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  • Writer's pictureMichael Martin


“The Death of Arthur” by Julia Margaret Cameron

What follows is my introduction to Jesus the Imagination, Volume 5: The Divine Feminine, published last month by Angelico Presss.

“Let a body finally venture out of its shelter, expose itself in meaning beneath a veil of words. WORD FLESH. From one to the other, eternally, fragmented visions, metaphors of the invisible.” ~ Julia Kristeva [1]

I have never felt comfortable with Simone de Beauvoir’s bristling in The Second Sex in regards to Goethe’s concluding lines of Faust: “the Eternal Feminine leads us ever onward.” De Beauvoir extends this complaint to allegorical representations of principles (like Liberty or the Church, for example) as female, to Dante’s Beatrice, to divine figures such as the Virgin Mary and the Sophia of Gnosticism. De Beauvoir seems to operate under the assumption (note the term) that only feminine figures are idealized in Western culture, and that such are incommensurate with the actual reality of women. Idealization, however, is a universally human interpretive gesture; and that it is often personified can hardly be evidence of a conspiracy theory of male oppression, as if any man could live up to the model of Jesus, the Buddha, Odin All-Father, or even Pa Ingalls. Figuration leads us ever onward, Simone.

Julia Kristeva, much more generous of spirit and, as a result, much more human, acknowledges the West’s—and particularly Christianity’s—psychic relationship to the feminine, especially as regards the image of the Mother. “The question is,” she writes, “whether this was simply an appropriation of the Maternal by men and therefore, according to our working hypothesis, just a fantasy hiding the primary narcissism from view, or was it perhaps also a mechanism of enigmatic sublimation? This may have been masculine sublimation, assuming that for Freud imagining Leonardo—and even for Leonardo himself—taming the Maternal—or primary narcissistic—economy is a necessary precondition of artistic or literary achievement.” [2] This notion can be applied, with some qualifications of course, to Goethe’s pronouncement.

Goethe the poet, who was Goethe the scientist as well, however, was also giving utterance to a metaphysical principle. Inspired by his reading of Boehme and the example of Novalis, an incipient Sophiology haunts the conclusion to Goethe’s Faust. Many feminist commentators, like de Beauvoir, have chastised Goethe for not having Faust justly punished for his mistreatment of Gretchen—and the fact that Gretchen even prays for Faust’s redemption from the heavenly realm during his apotheosis in the play’s conclusion further offends them. But such a disposition profoundly misreads Goethe—and Christianity, for that matter. Faust’s denouement is a picture of apocatastasis, the redemption of all, an idea that profoundly colors Sophiology.

What political discourses routinely miss when projecting their biases onto works of literature and metaphysics—to say nothing religion, science, or nature—is that not only the natural world, but the world of the spirit is also gendered. Try as we might, through whatever optics or interventions, we cannot ultimately avoid this reality. It is a matter of primal ontology.

Often sterilized in mistaken conceptions of neutrality, a gendered one-sidedness, as both Alison Milbank and Therese Schroeder-Sheker argue in this volume, is detrimental to everyone, regardless of gender. We act as though this is a reality we are only just now discovering—since the advent of feminism and ideas of gender equity—but this is not at all the case. It is my claim that the Western psyche has been clamoring for a regenerated imagination of the ontological reality of gender for at least a thousand years—and, as Margaret Barker discusses in my interview with her here—the same Western psyche has been in search of a holistic and healthy imagination of gender from at least the time of Lady Wisdom’s expulsion from worship in First Temple Judaism under the reforms of King Josiah.

During the Middle Ages, the Christian psyche was on the way to rectifying this situation. Beguine mysticism, with its holy feminine eroticism, Franciscan spirituality, with its deep relationship to Nature, and the lays of the Troubadours and their adoration of the Lady all rendered witness to the need of the re-entrance of the Divine Feminine into culture. That reformation was not to be fully realized, alas, though the dream lived on. Its palimpsest bleeds through Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival, in which the hero’s development depends upon the counsel and examples of both women and men, even though he often misinterprets things at first. As we all do.

But perhaps the most accurate depiction of the phenomenon of which I speak in medieval literature is Sir Thomas Malory’s Morte Darthur. The great medieval historian Jan Huizinga describes the late-medieval period in which Malory wrote as a time when “somber melancholy weighs on men’s souls,” [3] and nowhere is this more evident than in Malory. Malory’s Arthurian realm doesn’t end in cataclysm so much as in dissipation and self-sabotage. As with Wolfram, women also figure in this story, but they also contribute to the ruin of the land and of chivalry. The knights who survive the Battle of Camlann, even the great Lancelot, end their lives as monks, priests, or hermits. Queen Guinevere herself dies in the cloister. A tremendous ennui taxed with apocalyptic sterility burdens both Malory’s text and its readers. In the nineteenth century, Malory’s melancholia reappeared in that of Tennyson, nowhere so strongly as in his Idylls of the King, a melancholic tableau brought to beautiful realization in the photography of Julia Margaret Cameron.

Malory is not entirely without hope (though what hope he offers is as delicate as frost), as Arthur does not die in the text. Malory tells us that in a mysterious bark “resceyved hym three ladyes with grete mournyng. And so they sette hem downe, and in one of their lappis kyng Arthure layd hys hede.” [4] and ferried him to the Isle of Avalon to be healed of his grievous wounds with the promise to one day return in parousaic triumph. Avalon is an island of women; it is only there where Arthur can find healing.

I have often thought, over this past, most melancholic of years, that Malory’s tale is precisely the homeopathic medicine required for our particular moment. The West, and especially the Christian West, suffers from a grievous wound and it is only the Divine Feminine which can bring it healing. What was lost must be restored. In our end is our beginning. For the Divine Feminine leads us ever onward.

Toss that Freudian symbol back to the unconscious, my mans!

Michael’s latest books are an edition of The Chymical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreutz and Transfiguration: Notes toward a Radical Catholic Reimagination of Everything. He can be reached at See also The Center for Sophiological Studies' available courses. Also check out the latest volume of Jesus the Imagination: The Divine Feminine.

1. Julia Kristeva, “Stabat Mater,” trans. Arthur Goldhammer, Poetics Today 6, no. 1/2 The Female Body in Western Culture: Semiotic Perspective (1985); 133-52, at 134.

2. Ibid., 135.

3. J. Huizinga, The Waning of the Middle Ages: A Study in the Forms of Life, Thought and Art in France and the Netherlands in the XIVth and XVth Centuries (St. Martin’s Press, 1924), 22.

4. Thomas Malory, Works, ed. Eugene Vinaver, 2nd ed. (Oxford University Press, 1971), 716.

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