“Coggle” is an interesting Google creation I was exploring earlier following the advice of Professor Irr at Brandeis. This tool seems to be especially useful for linking up word etymologies, although I’m sure it has a fairly limitless number of uses. I tinkered with Coggle for a few minutes to see if it would help to organize some of my thoughts on the verb “to cull,” a word which suffers multiple definitions. In the following passage, the senators of Athens plead for Alcibiades to spare their city as a whole, conceding that they should “Let die the spotted” (17.34):
FIRST SENATOR All have not offended;
For those that were, it is not square to take
On those that are, revenges: crimes, like lands, 2600
Are not inherited. Then, dear countryman,
Bring in thy ranks, but leave without thy rage:
Spare thy Athenian cradle and those kin
Which in the bluster of thy wrath must fall
With those that have offended: like a shepherd, 2605
Approach the fold and cull the infected forth,
But kill not all together.
Interestingly the editor of the Oxford World Edition of Timon of Athens glosses “to cull” as “select out the infected”; he then adds the caveat that the OED’s closest definition, “To select and kill (wild animals or birds), usu. in order to improve the stock or reduce the population”, is an implausible one, given that it came from 1934.
And yet, the meaning of the Senator’s words seem anything but equivocal here. By the 21st century, the word “cull” has come to mean everything from selective data arrangement to selection for quarantine. The OED is an unparalleled source for tracing linguistic origins; however, I do feel as if this particular verb deserves a bit more consideration than it has thus far been given.
EEBO boasts more than one early modern text in which the verb “to cull” occurs; furthermore, these are instances in which the objective of the culling is not to separate the healthy and the strong from the weak to improve the stock, but to separate the sick or the wicked to diminish their influence. In a peculiar, potentially apocryphal text, “The Ploughman’s Tale,” the author writes:
As byrde flyeth vp into the ayre
And lyueth by byrdes that ben meke
So these ben flowe vp into dyspayre
And shended sely soules eke
The soules that ben in synnes seke
He culleth hem, knele therfore alas
For brybry goddes forbode breke
God amende it for hys grace (1309-1324)
A sermon published in 1573 (ascribed to Thomas Cooper, Bishop of London) invokes “cull” as it paraphrases parts of Numbers from the Old Testament:
In this sort of iudgement God here Protesteth that he will deale with the wicked Israelites, and by such meanes, as it were, cull out and purge away the obstinate and rebellious transgressours from the other, so that they shall neuer enioy the lande of Israel agayne wyth comfort and quietnesse.
In the King James translation of the OT, two of the said “wicked Israelites” are punished for their transgressions by Phinehas, who thrusts a javelin through “the man of Israel, and the woman through her belly” (Num. 25:8). As a result, “the plague was stayed from the children of Israel” (25:8). To an extent, one could argue that is this crude, often violent process of “culling” which ultimately stays the hand of the pestilence for the Israelites in this chapter. In Timon, the senator refers to Alcibiades as a “shepherd” approaching his fold, but nevertheless the scenario he envisions is one of a blood-debt being paid– for those who have offended: “revenge” (37).
Quarantine barricade around houses in Hawthorne Street, Woolloongabba, Brisbane, Queensland, 1900 (outbreak of bubonic plague).
As always, Foucault comes to mind. For that matter, it is all to often useful to bear in mind moments from Discipline and Punish which highlight the fundamentally utopian aims of a quarantined society. Foucault muses:
“The plague-stricken town, traversed throughout with hierarchy, surveillance, observation, writing; the town immobilized by the functioning of an extensive power that bears in a distinct way over all individual bodies– this is the utopia of the perfectly governed city. The plague (envisaged as a possibility at least) is the trial in the course of which one may define ideally the exercise of disciplinary power” (199).
Although Alcibiades is ostensibly invited to “take control” of Athens, it is the very act of deputizing him as a governor-disciplinarian which negates any potentially positive/cleansing effects, figurative or literal, which a plague might have had in Timon. Alcibiades has become complicit with the instrumentation of plague, sustaining its mythological status even as he hopes to liberate the populace of Athens. By “culling” the city of its corrupted, infected stock, Alcibiades presumes to work in pestilence’s stead; in reality, it is possible he has only given rise to a new strain in mankind.