From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

Puppet Strings: Darja Malcolm-Clarke

The Holy Spirit’s ‘endless speaking’ seemed to me an apt metaphor for the patriarchal/phallocentric discourse in which Western culture is so embedded. It informs the basic assumptions about what it means to be a man or a woman…

Over the next few weeks we’re rolling out some new features at Fantasy Magazine. One that we’re very excited about is Puppet Strings, a cousin to our Author Spotlights. Once or twice a month a Fantasy author will give you a sneak peek into the magic behind their fiction–be it the inspiration, the writing process, the research, or whatever else. Then for the next five days the author will answer questions and participate in discussion about their story.

Our first author is Darja Malcolm-Clarke, author of His One True Bride.

In 2003 I thought I was going to be a medievalist and took a graduate course that looked at texts by English medieval mystics. These women achieved a state of communion with God in grotesque ways, and I was fascinated by the prominence of taboo and the abject in their reaching the divine–this comprised excessive effluvia, nonsensical speech, bizarre bodily movements, and engaging with the filthy to touch the sublime (one mystic drinks a leper’s bathwater, for instance).One of the mystics that we read was Blessed Angela of Foligno, and one passage in particular captured me. Angela tells how God’s visits cast her into a state of ecstasy. When He withdraws from her, though, Angela says,

I could not nor did I scream out any other words than these: “Love still unknown, why? why? why?” Furthermore, these screams were so choked up in my throat that the words were unintelligible. Nonetheless what remained with me was a certitude that God, without any doubt, had been speaking to me. […] After this experience, I felt my joints become dislocated (142).

I love the idea that a spontaneous, violent physical reaction is the only possible response to being separated from the divine after it being so close (whatever form He or She might take, and through whatever belief system). That is how I imagine being in contact with the divine must be: it undoes you. There’s no going back.

But I came upon an unsettling and quietly violent passage elsewhere in the Book of Blessed Angela, a passage which became the epigram for “His One True Bride”: the Holy Spirit says he will accompany Angela on her way to Saint Francis’ church in Assisi, and he tells her that he will continually speak to her such that she will “not be able to do otherwise than listen” (139). The Holy Spirit’s willingness, even eagerness in that phrase (at least to a modern ear) to negate Angela’s own thoughts–her very being, one could argue–and bind her suggests a desire to dominate, to make Himself the center of her experience. The passage struck me as both ominous and highly gendered. It begged the question: what if God were not the beneficent being often imagined, but a more sinister, self-interested one?

With the medieval mystics (along with the tradition of anchorites) as inspiration for the Harper’s Brides, I tried to think through the gendered violence implied in Angela’s words. What if you are undone by God as Angela was, but it’s not done in good faith?

The Holy Spirit’s “endless speaking” seemed to me an apt metaphor for the patriarchal/phallocentric discourse in which Western culture is so embedded. It informs the basic assumptions about what it means to be a man or a woman–we’re fed it so often it can be hard to think other options. One prominent form that takes is the way our culture narrates women in relation to the body. The female body is not just a thing but also a social construct; how culture regards that construct reveals a lot about how women are valued.

The female body construct in our culture is subjected to constant figurative/metaphorical violence–we see the Bride Torn Asunder and all the other Brides daily. In my town of Bloomington, Indiana, there is an advertisement for apartments on the side of city busses that shows an image of a female torso with a caption that reads, “Close to everything.” Not only do we get the dismembered image of a female torso, but we’re further asked to make the mental leap to envision the female body in terms of its other segmented and sexualized parts. What kind of culture do we live in that dismemberment upon dismemberment is not only a casual sight but a way of selling apartments…and everything else? How does it change our idea of who or what women are…and who or what men are? Like Angela whose joints become dislocated after the Holy Spirit leaves her, none of us are the same after hearing the roar of this kind of gendered discourse in our ears.

And like those who worship the Harper, we are complicit, all of us. We learn to participate and believe it is desirable. I think we are already a culture that worships the Harper.

The story tries to grapple with how we can deal with this problem, and, I hope, presents some options, metaphorical or otherwise.

That is what I was thinking when I wrote the story–though of course I would never say this is the only way to read it. It can be about companionship, about overcoming obstacles, about the power of turning your back on what demeans you, that the swamp is your friend–anything that speaks to you.

Citation: Angela of Foligno. Angela of Foligno: Complete Works. The Classics of Western Spirituality: A Library of the Great Spiritual Masters. Translated by Paul Lachance, O.F.M. New York and Mahwah: Paulist Press, 1993.

Darja is available to answer questions and participate in discussion about His One True Bride until Sunday evening.

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