most delicately in the Moorish fashio n, which the Moor had given her and which was treasured by the Lady and her husb

and too. (Arden Othello, p. 378) Shakespeare takes up this superficial idea of t he keepsake and does something quite extraordinary with it, creating a completel y different cultural history in which the handkerchief is embedded in a whole wo rld of African fetish magic. In the remarkable passages in which Othello explai ns the origins and terrifying powers of the handkerchief he takes both Desdemona and the audience into a discussion of magic which suddenly calls into question the claims in his earlier exchanges with Brabantio. Othello s detailed understand ing of African fetishism here doesn t easily square up with the earlier account w here he utterly denied before his white accusers any use of magic in the evoluti on of his relationship with Desdemona. Othello clearly possesses an intimate kn owledge of the power and methods of African witchcraft. He seems particularly f amiliar with the manner in which the fetish can induce and maintain sexual attra ction. The handkerchief is in fact a magic object of considerable power origina lly created by an Egyptian [that is African] witch, a charmer , who was also a mind reader. It was then given to Othello s mother as a love charm, in order to make his father fall in love with her, and be submissive to her desire. The speech e mphasises the power this charm exerts over people s imaginative vision whether it is the father s eye or Desdemona s precious eye . The object fulfils every important cr iteria for an African love fetish, and also for an ancestor fetish, here one emb ued with an extraordinary matrilinear potency. If these magical inheritances ar e combined in a single object then the handkerchief possesses, within Othello s sy mbolic and religious vision, a unique potency. At what stage, we might speculate, did Othello pass this fetish on to Desdemona in the belief that the object would bewitch her vision and emotions, at what sta ge did she come under the power of its magic web ? Objects which are personal gifts, and indeed any objects which have intimate contact with a victim s body, have pec uliarly potent properties within both African fetish religions, and in the hybri ds that evolved out of them in the religions that evolved within every country o f the Atlantic slave Diaspora, whether Cuba, Jamaica, Hayti or Brazil. Handkerc hiefs, underwear, sanitary towels, indeed any object that is carried next to the skin or which receive bodily fluids from the orifices, have always possessed un ique powers within magic, whether one is talking about witchcraft in Soweto and the South African townships today, or about Obeah, Santeria, Voudoun, Candombl, U mbanda or Macumba within the slave Diaspora. In popular western culture the pot ency of such personal fetishes within wichcraft is not restricted to slave and e x-slave communities, but runs through film and literature, it is central for exa mple to the treatment of witchcraft in Polanski s masterpiece Rosemary s Baby, and t o ? s Blair Witch Project. Add to this that the object has matriarchal and dynast ic power, passed down from mother to son; prophetic power, in that it was made b y a two hundred year old Sybil; sacred trans-substantive powers, in that it is m ade out of silk from ritually hallowed worms; immortal powers, in that it has been dipped in some concoction fashioned out of the black resins from mummies (a sub stance believed to bestow eternal life) and that these mummies were female virgi ns and the extracted substance came from their hearts; add all these things toge ther and you don t just have a handkerchief, but a pretty terrifying, not to say a ll powerful, fetishistic cocktail. And yet these revelations beg some questions - if everything Othello tells Desde mona about this remarkable charm is true, then why did he wait until now to tell her? Why did he not tell her when he gave her the object as a love token? Was he afraid to let the cat out of the bag, did he need to keep his magic secret t o maintain the power of the fetish? Indeed at exactly which point was she given the sacred family heirloom? If it was early on in their relationship, then the re is a lot more to Brabantio s claim that his daughter was bewitched than Othello would have his white audience believe. In fact we are given a fairly precise h istory of when it was given and what it meant, this comes when Emilia discovers that it has been dropped, and makes the fatal decision to give it to Iago: I am glad I have found this napkin, This was her first remembrance from the Moor, My wayward husband hath a hundred times

Wooed me to steal it, but she so loves the token -For he conjured her she should ever keep it That she reserves it evermore about her To kiss and talk to. There is a good deal to unpack here with regard to witchcraft and the fetish. I t seems that this object was the first love token to pass between the couple, an d that it was given at a very early stage of the developing relationship, certai nly well before the elopement, marriage and sexual union. It was also given und er specific and quasi magical instructions, for Othello conjured Desdemona that sh e should ever keep it , and in this sense it takes on power from being intimately i n contact with her body, her nose, her lips. Gilberto Freyre, talking of love a nd magic in the slave populations of Brazil casually listed the intimate objects the possession of which gave amorous control over an individual: another form of sorcery consists of stealing a man s shirt from the laundry basket and cutting a hole in it with a pair of scissors exactly in the middle of the bosom a woman s soil ed night gown enters into many a love spell, as do other nauseous things. Hairs from the arm pits or genital parts. Sweat. Tears. Saliva. Blood Give him such in gredients and the sorcerer catimbozeiro, mandingueiro, macumbeiro will tell you that he will soften the heart of the most indifferent person. The handkerchief used as a love fetish appears to have softened the heart of Desdemona rather rapidly, if we are to believe Brabantio s claim that the Moor was previously: what she feare d to look on . And yet it appears to be fetishistic in more ways than one. On Ia go s side he seems to have understood from the first the power the fetish exerts o ver both lovers, and the power he will gain through its possession. It is not c lear why he has this knowledge, whether it is instinctive, or whether he picked it up from his relationship with Othello, but that he understands the operations of fetish magic and its power in relation to the operations of Othello s love for Desdemona is plain. On Desdemona s side the handkerchief constitutes not merely an African love fetish, but a classic sexual fetish. Sexual fetishism most ofte n manifests itself via fixation upon a particular object of clothing, or piece o f textile, the object comes to substitute for the physical body of the desired h uman body, indeed in extreme cases can wholly supplant the body in the imaginati on of the fetishist. Desdemona displays classic fetish behaviour, she keeps the cloth next to her body, but she treats it as if it were the body of the beloved, touching it, kissing it and talking to it. On Othello s side it is a magical obj ect which will make Desdemona fall in love with him. She will then remain faith ful to him as long as she is under its spell, for the fetish operates, although in gender reverse, precisely those functions which bound Othello s own parent s toge ther. Should Desdemona become separated from this charm then its, and consequen tly Othello s, power over her and her affections is at an end, this is made explic it in the lines: To lose t or give t away were such perdition / As nothing else could match with their terrific punning on loss and perdition . In this sense the loss of the handkerchief constitutes the loss of Othello s magical African hold over a whi te Chrisitian woman s emotions. His fears are in this sense real, to him, and the intensity of his reaction when Desdemona states, not merely that she has lost, but that she does not have the charm, about her person, is understandable. From this perspective it does not really matter whether the handkerchief was given t o Cassio or not, or whether it was merely lost, its separation from the body of the bewitched individual is, in terms of fetish magic, the crucial event. Once the hankerchief is read as a fully realised African fetish it transforms the rea ding o Othello s reaction to its loss. The act of loss is not merely the trigger that throws him over the rational edge in the face of Iago s goading, but a loss t hat throws him into despair, because with the physical separation of wife and fe tish goes black control of white female emotion. In other words behind the ragi ng, and as many critics have observed, psychologically rather unconvincing, fits of jealousy, lies a deeper fear. This deeper fear is embedded in the power of the fetish object to control desire, and in this sense Othello s compulsive horror at the absence of the handkerchief makes sense. He is not merely jealous, but terrified that the fetishistic basis of his power over Desdemona has vanished.

Othello could then be seen as existing in thrall to the power of his own charm, and consequently in a state of constant doubt, never confident in his capacity t o inspire a genuine love. If you believe you are loved because of the power of the fetish, then what sort of love has your black magic brought to you? Once he knows that Desdemona does not have the fetish he enters a world of terror, wher e he no longer controls her love and her emotions. In those bizarre, demented, fragmented ejaculations Othello spits out when he falls into an epileptic fit as he obsesses over the handkerchief he is expressing the horror of losing his pow er to enchant: It is not words that shake me thus. Pish! Noses, ears and lips. Is t possible? Confess? - Handkerchief?- O devil! [He falls down . These lines ex press a human falling outside sense, and in this sense it may be pointless to t ry to make sense of their explicit nonsense. Yet one reading is that the noses, ears and lips is referring to the hankerchief, the bodily fluids it has contact w ith, and the fact that Desdemona does physically sleep with it, kiss it with her lips and talk to it as if it had ears. If the power and centrality of the fetish are properly understood then Shakespea re s play emerges as a titanic lecture on race and the power fantasies it generate s in both the white and black imaginaries. Othello read this way is a didactic fable warning both black and white about what can happen if you start playing ar ound with the power of the fetish, especially if you do so in a white world whic h does not either understand, or trust, the power of African witchcraft. Othell o s union with Desdemona condemns him to exist in a society where he cannot escape white fixation on black magic. His denial to Brabantio that he employed the dar k arts to make Desdemona love him may be motivated by a desire to convince, not o nly Brabantio but Othello himself, that he is capable of eliciting real love fro m a white woman without recourse to witchcraft. What Brabantio teaches us is th at within the mind of the white man it doesn t finally matter whether Othello used magic or not, because white male authority will compulsively accrete magical ag ency onto the black body whenever, and wherever, it feels sexually or culturally threatened. Othello understands this and yet cannot avoid the consequences of being a charismatic black presence within his chosen white world, where both bla ck and white approach African magic with paranoia. The slave revolutionaries w ho embarked on Nat. Turner s rebellion in Virginia in 1832, and on the Revolt of t he Mles in Bahia in 1835, seemed to have deep insights into exactly what power sl ave magic, or the willed necessity to believe in the myths of African magic, exe rted over the minds of the white masters. In the minds of the masters there can be no exceptional black behaviour without the influence of witchcraft. The alte rnative is to admit and to understand that black men can love beautiful white wo men quite naturally, and have their love returned without a question. The alter native is to believe that black people can organise violent anti-slavery revolut ion quite easily. The alternative is to comprehend that black people can be the superiors of white people, in any cultural, sexual, economic, or creative conte xt without recourse to black magic . Surely that was, and remains for the white ma n, just too terrifying a set of alternatives. In this sense the slave masters and their descendants have always been tempted to believe in their displaced ver sions of black magic; what real interest they had and have in the actual religio ns which the slaves and their descendants evolved is not so easily determined. It seems that Shakespeare, as ever, was well ahead of the game on this one. The final tragedy is not Othello s jealousy, or fetishistic terror, or violence, but the blindness of Brabantio s vision, and the hatred which results from Iago s parano id engagement with inter-racial sexuality. Brabantio cannot see into the love b etween his perfect white daughter and a beautiful black man, all he can see is t he blinding power of an eternally threatening black, male and magical sexuality. Iago cannot see beyond a fixation that his wife and Othello once made love, ev en if it only happened in Iago s masturbatory and impotent imaginings. Both Othel lo s final inability to believe in his power to maintain Desdemona s love, and his c onsequent vulnerability to Iago s intimations of Desdemona s infidelity, are intimat ely related to two things. Firstly Brabantio s conviction that a white girl will only love a black man if she has been bewitched. Secondly Iago s belief that all white husbands become cuckolds once their wives have been alone in the presence

of a black man. The handkerchief is a veil which obfuscates, even while it supp orts, a fantasy of the black male s terror at his inability to inspire white femal e sexual love. Black male anxiety over inter-racial sexuality is of course fina lly the fantasy of a white author, a layered set of fictions curiously embodied within the white and black male characters imagined in Shakespeare s play. Othell o and Desdemona constitute a new type of tragic couple. The tragedy lies in the manner in which they are sacrificed to, and mutually consumed by, the surroundi ng fantasies unleashed by the reality of their sexual union. They are both fina lly victims of the Patriarchal paranoia embedded in the white mind, Shakespeare s mind, a paranoia for which the black male was, and is, an irrationally powerful catalyst. The ultimate beauty of the play, and the true weight of its tragic co ntent, lies in the celebration of Desdemona s love. Desdemona s feeling for Othello is pure, a case of miscegenetic eros evolving into agape, a love which exists b eyond the cynical and corrupted visions unleashed by the spectre of interracial sexuality within the mind of every other character. In this sense Desdemona is a victim, but surely a triumphant one, her love is an embodiment of hope, and of an uncompromising belief in the beauty of blackness. The play is in reality th e tragedy of Desdemona, who is a gloriously silly Romantic. Her monumental, and apparently indestructible, innocence is the force which winds up the mechanisms which in their turn result in her violent abuse, and so she might be seen as an inter-racial precursor of Sade s Justine. Iago is quite blatantly Shakespeare s mos t purely Sadeian creation. What differentiates him from Sade s heroes is his obse ssionally sexualised Negrophobia. That obsession delineates in a most precise m anner the continuing basis of heterosexual white male hatred of the black man. [you must talk about the weirdness of the handkerchief. We use it to put to our now, to cellect bodily fluids or to sniff, how did the Elizabethan s think about the handkerchief, what is its name, what does it mean, look up in OED, and reme mber we sneeze into them, and seven sneezes equals an orgasm. When were they us ed, how common were they in Elizabethan times, textiles, and how would it relate to Africa, could they have had a handkerchief in Africa, would an Egyptian have known about them, what terms are used to describe it in the text, what words. Benito Cereno: Melville s take on black revolution Turner s Slaver s Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying is the only masterpiece with in the Western canon of the visual arts to provide a saturated yet satisfactory aesthetic account of atrocity on the middle passage. The work is counterbalance d in prose by Melville s Benito Cereno the only masterpiece within the Western can on of prose fiction to present a fully ironised account of slave insurrection ab oard a slaving vessel, as subject otherwise hardly touched upon in North America n slavery literatures of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. What finally is Meliville s take on black revolutionary violence, his tale is didactic, dogmati c, brazenly educative in many ways, yet the lessons it seeks to teach are imposs ible to hold in focus. For white constructions of the Haitian slave revolution and African fetish magic see Samuel Whitchurch, from Hispaniola, A Poem; with Appropriate Notes. To whic h are added Lines on the Crucifixion: and Other Poetical pieces (1804); C. L. R . James, The Black Jacobins (Allison & Busby, London, [1938] 1989); Alejo Carpen tier, The Kingdom of this World; David Patrick Geggus, Slavery War and Revolutio n: the British Occupation of Saint Domingo, 1793-98 (Clarendon Press, Oxford, 19 82); for Brazilian slave insurrection and fetish magic Roger Bastide, The Africa n Religions of Brazil Toward a Sociology of the Interpretation of Civilizations (Johns Hopkins Press, Baltimore and London, [1960] 1978) 127-54; Reis, Reis, Sla ve Rebellion in Brazil the Muslim Uprising of 1835 in Bahia, I take both the word detachable and the Johnson and Verdi examples from E. A. J. H onigmann s lucid discussion of this issue see Othello The Arden Shakespeare Third Series (London, Thomas Nelson and Sons, 1997) pp. 62-3. The source is the seventh novella in the third decade of Garaldi Cinthio s Hecatom mithi of 1565, which is quoted in full Arden Othello, pp. 370-386. This contain

s merely the statement that Desdemona s family did all they could to make her take another husband (quoted Arden Othello, p. 371) . Shakespeare s creation of the obs essively negrophobe Brabantio, goaded by Iago, is wholly original. Coleridge two hundred years later was to lament upon the tragic interchangeabili ty of black slaves and horses in the advertisment columns of Jamaican newspapers See the discussion of white constructions of magic to explain black revolutionar y activity pp. 00-00 below. A possible connection between the handkerchief and contemporary African fetish r eligion has been suggested in Diana Adesola Mafe, From gn to Othello: (Re)Aquaintin g Yoruba Myth and Shakespeare s Moor , Research in African Literatures 35:3 (2004) 5 5-6. The piece as a whole suffers from the desire to tie the interpretation of the play down to a localised and highly specific set of West Coast African belie fs and cultural practices, namely those of the Yoruba. Consequently the main ch aracters are read through the figures of the Yoruba rss, or local Gods; Othello eme rges as a version of the war god gn, and Iago as a manifestation of the devil/tric kster Esu. Such literal equations are hard to substantiate from the evidence of the text. See Ashforth, Madumo, Witchcraft, book on Santeria, Verges. Freyre, 336-7. Kraft Ebbing, Psychopathia Sexualis. Bastide, on white necessity to believe in black magic. Also Brazilian article o n how the Orixas are preserved in the collections of the Brazillian secret polic e. I use the word here in its uplifting old sense, precisely as Coleridge used it t o describe the buckets which receive the blessed rainwater in the Ryme of the An cient Mariner.