Torturing the Conscience with Divine <i>subjectio</i>

Ceri Sullivan

in The Rhetoric of the Conscience in Donne, Herbert, and Vaughan

Published in print September 2008 | ISBN: 9780199547845
Published online September 2008 | e-ISBN: 9780191720901 | DOI:
Torturing the Conscience with Divine subjectio

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God deals with uncooperative witnesses by torturing them until they ventriloquize his words. Poets are sulky about admitting that torture (especially when presented by its inflictor as neither gratuitous in motive nor freely inventive in form) which is a good way to get back onto speaking terms. Such specific reference to torture is a result of the trope inevitably present when God addresses man, subjectio, a monologue that presents itself as a dialogue but where, in fact, the speaker answers himself. The rhetorical implications of this practice — found in contemporary discussions of forced evidence drawn from Roman orators such as Cicero, continental jurists, and English practice under the royal prerogative — are based on an understanding of who has the right to hear and the duty to speak. Despite coming from different legal premises, all three systems agree that the torturer claims a sovereign right to inflict pain under defined circumstances, and that he knows in advance what must and will be said in answer to any questions. This stance has certain consequences: torture engrosses the victim's imagination as much as his senses; he is considered to be bound rather than free (and so without the ethos of a man whose words can be believed), and any involuntary confession will convert past and future interrogation into punishment. Two contemporary models — poems and sermons on Job's sufferings (including those by Francis Quarles and Donne's Devotions upon emergent occasions) — exemplify the correct response to injury inflicted by God.

Keywords: torture; rack; royal prerogative; canon law; Job; Cicero; Francis Quarles

Chapter.  16051 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: Literary Studies (1500 to 1800)

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