Straw Woman

I'm feeling a bit better now, but I'm still having trouble focusing on the primary sources I was supposed to be reading this week, so this morning I spent some time reading a few articles on titles of the Virgin Mary and their interpretation. Little did I know what I was in for!

According to Helen Phillips (Cardiff University*), the titles that I am so fascinated by--and on which the next section of the chapter that I am writing is going to focus--are not (as I had led myself to believe) celebrations of the Virgin's role in the Incarnation stimulated by awe at the paradox that (as Jeremiah 31:22 famously put it) "a woman encompasses a man" (i.e. the God-man Christ) but, rather, purposeful efforts on the part of a misogynistic clergy to deny Mary not only agency, but integrity, fragmenting her as they do into so many inanimate things: mirror of justice, seat of wisdom, spiritual vessel, mystical rose, tower of David, house of gold, ark of the covenant, gate of Heaven, morning star, and so forth. In Phillips' words:

"[Such] honorific titles produce intricate abstractions and static, emblem-like images for the reader's create a Mary severed from common experience.... The overall effect of such language is both to fragment the reader's sense of the figure or person of Mary and to create the impression of a diffused and displaced power: power refracted through a multitude of objects in this visible world.... It will already be clear that, like many aspects and tenets of the marian cult, this style is only ambiguously feminist. While attributing hyperbolic power to Mary it deflects attention onto other objects; the stylistic devices associated with it make it hard to comprehend the precise nature of Mary's power or to visualize completely satisfactorily even the symbolic representations of its nature.... The result may be a deeply mysterious, powerfully attractive, and reverent splendour, but the verbal artifice, semantic alienations and dichotomies that play a part in creating the particular type of jewelled and mentally dazzling hyperbole to which writers of late medieval marian praise are so often drawn could be seen also as expressions of unresolved contradictions in the elevation to so high a place in theology and devotion of a woman, in a society that gives women and female qualities in general little power or respect."**

Excuse me, what? Praising Mary through images drawn from Scripture ("enclosed garden," "sealed fountain," Ark of the Covenant, Temple of Solomon) is a way of denying Mary real power? Efforts to imagine the paradox of the Incarnation by way of metaphor are a way of avoiding reconciling Mary's elevation "to so high a place in theology" with the status of other women who did not give birth to the Son of God? Abstractions are efforts to "create a Mary severed from common experience"? Whose "common experience"--hers? Her devotees? What's "common" about a virgin mother? Isn't that the whole point? I'm dumbfounded. Not that I haven't read this kind of criticism of Marian devotion before; it's all over the place if you look. I guess I was just surprised to find it in an article by a scholar of literature rather than, say, a popular book denouncing her cult. Is it that medieval authors versed in the intricacies of exegesis should not have been allowed to express their reverence for the Mother of God by finding traces of her throughout Scripture? Or is it that Mary, for all her exaltation, was still "only human" and thus that such hyperbole seems false? ("If they really believed she was so great, they would have worshiped her as God.") What exactly is the problem here?

I have never been able to figure out what modern critics of Mary actually want. On the one hand, they seem angry that she gets so much attention at all: "why aren't all women as exalted as Mary?" While on the other, they seem angry that she doesn't get enough: "why isn't she worshiped as a goddess?" And then, of course, there are her ever-so-problematically famous "feminine" virtues of humility, obedience and purity--never mind that for the majority of her medieval devotees these were not "feminine" virtues, but human, more particularly, monastic. Have any of these critics of Mary's cult actually ever read the rule of St. Benedict? Chapter 5: "The first step of humility is unhesitating obedience, which comes naturally to those who cherish Christ above all."*** Mary was not the perfect woman (at least, not simply by virtue of her humility before God); she was the perfect monk! Which observation, of course, would probably propel critics like Phillips to the opposite extreme: Mary was denied actual feminine virtues because the monastic writers on whose evidence most of our understanding of the medieval Marian cult depends could only imagine her as an idealized version of themselves. Or something.

Okay, so maybe I'm not being fair to Phillips. Maybe she is just criticizing the mode of devotion in certain late medieval poems. And yet, if this is the case, why her rejection of metaphor? This is what puzzles me most about her article. Somehow, in her view, attempting to imagine the unimaginable--God became man in the womb of a woman--through abstractions, paradoxical composite images ("well of beauty," "gem of chastity," "lantern of scent"), and referential lyric is not poetically rich, but rather an attempt to make sure that nobody understands Mary's power but a few clerics. And, of course, all those artists who drew upon all these "composite images which resist fully satisfactory realistic visualization" (Phillips, p. 85), never mind the composers of the liturgy. Nobody, of course, ever recited, say, the Litany of Loreto or sang the "Ave Maris Stella" because stars, after all, are non-human things and such a metaphor could hardly convey to anybody other that the most misogynistic cleric any sense of Mary's care and concern for her devotees.

Yes, I'm angry. I'm angry that we have become so stupid in our much-vaunted modernity as to be convinced that religion is about nothing but people in power deceiving everyone else. I'm angry that we seem to have no sense of the beauty of language and art in the service of devotion and of the necessity for metaphor in communicating the wonder of the divine. I'm angry that such nonsensical arguments as Phillips'--"Their [these Marian titles'] initial awe-inspiring strangeness proves to be a mystery that dissipates once theological and biblical references are decoded: this decodability recoups that potential awe for a female cosmic power back securely into the authority of clerkes" (p. 99)--are taken seriously not only within my field, but outside of it. Oh, so all those descriptions of Mary drawing upon every physical object in the cosmos--sun, moon, stars; temple, throne, ark; fountain, garden, rose--are in fact a way of denying her significance as Mother of God? Really, people, do you seriously believe you can have it both ways? How can seeing Mary's beauty refracted through every creature in the universe be a way to ensure that nobody notices her cosmic power? She is, after all, Queen of Heaven, Bride of God, and Mother of all recreated things. Or do such titles deny her real agency after all?

Apparently, what Phillips wants is for images of Mary to be "accessible." The problem with such titles as "sweet diamond," "tabernacle of the Trinity" and "clear clarity of sweet savor" is that "they evade any sense of affection, pregnancy, or purity [sic, now apparently a good thing, not just an impotent feminine virtue--FB], which is familiar or readily graspable by the reader's mind, not just because no other human has experienced virginal motherhood [or, in Christian theology, given birth to God--FB] but because the words refer to this mystery through metaphors far removed from the organic, human body" (p. 87). Oh, really? Bodies aren't crystalline gemstones? You don't say. Except that they will be once we are resurrected. Why do you think medieval craftsmen covered all those reliquaries with gemstones? They were physical metaphors of the bodies of the saints enclosed therein.**** I'm not being fair here; I know I'm not. Phillips is a scholar of English literature, not theology or even the history of devotion; for her, this article was simply a little piece that she wrote putting one of Chaucer's poems in context. But she is far from the only one to trot out the bromide that religion should be easily grasped or simple or "human." Again, oh, really? When was the last time you were able fully to describe God? Good; I'm sure describing his incarnation in "readily graspable" human terms should be a piece of cake. Oh, but no, that would be theology and we don't want to confuse anybody with that. Better stick to simple, "readily graspable" truths, like that bodies are made of flesh, not flowers or stars.*****

It's not going to end here, I know it. No matter how well I write my book, there will still be people out there who have convinced themselves of the truths of Phillips' argument: that art that attempts a high degree of intellectual abstraction is incapable of arousing real devotion; that metaphors are not the stuff with which we think as well as signs pointing to a deeper reality, but lies; that exalting Mary as Mother of God is somehow a detriment to all other women while at the same time an insult to Mary or, rather, the Goddess that she should be. And yet, stranger things have happened. It's probably a little early to give up hope.

*Which is significant only because I used to live in Cardiff, although I don't think the aliens had found it yet when I was there.
**"'Almighty and al mercible queene': Marian Titles and Marian Lyrics," in Medieval Women: Texts and Contexts in Late Medieval Britain: Essays for Felicity Riddy, eds. Jocelyn Wogan-Browne et al. (Turnhout: Brepols, 2000), pp. 83-99.
***The Rule of St. Benedict in Latin and English, ed. Timothy Fry et al. (Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 1981), pp. 186-87.
****Lots of literature here. For starters, Caroline Walker Bynum, The Resurrection of the Body in Western Christianity, 200-1336 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1995); Sharon Farmer, "Low Country Ascetics and Oriental Luxury: Jacques de Vitry, Marie of Oignies, and the Treasure of Oignies," in History in the Comic Mode: Medieval Communities and the Matter of Person, eds. Rachel Fulton and Bruce Holsinger (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007), pp. 205-22; and G. Ronald Murphy, Gemstone of Paradise: The Holy Grail in Wolfram's Parzival (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006).******
*****Except, of course, we are made of stars, more precisely, star-dust: the stars are where all the elements in the universe come from. And we're made of flowers, too: flowers are what we eat once they turn into fruit.
******Now you know, too, why I'm covering myself with so many jewels.


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