Sunday, October 16, 2011

Ivory Virgins



So here it is, the opening image for the article I'm currently revising and, more immediately, a talk I'm working on for a symposium two weeks from today.  It's an ivory Virgin and Child statuette and the museum (our own CMA) says its 13th century Mosan.  It looks much more monumental here than in reality: it's only a few inches tall and I can image that it would have fit easily into an owner's hands.  It would have been an intimate object, then, and encountering it now in the museum is rather frustrating since its sealed away in a glass case.  I have a couple of other, older, images from the museum that help me imagine handling it up close, turning it in my hands (they also show the crown that it is now obviously missing and an additional base).



















Visually, my major interest in this image - and others like it - is in the Virgin's clothing and how it shapes the relationship between her and the child.  From the front, we see her mantle come forward over her shoulders, then tuck back under her free arm and extend over lap to underneath the child.  It creates an outer layer to her body that opens up to expose her interior and it locates the child just on the edge of that inner space.  He reaches into her, reaching with one hand into her interior space, inside of the mantle, to grasp her breast, and reaching up with the other to clasp her veil.  His gestures create a relationship between her inner space and the veil that drapes over her mantle and down her back - so that her inside and outside are again joined by his body.  Turning the statuette from side to side puts this relationship between inside and outside into motion.  Turned to the left, we see that his reach into her body is returned by her reach around him.  From this angel, the line of her veil seems to continue into the line of her arm, which is draped in her mantle, so that her clothing draws him in.  Turned to the right, negative space opens up between their bodies and is bridged only by his gaze and his gesture in to her - with what is now a broken arm. 

Now all of that is fine and lovely and hopefully you will be able to read all about it someday (I'm shooting for Gesta with this one).  What I want to begin to think about here, however, is how my choice to write about motherhood in my scholarship relates to my choice not to become a mother myself.  To finally make this clear, openly in the world, that later choice is not just a theoretical, general, abstract one: it began as a practical, specific, concrete decision.  About 13 years ago, during graduate school, I accidentally got pregnant and I chose to terminate that pregnancy.  It was the right thing to do and I do not regret it.  Over the years since that choice has gradually become the choice not to have children in general.  I know perfectly well that it is possible to have children after having an abortion.  But the choice to terminate was so immediate, so obvious, and so forceful, that it made clear to me that I do not want to be anyone's mother.  I want to be myself and, for me, those two things are opposed to one another, probably because my first and closest brush with motherhood came in this unexpected and unwelcome way.

The turn to writing about motherhood in my scholarship happened at about the same time as the abortion and so the two are clearly related, although the turn in my work also had an academic motivation.  I wanted to find a way to write about the female body in medieval art without writing about the medieval church's negative attitudes towards sexuality, since I thought that had already been covered and didn't need to be repeated again (and I'm thinking of Howard Bloch's diagnosis of misogyny as a discourse of repetition here). Interestingly, in the light of my very clear choice, my writing about motherhood in medieval art is largely about ambivalence of one form or another.  In terms of this ivory, it's the tension I see between in and out, between the child's merger back into the mother's body and his separation from her, which probably does reflect my feeling that a child would be a threat to my identity and autonomy. 

The only tension I feel over my actual choice is an occasional voice in my head saying, but aren't you supposed to want children? Isn't that what everyone wants?  Is there something wrong with you that you don't? That voice has emerged over time, as the context for my choices has changed, as my more general choice not to have children has become more obvious and somewhat more problematic - primarily for other people.  As more and more of my contemporaries, colleagues and friends, have had children there has sometimes come to be tension between those with and without children.  My current group of friends has worked very hard not to allow the arrival of children for some to become a problem between us - but that tension is still there at times and with others.  I chalk it up to insecurity (and I thank my former therapist for this insight): people often get uncomfortable when your decisions are different from theirs because it suggests to them that your choices constitute a critique of theirs.  Something like, if Marian chooses not to have children, it must mean she thinks my choice to have children is wrong.  To be clear, I don't think that.  My choice not to have children is just that, my choice. It is what's right for me and has nothing to do with anyone else.  I may sometimes play up my choice as a choice, but that's because I don't want anyone feeling sorry for me, assuming that I must want children and must be unhappy with my life as it is.  And yes, that's my insecurity showing: I become uncomfortable too when someone else's choice seems to become a judgment on my own.

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