“Who is it in the press that calls on me? I hear a tongue, shriller than all the music.” (Julius Caesar, I.ii)
The imagined exchanges between Julius Caesar and the soothsayer about March 15, 44 B.C. have made me think about superstition, the irrational, and the place of portents, genuine or spurious. We get our most familiar account of these exchanges from Shakespeare (indeed, he probably ensured the institutional propagation of the term “the ides of March” much more effectively than the Romans themselves). Caesar is returning from a successful military campaign and a “rabble of citizens” are assembled to cheer the impromptu parade. There is talk of making Caesar a king and bringing an end to the republican system of government; there is even talk of Caesar establishing a cult of personality leading to deification. As Caesar enters the stage, he instructs his childless wife, Calphurnia, to touch Mark Antony as he completes a ceremonial race because “our elders say,/ The barren, touched in this holy chase,/ Shake off their sterile curse.” Immediately after, in an ironic juxtaposition that can’t be unintentional for the brilliant bard, a soothsayer attracts Caesar’s attention and tells him, “Beware the ides of March.” “What man is that?” Caesar demands. “Set him before me, let me see his face.” When the soothsayer reiterates, “Beware the ides of March,” Caesar dismisses him with, “He is a dreamer; let us leave him;–pass.” The ides of March culminate two acts later; Caesar is assassinated on the steps of the Senate.
I’m not a Shakespeare scholar and I’ve never read Julius Caesar from start to finish, so I don’t feel qualified to lead a discussion of competing interpretations (although I’d welcome any of your insights). What I’d like to do is consider the nature, the role, the inconsistencies, the value of personal and institutional superstition. Clearly, Caesar is a superstitious person–he had just told his wife that touching another man would make her fertile (well, maybe…). But when a more visible figure of superstition arrives in the soothsayer, Caesar calls him a dreamer and passes by unheeding. Perhaps hubris blinds Caesar to any implied criticism; perhaps Caesar is blind to his own superstitions and considers them more valid or rational. In any event, Caesar’s behavior is inconsistent, and he is eventually killed because he discounted a genuine portent. He was not superstitious in the right way.
Are we a superstitious people? In a church which unapologetically proclaims modern-day revelation through angelic visitations and the existence of prophets, seers, and revelators to guide and warn the world and the Lord’s church today, this question might be more valid than it seems. Case in point: three weeks ago I was planning on going to the temple with a friend in my ward. She was going to pick me up from school, so I called her a few hours before the rendezvous to verify the details. She asked me if I still wanted to go (which was surprising because we had talked about it just the day before), and told me, with a little well-concealed reluctance, that she’d pick me up in 20 minutes. On our way to the temple, we stopped by to pick up some dinner, and she drove her brand-new car over a curb and got a hopelessly flat tire. While we waited in McDonalds for her home teacher to come help us (yes, I know, we should have known how to change a tire by ourselves. This is a topic for another post entirely), she told me that she’d felt like she shouldn’t come, but she discounted her feelings because going to the temple is always a good thing. Case in point #2: there exists a certain class of girls who feel that they are cursed (or blessed, according to various interpretations) to always be the unmarried roommate. In other words, if you become this girl’s roommate, you’re almost guaranteed to get married. This also applies to dating: some girls feel that they are consistently the “last girl” that a guy dates before he meets his future wife and enters into marital bliss. A little hard to swallow time and again, and these girls sometimes say sardonically that they should all become roommates and have an all-out “Last Woman Standing” to see if there’s anything to this theory (by the way, I’m not one of these girls. I’ve never brought my roommates that kind of luck). Mormon myths of other sorts might suggest that we are something of a superstitious people: three Nephite stories, genealogy miracles, promptings to do various things or be in various places. In some cases, it seems that we imbue otherwise innocuous and unoffending events, people, or details with a sort of cosmic significance that constrains or binds the decisions we make and the attitudes we take toward situations. As many of you probably know (via countless features and op-ed pieces that have undoubtedly trumped me on this propitious day), the ides of March didn’t originally have any ominous significance–it was just a day used in the Roman calendar to designate a dividing of the month. That terms has been appropriated by superstition, however, and now it’s one with broken mirrors, black cats, and the wrong side of the bed.
So I’d like to leave you with a set of questions, and I’d love to hear your answers. What superstitions influence your life? Are superstitions a part of church life? Is our religion rational or irrational? Or both? Caesar heard “a tongue, shriller than all music” that ended up giving voice to genuine prophesy. What tongues still speak to us?