Friday, July 18, 2014

You Go Eat It!

Heiko A. Oberman, Luther: Man Between God and the Devil, tr. Eileen Walliser-Schwarzbart (c1989; rpt. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006), pp. 107-109 (footnotes omitted):
Now we must listen carefully to Luther and not turn away in embarrassment. Not torture and flames but profession of faith and scorn for the Devil are the proper weapons to use against Hell. Luther adds a coarse expression of his contempt for the satanic fiend to his avowal of Christ as the defender of Christianity: "But if that is not enough for you, you Devil, I have also shit and pissed; wipe your mouth on that and take a hearty bite." Is a man who still thinks and talks like this as an adult caught in the stage of development modern psychology terms the anal stage because of mistakes made in his early upbringing? Or is it perhaps just the drastic literal expression of the proverbial call: Devil, get thee behind me? Or is Luther's age showing through; is he a boor who, in his anger and agitation no longer capable of self-control, casts off the academic whitewash and falls back into the language of his origins? That would be an explanation that could be based on his own words, for he knows: "What someone is used to and has been raised to, that he cannot conceal." He often speaks of his peasant ancestors —they "were good peasants"—so there might be good reason to suspect that childhood experiences broke through in the old Luther, experiences with manure and open cesspools. If this had been the case, in his old age Luther’s bent toward crude expressions would have grown into pathological wallowing in scatological language.

As reasonable as all this may sound, his parents' mistakes, his primitive background, and psychological quirks so not constitute a sufficient explanation. Overlooked has been the fact that even as a young professor and monk, Luther, discussing the Devil at length for the first time, did not hesitate to use explicitly scatological language—and at a highly official affair at that. Luther had been designated to preach the ceremonial sermon before members of his order on May 1, 1515. This illustrious occasion was the assembly of the chapter, the decision-making body of the Augustinian Observants in Gotha. Luther had chosen a theme with which the Brethren were familiar, since it was treated in the constitutions of the order (chapter 44). The sin of slander, in this case called backbiting, was described in the handbook as a work of the Devil. Luther insists:
A slanderer does nothing but ruminate the filth of others with his own teeth and wallow like a pig with his nose in the dirt. That is also why his droppings stink most, surpassed only by the Devil's....And though man drops his excrements in private, the slanderer does not respect this privacy. He gluts on the pleasure of wallowing in it, and he does not deserve better according to God's righteous judgment. When the slanderer whispers: Look how he has shit on himself, the best answer is: You go eat it.

Luther's ravings should not be suppressed out of embarrassed respect, and certainly not because they might no longer be considered proper today. Dealing so gingerly with him means not taking him at his word. Luther's language is so physical and earthy that in his wrathful scorn he can give the Devil "a fart for a staff": You, Satan, Antichrist, or pope, can lean on it, a stinking nothing. When the therapist hears that Luther was already suffering from painful constipation in his monastery years, he is tempted to diagnose a psychological complex. In the total historical context, however, Luther’s scatology-permeated language has to be taken seriously as an expression of the painful battle fought body and soul against the Adversary, who threatens both flesh and spirit.

Sociohistorical research clarifies a further aspect of Luther's idiom, or at least of its impact. The filthy vocabulary of Reformation propaganda was aimed at inciting the common man. A figure of respect, be he Devil or pope, is effectively unmasked if he can be shown with his pants down. Luther was certainly more than just a spokesman for a social class which hitherto had no voice. The "ass the Devil pinches" is more than a drastic phrase serving agitational ends. He was not merely trying to appeal to "the people" but was addressing the Devil himself when calling his words a "pack of stinking lies."

Luther used a great deal of invective, but there was method in it. As he explained in his election sermon of 1515, the Devil drags God's name and his works of justification through the mud. Here lies the incomprehensible link between Devil, "Great Swine," Papal Ass" and "Antichrist." It is with shocking and provocative passion of youth, not the impotent rage of old age, that Luther advocated the only appropriate retort to the Devil's dung: "You go eat it!"

We find here far more than upbringing and environment. Inclination and conviction unite to form a mighty alliance, fashioning a new language of filth which is more than filthy language. Precisely in all its repulsiveness and perversion it verbalizes the unspeakable: the diabolic profanation of God and man. Luther’s lifelong barrage of crude words hurled at the opponents of the gospel is robbed of significance if attributed to bad breeding. When taken seriously, it reveals the task Luther saw before him: to do battle against the greatest slanderer of all times!

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