Saturday, April 11, 2009

St. Ruby Apolline

Six years ago, I read Carol Flinders’ Enduring Grace: Living Portraits of Seven Women Mystics, and decided to be a nun. I am not nor was I raised Catholic or Christian. I am, apparently, quite susceptible to the Christian ethos in its mystical form, particularly the deep longing for union with the body of the Christ.

The metaphysical significance of the Christ’s death is without parallel. In allowing himself to be murdered, this being—a man, a father-god and a son-god—commits suicide, parricide, infanticide and deicide in a single event. To my knowledge, there is no similar death in any of the world’s mythologies. Through this single act of complete annihilation, the Christ enables the world to begin again.

The women in Flinders’ book join with the Christ in ecstatic prayer and meditation. Their writings are frank and frankly fantastic, in the original sense. Although they experience actual pain when, for example, the Christ pierces them with a sword of light, it is with a mystical, rather than a physical, body. Because it is mystical, it can transform; it is a space of change. St. Catherine of Sienna, as I recall, wrote of a visions in which the Christ had female breasts that nursed her.

Well, I thought, that sounds good.

So I made up a story about how I would say good-bye to my family and enter my contemplative, ecstatic life.

I would see them for the last time in a small Gothic cathedral, with angels carved in the buttresses, and statues of my female saints half-shadowed. There would be a priest and a nun waiting behind a set of iron scrollwork doors. I would kiss my family good bye, turn and open the doors. I would hear them clang shut behind me, hear the nun or the priest turn a key in the lock.

Of course there would be music playing. I selected the alto/countertenor solo Cum dederit delectis suis somnum from Vivaldi’s setting of Psalm 127 (Nisi Dominus, “Unless the Lord”) and listened to it over and over, as the sound of metal against metal echoed in that cathedral. I cried. It would be so beautiful.

Except I don’t speak Latin:

When he has given sleep/to those he loves
Behold, children are an inheritance/of the Lord
A reward, the fruit of the womb.

Fructus ventris sounds gorgeous, and the solo is mournful, desperately so, which is why I love it. But even a heathen like me knows that nuns aren’t supposed to have children.

I encountered further difficulties during the chapter about St. Teresa of Ávila, who is the subject of Bernini’s famous sculpture “The Ecstasy of St. Teresa.” My problem was that her father was a converso—a Jew who had converted to Catholicism. Her grandfather was also a converso, eventually condemned by the Inquisition for returning to Judaism. Times being what they were, it is almost certain that her grandmother and mother were blood Jews. This means that under Jewish law, St. Teresa was Jewish. As am I.

I read this and my dramatic farewell scene fell to pieces. A Jew! One of two women Doctors of the Church! What the hell?

I’m still not sure why; I only know that when I looked up from the book, I was no longer in my pretty little cathedral turning away from this world to live in another. Thank whatever gods there may be that I waited until after reading this chapter to call my mom.

You never know how Jewish your not-really-Jewish-actually-more-of-an-atheist-than-you-are-mother is until you tell her you’ve been considering going over to the Dark Side. And not only the Dark Side, but the Big C Dark Side, the full-on-Jew-killing-too-bad-about-those-Nazis Dark Side. My mom has hung in with me through Tibetan Buddhism, Zen Buddhism, Hinduism, Wicca, generic neo-paganism and tarot cards, but I should have remembered that the Big C was an absolute no-no.

I dated a Catholic when I was in high school. He gave me a pretty rosary, as a sort of love trinket, with a pamphlet explaining how to use it. I’m a sucker for this sort of thing; the “Hail Mary” is a beautiful prayer. I never prayed with it, but I hung the rosary on my wall. One day, my mother noticed.


So I did.

Identity is a strange thing. Above all, I am an aesthete. I love and believe in things to the extent that they are beautiful. It’s the life of an outsider, though. I am always apart, watching. I love beauty and I’m afraid of it, because each time I find it, it annihilates me and I have to start all over again, remember some fragment of who I was, rebuild something like a Self until the next painting or play destroys me.

Gods. My poor mother!

Thursday, April 2, 2009

In Defense of the Trashy Novel

If a mind like G. K. Chesterton’s can produce an essay in defense of the detective story as a legitimate art form, then who am I to argue? Chesterton intrigues me; he is the definition of a polymath. Along with the seminal biography of Charles Dickens and several significant works of literary criticism, he wrote theology, detective stories featuring the wily priest Father Brown, a handful of standalone mysteries, biographies of St. Francis of Assisi and St. Thomas Aquinas that are still respected by scholars in the area, novels, a little poetry and a lot of drawing.

I grew up on genre fiction, but I only recently learned this phrase. My parents supplied me with lots of nonfiction (biographies, mostly, Queen Elizabeth, George Washington Carver, Maria Mitchell, Mozart) but my fiction tastes were decidedly low to middlebrow. I read Stephen King , Dean Koontz (uck), Clive Barker, Dorothy Sayers, Ngaio Marsh and a little John le Carré. My mom is a Trekkie, so I read several of the novels inspired by the original TV series, some of which were very good.

Of course I read “literary” fiction in school and loved it (except for Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther; I longed for the moment when Werther finally shot himself), but it didn’t occur to me to start reading it on my own until I met a few literary snobs in college and graduate school. I am late to the world’s great works of literature, and I have never lost the taste for my beloved horror, spy and mystery novels.

After being exposed to, say, Don Quixote or The Magic Mountain, it does get harder to find trashy novels that aren’t so poorly written I can’t stand them. Fortunately, a new sub-genre has arisen of late, which is referred to as the “Mediterranean cerebral detective/mystery novel” or “beach reading for smart people,” on the backs of a couple books. In other words, Umberto Eco, Arturo Perez-Reverte and a few others. I place Jean-Claude Izzo’s Marseilles trilogy in this class, although much more “noir” than Eco or Reverte. His novels are of literary caliber; I’m sure he is genre because there are some policemen, a little bit of organized crime, lots of boozing, and a few dead bodies.

Izzo’s trilogy reminds me of Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet (Justine, Balthazar, Mountolive and Clea) in which a city is a central character. Durrell’s Quartet is phenomenal, and better than Izzo’s books, but it also has mystery, spies, mass alcohol consumption, dead people and a few hangdog policemen. Durrell also wrote a less vaunted but quite enjoyable spy thriller called White Eagles Over Serbia.

Georges Simenon is another crossover hit—his Inspector Maigret police procedurals are beautifully written—and he also undertook more “serious” existential novels (none of which I have read, too depressing). Some big names (T. S. Eliot comes to mind) consider him a better writer than Camus, but Simenon’s popularity and output denied him a place as a writer of literary fiction.

Aside from the Star Trek novels, I was never really into science fiction until my mom bought me Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land one year for Christmas. Excellent book, and I learned that even (or especially?) weird geeks can produce novels of ideas that are wicked fun to read. I moved on to Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy (less good) and through the Dune series (first three are great, the rest suck). Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon was a revelation, as were William Gibson’s Neuromancer, Pattern Recognition and Idoru. I would put Idoru and Stephenson’s Snow Crash and The Diamond Age up against any modern literary fiction on any axis of assessment. I am still digesting Bruce Sterling’s Holy Fire, after finishing it a few days ago, which means it’s got to be good.

It’s possible I am attempting to create an aesthetic or critical theory to justify my own tastes, but the categorization of fiction bothers me. Without even reaching the issue of sidelining brown writers into “African-American Fiction,” or “Native American Fiction,” or the nomination of “chick lit” as a new genre, I would like to add my voice to those who protest these divisions as based on a tired critical literary establishment that needs to justify its own existence.

But the “paranormal romance” sub-genre? That’s just weird.