Sunday, June 22, 2008

Feeding the body and the spirit

Today's Gospel reading (Sixth Sunday after Pentecost) was from Mark 8. I always remember how the commentators on this "feeding of the multitude" passage identify this crowd with the crowd that shouted, "Crucify him!" In their mind, the people who came to hear Jesus were too limited to see beyond the pressing needs of their empty stomachs. Once this new prophet couldn't fill their bellies, they bent easily before the propaganda of their religious leaders.

There is an undertone of dualist elitism in this interpretation. It suggests that the masses are only capable of understanding gross physical satisfaction, and only the disciples (barely!) can rise above primitive fleshly desires to consider spiritual matters. Furthermore, Jesus himself says that they [the crowd] "have been with me now for three days and have nothing to eat." They don't seem to mind physical deprivation in order to hear the Good News -- unlike the disciples, who brought just enough bread and fish for themselves to hold out through Jesus' long-winded sermons!

One could say that Jesus' concern for the crowd echoes Maslow's hierarchy of needs: Jesus realizes that he can't make much more progress on their spiritual needs until he fulfills their physical ones. However, Maslow's pyramid can also serve a more subtle form of dualist elitism: those who are "self-actualized" have "ascended" through the levels of baser need-seeking to reach the top, where they have achieved contentness within themselves. The rest bumble around at varying levels of baseness -- either wondering where to find some scraps of food and a place to sleep tonight, fearfully casting their votes for the candidate who promises to be tough on terrorists, or trying to get their boss to respect their not-so-unselfishly-motivated hard work. There is a taste of the Calvinist doctrine of unconditional election here: those who appear to be saved are saved, and those deprived are destined to various levels of eternal deprivation.

Jesus himself doesn't say anything of the sort. It seems he realizes innocently and perhaps even naively that he has talked for three days straight, and that those folks, who walked all the way out to the middle of nowhere to seek and listen to him, are in danger: "If I send them away hungry to their homes, they will collapse on the way, and some of them have come a great distance." Jesus isn't handing out the "bread" part of "bread and circuses"; he isn't interested in pandering to a disinterested crowd, but his audience here is not disinterested.

I heard a good sermon today explaining this passage as Jesus giving us a template for the form of the Eucharistic liturgy. The priest's arguments made sense, but I was thinking the whole time about what I wrote above: there probably really were a whole bunch of very hungry people whom Jesus fed, and that physical hunger is just as relevant as the symbolic, allegorical, or liturgical interpretations of the story. The key phrase is "just as relevant" -- not more, nor less. The demonstration of the structure of the Divine Liturgy is just as important as the exhibition of Jesus' practical compassion.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Beatrice or succubus? the male author's Muse

Many male authors, composers, and scholars in the Western canon took as their inspiration a spiritualized female figure. The Greeks gave us their Muses, with their corresponding mythology of creativity. For example, we refer to an author's "muse" interchangeably as either an actual woman who inspires him, or as an abstract spirit of inspiration. Dante Alighieri's Beatrice is perhaps the most notable specific instance. The author's "La Vita Nuova" and "Divine Comedy" detail the process by which an actual, living Florentine woman (Bice di Folco Portinari) was transformed from a passing fancy, into a spiritual guide who leads Dante to the very face of God. A lesser-known example is Sophie von Kuehn, the wife of Georg Philipp Friedrich Freiherr von Hardenberg (better known by his pen name Novalis). After Sophie passed away at the young age of 16, she inspired the young philosopher and mining engineer to produce an entire body of unique verse, prose, and essays, by which he is credited as a father of early German Romanticism. Inscribed in Novalis' wedding ring was the phrase "Sophia sei mein Schutzgeist" ("Sophie, be my guardian spirit"), and he often played on the Greek meaning of her name: "Wisdom," frequently personified in the Judeo-Christian tradition as a noble woman.

This spiritualization of the Muse is a process, rather than a static attribute. It happens primarily in the mind of the creative male subject, rather than to the female object. The last line of Goethe's Faust summarizes this process: "Das Ewig-Weibliche zieht uns hinan" ("The Eternal Feminine draws us on"). Man first experiences love as concrete and sexual (whether consummated or not). Then, circumstances (unfulfilled love, separation, and perhaps even the death of the beloved) train him to disembody and spiritualize that love so that it becomes a spiritual guide. The lover is drawn on by the noble beloved to seek higher and more noble things.

The training of the lover by the beloved is a familiar theme from courtly love. This is particularly fitting since the troubadour often sings from the first-person perspective of the male lover: the unattained beloved inspires beautiful music, even as she draws out his weeping and sighs. In Wolfram von Eschenbach's "Parzival," for instance, the protagonist's wife is named Condwiramurs, which means "love guide." Wolfram changes her name from Blanchefleur, by which she appears in his source material (Chr�tien de Troyes' "Perceval"), so as to emphasize how the thought of her guides Parzival on his many lonely journeys and eventually draws him out of religious despair and back to his quest for the Grail.

This name change also highlights Wolfram's deliberate and arguably awkward choice to desexualize her first encounter with Parzival, in which she convinces him to defend her town from a siege. Chr�tien simply has her seduce the naive young Parzival, who happened to be passing through her town during the siege. In contrast, Wolfram emphasizes her chaste intentions: She visits him at night specifically to convince him to fight for her home, but has no sexual intentions. It is nevertheless a sexually charged encounter: she crawls into his bed, clutches him, and weeps. One should also recall the habit of the time to sleep in the nude. However, "nothing happens," though Parzival had acted less than nobly with another woman before (he robbed her of her jewelry and nearly raped her). She asks him "not to wrestle" (i.e., not to exploit her vulnerable position so as to have sex with her), and Parzival honors this request. Here, it's the woman who drives the desexualization process; in other cases, circumstances drive it. For example, Dante rarely saw Beatrice, and eventually she married another man and passed away at age 24. Novalis lost his young wife after only three years of marriage. Parzival does eventually return to Condwiramurs, but only after finding the Grail.

Sometimes, men enter into this separation process deliberately, rather than letting circumstances bring it to them. For example, the New York Times recently interviewed a Buddhist couple who have taken an unorthodox vow of conjugal celibacy. Sts. Francis and Clare of Assisi form an analogous (though much less extreme) pair in the Western Christian tradition. Francis, himself first a troubadour, chooses a religious life of poverty and preaching, and ordains Clare into the religious life. Some stories even have the young Francis fall in love with Clare, and others depict him as dying in her arms. In a traditional Roman Catholic parish last weekend, the pastor defended priestly celibacy in his sermon by arguing that though priests in ancient times were allowed to be married, they were required to live apart from their wives after ordination. (Whether this is true or not is less interesting than the fact that he mentions it!)

Situations such as this exploit the tension between spiritual companionship and sexual desire. At times this tension has theurgical overtones. On occasion it finds expression directly in terms of the sexual act: for instance, Chinese emperors of the Qing Dynasty were taught that forestalling ejaculation whenever possible would magically add years to their life. More often, it takes a more abstract form as "courtly love" nonsexual relationships. Charles Williams, the 20th century English author and poet, was reputed to have followed this practice. Williams would have been well aware of the theurgical implications from his training in the Western esoteric tradition. In that tradition, nonsexual theurgical relationships later devolved into actual sexual practice (what many self-identifying neopagans call "sex magick"), as described for example in the novels of Dion Fortune. The fundamental idea in these nonsexual relationships is to generate sexual tension, and then by resisting its physical expression, "sublimate" it into a higher spiritual force. This makes the Muse a vessel for creative intellectual work, just as the female body serves (in arguably sexist magical thinking) as the vessel of creation in physical terms.

In his short story "Calliope," Neal Gaiman unites the intellectual and physical roles of the Muse: his protagonist author regains his creativity by magically enslaving and physically raping the Greek Muse Calliope. This illustrates the dark side of the spiritualized female figure: she remains Object to the male as Subject. He creates alone, without her cooperation, and projects an image upon her which obscures her actual identity and makes her ever more divorced from reality. She dies, lies unconscious in a coma (as described fictionally in Williams' 1931 novel "Many Dimensions," whose female protagonist some have argued was modeled after his lover Phyllis Jones), or is simply inaccessible and therefore ever more ripe for projection. Furthermore, Dante Alighieri and Charles Williams were married (not to their Muses), and Novalis was engaged to marry Julie von Charpentier the year after Sophie's death (though he died before their marriage). Keeping a Muse was for them a kind of intellectual (and actual, in Williams' case!) adultery.

Williams did, however, understand well the consequences of this projection process. In his 1937 novel "Descent into Hell," one of his male characters descends so deeply into a fantasized relationship with a particular woman, that his fantasies become a succubus that leads him to despair and suicide. While undergoing this process, he encounters the actual woman, and she is so taken with fear that she flees from him: he has detached the fantasy entirely from reality. Despite Williams' dabbling in the darker aspects of Muse-keeping, one need only read his collected letters to his wife Florence Conway ("To Michal from Serge") to learn the depths of his intense and very real love for her. Novalis may have transformed his first wife into a "Schutzgeist," but he still weeps at her tomb, as depicted in "Hymn to the Night." One also sees in the "Divine Comedy" how even the spiritualized Beatrice is still very much a woman who attracts Dante, whose shining eyes and half-mocking smile have a power over him which is chaste but by no means nonsexual. The examples of these three authors -- Dante Alighieri, Friedrich von Hardenberg, and Charles Williams -- show the moral tension of taking on a Muse, but also show the importance and value of staying grounded in the reality of the female person -- physical, spiritual, intellectual, intelligent, an equal Subject in her own right.