The Metaphysics of the Evil Eye

8 02 2010

Part I – Things gettin’ worse all the time

My family is Mexican, ergo, I am a fatalist. Americans can’t perceive what that really means. In a way, I am just as American as anyone else living in the U.S. of A., but my family definitely isn’t. It’s hard for someone with so much Latin blood and upbringing to say: “Hey kiddo, keep your chin up. Things will get better.” If I do say that, what I really mean is, “Yeah, life sucks. But don’t worry, you’ll get used to it.” Or as my ex-abbot (a Greek) was prone to saying (perhaps quoting someone else?): “Whatever happens, it’ll be bad”.

Perhaps this was the social ground of the phemonemon of the “evil eye” in such cultures. The evil eye always has to do with envy. In Mexico and other parts of Latin America, the evil eye is cast inadvertenly on small children by people who admire them too much. Growing up, my mother was always taught to touch a child who she had admired, lest she give the child a preternatural illness that could possibly cause death. Having a beautiful, healthy child was seen as being a dangerous thing; people would “desire” the child, and that desire, even from afar, could be fatal.

In my rather unsystematic studies of folk belief, I have found that, not without accident perhaps, southern Italian ideas of the evil eye parellel the Mexican manifestations of the phenomenon. Indeed, the best description given for the basis of the evil eye (malocchio, for the multilingual), can be found in the book, Italian American Folklore by Frances Malpezzani and William M. Clements. They write:

Connected with the deeply rooted fatalism of the southern Italian peasant world view, malocchio reflects a pessimism that perceives potential threats from almost anyone and assumes that good fortune cannot endure. To prosper, according to this world view, is to invite envy. And envy generates ill feelings that may result in harm befalling its target. Malocchio makes concrete the abstract envy that pervades a universe defined by only a limited amount of good.

“A limited amount of good.” Americans would best chew on that phrase. For if there was anything so “unAmerican”, so counterintuitive to how we work, learn, and perceive the world, it is the idea of a “limited amount of good”. We are taught that the good is something we create out of thin air. It is a manner of cutting the pie into an infinite amount of pieces until everyone has a share. Indeed, in the metaphysical sense, modernity is the overcoming of fatalism; it is the overcoming of caste and “station in life” so that we can reach our “full potential”. God is on our side since He has thrown open the floodgates of infinite goodness. We are more informed, more comfortable, and of course, better people than our ancestors. Even in our nostalgia for the past, there is a sense of living in a superior age, and our pining for it is just as rational as a four year old’s pining for Disneyworld.

Of course, I wouldn’t want to go back to the life of a Mexican campesino or an Italian paesano either, but their approach to life should at least give us pause. Especially in the fields of religion and culture, we may want to have our cake and eat it too, but perhaps our ancestors knew better than that. Perhaps our universe is governed by the principle of a “limited good”, and it is just a matter of time before the payback comes, either on the microcosmic or macrocosmic level.

On Sight

2 09 2009


But, that there is some light, though small, in the eyes and brain, many animals which see at night can attest. Their eyes glow in the dark. And also, if anyone has pressed the corner of his eye in some certain way with his finger and twisted it, he seems to see a certain luminous circle inside himself. And it is said that the deified Augustus had eyes so bright and shining that when he stared at someone very hard, he forced him to lower his eyes, as if before the glow of the sun. Tiberius also is said to have had very large eyes which (this would be amazing) saw at night and in the dark, but only for a short time, and when they first opened from sleep; then they grew dim again.

-Marsilio Ficino, Commentary on Plato’s Symposium on Love

In Mexico, it is said that people who give small children the evil eye (el mal de ojo) have la vista muy fuerte (a strong sense of sight). It is even said that a person can kill someone if his sense of sight is strong enough. This is almost always completely involuntary. Spanish speakers can see the short documentary, El Mal Visto, regarding this phenomenon. One wonders if such beliefs are remnants of the esoteric sciences of the Renaissance and earlier.