Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Chapter Eleven: The Virgin-Whore Binary, OR How the Virgin Mary Saves Sister Renata and Me

By Claudia Ricci

This image of the Virgin Mary comes from my friend Kellie Meisl, whose extraordinary piece of art, "Shattered Cups," adorns the cover of my new novel in paper (coming soon) Seeing Red.

It is very curious that Kellie Meisl presented me both of these images -- this dazzling photo of the Virgin and the mesmerizing image of the seductive woman in Seeing Red. The novel Castenata, the one that I am now writing, by blog (I started that book 16 years ago, but now that I am part of the Albany Times Union's Writing in Motion project, I am committed to finishing it by year's end, i.e., the next 31 days), is a story that at its core features the "virgin-whore" dichotomy. Sister Renata is both a devout nun, and, in the eyes of her lecherously ill cousin, Antonie, and his erotic tales, Renata is a seductive Spanish dancer who wearing blood-red lipstick and a flaming red satin dress.

This view of women -- that they are either virgins like Mary or whores like Eve, the original sinner tempting Adam in the Garden of Eden -- is one that dominates our world and our deepest psyches. Feminists would say that this dichotomy is evidence of long-standing hatred toward women (misogyny) by men who have historically dominated our patriarchal societies.

The virgin-whore dichotomy is nothing new of course. Indeed, it appears to date back deep into antiquity, or so the authorities say. One such authority is Sarah B. Pomeroy, Distinguished Professor of Classics at Hunter College and the Graduate Center, City University of New York. In her book, Goddesses, Whores, Wives and Slaves, Pomeroy explores the way women have been viewed through history. The virgin-whore dichotomy plays into this history big-time.

The virgin-whore dichotomy also plays into my novel Seeing Red, where the main character, Ronda Cari occupies two roles. She is at once a devoted mother, and also, a woman who flees her husband and family to follow her guitarist lover to Spain, where, voila, she too becomes a flamenco dancer. (I suspect these plot lines in my books have got something to do with the fact that I have been studying flamenco guitar since 1999.)

The issue of "binaries" in stories is one that has been studied extensively. A famous anthropologist, Claude Lévi-Strauss, who invented the field of structural anthropology as he studied thousands of myths in indigenous populations all across the globe, proposed in a famous set of writings in the mid-20th century ("The Story of Asdiwal" is one) that all narrative -- all stories and myths no matter where they appear in the world -- can be analyzed as a set of binary forces.

A story, in effect, is a struggle between these "binaries," or oppositions: good vs. evil, life vs. death, high mountains vs. low valleys, men vs. women, spiritual vs. material, the rational vs. the irrational, heaven vs. hell, illness vs. health, the good guys vs. the bad guys. The tension in a story, according to Levi-Strauss' theory, is resolved when the binaries play themselves out.

I really think he had it right. And that is why I write, to find peace between struggling oppositions in my psyche. The narrative helps to resolve the struggle. I know that my first book, Dreaming Maples, was an attempt to resolve the struggle between my identity as a self-less devoted mother to my three children with my equally passionate desire to be a free-spirited artist. By the time I had finished the book (it took me seven or eight years to get it into publishing form) I feel the book did resolve that binary.

Now there is another binary, or set of binaries, operating in my new work: there is the sacred versus the profane; the mother vs, the "whore." And there are more binaries, which I will explore in future posts.

Meanwhile, thanks once again to my incredibly intuitive and very gifted artist/writer friend Kellie Meisl, of Pittsfield, Massachusetts, who does Dream Art. Lately I have begun to feel that Kellie and I are on some cosmically-directed journey, with our lives and our art doing a complex dance of inspiring each other.

Kellie sent me this image of the Virgin and then followed up with an email saying, "I can't open the image I sent you." At which point I offered to post it on one of my numerous blogs.

And when I posted it, voila, I realized the significance of the pair of images that Kellie has provided me in recent days. The highly erotic and seductive cover image of Seeing Red, and the ghostly blue and sparkling image of the Virgin.

Unknowingly, by sending me the Virgin image last night, Kellie made me see in a crystal clear way -- as clear as that sparkling blue sky surrounding the Virgin's halo -- that my new blog novel Castenata is informed by a number of binaries. I know that my writer friend Peg, who has read every one of the thousands of pages I've written trying to get that novel "write," would agree. She has frequently pointed out the binaries in the nun novel. There have been four or five versions of the books, with different characters, but there were always two sisters in the book. There was always one sister who was scientific and rational, and another sister who was bonkers and religious.

There was always one sister who was sick, and another sister who was always trying to heal the first sister. The sister who was doing the "healing" always resented the sister who was ill.

Crazy, perhaps, but understandable, considering that I originally conceived of Castenata as a book that would help to heal my dear friend, Nina, who is like a sister to me, and who suffered (but survived) breast cancer in 1994.

In retrospect, this book is one that I now think has helped to heal me, and free me from all kinds of constraints.

One of those constraints is religious.

In the past, I don't think I would have written about praying to the Virgin Mary. After all, I am a converted Jew, and I do believe fervently in Jewish teachings. I learned enough Hebrew to chant Torah (the portion I chanted is when Moses saw the burning bush.)

But that doesn't stop me from praying daily to the Virgin Mary.

Like millions of people around the world, I pray to the Virgin. I say Hail Marys. I know I said Hail Mary's around the clock in the month of August, 2003, when my oncologist at Sloan Kettering told me that I had to have a stem-cell transplant or that I might die.

I refused to have one, and then, I had an amazing medical intuitive reading and got a second opinion from an incredibly wonderful doctor, George Canellos, at Dana Farber in Boston. Long story short, I finally figured out that the first doctor, at Sloan Kettering, was full of shit. I didn't need the stem cell transplant -- a procedure which at the time cost $250,000 and brings you to the brink of death before it supposedly "cures" you. As far as I can tell, the oncologist at Sloan was motivated unscrupulously, at least in part, trying to get me into his research project.

But that's another story, for another day.

Right now, I just want to say that I don't think it is any accident that millions and millions of people around the world revere the Virgin Mary, and believe she works miracles. I don't think it's an accident that so many visions of Mary have been documented around the world.

The Virgin Mary is a manifestation of what you might call the divine feminine influence in the universe, an influence that seems to help people. I know that Mary helped me.

I used to sit on the porch that horrific summer of 2002, when I was getting weekly chemo treatments at Sloan, and sip ice water. I would sit there and imagine myself sitting beneath the Virgin Mary's gauzy blue veil, the very same color as the sky in this photo. When things got too rough -- I was throwing up uncontrollably, or I didn't think I could get through one more moment of intense suffering -- I would close my eyes and say, "Please, Mary, please help me."

And it never ever failed. Something would shift. A friend would appear at the door. A call would come in to lift my spirits. Something would happen, and I would feel just enough better to get through to the next moment. This went on for months and months and months and months.

And honestly, it is still going on. When I am faced with the illness or suffering of a loved one, and I know that there is absolutely NOTHING I can do to "fix" it, I just sit there and close my eyes and pray to the Virgin Mary and ask her for help.

So many millions of people around the world do the same thing. So many millions of people actually keep small altars in their homes devoted to worshiping Mary.

In times of crisis -- my illness eight years ago and Sister Renata's imprisonment for a murder she didn't commit-- it helps so many, many people to turn to Mary and to pray to for divine intervention. For help.

Sister Mysteries, an on-line book, is part of the Albany Times Union's Writing In Motion project. The project features seven writers committed to completing writing projects by the end of the year. Sister Mysteries contains within it a novel called Castenata -- a time-travel murder mystery featuring a nun, Sister Renata, who in 1883 was falsely accused of murdering her cousin Antonie. Renata's version of the story is contained within her diaries on the Castenata site. Artist Kellie Meisl is a Pittsfield, Massachusetts artist who relies on dreams as a springboard for her work. In 2009, she published her first book, Dream Stories: Recovering the Inner Mystic. Kellie can be reached through her website, KellieMeislDreamArt.

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