It is disconcerting to listen to Whitney Houston’s hit song “I Will Always Love You,” a cover of the 1974 Dolly Parton original and used in the 1992 film The Bodyguard. The bodyguard in question is Kevin Costner’s secret service agent Frank Farmer, hired by pop singer Rachel Marron (Houston) in finding herself victim of a stalker. The two soon exceed the terms of their contract, with Farmer stolidly remaining on the job, taking a bullet for her in the climactic scene. The film is a travesty on many levels, no longer simply enjoyably so, but the soundtrack remains one of the bestselling albums of all time. God knows it is not the lyrics. If I should stay, I would only be in your way. So I’ll go, but I know I’ll think of you every step of the way. And I will always love you. Such lines could hardly serve as the measure of Houston’s soaring performance. Or could they? Did Houston herself merely phone it in, knowing her voice capable of making nothing seem to matter outside itself? And just continuing the obvious line, was this a problem for her? Houston’s life and death have lent themselves to potboiler thinking and sorry clichés, all inadequate, including the “bittersweet memories” that Houston sings of “taking with” her. But indeed, marching straight in, no one seems to have always loved Whitney Houston, and the Hollywood accounting of this speculative datum does not mitigate the awful irony of it.
This forum is on the oath: the promise, the pledge, the vow, equally the curse, the malediction, the blasphemy. The entries in the Oxford English Dictionary comprise an exhibit in how to do things with words: “1. A solemn or formal declaration invoking God (or a god, or other object of reverence) as witness to the truth of a statement, or to the binding nature of a promise or undertaking; an act of making such a declaration. Also: the statement or promise made in such a declaration, or the words of such a statement.” “2. A casual or careless appeal invoking God (or something sacred) in asseveration or imprecation, without intent of reverence, made in corroboration of a statement, declaration, etc.; a profane or blasphemous utterance; a curse. Now (also): any strong expletive expressing anger, frustration, etc., often with substitution for, or omission of, a sacred name.” Reverence and irreverence packed with nails in one four-letter word. “By my troth, and in good earnest, and so God mend me, and by all pretty oaths that are not dangerous, if you break one jot of your promise or come one minute behind your hour, I will think you the most pathetical break-promise and the most hollow lover…” declaims Rosalind to would-be lover Orlando in Shakespeare’s As You Like It. Or in the words of Elizabethan contemporary Thomas Dekker, author of, among other notable works, The Honest Whore, Parts 1 and 2 (1630), “Oathes are Crutches, vpon which Lyes… go, & neede no other passport… For oathes are wounds that a man stabs into himselfe, yea, they are burning words that consume those who kindle them” (The Seven Deadly Sinnes of London, 1606).
How bloody, tender, solemn, comic. Oath—this tiny bible, Hippocratic and melancholy, fervent and profane, keeper and breaker. Too much, perhaps, hangs on them. ‘Sblood.
We invited contributors to write on some element of the oath or its quasi-cognates, including sworn statement, avowal, affirmation, word, word of honor, bond, guarantee, or, as Diane Fruchtman augments the list, martyrdom. There is Dekker’s spectacular double bind: to swear is to lie. There are famous oaths at tennis courts and trials, there are oaths of office, oaths of citizenship, equally protests and revisions of them. How might we understand an oath, and how might it understand us? What more is there to say? Or as Derrida wondered about religion, “What is happening under this old name?”
Let me follow the drift of Rosalind’s challenge to Orlando, who hastens to respond. I swear: I will come at the hour I promised. I swear: I am true. Whether or not he does, or is, and granting the complication that Orlando is speaking to a disguised Rosalind “as if” s/he were Rosalind, what is the connection of these vows? What is the connection of “I Will Always Love You” and being on time? There is in the first place that “always.” When I say I am true—I do, I promise—I mean: not only now but also later. Then, together with this great human wager of desire (concept, idea, intent, being) + time, there is the matter of just plain showing up. I’ll be there at 4 pm.
I am really sorry, though, something came up, someone or something stopped me, I lost track of time, I got lost. If you always love me, or even if you feel one of the many degrees of liking short of that ultimacy, you won’t take my failure as a broken promise. I meant to be there! I got hit by a bus, I fell into a crack in the earth, I was devoured by wild beasts. Life is like that.
Life is like what? For some philosophers, the rude interposition of chance in my effort to be there at 4 pm is an offense to be argued away. An example of this argument is delivered by Maimonides in The Guide of the Perplexed, where, in one of the final chapters, the philosopher outlines his view of the relationship between misfortune and wisdom. Insofar as I am “endowed with perfect apprehension” and never cease from “being occupied with God,” providence will watch over me. This is the fortune of “prophets or excellent and perfect men.” If such a person experiences misfortune, this must be a result of “distraction, the greatness of the calamity being proportionate to the duration of the period of distraction or to the vileness of the matter with which he was occupied.” The distracted prophet, Maimonides hastens to add, is only temporarily vulnerable to calamity, unlike those “who have never had intellectual cognition” at all, who by that fact are abandoned to the “sea of chance.”
Compare Kant, who is uninterested in my 4 pm appointment except insofar as it is to always love you, in which case, I am to work as hard as I can to get there. Fidelity for Kant is not measured by whether I make it or not. He acknowledges I might be devoured by wild beasts or mistake your death-like symptoms for death, and does not hold it against me. But nor is fidelity merely intent—as he puts it, a “wish.” Something might come between me and the appointment, but I am to summon “all means that are within [my] control.” In Kant’s strenuous demand, “I’ll do my best” means the opposite of what it promises. You are not to do your best. You are to get there.
Nietzsche might sound like Maimonides when he says that the “sovereign individual” has the “prerogative to promise.” No wilted flower she, such an individual has been given “mastery over circumstances, over nature and over all creatures with a less enduring and reliable will.” Like Kant, however, Nietzsche does not mean that sovereignty entails exemption from the natural order. A sovereign individual is one who summons all means, but then is “strong enough to remain upright in the face of mishap or even in the ‘face of fate.’” It does not change the point to add that a promise is sustained, as Marx puts it, in the “real existing world,” or else 4 pm is just a gesture of mystification.
One worthy comment on this concept of exertion-in-love, exertion-in-freedom, is Dekker’s, in which I fail to arrive at the appointed hour due not only to the vicissitudes of nature but to the perfidy of my nature. Talk is cheap, and Dekker supplies the painful addendum: People do and say a lot of things while struggling to mean what they say, and contriving not to. The oath is a disaster. Does it not know I might be at odds with myself? Once a year observant Jews are to be relieved of all oaths, a surely humane ritual that categorically abandons the Maimonidean vise that squeezes nature and mind to death. It does not say I should not promise to be there. It simply recognizes that persons and prophets have a lot going on.
As two contributors to this forum remind us, Shakespeare is exemplary in giving us the pain and pleasure of such going on. Adam Stern reflects on the oath you think has declined in order to show, courtesy of Shylock, that the oath is a decline. Julia Reinhard Lupton gives us a cluster of Shakespearean oaths to turn on Shakespeare himself the “forgiving recollection” he expresses in his existential anatomies.
I will, then: be there, love you. Having always loved you, though, it might be that I no longer love you, or never did. On the one hand, it can be good not to keep your promise. Only a “hollow lover” always shows up. Only a “break-promise” says “I Will Always Love You.” “Take your pick,” says Mickey Sabbath. “Get betrayed by the fantasy of endlessness or by the fact of finitude.” Like “I did my best,” “I Will Always Love You” can only be sung while walking away.
On the other hand, without promises, oaths: they are that great human wager of desire + time = history. As Brandon Hogan notes, in promising, I commit to something that might enlarge or limit me; I say more than I know. This insecurity does not entail that “what we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence.” It may be, as Isabel Archer finds, that “there was more in the bond than she had meant to put her name to.” Yet this is one of Archer’s beginnings, a sovereign recognition, in which, absent ritual relief, she continues to take up her life.
The further question—not wholly unfelt by James’s protagonist—is posed by Tiffany Hale in exploring legal claims of the destruction of property in the aftermath of the Wounded Knee Massacre. Whose life? “If the point of an oath is to swear the truth,” asks Hale, “what does it mean if the truth is stacked against you?” It is in this register that one is tempted to rewrite the lyrics to Houston’s cover (and to her life) with the help of Saidiya Hartman, whose history of “wayward lives, beautiful experiments” makes central her subjects’ “vision of a future world and what might be.”