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.

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