Thursday, December 22, 2011

"The Golden Virgin" of Amiens Cathedral

I'm not quite sure how, but I survived my first semester of teaching two literature classes and two humanities classes. I finished up this week, submitting final grades on Monday. Since then, I've been fine-tuning my syllabi for next semester. I'll be teaching two sections of the literature course that I've been teaching for a year now and two sections of HONRS 202, the second course in the humanities sequence. This course will cover The Middle Ages, Renaissance, and Enlightenment. In preparation for the HONRS 202, I've also designed a sample "Art Presentation." For this assignment, I'm going to ask student groups to design a presentation that analyzes a work of art from the period. The assignment is detailed; if you're interested, let me know, and I'll send you a copy.

So, here is the rough script for my sample presentation entitled, "The Golden Virgin: A Tale of Lost Luster." Actually, it's a lot more like an essay at this point. I'll more it into a speech format at some point before I present it in January. The link to the slide show (which I made in Mixbook, so is more like a scrapbook than a slide show, really) is listed at the top. Enjoy, and give feedback!

The Golden Virgin: A Tale of Lost Luster

1. Today I’ll be talking to you about a sculptural piece built into the Amiens Cathedral in France known as “The Golden Virgin.” “The Golden Virgin” is a full-length depiction of Mary, who, in the Christian tradition, conceived a child through an act of God and ultimately bore Jesus Christ the Savior. In this piece, a crowned Virgin is holding the baby Jesus with one arm against her hip and pointing toward him with the other hand. Surrounded by angelic figures, Mary is smiling down at her child. In its typical Gothic portrayal of the Virgin Mary as both a sort of divine queen and a very earthly mother, this piece resonates with the larger tension of our Middle Ages unit between the spiritual and the secular. Because of this conflicted depiction of such an iconic female figure, “The Golden Virgin” also raises questions about the roles and treatment of women—and especially mothers—during this historical period. This presentation will show that the changing representations of the Virgin during the Middle Ages empowered women in some ways but mostly worked to contain them within the oppressive rhetoric of a male-centered church and culture in general. My subtitle, therefore, is meant to connote a double meaning; just as the Virgin’s original gold paint finally faded away, so, too, did the initial appeal of the “Cult of the Virgin” ultimately lose its luster for the women of the Western world.

2. In fact, I would argue that the rhetoric of the “Cult of the Virgin,” which we will examine in this presentation, has left us with a legacy that continues to work to oppress women. In order to move toward this point, I would like to start with a look at a couple of relatively contemporary depictions of mothers. As we are watching these clips, in fact, I’d like for you to watch for the tension between a spiritual form of mothering and a worldly form of mothering, the sort of tension that is depicted in “The Golden Virgin” of the early 13th century. So, now I present you with June Cleaver vs. Claire Dunphy. The first clip that I’d like to show you is from an episode of Leave It to Beaver, a popular sitcom that ran from 1957-1963. In this clip, the stereotypical 1950s suburban housewife June Cleaver is talking to her son about God. (Play June Cleaver clip.) Let’s take a look at a mother who plays her more earthly counterpart, Claire Dunphy of the currently popular Modern Family. (Play Claire Dunphy clip.) We will return to these two clips at the end of the presentation, but just keep these in the back of your mind as contemporary representations of the two sides of the tension between divine and earthly motherhood depicted in “The Golden Virgin.”

3. To return to Amiens Cathedral, let’s begin with some history suited to the Gothic style of the church. A cathedral at Amiens was originally built in 1137, and it always attracted its fair share of pilgrims because of its reputation for housing relics of local saints. But, when the head of St. John of Baptist was purportedly brought back from Constantinople by Crusaders in 1206, the cathedral became one of the most important pilgrimage destinations of Europe. So, when a fire destroyed the original Romanesque structure in 1218, church leaders used the money collected from pilgrims to fund a new Gothic construction. According to A Dictionary of Architecture of Architecture and Landscape Architecture, the current Amiens Cathedral was planned and begun under the leadership of Robert de Luzarches in 1220. Thomas de Cormont and then his son, Regnault de Cormont, later took over the project, finishing around 1288.

4. Amiens Cathedral is a typical Gothic cathedral. The term “Gothic,” according an entry in Grove Art Online, refers to the architecture and visual arts of Europe during a period from about 1120 to as late as the 16th century. This style “overlapped chronologically with Romanesque and flourished after the onset of Renaissance art in Italy and elsewhere.” Gothic Cathedrals tended to use a “Latin Cross” or Cruciform floor plan, as is shown here to ideologically resemble a Christian cross. They are characterized by pointed arches. They give the impression of great height, and they emphasize light through expansive windows and less weighty walls than those used in the Romanesque style. They often contain multiple and richly decorated portals. They include stone sculpture depicting biblical figures. The Virgin Mary was a common choice for representation in this type of sculpture. To move on to talk a little bit about Gothic sculpture in particular, the characteristics of this art form include ornamentation with jewels and gold, attachments such as crowns, swords, etc., rounded features and draped clothing, and realistic stance and expression.

5. As we can see in these close-ups, “The Golden Virgin” fits many of these criteria. She clearly has a rounded nose and mouth and chin. Anyone who has ever held a baby would recognize her stance of propping the baby on one hip as highly realistic. She is also wearing draped clothing and, overall, her realistic posture is of that which art experts have labeled “Gothic sway.” And yet, to point to something that is less realistic and more heavenly, she is wearing an ornate crown. In this way, of course, “The Golden Virgin” represents a joining of the earthly and the divine.

6. The Virgin Mary was not always portrayed in sacred art as both queenly and tender, as she is in “The Golden Virgin.” Indeed, numerous scholars have shown that “the cult of the Virgin”—which is, according to the New Catholic Encyclopedia, “the external recognition of [the Virgin Mary’s] excellence and of the superior way that she is joined to God”—was manipulated throughout the ages by church officials in order to meet the various needs of the developing church; her portrayal in art, therefore, changed significantly over time. Mary Thurlkill points out, for instance, that Mary was confirmed as the mother of Christ in 431 BCE in the first place only in order to settle a dispute between “two important church leaders” and to “prove,” for once and for all, “that Christ was God and man simultaneously” (13). In this way, stories about the Virgin Mary—who in this 5th century fresco proves that Christ is human by breastfeeding him—served to justify the ideological basis of Catholicism. During the Romanesque period, an expressionless Mary, like this second one, was often pictured as holding the Christ child in her lap and therefore served as a sort of throne for him herself. In this way, as Penny Schine Gold points out, Mary was literally used to “[present] her son to the world” (10). Through the end of this period, she was not necessarily a figure that women perceived as a model for their personal lives but instead as divine queen, an impersonal figure who served as a backdrop for Christ’s power and grace. And, finally, as in this final depiction, Gothicism was the first movement to present the Virgin as an earthly mother with feelings in her own right. For the first time, then, with the emergence of Gothicism, Mary became at least somewhat relatable, a model for real life women to emulate.

7. The new, more earthly representations of Mary affected women in both positive and negative ways. As Georges Duby explains, the most widely available model of womanhood during this time was of the type attributed to Eve: the treacherous sinner who just could not control “the raging sensuality that [people of the Middle Ages] believed naturally consumed [women]” (7). The Gothic Mary offered women a new ideal. Instead of sinful, women could reinvent themselves as the moral leaders of their homes. Instead of always suspect, they could imagine and portray themselves as valuable and sacred to the community. On the flipside, though, women were limited in some significant ways by the iconography surrounding this new Gothic Virgin. First and foremost, the Virgin is . . . well, a virgin. This required women who wanted to fit this model to reign in expression of their sexuality, to, in a word, turn ownership of their own bodies over to their husbands and the patriarchs of the community and the church. Also, the Virgin is a largely silent and sacrificial figure. In this way, of course, women who wanted to live up to this standard learned to care for their children and husbands and churches and not for themselves. With tongue-in-cheek, Thurlkill says that Mary provided “the right gender model for women to emulate: active within the domestic sphere as virgin, mother, and bride, yet yielding to masculine, public authority as holy [handmaid]” (98). In other words, because the Virgin is always portrayed in the rhetoric of the Church as submitting to and serving men, she is a problematic model for women in the real world to emulate.

8. At this point, I’d like to return to the two clips that we viewed at the opening of my presentation—of June Cleaver and Claire Dunphy. Even though we might now consider June’s model of motherhood outdated and Claire’s model of motherhood perhaps more realistic, I’d be willing to bet that many of us would still use words like “perfect” and “imperfect” or “moral” and “amoral” to discuss the differences between these two women. In this way, of course, I’d suggest that we still consider June Cleaver the ideal mother and Claire the “fallen” version of motherhood. And what is interesting to me about our continued respect for June Cleaver over women like Claire Dunphy is how it resonates with the rhetoric surrounding “the cult of the Virgin.” June Cleaver is more like a Mary figure than Claire Dunphy will ever be. If you recall, in the first clip, June is talking to her son about God’s ability to see all of his actions; in this way, she certainly acts as a conduit to God, a “holy handmaid,” happily going about the task of teaching God’s children to submit to his ultimate authority and discipline. When her son goes on to ask about his father’s morally questionable behavior, June is careful to maintain an attitude of the utmost of respect for her husband at the same time that she continues in her role as ethical guide to her son. In all ways, June takes on the posture of self-sacrifice and submission to the needs of her male relatives and God. In return, she is clearly venerated in this clip as the perfect spiritual mother, much like Mary herself. In the second clip, Claire Dunphy contrasts sharply with this image of June as a Mary figure. Instead of acting as a spiritual or moral guide for her children, Claire gives in to temptation and joins her daughter’s in talking negatively about the members of another family. Instead of bringing glory to a male God or patriarchal figure, Claire literally assaults a man because she is so wrapped up in her “sin” of gossip. While the Beaver perhaps ends up closer to God after his mother’s intervention, Claire’s daughters end up cracking jokes about being “felt up” by their mom and with lipstick all over their faces. Claire’s behavior—while perhaps more realistic than June’s—is not presented as suitable for emulation but instead laughable. So, although we perhaps acknowledge our imperfections as mothers and women more freely than 60 years ago, we still look to Mary-types as ideal mothers in many ways. This is one result of the introduction of the more realistic, relatable Virgin in the Gothic period. “The Golden Virgin” typifies the tension of the “cult of the Virgin” at this point in history between a queenly divinity and an earthly tenderness, a tension that ultimately led to less than lustrous results for the women of the Western world.

9. And here is my Works Cited page. Thank you.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

The Threat of the Monstrous Mother in Beowulf and The Tempest, and, By Extension, the Western Humanities

In planning for the Honors Western Humanities Sequence that I will begin teaching in the fall, I’ve now made it all the way through to Shakespeare. Mind you, that’s around 4000 years of Western humanities in less than three months! I’ve been a busy (and, admittedly, a very selective) reader. The first course in the sequence—which I’ve discussed in several previous blog posts—is currently plotted out in detail and pretty much ready to go, while the second course is really only starting to take shape.

Part two of the sequence picks up with the collapse of the Roman Empire in around 476 and continues through the 18th century. The first literary text that I have slated as required reading for this course is Beowulf, an epic tale of a Geatish warrior written in Old English between 700-1000. In sum, Beowulf battles three antagonists in the course of the text: a monster named Grendel, who has terrorized a neighboring community of Danes for several years; Grendel’s mother, who seeks revenge for her son’s brutal death; and a dragon, who meets his demise as he causes Beowulf’s own heroic death. As you might well guess, it is this second battle—the one with Grendel’s mother—that most captures my fancy and that works as a point of comparison with the depiction of Sycorax the witch in The Tempest.

After Beowulf, students in my course will move through some Chaucer, Machiavelli, and others before we get to Shakespeare in the latter part of the semester. I’ve selected a couple of Shakespeare plays for the course, including The Tempest (ca. 1610), a play that depicts the mystical events that occur on an island inhabited by a deposed Italian duke, Prospero and his daughter, Miranda. In the play, Prospero manages to conjure up a tropical storm that ultimately brings about Miranda’s marriage to the prince of Naples and both Miranda’s and Prospero’s safe return to Italy. Like in Beowulf, however, the threat of a monstrous mother looms near throughout much of the action in The Tempest, as we are repeatedly reminded that the island was previously ruled by an evil witch, Sycorax, who, luckily, died before Prospero and Miranda arrived. Sycorax’s legacy survives in her deformed and degraded son Caliban, who challenges Prospero’s claim to the island but whom the exiled duke ultimately enslaves, and the airy spirit Ariel, whom Prospero saves from Sycorax’s curse only to subject him to servitude as well. These characters and their histories with the witch keep the threat of Sycorax alive for Prospero and Miranda throughout their years on the island.

Grendel’s mother and Sycorax, although conceived in the English imagination nearly 1000 years apart, seem to serve similar functions in these two stories. Both are presented as abject monstrosities who wield considerable (maternal) power over our two protagonists; both are depicted as obstacles to the construction of these protagonists’ male subjectivity; and both are ultimately defeated in order to protect boundaries of the patriarchal state and masculine selfhood. That said, Grendel’s mother and Sycorax are different in some also important ways. Perhaps most significantly, the witch Sycorax is particularly figured as originating from Africa, and, in this way, blackness enters into the equation in this latter text. Instead of a clearly fictional monster, the threat and other in The Tempest takes the shape of an empowered black woman.

The similarities between these two characters speak, of course, to the seemingly age-old Kristevan struggle against the maternal (a struggle that continues to be depicted in literature and popular culture even today, as I show in my post on Pink Floyd’s The Wall). Both Beowulf and Prospero must separate themselves from identification with the (m)other in order to establish subjectivity as men. After slaying Grendel’s mother, Beowulf emerges from her terrifying underwater lair—surely a sort of representation of that which Kristeva calls the semiotic—a hero of men. He has proven that despite the fact that Grendel’s mother reacts with recognizably human emotion to her son’s death and then acts on the same social codes as he does by engaging in a blood feud with her son’s killer, he is separate from this monstrous mother. Likely preserved in oral form for over 400 years before it was recorded, the story of Beowulf’s battle with Grendel’s mother seems foundational in the maintenance of the cultural identity depicted in this early English text. In the symbolic realm of a culture built on the heroic deeds of men and the exchange of women to secure political ties, Beowulf’s killing of Grendel’s mother reinstates the binaries that underwrite Beowulf’s identity and that of his Geatish community: self/other, good/evil, order/chaos, male/female, etc.

Prospero, too, constructs and destroys a (m)other in order to claim personal subjectivity and also to regain entry into Italy. Although he and Sycorax share the experience of exile, a seeming proclivity for enslaving or entrapping mystical beings, and even an expertise in magic, Prospero defines his goodness in opposition to his own articulation of Sycorax’s evil. A lover of the written and spoken word, Prospero uses language to overwrite the history of Sycorax’s seemingly semiotic island space, reminding Ariel that while Sycorax entrapped him in a tree, he “freed” the spirit from this prison and dismissing Caliban’s claim to his mother’s island by repeatedly enumerating Sycorax’s perceived evil. Already pregnant when she arrived on the island’s shores, Sycorax represents an unleashed maternal power, a threat to the same cultural binaries that figure so prominently in Beowulf.

Considering the historical context of an increased Western colonization of faraway lands and the development of slavery as a dominant mode of ensuring Western profit during Shakespeare’s time, I would argue that Sycorax threatens in The Tempest to blur the boundaries of more emergent binaries as well, such as home/away, center/periphery, colonizer/colonized, and white/black. To reclaim his right to return to the civilized world, Prospero must demonstrate that he does indeed belong to the categorizations of home, center, colonized, and white. Acting on his own perceived paternal benevolence, he therefore conquers a bewitched island, abolishes its established maternal order, and brings to rights a social hierarchy that for a while seemed to privilege female over male and chaos over order as well as away over home and black over white.

As a woman and an African, Sycorax becomes the ultimate (m)other for Shakespeare’s audiences—and remains so for generations of Westerners to come. Her maternal power threatens white and male privilege, and the suppression of her order ensures the continuance of a very foundational construction of Western-ness, something that I ironically hope to dismantle in my teaching of “the Western humanities.”

Note: I’m aware that this post is lacking in textual support, critical engagement, and perhaps even analytical nuance, but I received news today that a press is interested in my book, so I must immediately set to revising my chapters so that I can submit the project in its entirety and get the ball rolling. Yay!

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Genesis: More and Less, Or, What I Didn’t Learn in Sunday School

As I am preparing to teach the “Christianity and Judaism” segment of my upcoming Humanities course, I’ve returned to some of the Biblical stories that I haven’t thought about for many years. With adult eyes, training in literary and feminist theory, and quite a bit of distance from my evangelical Christian upbringing, I am discovering that many of these stories are quite different than I remember. Indeed, they are both more and less than how they were presented to me in Sunday School: more in that together they demonstrate the beautifully complex human construction of a religious tradition, a way of making sense of and being in an unpredictable and often brutal world, and less because, by way of uncompromising misogyny and an assumption of “racial” superiority, they exclude most of humanity from the chosen people. For me, these stories represent a certain literary greatness, but I don’t find them particularly helpful in guiding my own spiritual growth. In this post, I point out some discrepancies between the ways that these stories are typically taught in Christian settings to children in their spiritually formative years and how they are actually presented in Biblical verse.

For the sake of brevity, I’ll just stick with one book, the foundational book of Genesis. And, as a disclaimer, I am no theologian, so my claims may not bear out against those of Biblical experts. All the same, my interpretations represent the careful, reasoned responses of a layperson to the incidents recounted in Genesis.

Here are some things about Genesis mythology that in my day were—and likely still are—glossed over, misrepresented, or simply ignored in Christian Sunday School:

1. Genesis is clearly not a linear, singularly-composed narrative, and nor even are its individual “stories.” There are in fact two renditions of human creation, for example, and, what’s more, they contradict each other. In the first one, God creates man and woman at the same time. In the second one, God creates man and then woman out of man’s rib. It is this second story which also includes the legend of “the fall.” Indeed, there is no indication that “the fall” portion of the tale is connected in any way to the first story of human creation, which comes to a full stop before the second one is introduced with the concluding statement: “These are the generations of the heavens and the earth when they were created” (Gen. 2:4). One could easily read these two versions of the story—one in which men and women are created as equals and God sees them as “very good” (Gen. 1:31) and the other in which God positions man as superior to a female being who ultimately brings about the onset of human suffering—as indicative of the changing status of women as ancient cultures moved from hunting and gathering to agriculture and, therefore, became more male-centered and militaristic over time. In any case, these are two different stories of creation, probably circulated orally in different eras and/or among different Hebrew sub-sets and likely recorded at a much later date as alternative versions of the same mythology. Other stories also repeat or overlap, such as the conception and birth of Seth, in Gen. 4:25 and again in Gen. 5:3. These repetitions of stories, of course, calls into question the belief, so relied upon in contemporary Christian churches, that the Bible is more than a book of stories, that it is in fact a divinely inspired narrative of the development of the one true religion.

2. In contrast to this belief in the singular “truth” of the Christian doctrine, Genesis presents the God of the Hebrews as not all that different from other gods of the ancient world. Indeed, the mythology surrounding this God is fairly unexceptional compared to that surrounding the gods of Mesopotamia, Greece, and Rome. Although most historians and theologians understand a monotheistic belief system as unique to the Hebrews, the assumed monotheism of this group is at least questionable. In one place in Genesis, for instance, God calls himself “us” (Gen. 3:22). Most Biblical scholars argue that he is here referring to himself and his host of heavenly beings, namely the angels. This is problematic because it implies that he does indeed share power with other superior beings. Certainly, the angels interact physically with the characters of these Biblical stories, not unlike Athena in The Odyssey or Cupid in The Aeneid. Furthermore, in a couple of scenes at least, the narrator(s) refer(s) to an angel as “Lord,” the same name that he also calls God (Gen. 16:11-12 and Gen. 19:2). Is it not likely that the angels are Hebraic representations of Zeus’s or Jupiter’s host of less powerful gods? It seems also significant that the narrator(s) implicitly compare(s) God to other higher beings by repeatedly referring to him as the “Most High” (Gen. 14:17-20). Clearly, God is the supreme protector and ruler of the Hebrews, but this doesn’t foreclose the possibility that the people depicted in the Biblical stories believe in other opposing gods of surrounding peoples, just as the people of Uruk, for example, saw Inanna as their protectress from the powers of other Mesopotamian deities. It is certainly possible that the Hebrews perceived monotheism in very different terms than we perceive it now, in terms that allowed for the presence of “lords” in heaven and gods of other lands.

3. The mention of temple prostitution in Genesis also seems to imply a tolerance for other gods. In one scene, Judah has intercourse with a woman whom he assumes is a temple prostitute (Gen. 38). This scene is of course interesting in many ways. In that Judah is a married man, this story’s inclusion in the book of Genesis might imply an early acceptance that male “needs” sometimes exceed legitimate female accessibility. Even more shocking, this anecdote might also indicate that the Hebrews did indeed worship gods other than God. Temple prostitutes were revered in ancient Mesopotamian culture as physical conduits to fertility gods and goddesses. Was Judah’s casual copulation with a woman he thought was a temple prostitute simply his way of getting the action he is denied at home, or is it an act of worship?

4. Whether or not he is the only god whom the Hebrews worshiped or believed in, the God of Genesis certainly behaves in ways similar to the polytheistic gods mentioned above. He engages in very human activities and acts upon very human emotions, for instance. In a seeming assertion of his superiority over man, for example, he wrestles with Jacob and, after much struggle, manages to land a final injurious blow to Jacob’s thigh (an incident that inexplicably leads to the declaration that Hebrews should consequently refuse thigh meat) (Gen. 33:22-32). God is also fickle, “opening and closing the wombs” of Jacob’s wives with seeming caprice, for instance, transferring allegiance from Leah to Rachel and then back again as the two wives vie for the title of giving Jacob the most sons (Gen. 30). Finally, like other polytheistic gods, God requires sacrifice as a way of giving thanks and ensuring his continued good favor. I think that we can all agree that, as an institution, sacrifice makes no logical sense. Why would God need human food? Why would he require his people to give up their precious sustenance? Like all of the gods of the ancient world, though, God wants his choice cuts of meat. (In Exodus, in fact, it appears that his choice cuts of meat include first born sons [Ex. 22:29], but that is a topic for another day.) God’s similarities to other gods clearly points to the development of the Judeo-Christian tradition out of the religious beliefs of other ancient cultures.

5. Again like other religious groups of the ancient world, the Hebrews of Genesis had no conception of hell, and instead seem to have believed in a shadowy underworld, a place that they called “Sheol.” Pretty much everyone in Genesis goes to Sheol when they die, except for a few named exceptions in Gen. 5, who are chosen by God to join him in heaven. The fact that hell becomes part and parcel of Christian doctrine but does not exist in Genesis shows, of course, the fine-tuning of the Judeo-Christian belief system over time.

6. It is also important to note that, in Genesis, deceit is acceptable under certain circumstances. Both Abraham and Isaac, during times of famine or journey, lie in order to earn the favor of rulers in surrounding areas (Gen. 12, Gen. 20, and Gen. 26). Both, in fact, present their wives as sisters in order to allow the inclusion of these women into the royal harems of Egypt and then Gerar and to secure the aid of those in power. (In this way, of course, arranged prostitution seems also acceptable under certain circumstances; more on that later.) To name another example, Rachel’s theft of her father’s “household gods” (the existence of which also call into question the monotheism of the Hebrews) and her false insistence on being in “the way of women” in order to disallow the search of her person for these items also show that it is okay to lie (Gen. 31). Whether Rachel took the idols because she wanted to deny her father access to their power or because she wanted to worship them herself, the implication seems to be that her quick thinking here aids in her husband’s successful escape of his overbearing father-in-law, and, more importantly, Isaac’s return to his people and fulfilling of his important in God’s plan for the Hebrews.

7. This brings me to a crucial point, perhaps especially for all of those female Sunday School teachers out there: with the possible exception of the woman in the first creation story, women in the book of Genesis exist only as tools through which men fulfill God’s plan for the Hebrew nation. Women bear sons and, in this way, further the lineage of God’s chosen people (read: chosen men). Now, this fact can become obscured by the rhetoric of the portions of Genesis that name both mothers and fathers as ancestors of important Hebrew figures. It would appear that, in this way, female lineage is as important as male lineage. Just as in other ancient cultures, though, it seems most likely that female lineage is presented as significant in this way only because it represents the joining of two male-headed households. Isaac, for instance, enjoins his son to find a wife among the daughters of Laban, his wife’s brother (Gen. 28:1-4). Decrying other possible wives of the “Canaanite women,” Isaac thus works to ensure the pure Hebrew lineage of God’s chosen people, Jacob’s sons who later become the heads of the tribes of Israel. Because women are important only in helping men to fulfill their covenants with God, it makes sense that they should be sacrificed sexually for the Hebrew cause when necessary. If Sarah or Rebekah must be prostituted for the patriarchs to avoid starvation or death, as I mentioned above, the stories in Genesis imply, then so be it.

8. Indeed, female sexuality is quite frequently presented as an invaluable bartering chip. To name another instance of male trading of women’s sexuality, Lot is willing to hand over two likely adolescent daughters to a band of angry “sodomites” in order to preserve the purity of his male guests, saying, “I beg you, my brothers, do not act so wickedly. Look, I have two daughters who have not known a man; let me bring them out to you, and do to them as you please; only do nothing to these men, for they have come under the shelter of my roof” (Gen. 19:7-8). As in The Odyssey, then, hospitality it tied to male honor, and women are sacrificed to preserve the ties between men.

9. As outrageous as it seems, the narrator(s) of Genesis present(s) women as taking pride in their purposes as embodied representations of the ties between men and as reproductive units. In order to ensure the continuation of their father’s male lineage, for instance, Lot’s daughters are, in a later scene, willing to deceive him into copulating with them—presumably multiple times—until both are pregnant with male heirs (Gen. 19:32-36). These nameless women are then venerated as the mothers of the male ancestors of the Moabites and the Ammonites (Gen. 19:37-38). When Sarah, Rachel, and Leah experience periods of barrenness (due to God’s inexplicable “closing of their wombs”), they are ashamed and, in seeming atonement, offer their slave women to their husbands for the procurement of male children (Gen. 16 and Gen. 30). These incidents clearly show that women in Genesis are in fact rendered heroically when they prostitute themselves and other women for the future of Israel!

10. Now for a word about slavery: simply put, the early Hebrews were for it, and God never disallows it. (Even after their captivity in Egypt, not incidentally, the Hebrews functioned under codes and laws, passed directly from God to Moses, regarding the proper treatment of slaves, but that gets into Exodus.) What I am most interested in, though, is not slavery in and of itself—because obviously it was a bad thing—but the relationships between wifehood, concubinage, prostitution, and female slavery. All of these are mentioned in Genesis, and they seem to overlap in significant ways. As I have already demonstrated, wives and daughters are sometimes nearly prostituted (in each of the cases that I’ve mentioned, the “foreign” men who are offered the Hebrew women in trade reject these offers), and slaves seem to be routinely prostituted. Also, it appears that many of the patriarchs of Genesis held multiple wives, concubines, and female slaves and seemed to use them somewhat interchangeably. There is a definite slippage between these classes of women, and one passage demonstrates this point most succinctly. It picks up after Abraham has already had Ishmael by Hagar, Sarah’s slave, and Isaac by Sarah. After Sarah’s death, “Abraham took another wife, whose name was Keturah. She bore him [six sons who went on to sire a total of ten more sons]. All of these were the children of Keturah. Abraham gave all he had to Isaac. But to the sons of his concubines Abraham gave gifts, while he was still living, and he sent them away from his son Isaac, eastward to the east country” (Gen. 25:1-6). In this passage, Keturah is given the title of “wife,” but she is clearly classed with Abraham’s other “concubines” when Abraham sends all of his sons away except for Isaac, whom God has chosen as a leader of the Hebrew people. Hagar is presumably also considered a “concubine” in this instance, as Ishmael is grouped in with all of the other sons who are sent away. In sum, it seems that there is little difference for a man of God in Genesis between a wife, a prostitute, a concubine, and a female slave. They each exist for the sole purpose of producing male heirs in the Hebrew line and aiding in male endeavors to fulfill pacts with God.

Culturally, historically, and literarily, the Biblical stories in Genesis are extraordinary. But their being taught to children in Christian settings as morality tales and as evidence of a coherent religious tradition is perplexing to me. The morality here is shady at best, and the tradition is almost certainly both composite and constructed to promote the solidarity and empowerment of an exclusive class of Hebrew men.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Dido at the Extremes: Vergil's Tragic Heroine as Victim of and Threat to Rome

In the scholarship of Vergil’s The Aeneid, Dido is a bit of a divisive character. Scholars are all over the map in their interpretations of this first queen of Carthage, a woman whose intimate relationship with the Trojan hero Aeneas delays, for a full year, his journey to Italy and the inevitable founding of Rome. Some understand Dido as a Vergilian Cleopatra, a vagina détente of sorts that must be fought off in order for Aeneas to successfully fulfill his destiny. Others see her as a representation of Epicureanism, a mode of thought that Aeneas has to reject in favor of the popular Roman ideology of Stoicism. Still others perceive Dido as a tragic figure, a woman who falls deeply in love with a man who genuinely loves her in return and pursues a relationship with him despite both of their knowledge that he is destined for another fate. I argue that Dido is a victim caught in the crossfire of two goddesses: Juno, who has it out for Aeneas and would like for the queen to refuse him help when he lands on the shores of Carthage, and Venus, Aeneas’s mother, who ensures that Dido will aid in Aeneas’s mission by causing her to fall for the Trojan hero. In the end, Dido is collateral damage, sadly—but necessarily—destroyed in order to ensure the success of Aeneas’s imperialistic charge.

There are lots of ways that Vergil demonstrates his sympathy for Dido’s plight and thus paints her as a victim. The author portrays Dido as wise and cautious, but also generous and fair, in her initial dealings with Aeneas and his men: “’Ease your hearts, Trojans, put away your fears. / The threats to my new kingdom here have forced me / To carefully place guards on all the borders. / Who hasn’t heard about Aeneas’s family, / Or Troy—those brave men and the flames of war? / . . . / I’ll send you off secure and well-supplied” (17). Vergil also allows us insight into Dido’s heartbroken and humiliated consciousness when Aeneas prepares to leave Carthage a year later, in over 10 pages of the queen’s cursing herself for her foolishness to believe in Aeneas’s love and her shame in abandoning the memory of her first husband before she finally takes her own life. Most of all, Vergil depicts Dido as an ideal potential wife—at least within the context of first-century Roman culture that valued familial devotion and a patriarchal family structure.

My most persuasive bit of evidence for this claim is that Dido comes to love Aeneas through his child, Ascanius, and is therefore positioned, first and foremost, as a good potential mother. Venus gains access to Dido’s emotions by sending Cupid in the form of Ascanius to a banquet given in Aeneas’s honor soon after he lands in Carthage. Disguised as Aeneas’s son, Cupid crawls into Dido’s lap and easily captures her heart; Dido looks on Ascanius “with hunger in her heart” and is “enchanted” by the little boy (21). As was Venus’s plan all along, “unlucky Dido” then transfers her love for Ascanius to Aeneas himself (22). Had Venus hired one, a modern-day efficiency consultant would certainly have here pointed out that she could have skipped a whole step if only she had only charged Cupid to take the form of Aeneas instead of Ascanius. Or, she could have just given Aeneas a divine glow, as Athena grants to Odysseus before he meets Nausicaa (a scene that is frequently compared to Aeneas’s initial encounter with Dido, not incidentally). Desperate to protect her own child, though, Venus seems to recognize Dido’s maternal instinct as her biggest vulnerability and plans her course of action accordingly. In this way, of course, Dido is an ideal potential Roman matron, devoted to her would-be child as well as his father.

Besides loving Aeneas’s small son, Dido proves her worth as an ideal Roman wife in other ways. First of all, as any proper wife should, she expresses reluctance to abandon the memory of her dead first husband instead of carelessly entering into a relationship with Aeneas right away; as she considers a future with Aeneas, Dido suffers “an unseen flame [that] gnawed at her hour on hour” (71). Once Dido gives in to her passion for Aeneas, though, she centers her world on this would-be second husband, even neglecting her professional duties as a queen to act as a wife to Aeneas. Indeed, it seems that Dido desires for Aeneas to serve as a co-ruler of Carthage, to perhaps take over the projects that she formerly headed up, as she presents him with a visible symbol of Punic royalty, “a purple cloak with think gold stripes” (78) so like her own “purple robe,” “edged with rich embroidery” (74). Dido is clearly willing to allow Aeneas a kingship and to take her traditionally female place as second-in-command.

Portraying Dido as a potentially ideal wife who is victimized by the gods and by fate heightens the tragedy of this story, an epic which details the sacrifices and death required for the founding of an Empire and, indeed, seems in parts to question the overall worth of this venture. In this way, all of the various scholarly perceptions of Dido carry some validity. She is both a tragic figure and representative of a sort of Epicureanism, a self-indulgence unbecoming of and impractical for a man as politically important as Aeneas. And, in some ways, Dido is also a figure of the castrating bitch type, a stand-in for Cleopatra who perhaps nearly caused the downfall of Rome. Although Vergil characterizes Dido as a potentially loving and devoted mother and wife, she is also a sexually attractive and aggressive woman, and, as such, she is also a potential trap, a danger to Aeneas and, by extension, to Rome. Indeed, Aeneas must pry open the vagina détente and abandon Dido’s hold on his heart in order to reach his full potential as a true man of Rome.

Works Cited

Vergil. The Aeneid. Trans. Sarah Ruden. New Haven: Yale UP, 2008.

Monday, June 6, 2011

The Good Woman of A Few Good Men

This weekend, I revisited Rob Reiner’s A Few Good Men (I was 12 when it first came out and probably viewed it once a few years later as a teenager). I am planning to use the film to spur discussion on the contemporary treatment of themes like justice, law, truth, leadership, etc. that my Honors humanities students will also discover in Sophocles’s tragedies from the fifth century BCE. It will work just fine to do that, I think, and, as an added bonus, it will help us to discuss the role of women in contemporary “tragedy” in comparison to the female figures, such as the title characters of Antigone and Electra, that we find in Greek drama. Indeed, this film casts women—in a military setting and in the 1980s, at least—similarly to how Sophocles casts them in these two plays, in static roles that function to support the development of male leaders and benefit the state at large.

I was surprised to find in LCDR Joanne (not insignificantly nicknamed Jo) Galloway, the only lead female character in the film, a stereotypically female lack of self-confidence and an equally stereotypical willingness to “nurture” her male colleague, LTJG Daniel Kaffee, as well as his scapegoated young clients, Pfc. Louden Downey and LCpl. Harold Dawson, from behind the scenes. As Galloway, Demi Moore disappoints. This is certainly not the Demi Moore of G.I. Jane or even Disclosure. She is first introduced muttering to herself as she prepares to request that her male superiors give her the Downey and Dawson case. She botches the request despite her preparation and is then ordered from the room so that the two men present can “talk behind [her] back.” When they call her back in, they of course announce that Downey and Dawson will be appointed alternative counsel. The defense of the two young Marines ultimately lands in the lap of the goof-off Kaffee, who is more interested in winning inter-unit baseball and basketball scrimmages than of pursuing the truth in the military investigation.

Galloway accepts Kaffee (played by Tom Cruise) as lead counsel on the case, but as an officer in Internal Affairs, she is able to keep a close eye on him. She ends up joining his defense team and helping him to win the case and, thereby, develop into the lawyer he was meant to be, a man who finally decides to fulfill the patrilineal legacy left by his attorney father and who ultimately proves his worth as an officer in the Navy. Indeed, despite her constant spurring on of Kaffee and her invaluable work on the case, it is not Galloway who is recognized by a salute at the end of the movie—and thus fully indoctrinated as one of “a few good men”—but Kaffee. Galloway stands behind the male lawyer, happy to have helped.

Sure, this film does at least partially admit to the discrimination that Galloway faces in the military, as Kaffee implies at one point that she has had to prove herself at every turn because she is a woman and, more obviously, in the scene in which Col. Nathan Jessep (played by a crotchety Jack Nicholson) crudely suggests that the only value that women—and especially high-ranking women—bring to the military is their ability to sexually arouse and satisfy their male colleagues. In the face of Jessep’s sexual harassment, Galloway stands her ground, refusing to let the corporal off the hook simply because he has succeeded in debasing her in front of a circle of other men. But Jessep is the bad guy anyway; his abuse of Galloway is easy to write off as just another demonstration of his tyrannical personality. And when she helps to finally put him away, the implication is that not only is the military now freer of the abuse of power but also of sexual discrimination—the later part of which is simply not borne out in that ending salute.

Like Antigone, who is executed in order to help define the legal rights of (male) individuals within a state, and Electra, who temporarily steps outside of the bounds of femininity to help restore a rightful (male) leader, Jo Galloway quietly makes the world a better place from a position of clear social inferiority.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Penelope as (M)Other: Telemachus’s Coming of Age in The Odyssey

The Odyssey—familiar to most of us although likely read by few—is widely known as an epic love story: Odysseus beats the odds of multiple sea storms, encounters with murderous gods and monsters, and even death itself to reunite with his ever-faithful Penelope. Our cultural memory of this text is curious given that, in keeping with what we know about the historical treatment of women in Homer’s Greece, the story consistently portrays women as mere possessions to be traded among men, symbolic of bonds between upper-class households. Pierre Brulѐ writes of marriage during the period:

Matrimonial transactions set in motion a ‘transhumance’ of wealth—the flocks brought by the suitor, the ‘dazzling gifts’ of the future husband, garments and jewelry (theoretically for the bride, but as she will live with her husband, these riches are merely for ostentation, hardly have they come out of the coffers than they are put back in them), the ‘dazzling gifts’ of the father, which form the true ‘payback’ of the transaction. They legitimize the marriage and the children-to-come, and are the basis of the alliance between the ‘houses.’ (68)

In The Odyssey, much of the action of the plot is actually spurred by the intricacies of this system of exchange between men. Odysseus and Penelope’s son, Telemachus, is fearful that his mother will soon settle on a suitor, which would result in Telemachus’s inheritance transferring to the possession of a step-father and later probably half-brothers. Penelope is allowed to make a decision regarding her fate instead of a male caretaker only because of her very unusual circumstances: she is assumed to be widowed and has no male children of a legal age. Nearing the age of rightful ownership over his mother in the absence of her husband, Telemachus is convinced by the goddess Athene (who reminds him that mothers are apt to forget about sons of a previous marriage when they bear sons for a new husband) to put Penelope in her place, to usurp her tenuous claim to decision rights over her future and to bring his father back in order to ensure a return to the rightful patriarchal order of the household. In this way, The Odyssey is less a love story than a French Feminist nightmare, a bildungsroman in which Telemachus comes of age by learning to recognize Penelope as (m)other.

This claim is demonstrated perhaps most persuasively in the text’s continual upholding of a matricidal model of manhood. Indeed, less than seven pages into the more than 250-page text, we are introduced to perhaps the single most important contextual frame of this story: the widespread celebration of Orestes’s killing of his mother and her lover, Clytemnestra and Aegisthus, in revenge for the murder of his father, Agamemnon. Athene—a motherless goddess, borne of Zeus alone, we must remember—scolds Telemachus for his apparently tardy development of manhood, saying, “You are too old to plead infancy any longer; have you not heard how people are singing Orestes’ praises for having killed his father’s murderer, Aegisthus? You are a fine, smart-looking fellow; show your mettle, then, and make yourself a name in story” (7). Athene here references the story of Orestes’s matricide in the larger context of suggesting that Telemachus kill off his mother’s suitors, who are leaching off of the (now dwindling) wealth of his household. The goddess insinuates, then, that in both Orestes’s and Telemachus’s cases, murder is justified in order to protect the rightful assets of the young sons of politically powerful war heroes. Whether the victims are mothers or lecherous men in pursuit of Odysseus’s wife and fortunes is of little consequence. In fact, Athene does not even mention Clytemnestra by name, which, again, points to her interpretation of Orestes’s matricide as less important than his reclaiming of his father’s property.

In this way, Orestes is celebrated throughout the text as hero despite his killing of his own mother. In a later scene, though, the issue of matricide is finally addressed more directly. Nestor explains to Telemachus Clytemnestra’s complicity with Aegisthus’s treachery against Agamemnon, which led to her murder at the hands of her son, “At first [Clytemnestra] would have nothing to do with the scheme, for she was of good natural disposition; moreover, there was a bard with her, to whom Agamemnon had given strict orders on setting out for Troy, that he was to keep guard over his wife; but when heaven had counseled her destruction, Aegisthus carried this bard off to a desert island . . .—after which she went willingly enough to the house of Aegisthus” (25). This version of the Clytemnestra/Aegisthus myth is telling in several ways. First of all, it entirely omits the event that many versions of the story suggest led to Clytemnestra’s eventual alliance with her husband’s enemy, Agamemnon’s sacrifice of their adolescent daughter, Ighigenia, to the gods in exchange for the guarantee of success in the Trojan War. Indeed, Clytemnestra joined with Aegisthus an angry mother seeking revenge for her daughter’s brutal murder. Also, Nestor portrays Clytemnestra as a mindless being—in keeping with the perception of women as little more than chattel during this period, according to Brulѐ (75)—in need of shepherding by a male bard in Agamemnon’s absence and easily led astray after the bard’s abandonment. Given her object status as well as her inclination—if not held in check by patriarchal forces—toward animalistic behavior, then, it is little wonder that Telemachus is able to learn to perceive his initial obedience to the (m)other as an impediment to his achievement of male subjectivity.

Indeed, before leaving to attempt to retrieve his father, Telemachus signals his newfound manhood by relieving his mother of her duties as interim head-of-household. After she criticizes the musical choices of the household bard, Telemachus instructs Penelope, “Go then, within the house and busy yourself with your daily duties, your loom, your distaff, and the ordering of your servants; for speech is a man’s matter, and mine above all others—for it is I who am master here” (8). Telemachus, thus, silences Penelope’s expression of opinions regarding the public space of the household and banishes her to manage the more inconsequential women’s sphere of spinning and weaving. In a later scene, after he has reunited with Odysseus and secretly plotted with his father to defeat Penelope’s suitors, Telemachus takes yet another opportunity to assert his mastery over his mother. Not knowing that Odysseus has returned in the disguise of a beggar, Penelope has reluctantly agreed to let him participate in the bow stringing contest to win her hand in marriage. Telemachus again orders her into the house, saying, “This bow is a man’s matter, and mine above all others, for it is I who am master here” (231). In both of these instances, Telemachus asserts his own subjectivity by way of reinforcing his mother’s objectivity as a woman in his charge.

Telemachus goes on to demonstrate that he is equal in strength and bravery to father, as the outnumbered pair proceed to massacre Penelope’s suitors after Odysseus successfully strings his own bow and reveals himself to the other men. In the final scenes, then, Telemachus reaches a point of full identification with Odysseus; no longer a child under his mother’s care, he asserts his manhood by fighting side-by-side with his warrior father. When Penelope hesitates in her acceptance of Odysseus’s return, Telemachus again shows his allegiance to his father over his mother: “Mother—but you are so hard that I cannot call you such a name—why do you keep away from my father in this way? . . . No other woman could bear to keep away from her husband . . . but your heart always was as hard as a stone” (246). Here, Telemachus constructs his mother—a woman who, as the story reminds us repeatedly, has mourned the absence of her husband for 20 long years—as an other, insensitive and inhuman in her resistance to his father, the model that Telemachus must approximate in order to attain subjectivity as a man.

Probably recited for decades or even centuries before being written down, The Odyssey was transcribed, translated, and circulated in the Ancient World like no other story except for Homer’s other epic, The Illiad. The two were memorized and taught almost as sacred texts in Ancient Greece and Rome. Amazingly, they continue to enjoy reputations as literary greats. The ageless popularity of The Odyssey speaks, I think, to the power of a patriarchal social structure that positions women as others, obviously established in full force by Homer’s time and surviving even into today.

Works Cited

Brule, Pierre. Women of Ancient Greece. Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 2003.

Homer. The Odyssey. Ed. Harry Shefter. Trans. Samuel Butler. New York: Washington Square P, 1969.

Monday, May 16, 2011

The Power of Fertility in Inanna Literature and Today

Fertility has been on my mind lately. Not because I want another kid (ever!), but instead because of some lucky confluence of issues in my professional and personal lives. At the same time that I am preparing to teach a collection of myths surrounding Inanna, a Mesopotamian goddess of fertility, in my Honors humanities course in the fall, my daughter (now eight) has decided to educate herself on what will happen to her as she goes through puberty (a process that, experts say, begins for girls in the contemporary US between the ages of eight and 12). In a move surely representative of some sort of developmental milestone, Taegan apparently plucked American Girls’ The Care and Keeping of You: The Body Book for Girls off her shelf one day last week (it’s been there for at least a year) and started flipping through the pages. Minding my own business in another room, I was only alerted to the situation when she then bombarded me with a barrage of questions borne, I am certain, out of a mixture of fascination and horror at the diagrams and frank information presented in the book. Once I figured out what was happening, I made a point of stopping what I was doing and, as all of the childrearing advice books suggest that parents do, answered Taegan’s questions to the best of my knowledge. This was hard for many reasons, not least of all because I could really use a refresher course on female anatomy terms and functions myself (honestly, could you explain the female reproductive cycle off of the top of your head?). But the real stumper was a question fairly unrelated to anatomy: “So, if girls have to go through all of this so that we can have the babies, why don’t we get more respect? Why has there never been a girl president?”

Well, first of all, this is a super question, and I’m proud my little girl for thinking this way (one point for feminism!). Secondly, the answer is kind of counterintuitive. In fact, in a lot of ways, it is precisely because we have the babies that we are still not considered ideal for high-level political leadership. There is still a wide-spread assumption that our capability for nurturing life prevents us from making tough political decisions. And, perhaps more significantly, great measures have been taken over the course of history to contain female fertility, as it has been constructed (by a white, male patriarchal power structure) over time as posing some sort of threat to humanity, civilization, order, etc.

But I am learning that it has not always been this way! As my recent reading has shown, Inanna was revered for her duality of “feminine” and “masculine” traits. Inanna was the most prominent and lasting Mesopotamian goddess, not only of fertility, but also of sexual love and combat; she was worshiped for her ability to make babies and to make war. In a Sumerian hymn to Inanna entitled “Loud Thundering Storm” (ca. 2,000 BCE) for instance, the goddess is portrayed as simultaneously a sustaining life-force (“. . . you pour your rain over the lands and all the people”) and a destroyer of life (“You trample the disobedient like a wild bull . . .”) (Wolkstein 95). Inanna’s power is in her ability to nurture and to kill. And, in our contemporary world, wouldn’t this make her a great president? ;)

Within the context of a fertility cult like that of Inanna, it makes perfect sense that a god or goddess would be both loving and terrible. This is because the god or goddess represents the earth (or “Nature”) itself, the source of all food and shelter and human life, but also the cause of destruction on mass scale, due to flooding, drought, tornadoes, hurricanes, cold, heat, etc. If the earth is the model for god, then of course god is terrifying and unpredictable. This basic ideology, that the divine is both nurturing and destructive, carries over into most major world religions exactly because, at their core, all religions are fertility cults in that they function to explain the dual nature of the earth that both sustains and kills us.

Now, because we are all of the earth (and/or of god, if you prefer), I believe that we are all of dual natures, just like the earth, Inanna, Yahweh, God, etc. We are all capable of nurturing life; we are all capable of battle. The early Mesopotamians seemed to understand this, that fertility was not the purview of only women and that fighting was not the purview of only men. Gods were worshiped for their powers of fertility just as goddesses were; goddesses were worshiped for their powers of destruction just as gods were.

Over time, though, it seems that the Mesopotamians abandoned many of their fertility goddesses and placed more and more faith in their phallic gods. Indeed, Inanna is exceptional in that she lived on as a prominent fertility goddess—as Ishtar in the Semitic languages—until the end of the Ancient Mesopotamian era. Interestingly, though, along the way, Inanna/Ishtar develops in the literature into a castrating matriarch, a man-eater, not unlike the vagina flower in Pink Floyd’s The Wall (see my discussion of this little gem here). In the Babylonian The Epic of Gilgamesh (ca. 600 BCE), Gilgamesh declines Ishtar’s advances because of her long history of wounding and maiming her lovers. By way of refusal, he lists and explains Ishtar’s male conquests:

There was Tammuz, the lover of your youth, for him you decreed wailing, year after year. You loved the many-coloured roller, but still you struck and broke his wing . . . . You have loved the lion tremendous in strength: seven pits you dug for him, and seven. . . . You have loved the shepherd of the flock; he made meal-cake for you day after day, he killed kids for your sake. You struck and turned him into a wolf; now his own herd-boys chase him away, how own hounds worry his flanks. (Matthews 6)

Somewhere along the line, it seems, Innana/Ishtar’s sexuality, once celebrated as a representation of fertile lands and people, became threatening, perhaps especially to male kings like Gilgamesh. From a symbol of the life-giving and destructive powers of the earth, Inanna was therefore turned into an emasculating bitch.

These later Mesopotamian religions are not alone. Many religious traditions depict female sexuality as threatening instead of—as with the early fertility cults—as life-sustaining. Paula Kirby makes this point explicit in her recent post at The Washington Post:

The truth is that the Abrahamic religions fear women and therefore go to extraordinary and sometimes brutal lengths to control them, constrain them, and repress them in every way. Show me a non-religious society that feels so threatened by the thought of female sexuality that it will slice off the clitoris of a young girl to ensure she can never experience sexual pleasure. Show me a non-religious society that feels the need to cloak women from head to toe and force them to experience the outside world through a slit of a few square inches. All three Abrahamic religions share the myth of Adam and Eve, the myth that it was through woman that evil was let loose in the world. They share the heritage of Leviticus, which declared a menstruating woman unclean, to be set aside, untouched, a revulsion that remains even today among some orthodox Jews, who will refuse to shake a woman’s hand for fear she may be menstruating. What kind of lunacy is this? It is the lunacy of a Bronze Age mindset fossilized by the reactionary forces of religion.

Hmmm. So, now we don’t have “girl presidents.” It seems to me that it is perhaps time to reclaim our female right to leadership on the basis of our immense powers of fertility, sexuality, and, yes, even battle. We do have the babies, as Taegan says, which makes us literal embodiments of bounty, regeneration, and violence (see my description of the childbirth process here). Just like men, we are strong and powerful in our life-giving abilities and also weak in the face of an earth that is still so often unpredictable and terrifying. What we may even have over men is that we have not been socialized to deny our weaknesses and to engage in physical combat to protect our interests, but instead to acknowledge our very human shortcomings and work through battles with communication, empathy, and—and here’s that “feminine” word again—nurturance.

Note: I’m also working on putting together a presentation for my Humanities class on the development and meaning of fertility cults. I’d be happy to share my speech notes that will go along with the presentation.

Works Cited

Matthews, Roy T. and F. Dewitt Platt. Readings in the Western Humanities. Vol. 1. 3rd ed. London: Mayfield Publishing Company, 1998.

Wolkstein, Diane and Samuel Noah Kramer. Inanna: Queen of Heaven and Earth. New York: Harper & Row, 1983.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

"Kubla Khan" Regret

In preparing to teach Samuel Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan” (1816) this week, it struck me—as it has when I’ve read this poem in the past—just how sexist this “classic” really is. Womanhood is nothing more than a metaphor in this carefully wrought little poem. Its “woman wailing for her demon-lover” represents the unknown, the beautiful, the terrifying, the emotional, the bodily, the creative, the generative. And ready access to all of this is the speaker’s rightful pursuit. In this way, of course, the wailing woman’s own expression of feeling is usurped as property of the (male) poet. Similarly, the “Abyssinian maid” with a dulcimer is portrayed as a muse in the poem, her own art existing only to stimulate the poet’s creative process. The sexism here is powerful in that it resonates with centuries of literary tradition. Women are so often in canonized literature portrayed as excessively sensual and emotional, symbolic of sublime creativity and/or serving as muses for male writers who imagine themselves strictly cerebral beings.

I used this poem in my “Reading and Writing about Literature” course today to begin to teach close reading. I hoped to facilitate my students’ discussion of the poem’s formal elements and eventual articulation of its possible meanings. This was quite an ambitious goal for a single class period, given the complexity of “Kubla Khan,” but my students (a really smart bunch!) were up for the challenge. By the close of the period, we had teased out several possible interpretations, and I ended feeling like we had really done the poem justice. But now, reflecting again on my initial reading of the poem, I am wondering if we did the women in the poem justice.

Certainly, we talked about both of the women figured in the poem. But we stayed mostly on the level of symbolism. In other words, we read these women just as the speaker in the poem does, in service to the male poet’s creative process. I don’t want to turn every class period into a feminist rally, but I do wish that we had been a little bit more “meta” about our reading of the women in Coleridge’s poem. We could have at least acknowledged our treatment of these figures as mere symbols and noted the problematic implications of this type of reading.

Looking back on our discussion of the poem, I realize that one student gave me a perfect opening to incorporate a feminist angle into our conversation. He said that it almost seemed as if the wailing woman was causing the chaos that overtakes Kubla Khan’s “pleasure dome.” For whatever reason—and maybe it was because he went on to right away make an additional point—we moved quickly to a different topic. I remember thinking that I wanted to go back to what he had said and ask students to think more about why Coleridge might have chosen to figure this woman in particular as either impetus for or characteristic of the terrible and yet awesome energy that erupts into the paradise portrayed in the poem’s opening lines. Much as I wish that I had, I just never returned to that point.