Thre strokes in the nekke he smoot hire tho,
 The representation of the three strokes emits several rays of darkness, that is, occult illuminations of significance from what the image hides. FIRST, there is the darkness of the threeness itself, the obscurity of its relation to the semi-beheading event. That the reason for the three is later provided in no way erases this significant obscurity. Not only does the explanation not touch the question of threeness itself, it rather exacerbates the obscurity by linking threeness to the arbitrariness of the law, superadding the abstract/bureaucratic violence of law per se to the palpable violence of the strokes and thus intensifying their numerical enigma. This superadditive conjunction – an excellent object for contemplating more generally the intimacy between law and number, all the secret complicities between the law of number and the number of law – is essentially temporal, a repetition of momentary indistinction between the time of the act (tho) and the time of the law (ther was that tyme an ordinaunce) that incisionally counts and literally strikes law upon body. (The word law, via OE lagu, itself indicates something set down, a stroke, and is related to lecgan [lay], which also means to slay, strike down; cf. the expression to lay into someone.) Still, even if a more satisfying reason or cause for the three were given, it could never touch the threeness of the stroke itself as a specific phenomenal reality. For that is something, in its pure facticity and eventfulness, behind which any cause or reason must necessarily and totally recede, all the more so when we are in sympathy with the to-be-beheaded, with the one who is being capitally cut off from all that does not matter by facing a simple brutality of one, two, three. What, then, is this threeness? Can we answer directly, leaping beyond the labyrinth of symbolic and allegorical possibilities? Is there a superlative identity between three and Cecilia’s semi-beheading? An immediate answer is that threeness, as the primary, first-word feature of the event, is here the threeness of beheading itself, an essential threeness of the act that is paradoxically disclosed, like the being of Heidegger’s hammer, when beheading breaks down or fails to fulfill itself. The essential ‘count’ of beheading is three, in the sense of being a tertium quid produced in the severing of the head/body binarism. Cf. “Severing also is still a joining and relating” (“[A]uch das Trennen ist noch ein Verbinden und Beziehen,” Martin Heidegger, “Logik: Heraklits Lehre vom Logos,” in Heraklit, ‘Gesamtausgabe,’ Bd. 55 [Frankfurt am Main: Vittorio Klostermann, 1970], 337) and Dante’s description of the infernal cephalophore Bertran de Born as “due in uno e uno in due” (Inferno 28.125), on which see And They Were Two In One And One In Two, eds. Nicola Masciandaro & Eugene Thacker (New York: n.p., 2011). Beheading unlocks the invisible head-body holism, the conjunction of each being within the other, into the negative conjunction of severed head and body. Decapitation’s count is three, and in three distinct ways: 1) serially, decapitation is the weird third thing that follows the separation of head (one) from body (two), a neither-head-nor-body that includes and emerges from both; 2) additively, decapitation is the sum of its parts: head plus body (head+trunk) equals three, where head must be counted twice, as head and as part of body; 3) synthetically, decapitation is three as the union of its dualities, its two-in-one and one-in-two. The threeness of beheading may also be sought within its twisted temporality, its being a specular folding of past, present, and future, or “an event that ends before it begins and begins after it ends” (Nicola Masciandaro, “Non potest hoc corpus decollari: Beheading and the Impossible,” in Heads Will Roll: Decapitation in Medieval Literature and Culture, eds. Larissa Tracy and Jeff Massey [Leiden: E. J. Brill, 2012]).
SECOND, there is the darkness of the syntactical contraction of the three strokes into one act. By eliding the experiential space between the strokes, this contraction deepens the event by not dramatizing it, like off-stage violence in a Greek tragedy. Three strokes in the nekke, as if part of one design (an idea artistically realized in the Cecilia sculpture at the cathedral in Albi), silently equates the passing of the strokes with the unrepresentable, leaving it suspended and all the more present as something that does not enter into memory. Why? Because the passing of the three strokes, the durational suffering of them, is something radically unworthy of recollection, not because it is to be forgotten, but because it is only known without recording, understood immediately in the absence of memorial deformation. This silent passing of the strokes does not simply encode trauma, the real live wounding that never passes into language and is (dis)remembered symptomatically. It is something deeper: the exact openness of being wounded that will not, by its own deep transcendence of suffering in suffering, be circumscribed in any repetition whatsoever. Behind the baser darkness of the terrifying dilation of decapitation’s ideal instantaneity (Foucault’s “zero degree of torture”) into time or the three-way “number of movement with respect to before and after” (Aristotle), there lies the more brilliant darkness of Cecilia’s radical or totally rooted self-opening under the blade. The unending opening of beheading into three exposes the shining obscurity of the deeper time that is the very place of Cecilia’s rootedness in God, the enigmatic ease of her actually being what Gawain only momentarily and with great difficulty achieves: “grathely hit bydez and glent with no membre / Bot stode stylle as the ston other a stubbe auther / That ratheled is in roche grounde with rotez a hundredth” [Truly he awaits it and flinched with no member, but stood still as a stone, or a stump that is anchored in rocky ground with a hundred roots] (Poems of the Pearl Manuscript, eds. Malcolm Andrew and Ronald Waldron [Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978], lines 2293-5). This rootless rootedness or abyssal stillness is the passional seed and prefiguration of the three-day half-death that follows (537) – a temporal imitation of Christ’s entombment that the triune beheading law enables with perfect providential perversity, intimating a ready-made path to revolutionary salvation via suffering of the law’s very letter, i.e. martyrdom as hyper literal head tax: “Render unto Caesar . . .” (Matthew 22:21). The saint’s living three days in half-death is not the simply the effect of surviving three strokes. It is the fulfillment and produced end of her real passive acting or intentional endurance of all of them as one. Without this mysterious intention the specific duration of the survival would be senseless, whence Cecilia’s subsequent revelation of her secret request, To han respite thre dayes and namo (543), and its correspondence with the three-stroke maximum: This tormentour ne dorste do namoore. Note also the formulation of the wish, as if the prolonging of her death were a postponement of, or even rest from, execution (respite also connotes cessation of suffering, see MED s.v. respite, 1b), rather than its brutally extended form. Occupying the negativity of limit (namoore), the full threshold of the end, Cecilia here demonstrates how transcendent ceaselessness is a constraint-based art, a spiritual exercise that necessarily and paradoxically operates within strict conditions. Never ceasing – She nevere cessed (124); nevere cessed (538) – is an infinite work of finitude, not a task of those who think they have all day. The darkness of Cecilia’s intense openness to beheading may thus be formulated as an aggressive form of amor fati that fiercely insists from within on experiencing all three strokes, on passing through the full force of necessity, precisely without recourse to any external means that would enforce or facilitate that passage. The prolongation it produces is not a matter of experience-hunger, of wanting more life. Rather it is the need to arrive oneself to the real end, as opposed to merely being there when it is over. Cecilia is not loitering or lingering on the boundary between this life and the next – “surely it is the height of folly for you to linger on this bridge” (Hakim Sinai, The Walled Garden of Truth, trans. David Pendlebury [London: Ocatagon Press, 1974], 52). She is crossing it so busily that death itself cannot happen place without protracted difficulty. In sum, the real subject of Thre strokes in the nekke . . . is the preposition in, the place where Cecilia’s desire operates, freely exposing the strength of its utter submission to God. Julian of Norwich understands this: “I harde telle . . . of the storye of Sainte Cecille . . . that she hadde thre woundes with a swerde in the nekke . . . By the stirringe of this, I consyvede a mighty desire, pryande oure lorde God that he wolde graunte me thre woundes in my life time [contrition, compassion, and longing for God] . . . withouten any condition” (The Writings of Julian of Norwich, eds. Nicholas Watson & Jacqueline Jenkins [University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2006], 65, my emphasis). As does Bataille: “incapable of doing anything – I survive – in laceration. And with my eyes, I follow a shimmering light that turns me into its plaything” (On Nietzsche, trans. Bruce Boone [London: Continuum, 1992], 91).
THIRD, there is the darkness of the headsman’s intention. The primary and normal sense is that the headsman is not intending three strokes but is attempting thrice to behead her in one. This is supported by the assumption that this is what he, as headsman, should be intending and by the subsequent indication that was unable to (He myghte noght), which implies that he was in fact trying his best or attempting to apply a maximum of strength and skill to the effort. This is supported by the earliest version of the Passio and subsequent versions: “quam cum speculator tertio ictu percussisset, caput eius amputare non potuit” (Giacomo Laderchi, S. Caeciliae Virg[inis] et Mart[yris] Acta. . . [Rome, 1722], 28); “Quam speculator tribus ictibus in collo percussit, sed tamen caput eius amptare non potuit” (Jacobus de Voragine, Legenda Aurea, ed. T. Graesse [Leipzig: Impensis Librariae Arnoldianae, 1850], 777); “The quellar smot with al his mayn, threo sithe on the swere / He ne mighte for nothinge smitten hit of” (The Life of St. Cecilia, ed. Albert S. Cook [Boston, 1898], 91). Yet there are other more obscure possibilities, various clouds in the headsman’s will, divisible into those that falls under the normal sense of his intention and those that do not. The former will be more properly discussed with respect to the next line. The latter comprises several intersecting possibilities, all of which are supported by the basely literal sense of Thre strokes . . . he smoot hire, namely, that the headsman simply struck Cecilia three times in the neck. Some of these are: 1) that the headsman wanted to torture Cecilia, to deny her a quick death, either by protracting the beheading or not beheading her at all; 2) that he did not want to harm Cecilia, but was compelled to, and thus did so minimally; 3) that he didn’t care about what he was doing and performed the task without proper intention; 4) the he was intentionally conflicted, subject to opposed desires, and acted through some complicated combination of the above, perhaps changing his mind in the process. There is also a third and stranger kind of intentional darkness that is between and outside these distinctions, namely, the possibility that the headsman did indeed try his best but only via a pure and spontaneous decay of intention, a nameless form of volitional perforation whereby the will, not in relation to any other interfering object but precisely in relation to nothing, secretly and suddenly (sua sponte), lacks itself. Such intention is dark in the sense of being the subject of a clinamen or weird swerve that occurs, as Lucretius says, at no fixed place or time, only here the clinamen must be construed as itself weirded by the full perseveration of the originary intention – a swerve that travels in a straight line, as it were. Such a dark will, that purely is and is not one’s own, is well figured in the three non-severing strokes in that they do hit their mark, but inexplicably without realization of the intention for doing so. Although this potential negative spontaneity of the headsman’s will must be thought apart from possibilistic conditions or chance, it may be inversely compared to the event and experience of hitting a target by only diffidently or naively attempting to, that is, the situation where one succeeds in fulfilling an intention without really trying to. In that case, an intention’s deficiency becomes the paradoxical means of its realization, so that one strangely cannot take credit for succeeding at what one meant to do. In this case, an intention’s integrity is the paradoxical site of its non-realization (but not because of any external factors), so that one must take credit (if that were possible) for failing at what one meant to do on the basis of that meaning alone, that is, for a pure, unknowable, and thus unconfessable kind of failure that cannot properly be located in the will, or its application, or the difference between them. Although this third kind of intentional darkness is very difficult to conceive in practical terms, it may be fittingly defined in this hagiographic context as a momentary negative occasionalism or local withdrawal of divine omnipresence as universal intermediary of all action. The idea of such withdrawal may also furnish a more general theory of passion miracles, which so often involve a subtle suspension of the capacity for things to touch, more specifically, the comic impotence of violence to effect its ends. The may be conceived externally (blades fail to cut, fire fails to burn, etc.) but also internally, with respect to the mechanics of mental powers, so that the headsman’s will may be thought as failing to touch itself and thus spinning in place like a disengaged primum mobile. The will still moves, gives every appearance of being itself, yet is somehow suspended in an essential detachment from its own being. Such a darkening of the headsman’s will, which may be correlated as well to the executioner’s traditional head covering and its symbolic removal of personal agency from legal murder, thus represents the perfect profane counterpoint to the celestial motion of Cecilia: “[As] hevene is swift and round and eek brennynge, / Right so was faire Cecilie the white / Ful swift and bisy evere in good werkynge, / And round and hool in good perseverynge / And brennynge evere in charite ful brighte” (SNPro 114-8). Ultimately, then, the dark will of the headsman is visible as the intimate shadow of Cecilia’s own, the adjacent negative outline of her alchemical burning and melting into God, or the “passivity and absence of effort . . . in which divine transcendence is dissolved” (Georges Bataille, On Nietzsche, 135).