The Witch of Eye by Kathryn Nuernberger
In this curious and perceptive collection of essays, The Witch of Eye, Nuernberger embarks on a mystic investigation of the histories of witchcraft. Using recorded narratives and transcripts derived from accounts of witch trials, she surveys these fascinating histories for all their silences, secrets, and perceived truths. Nuernberger situates these accounts amongst the trials of her own life, considering the past and present through a philosophical lens, one which often points to the haunting parallels between these specific histories and contemporary American society. The breadth of this exploration is made possible in part due to Nuernberger’s nimble, probing thought, which propels this book as it visits both reality and unreality. Her propensity to question given truths foregrounds the book with wonder as Nuernberger identifies with history’s reported “witches” for the potential she sees in their alternate, subjective, previously unspoken narratives. Nuernberger’s The Witch of Eye cultivates a space of wonder, a
mystical space in which one may co-author reality alongside myth, science, religion, justice, and witchcraft—a space to ponder the well-kept secrets of humanity.
The Witch of Eye asks readers to leave their convictions behind, be willing to enter into a space of uncertainty. In her first chapter, Nuernberger asks, “What is it to live, I wonder, if not to tremble?” This question foregrounds the book as, in each chapter, whether she relays history or recalls her own experiences, Nuernberger resolutely engages with multiple perspectives which resist the often comforting, yet potentially one-sided, state of certainty. On a smaller scale, her questioning of what is considered historical “fact” suggests that we draw upon the theory of M. Alexander, which suggests a destabilization of fixed understanding and demands more critical evaluation. On what is perhaps a larger scale, Nuernberger grapples with the overwhelming actuality that what we perceive to be reality may very well be an unreality when removed from the context of the individual experiencing it. Not only are our experiences subjective, but our external worlds, our ways of seeing and knowing, our “scripts,” as she calls them, or specialized areas of topic that outline our social connections, are wholly individual. This doesn’t stop her from reaching out and connecting with other people, however. On the contrary, this propels Nuernberger forward, into a historical analysis that connects people, thoughts, and experiences through language and commitment to wonder.
The philosophical concept that considers our differing external worlds is explored in the chapter “Double Vision” as Nuernberger struggles to understand how other people aren’t as frightened by “the impossibility of sharing the same external reality.” She tells the story of a villager whose unusual experience stands out as a “complete reversal” from the typical witch narrative or the surrounding witch stories in the book. This is because this villager, instead of being tortured into confession, was unable to convince others of her witch status. Desperate to convince her neighbors that she could fly, she covered herself in an ointment and passed out, leaving only the other villagers, who attempted to wake her by hitting and burning her. Nuernberger writes that after the ointment’s so-called magic had worn off, the woman “tried to tell them how she had been flying, but all they wanted to talk about were the things they had done to her while she lay there going nowhere.” This story goes to exemplify the different versions of truth, made available to us through perspective. It terrifies Nuernberger that other people aren’t as considerate of the “extreme difficulty of truly interpreting another person’s meanings or intentions.”
What is notable, too, about this story is that once the flying villager had been awake long enough to feel “the pain of their proof,” she says that she believes the version of events provided by the villagers, over that of her own experience. This denial of one’s perceived truth is evidenced across the accounts of witchcraft that Nuernberger cites in her book. In the account of Walpurga Hausmännin, Nuernberger wonders which parts of her confession the woman actually believed to be true, given that one of those confessions is to riding on a pitchfork at night with her lover. Like the stories of many others, Hausmännin’s confessions were admitted in response to interrogation and torture. Of these confessions, Nuernberger refuses to accept the singular story, that of the court report summary which ignores all context, and of a justice system which has historically acted, and continues to act, in the name of white male hegemony.
In this collection, we learn of the women whose misremembered stories are complete historical inaccuracies, whose last words will remain a mystery, whose guilt can never truly be determined by history’s devastatingly singular perspective. Nuernberger writes of working with Catalina Ouyang to create a “poetic translation of the Conclusions & Findings section of the Title IX report from the 2016 investigation into her sexual assault.” She begins by “trying to translate the cruel silences embedded within the lines” of the document. This is exactly what she sets out to do with this book: to translate history’s cruel silences. Nuernberger draws a connection between the accused people “whose lives have become torn and water-stained pieces of paper,” and the female experience today, as a victim of sexual assault who must navigate feeling “irrationally guilty.” In this interwoven space between victimhood, her own subjective experience, the experiences of Catalina Ouyang and the many other witches and women mentioned in this book, Nuernberger creates a site for connection that transcends time and silence, allowing readers to “imagine a different world is possible.” Nuernberger writes, “to think about witches is to think about shifting perspectives . . . Though I personally do not believe the spells, hexes, fairies, or transmogrification of people into animals [as described in confessions of Isabel Gowdie] are possible, I am committed to believing women.” We can imagine the possibilities of a world in which everyone shares in Nuernberger’s commitment.
In the final chapter, Nuernberger studies the accounts of Marie Laveau, revealing her ingenious, extralegal strategies for navigating and surviving systems of oppression. Of the many powerful roles Laveau served in her community, few of them are at the forefront of cultural memory. Nuernberger writes of Laveau’s status as conjure woman, and, citing Martha Ward, explains that conjurers “exist in two realities.” As Nuernberger has emphasized throughout her essays, shifting perspective is a kind of consciousness, one that invites alternative forms of power to take root. About gossip, Nuernberger writes that it is “a kind of magic” and that “knowing how and when to keep a secret is a spell for compounding interest.” She is, however, abundantly clear that shifting perspectives is not an aesthetic decision but a political shift in the consideration of the experiences of others, a shift that is required to dismantle white supremacy. In The Witch of Eye, Nuernberger calls her readers to consider perspective and continue to wonder, inviting them to join her as she journeys to uncover “a well-kept secret that the world might be more just than it seems on its face.”
Isabella Tommasone is a Creative Writing MFA candidate at Florida State University. She teaches first-year composition and serves as the Production Editor of Southeast Review. Her work is particularly interested in queerness, fashion, and trauma healing.