Saturday, 26 January 2013

Monday, 24 December 2012

Advent Women 9

The Buddhists say there are 149 ways to God. I'm not looking for God, only for myself, and that is far more complicated. God has a great deal written about Him; nothing has been written about me. God is bigger, like my mother, easier to find, even in the dark. I could be anywhere, and since I can't describe myself I can't ask for help. We are alone in this quest, and Fortunata is right not to disguise it, though she may be wrong about love. I have met a great many pilgrims on their way towards God and I wonder why they have chosen to look for him rather than themselves. Perhaps I'm missing the point - perhaps whilst looking for someone else you might come across yourself unexpectedly, in a garden somewhere or on a mountain watching the rain. But they don't seem to care about who they are. Some of them have told me that the very point of searching for God is to forget about oneself, to lose oneself for ever. But it is not difficult to lose oneself, or is it the ego they're talking about, the hollow, screaming cadaver that has not spirit within it?

I think that cadaver is only the ideal self run mad, and if the other life, the secret life, could be found and brought home, then a person might live in peace and have no need for God. After all, He has no need for us, being complete.
Jeanette Winterson, Sexing the Cherry

My mother has a theory that JW wrote this novel as a sort of explanation/apology for Oranges are Not the Only Fruit. JW's mother was furious at Oranges and never read another book by her. It's sad because there is a tenderness in the mother-child relationship (almost obsessively portrayed by JW) in this novel that might have undone some of the damage. This book has a special place for me because it was the starting point for my phd, as an inspirational example of literature deploying theological themes and narratives. The funny thing is that I read it to help my mother who was writing an essay (and later teaching a course) on feminist myth-revision. I'm not going to say any more about this...

Christianity is not the only thing that JW revises, there's a whole lot of myth, fairytale and literature that gets picked up and twisted to her own ends. But the theology is what intrigued me. Her (foster) mother raised her a brethren and so Christianity and the mother have fused together into a complex ambivalent relationship. She memorized a lot of Scripture in her youth, along with T. S. Eliot and plenty of other Christian writers. Weirdly the very thing she ended up rejecting (Oranges tells a pseudo-biographical story of how her sexuality led to her being rejected [notably it's this way round] by her church) is what gives it so much depth. The passage above resonates significantly with the mystical tradition and she has (sort of!) described the novel as a reading of Four Quartets (which is sort of a reading of St John of the Cross's Ascent of Mount Carmel and Dark Night of the Soul). 

I chose this passage mainly because it highlights the central feminist issue with mysticism. How can you balance mystical kenosis and the assertion of feminine identity that feminism requires? I think there are options and she hints at directions here. The garden she mentions is surely the garden at Burnt Norton where Eliot finds his still point with Emily Hale (who he almost but didn't marry). The mountain is surely Elijah's, discovered at the point of exhaustion again in the silence after an earthquake. JW herself is complicated here. On the one hand, she frequently signals that the path for the soul is independent self-discovery; but then why are all her novels about obsessive love? Anyway enough mansplaining - it's Roaring's fault who's been too busy to write this month; all these Advent women have begun answers to this question much better than I could. There are doubtless many ways to create and discover yourself, just as there are the divine; they are necessarily the same question at the end of the day, whether or not that also means finally losing yourself and God again.

Thursday, 20 December 2012

Advent Women 8

"Hell is the seventh name 
Of this Love wherein I suffer.
For there is nothing Love does not engulf and damn,
And no one who falls into her
And whom she seizes comes out again…
To be wholly devoured and engulfed
In her unfathomable essence,
To founder unceasingly in heat and cold,
In the deep, insurmountable darkness of Love"
Hadewijch of Antwerp

Hadewijch is one of my favourite theologians and poets. She's like John of the Cross on acid. Full of romance, gender-bending and self-abasement; it's gripping, moving and very clever. In the same tradition of St Denys, with St Bonaventure's more human and Christological elements, but grafted into the medieval narrative of the questing knight:

"He must march far who presses on to Love – 
Through her broad width, her loftiest height, her deepest abyss.
In all storms he must explore the ways;
Then her wondrous wonder is known to him: 
        That is – to cross her desert plains,
To journey onward and not stand still;
To fly through and climb the heights,
And swim through the abyss,
There from Love to receive love whole and entire."

'She' has become a 'he', Christ has become a 'she', the mountain is partnered with her deepest abyss; there is a complementarity of images that is pretty damn sexy. Never has the journey of the soul been so exciting.

"My soul melts away
In the madness of Love;
The abyss into which she hurls me
Is deeper than the sea;
For Love’s new deep abyss
Renews my wound:"

And the knight errant narrative is matched by a love story. She is the Elizabeth Wurtzel to John of the Cross' Plath. There's a terrifying chaos to the writing, but not without careful thought. The mystical journey is a kenosis, an emptying of the soul and the medieval period learns to describe this passionately. The danger is great - especially for women - and others like Marguerite Porete learned this at great cost, but this self-abandonment to God runs like a seam of coal through Christian history. And it's anything but miserable:

She always wishes to hear
And to give herself to rejoicing and sadness;
Love cannot be without either;
She is always mingling both in a wonderful way;
So strongly active is Love’s nature
That she cannot rest one instant.

The qualification of the active life of love prevents her from disappearing into self-absorbption, and with all that passion there is joy as well as sadness. Grace Jantzen drew attention to the natal aspect of the abyss in her writing, finding it to be a site of nourishment and plenitude. This is true, but to return to the quote with which I began the abyss is equally a place of self-destruction and the womb of creation possesses the vagina dentata; it is the place of making and un-making. People always go to Julian for the female metaphors of God. Hadewijch may have been from Belgium but she definitely provides a more exciting place to begin uncovering some traditional feminist theology...

Saturday, 15 December 2012

Advent Women 7

‘We have no female trinity. But as long as woman lacks a divine made in her image she cannot establish her subjectivity or achieve a goal of her own… If she is to become woman, if she is to accomplish her female subjectivity, woman needs a god who is a figure for the perfection of her subjectivity’
Luce Irigaray, 'Divine Women''

A friend told me a while back (2nd hand), that Luce Irigaray was not a very nice person. I found this really disappointing. She is a great writer and, more unusually, a writer whose writing has done a lot of good. One shouldn't pay much attention to gossip, I suppose, but that sort of thing always colours how I see people. Sometimes it works the other way. Anyone who has met, say Denys Turner or Janet Soskice, would be more inclined to read their work. I imagine many have struggled through After Writing or Theology and the Drama of History purely on the basis of a well placed crush. 

What is most pleasing about Irigaray's work is the pragmatic and imaginary slant. She takes a work like Fiorenza's In Memory of Her, a feminist biblical attempt to reclaim the position of women in the gospels, to recover the equality of women in Christianity, but then asks the important question: equal to whom? In a way this cuts to the heart of the question of women bishops. Equality, after all, has two opposites: inequality and difference. Inequality is obviously a problem but the question of difference brings us into a difficult area. Difference can suggest gender essentialism, it can smuggle in inequality by the back-door, but without difference the political voice of women is lost, the distinctive ways of being are in danger of elision and the battered ark of feminism is run aground. 

Feminism's work is not done. 'Slavery is ours, not in a merely symbolic sense but absolutely. Woman is, from birth, a slave until she is able to decide for herself as a civil person. this is how it still is for us today.' That means, even if you fear that a great deal of femininity is passed as natural when it's cultural, you cannot give up women and you need to keep listening for their voice. But Irigaray takes this further in setting sexual difference as the preliminary test for opening ourselves to all forms of otherness: 'Sexual difference is perhaps the hardest way, but it is also the key, to achieving civil coexistence between other forms of difference. An apprenticeship in respect for the other at the most instinctive, emotional level, leads to peaceful coexistence with all forms of otherness.' Some might object to setting feminism as the basis for all social inclusion but it kind of makes sense.

Once you accept this insistence on difference, the next question is how do women redescribe our world. For theology the question is vital - can such a male God save women? Can He even speak to them or for them? But the point at which I think it gets really interesting is when we start clearing away our presuppositions, when we try to begin theology from a different place. This is an ethical task: 'I also ask how we can rethink our tradition, particularly the religious one, in order to be able to love each other here below, making of the other a horizontal transcendence, an absolute which cannot be gone beyond insofar as it is irreducible to oneself', but also a theological one: 'Man sets the infinite in a transcendence that is always deferred to the beyond, even if it be the beyond of the concept. Woman sets it in an expanse of jouissance here and now right away'. Like Cixous earlier who is breaking in a female voice across all different genres, appropriating and transforming, Irigaray begins to look at what a female theology might look like. Now I can see the proverbial Dean of Peterhouse wagging his finger intoning "heresy, heresy, heresy", but it needn't be. There are of course many ways in which doing theology in this way could deteriorate into some sort of New Age nonsense, or shallow political correctness, or some embarrassing wishy-washy materialism. What could be discovered, however, is a way of expanding how we think about the divine, a critique of prevailing mythologies and a new vocabulary for saying something about God, humanity and the world. This is exciting and should be what theology is all about rather than a bunch of stale old men shrouded in cigar smoke discussing Barth. It might even bring a spark of life back to the academy. After all who could disagree with Irigaray that ‘sociology quickly bores me when I’m expecting the divine’. 

Wednesday, 12 December 2012

Advent Women 6

In intellectual disciplines and in the enjoyment of art and nature we discover value in our ability to forget self, to be realistic, to perceive justly. We use our imagination not to escape the world but to join it, and this exhilarates us because of the distance between our ordinary dulled consciousness and an apprehension of the real... The difficulty is to keep the attention fixed upon the real situation and to prevent it from returning surreptitiously to the self with consolations of self-pity, resentment, fantasy and despair... It is a task to come to see the world as it is.
Iris Murdoch, The Sovereignty of Good

I remember reading an interview with a philosopher many years ago, perhaps Barthes or Foucault, and they mentioned reading The Dialectic of Enlightenment - a very passionately written and hypnotic work. Their comment was though that it did not significantly affect them because by the time they had read it they were beyond the age of "intellectual discoveries". 

The phrase stayed with me for a couple of reasons. Firstly, it disturbed me that you reached an age where you no longer made "intellectual discoveries" and secondly because I understood what he meant by it and it's a good phrase. Because there are some things you read which affect you profoundly - that significantly change the way you think. It may be an odd conjugation of life events and current affairs, a girlfriend or a city, or a teacher - but certain books in the right circumstances change you, form you even. It turns out he was right as well about getting beyond the age. It's not that you don't keep learning or expanding how you see the world, but the really dramatic formational intellectual moments, I suspect, run parallel to our emotional development and experience of the world. When the mind is least formed on subjects it has the greatest potential for growth and change. Be careful what you read in your early twenties...

Anyway I only thought of this because reading the above book reminded me so much of Don Mackinnon, who I found very formative in my early twenties. Turns out he taught Murdoch yonks ago. Clearly they both liked Cezanne. Speaking of Mackinnon, I was told once by someone who knew him, how his wife had once come home, gone upstairs and found his trousers on the bed. She ran downstairs ready to call the police because she thought her husband had finally lost the plot and gone out without his trousers. Eventually he turned up at home and it turns out he'd bought himself a new pair of trousers. "Nice anecdote" I hear you cry! But it does kind of suggest that actually Mackinnon just wore the same pair of trousers every day without fail for years. Which is a bit odd. I guess they didn't have H&M in those days.

Well I thought I'd put in Iris today since she fits very well with Weil and Rose. The same emphasis on attention and acceptance, the same intellectual curiosity, here in relation to art. What is beginning to strike me about all these female writers (which I'm choosing more or less at random) is their ability to stick with difficulty and a certain sense of renunciation, in a way which is not so evident in male writing. 

Anyway I liked Murdoch's essays because they are really about transcendence, even though she is reticent or even hostile towards God. Secularizing Plato doesn't work but she does describe the task of the philosopher and writer really very well. People are often averse to these concepts today. Culturally speaking it's very easy to be lazy, to accept the dominant mythologies, to listen only to familiar music, to give up on morality and to stop believing in better and worse. The people who criticise these things equally often end up sounding like snobs, conservatives and hypocrites. Especially if their defense is based on formality: the opera is the right place to go, getting married is the right thing to do. Murdoch is pointing to a realism, which requires us make the effort to see the world as it is; that achieving depth - in relationships, in appreciation of art, in discerning the right thing to do - is a task. It is difficult. That's why her primary enemies in the essay are scientists (who think everything can be explained simply by cause and effect [determinism]) and existentialists (who believe it's all about an abstract 'will' that has freedom to do whatever, whenever rather than learning to see the world truthfully). The frailties of our egos and wandering attentions will always distract us from this task, but the pursuit of perfection remains the goal of the soul. Humankind cannot bear very much reality but 'the humble man (sic), because he sees himself as nothing, can see other things as they are'.

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