Thursday, November 25, 2010

Foucault and the Virgin Mary

I noticed the other day, over at Mark Goodacre's blog, that he had a post up about a coming BBC Christmas production called Nativity. It's a dramatised retelling of the events around Jesus' birth and seems to be based on the merging of the canonical Infancy gospels in Matthew and Luke. Mark's quoted some of the press release promoting Nativity and I was very struck by this bit

Over four half-hour episodes the drama will tell the traditional tale known to millions from a very human perspective. With Mary and Joseph's enduring love story at the centre this familiar story is given a contemporary twist, as the drama follows Joseph and Mary from their initial courtship – Joseph desperate to win the heart of Mary – to his emotional turmoil at her unexpected pregnancy.

Now maybe I missed something but I had no idea that Mary and Joseph had an "enduring" love story to begin with, let alone that he had been "desperate" to win her heart. This is a BBC production, too. The Beeb has a pretty strong reputation for quality and I'm sure this will be a quality production. Mark Goodacre himself is excited at the prospect and it also gets a good rap at Bible Films Blog. But I am still puzzled by the "enduring love story." Is that what is meant by giving the story a "contemporary twist"? Or is that how the story is understood anyway with the contemporary twist coming from some other feature?

I raise these questions because if we turn to the sources and even to subsequent tradition, an enduring love story is not what's found at all. The story or stories, nevertheless are quite fascinating, powerful even and I think it would be great to see a production based on them rather than the modern love story treatment.

And so right now I want to look at the five most ancient sources we have for the Nativity and the relationship between Joseph and Mary. These sources are Matthew's infancy narrative, Luke's infancy narrative, Ode 19 of the Odes of Solomon, the Ascension of Isaiah and the Proto-Evangelion of James. What they'll show is that ancient Christians had a very different understanding of the relationship between Mary and Joseph, such that they would probably be extremely puzzled by portraying the two in the context of a romantic love melodrama. But I should note by way of preamble that Joseph barely gets a mention in the other two canonical gospels, he's not an active character, he's not in the picture at all. He's really only referred to in passing as the father of Jesus. He completely disappears in one passage in Mark when Jesus is referred to as son of Mary. On the strength of such absence, the understandable tradition developed that Joseph had died when Jesus was young, certainly long before he began his public life.

So I'll start with Matthew. The infancy narrative comprises the first two chapters of this gospel. More than two thirds of chapter 1 is a genealogy of Jesus (1-17); the remaining 7 verses trace the relationship between Joseph and Mary and Mary's pregnancy. There's no sense of a deep romantic love here. Instead we are told that Joseph was a righteous man and on learning of Mary's pregnancy, decided to dismiss her quietly and not expose her to public disgrace. Perhaps Joseph feels kindly to Mary, but 'desperate' or ardent? - not really. He is only prevented from dismissing Mary by the appearance of an angel, who tells him just what sort of child Mary is carrying. Joseph relents and does not send her away. Chapter 2 relates the coming of the Magi, the flight into Egypt and the massacre of the children of Bethlehem. Here Joseph comes into his own, helping Mary and her child escape to Egypt. Without Joseph, their lives would be in the greatest peril. And yet, never at any time do Joseph and Mary converse. And then, once we quit the infancy narrative, Joseph disappears entirely. He gets mentioned a couple of times; in the parallel to the Mark passage cited above, he's referred to as the carpenter and not by name, while Mary is herself named. So what we have of Joseph in Matthew is an absence, following his appearance in the first two chapters, where the only person he interacts and converses with at all is an angel. There's nothing in Matthew about any enduring, let alone ardent, love.

In contrast, Mary is the main figure in Luke's infancy narrative, chapters 1 and 2 of the Gospel. Mary speaks and interacts with people and an angel too. The first chapter deals with the conception and birth of John the Baptist and the Annunciation, Mary's conception of Jesus and her visit to her cousin Elizabeth who is pregnant with John the Baptist; we are told that Mary is betrothed to Joseph but he makes no other appearance in chapter 1. His debut comes in chapter 2 but only as background figure: he and Mary go to Bethlehem to be registered in the census; he is present when the shepherds come, as bidden by the angels, to give homage to the Christ child; he accompanies Mary to the Temple for the Presentation scene. But at no time do he and Mary converse. In the Temple Simeon and Anna prophesy over Jesus and Simeon addresses Mary directly but Joseph remains a shadowy figure in the background. It's only in the final part of chapter 2, when Jesus is found in the Temple at age 12 after being lost by his parents, that Mary, when addressing Jesus, actually acknowledges Joseph's existence, by saying that she and his father had been searching for him anxiously. Jesus' response, invoking his heavenly Father, effectively contradicts any paternal claims that Joseph has. After that, Joseph as a character disappears in Luke's gospel. He gets a mention, unsurprisingly, in the genealogy of Jesus in chapter 3, and elsewhere Jesus gets referred to as son of Joseph, including in the Lucan parallel to the passages in Matthew and Mark referred to above. But again there is nothing to indicate any strong attachment between Mary and Joseph, he's a background figure at best and in chapter 1 Mary acts and speaks on her own initiative, apparently beholden to no one.

I'll break from narrative to poetry and turn to Ode 19 of the Odes of Solomon. You can read Charlesworth's translation of the Odes here. He dates the Odes to the 1st century, although others have opted for 2nd or even 3rd century. They've been called the first Christian hymn book and they have strong resonances both with the Johannine New Testament literature and with Qumran texts as well. Ode 19 gives a short but quite striking account of the Incarnation and Nativity not least for its gender bending imagery.

1. A cup of milk was offered to me, and I drank it in the sweetness of the Lord's kindness.
2. The Son is the cup, and the Father is He who was milked; and the Holy Spirit is She who milked Him;
3. Because His breasts were full, and it was undesirable that His milk should be ineffectually released.
4. The Holy Spirit opened Her bosom, and mixed the milk of the two breasts of the Father.
5. Then She gave the mixture to the generation without their knowing, and those who have received it are in the perfection of the right hand.
6. The womb of the Virgin took it, and she received conception and gave birth.
7. So the Virgin became a mother with great mercies.
8. And she labored and bore the Son but without pain, because it did not occur without purpose.
9. And she did not require a midwife, because He caused her to give life.
10. She brought forth like a strong man with desire, and she bore according to the manifestation, and she acquired according to the Great Power.
11. And she loved with redemption, and guarded with kindness, and declared with grandeur.

I've quoted it in full because it's short and because I like it. Now assuming "the Virgin" refers to Mary (and I'm quite happy to allow for an ambiguity here, that the poem describes an event happening in the heavenly as much as the terrestrial realms), it seems that here the Lucan portrait has been brought to its logical conclusion. Mary is front and centre and she is an independent figure, a powerful figure in her own right. She has no need of a man, let alone a husband. If anything she might be reminiscent of the Woman of the Apocalypse (Revelation 12) who is herself a heavenly figure (the Hebrew goddess?) who was assimilated to Mary quite early in Christian tradition, too.

Returning to narrative accounts, our next stop is the Ascension of Isaiah. This text has been dated from the first to second centuries of the Christian era. It only survives in full in Ethiopian manuscripts but fragments also survive in Greek, Latin, Coptic and Slavonic. It's a composite text (Charles' translation of the full text can be read here). Chapters 1-5 relate Isaiah's persecution and martyrdom at the hands of King Manasseh. The second half relates Isaiah's vision in which he ascends through the Seven Heavens to meet Christ and Enoch and where he sees the future incarnation and nativity of Christ. Much of the Vision is reminiscent of the Enoch literature including the nativity of Christ in chapter 11 which I will now quote (from Knibb's translation chapters 6-11 available here):

1. And after this I looked, and the angel who spoke to me and led me said to me, "Understand, Isaiah son of Amoz, because for this purpose I was sent from the Lord."
2 And I saw a woman of the family of David the prophet whose name (was) Mary, and she (was) a virgin and was betrothed to a man whose name (was) Joseph, a carpenter, and he also (was) of the seed and family of the righteous David of Bethlehem in Judah.
3 And he came into his lot. And when she was betrothed, she was found to be pregnant, and Joseph the carpenter wished to divorce her.
4 But the angel of the Spirit appeared in this world, and after this Joseph did not divorce Mary; but he did not reveal this matter to anyone.
5 And he did not approach Mary, but kept her as a holy virgin, although she was pregnant.
6 And he did not live with her for two months.
7 And after two months of days, while Joseph was in his house, and Mary his wife, but both alone,
8 it came about, when they were alone, that Mary then looked with her eyes and saw a small infant, and she was astounded.
9 And after her astonishment had worn off, her womb was found as (it was) at first, before she had conceived.
10 And when her husband, Joseph, said to her, "What has made you astounded?" his eyes were opened, and he saw the infant and praised the Lord, because the Lord had come in his lot.
11 And a voice came to them, "Do not tell this vision to anyone."
12 But the story about the infant was spread abroad in Bethlehem.
13 Some said, "The virgin Mary has given birth before she has been married two months."
14 But many said, "She did not give birth; the midwife did not go up (to her), and we did not hear (any) cries of pain." And they were all blinded concerning him; they all knew about him, but they did not know from where he was.
15 And they took him and went to Nazareth in Galilee

The account resembles somewhat Matthew's infancy narrative and many scholars argue that it is derived from it. Enrico Norelli has argued that it is independent of the account in Matthew. If anything, I'm reminded of the nativity of Melchizedek in 2 Enoch, particularly in the manner of Jesus' birth. But I guess my main point here is that the author is not interested in any love between Joseph and Mary. In fact compared to the parallel scene in 2 Enoch, Joseph appears relatively nonchalant about being cuckolded by heaven, perhaps because it is very early days in the relationship, whereas in 2 Enoch the couple who have a heavenly child foisted upon them have been married for many (childless) years.

Finally I turn to the Protoevangelium of James also known as the Gospel of James i.e. James of Jerusalem known as the brother of the Lord. You can read this 2nd century text in full here and here. This Gospel is pretty much an infancy gospel only. It relates the conception and nativity not only of Jesus but also of his mother, Mary. It's not generally known in the Western Church and it was never included in any New Testament collection. Nevertheless it gives a considerable amount of 'back story' to the canonical gospels and their infancy narratives, such that it is almost a fifth Gospel. It's from this gospel that we get the names of Mary's parents, Joachim and Anna. It's from this gospel too that we get the idea that Joseph was a lot older than Mary and had children, one of whom being James, from a previous marriage. That way Mary's perpetual virginity is preserved and Gospel references to Jesus' brothers and sisters resolved. Unfortunately, the Western Church, in about the 4th or 5th centuries decided to make Joseph a perpetual virgin too, so the gospel was quietly discarded, even though much of its story entered into the Western tradition. While the East acclaims Mary's perpetual virginity it saw no reason for Joseph to be caught up in the gestalt of perpetual virginity. The East accepted the idea that Joseph had been married before and that James and the other brothers and sisters of Jesus were the product of that marriage. The Protoevangelium wasn't incorporated into the Eastern New Testament but the Eastern Churches hold it in very high esteem, counting it as coming from James and counting it as a key and inspired text of Tradition.

As I said the Protoevangelium relates the nativity of both Mary and Jesus. Mary's conception is miraculous, almost implicitly non-sexual. When she is born she is counted as a special, child of promise and her parents pledge her to the Temple. She's taken there at age two (there's a charming image of the two year old Mary dancing in the Holy of Holies) and she stays living there until she is twelve. At twelve she's on the verge of puberty and menstruation. The priests are concerned that she might breach the menstrual taboos and defile the Temple. So the priests summon a gathering of widowers so that the Lord will determine which of them will take Mary into his care and protection. After a miracle of the staves in which a dove emerges from Joseph's staff and perches itself on his head, Mary is placed in Joseph's custody to which he strongly protests due to his great age and her youth. In the end he relents but then leaves her in his home and goes away building houses. Mary is then summoned back to the Temple along with several other virgins and put to work on making the Temple veil. It's at this time that the archangel comes to her and announces that she will conceive. This she does and then sets off to visit her cousin Elizabeth who of course is pregnant with John the Baptist. While she stays with Elizabeth, Mary's belly starts to swell with her pregnancy and she gets frightened and returns to her home. Joseph then returns from his travels and finds her pregnant for which he berates her. Joseph resolves to divorce her quietly but then an angel comes to him to explain what has happened. Joseph relents and decides to protect Mary.

In the meantime the priests have discovered Mary's pregnancy. Joseph is accused of having violated Mary. Both deny the charge and both are subjected to trial by ordeal which they both pass. They are then allowed to go free and Mary returns with Joseph to his house. The narrative then relates the birth of Jesus at Bethlehem, the coming of the Magi, the slaughter of the infants of Bethlehem, the flight of Elizabeth and her baby and the murder of her husband, Zechariah, by Herod's men in the Temple sanctuary for refusing to divulge the whereabouts of his child.

Pretty gripping stuff! But again what I want to highlight is the relationship between Joseph and Mary. It is most definitely not a love match! Mary is in her early teens while Joseph is an old man. It's not clear that they are even married. Mary is addressed and behaves too as if she is Joseph's ward, not his wife. In contrast, there is much more concern and affection among Mary's parents in the text than there is between Joseph and Mary. Why is Joseph under suspicion of having violated her? Although Mary is living in Joseph's house and is in his care, it seems the text does not understand them to be married in any way. I guess what I then want to point out that early Christians were not actually interested in the relationship between Mary and Joseph. What was more important to them as Mary's integrity, her virginity, her autonomy. As Virgin and Mother, Mary encapsulates a suite of ancient motifs, not least the virgin and living soil of Eden, and, of course the ancient great goddesses; Mary is the new Eve and the new Sarah, the Mother of the New Covenant. She represents the end of the old ways, the start of a new way of being, one in which women are no longer subject to the rule of their husbands. We forget that early Christianity had a vision of world without marriage (Matthew 22:23 ff) and many Christians tried to live that vision literally, the majority through celibacy, and a minority by a form of sexual communism. The Acts of Thecla (sadly she was dropped by Rome from the Western calendar of saints in the early 1970s) gives another radical celibate vision of female autonomy.

Early Christians were not interested in any love between Joseph and Mary. Firstly because most marriages weren't contracted for love anyway. They were family arrangements, much as they still are in many parts of the world today. Love might grow during marriage, such that if a woman survived her childbearing years she might hope to have the respect and affection of her husband. Failing that, then, the honour due her as a matron. Hence not only is Mary a Virgin, but she is preserved the pains of (and the mortal threats from) childbirth.

By the high medieval period, Mary has become the Queen of Heaven, enthroned on the ceilings and walls of churches she presides over the mysteries of her Son. If she is represented with anyone it is usually him, but sometimes with her mother (Da Vinci played with that pairing rather delightfully in this image of Mary and Anne with the infant Jesus), and sometimes in the company of other virgins. But rarely, rarely with her husband. Marriage is part of this world which is due to pass way. She is Queen in the world to come, a world in which there is no marriage at all.

Consequently, early Christians would regard this production of the Nativity with puzzlement. A love story between Joseph and Mary would not make sense to them. Likewise with their descendants a thousand years later. For them Mary was the great Queen of Heaven, the Virgin Mother. If she is portrayed with Joseph, it is because he, too, in the West is now counted in the company of virgins. Joseph the ever-virgin makes an oddly queer character in the radical celibate imaginary. The ardent heterosexual lover of the BBC's Nativity is alien indeed to that exotic flower.

The BBC's Nativity signifies that there's been a discursive shift over the last few centuries, hence my nod to Foucault in the title of this post. For medieval and ancient Christians, the notion that Mary and Joseph would be in love, in some kind of romance, would seem bizarre; as it still would to many Eastern Christians, for whom Joseph was an old man and Mary a young teenager, barely into puberty. But for us in the West, it seems, especially the Anglisphere it appears to be unthinkable that they wouldn't be. That this is so is, I think, the result of a process that began in the late medieval period and was accelerated in the Reformation. Mary is kicked off her heavenly throne and made subject to her husband. To the more 'liberal' minded Protestant it's only natural that Mary had all those children after Jesus, because it's only natural, it's what marriage is all about. The Holy Family get to model the ideal bourgeois Protestant family and Mary is reduced to a shadow of herself. The discursive shift that Foucault identifies as taking place in the 19th century is really only a rationalist appropriation of the older Protestant discourse, reconfigured in a secular frame, appropriate to a modern 'progressive' and reasonable society in which religion becomes an individualised and privatised activity, its public and linking functions taken over by the liberal, capitalist and secular state.

The same process happens in the Catholic world too. Following the Catholic Reform around Trent, Mary gets diminished and located more and more within the family, the Holy Family. It's more difficult, of course; there's the whole weight of Marian tradition plus the celibacy of Joseph. This family is not like any bourgeois family out there in the real world. There's a real danger that this family of celibates can flip out of the heteronormative into some very queer spaces. And it's not as if the diminution of Mary happens without a fight, either. Marian apparitions, generally always to women and (mainly girl-) children, become more public and dramatic, Lourdes and Fatima, the most striking of all. Nevertheless, by the post-Vatican 2 period, the Reform push has triumphed and Mary ends up pretty much removed from her throne, kicked out to the kitchen to take her place, the ever-virgin wife, subject to the ever-virgin husband. All this happened with the rise of feminism, too, and sadly many feminists saw Mary as too hopelessly entangled in the webs of patriarchy to be bothered with her.

And yet seen through a feminist lens the Mary of Luke's gospel does not fit that that holy patriarchal family at all. She speaks and acts in her own right without need of any man. Ode 19 might also seem shocking to many (it certainly causes discomfort to conservative evangelicals). A text like the Protoevangelium of James is completely alien to modern sensibilities.

It sounds like Nativity is taking its cue from Matthew - Joseph is front and centre, not Mary. Presumably a toned down version of Luke's account will flesh it out somewhat but it will be framed within the broader context of the modern nuclear family and Western ideologies of marriage and marital love. I doubt we will see any sign of the perpetually virgin Mary, let alone a perpetually virgin Joseph, and from what I can make out Mary and Joseph will be age peers too, no June December romance here. No, it will likely be the Joseph and Mary of the Western bourgeois imaginary even if the central event, a miraculous pregnancy actively agreed to by the woman, would serve to challenge it. Will this Mary say "Fiat! so let it happen, I accept" and will she argue justifying her decision and challenge Joseph and his patriarchal expectations?

Unfortunately the Mary of the Protoevangelium doesn't challenge Joseph either but pleads ignorance of what happened instead. Perhaps she does so to enable the heavenly angelic intervention, a feature of Matthew, Ascension of Isaiah and the Protoevengelium itself. Does angelic intervention maintain patriarchal decorum? Nevertheless, because it is so alien I would like to see a Nativity made using the Protoevangelium to flesh it out, especially if it joins with Luke to put Mary front and centre, not Joseph, and to celebrate her "Fiat!". That would make a Nativity suitably alien to modern sensitivities, a shocking and disturbing story and not one that has been tamed.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Memory and Place

As I said in a post earlier this month, I've been doing some research assistant work for the last three and a half weeks, only a couple of weeks left after this one. I'm speed reading Australian biographies and collating data on references to reading. I've just finished working on Barbara Brooks' biography of Eleanor Dark. She also has a biographical essay on Eleanor Dark here. The book was quite a tome and stuffed full of references to reading. I've been working on it the last few days. If you ever get a chance to read it, I recommend it. The biography was fascinating. I'd like to read it properly one day and I'd also like to read some of Dark's novels too.

Actually I'd like to read all these biographies again, and properly, one day; well, maybe not Eric Campbell's account of the New Guard. I knocked that over this afternoon, after finishing the Dark biography. Campbell's style, even for 1963, is quite daunting. He often sounds like a parody of that absolutely pukka stiff-upper-lip British-Imperial-military type. But sadly, of course, that's what he modelled himself on. He was determined to be an Australian version of that Imperial Britisher. Monty Python would have had a field day with him! But nevertheless, there were brief moments even in his account when a flash of something human shone through.

Prior to the Dark biography, I'd been reading a large oral history of the Depression years in Australia, Weevils in the Flour. And before then was the Frank Hardy book that took me back to my times in the old Melbourne watchhouse. I've also read lives Les Darcy, King O'Malley, Robin Dalton and an army nurse's account of captivity in Sumatra during WW2. And that's not all I've read either plus I have a pile of books to get into. After Campbell, I plan to read about Margaret Coen and also Jean Devanny. And there's more.

This whole experience has been a fascinating and deeply touching, even moving, one for me. To start with, most of these people, and the other people in their lives, are really fascinating people, with many of whom I feel a rapport, in their hopes and dreams, their humanity, their vision, their compassion and their faith, and at times their despair. With many of them, there's also the involvement in progressive, left-wing, Labor Party, socialist, union and Communist Party politics. There's quite a few Catholics and other Christians, too, and they're mostly on the Left. Often they abandon their religion, but often they don't. I'm enjoying meeting these people and I'm humbled by them too. Well, most of them.

From reading these biographies, I'm learning an awful lot of Australian history too. I knew a bit of it but these biographies give a glimpse into worlds that you don't get in a strict historical narrative. I started this post yesterday (Wednesday) and today I manged to read the Coen biography. Through it I entered several rich worlds - the world of a rural NSW town (Yass) a century ago and then several worlds of Sydney. I discovered that the area of Sydney from Martin Place to Circular Quay used to be a veritable artists hangout in the twenties and thirties. In those days there was no expressway and the bridge had just been finished in 1932. I can't imagine what it's like nowadays but I know my first detailed memories of the area come from a family trip to Sydney in 1967 and I was struck then by it being an area of high rise office blocks. How different from that earlier time!

The biographies bring these lost worlds to life for me. That's especially important for two reasons. The first is that I'm a survivor of the Australian education system of the '50s and '60s. I don't think Australia is unique in this, but, nevertheless, I'm struck by how much my education seemed designed to cultivate a collective amnesia about Australia's history. It's been odd for me to observe the teaching history debates that were a recent feature of public discussion in this country, particularly in the Howard years. Howard represented himself as the great savior of Australian history in our schools, which had apparently been run down or even dumped unlike the great glory years of the past when history was taught and promoted. I always thought what rubbish! I don't know how history is taught nowadays but in my schooldays it was, I think, deliberately made so boring and dull that we young people would never want to look at it again (a bit like the way poetry and novels and drama, Shakespeare, were taught too; intentionally designed to destroy any possible interest we might have had in them for our later lives). After I finished school I never really bothered much with Australian history, apart from learning about indigenous history (and that was whitewashed and whited out almost completely in school). I also picked up some union history and a bit of history of left wing movements here; and then, many years after I left school, we started to get some LGBT histories being published. Otherwise most of my history reading was overseas history. It was a bit harder to dumb down in school or maybe so much energy was put into dumbing down and anaesthetizing Australian history that they didn't bother so much with the foreign stuff. So enough got through to intrigue and fascinate me - and I have always been fascinated by history.

The other reason reading these biographies has been important is that they are bringing worlds to life that were further blocked off to me by the fact that while I was born in Sydney like my parents and all of their families, I grew up in Brisbane. I have some early childhood memories of Sydney both from when we lived there and then of visits from Lithgow, where we then lived until we moved to Brisbane in 1957 when I was 5 (I think a lot of my visceral, unspoken, sensual memories - colour, light and shade, scent and cold and warmth and wind stem from Lithgow; I seem to be haunted by bush framed sunsets). We never got back to visit Sydney until I was turning 15 in 1967. The world my parents, and aunt (Mum's sister) and uncle knew in their youth was a Sydney world for which I had no reference, being in Brisbane. At the same time they could not pass on to me memories of Brisbane because again they were from Sydney; the world of Brisbane's past was as unknown to them as it was to me. My family actually left Sydney when I was two and moved to Lithgow in the Blue Mountains (my aunt and uncle left around then too). As I got older, especially as an adult I began to find out more about Brisbane's past - I also got to visit Sydney a fairly regularly in the 70s and 80s and a couple of times in the 90s too (I haven't really been there this century, apart from the airport en route to elsewhere) and so have a bit more of a sense of place for Sydney, although not as well as Brisbane or Melbourne, or Townsville for that matter (where I lived and worked for a time in '88).

Ironically, one person might have been able to help create a collective memory of Brisbane for me, my mother's mother, my grandmother; except for the fact of how she came to live in Brisbane from the 1920s onwards. My grandmother had come here after leaving her husband and two daughters to go with another man (my mother and my aunt were then fostered out to another family with whom they grew up). What made the situation even more awkward was that my grandmother was Catholic, my grandfather Protestant, and after he divorced my grandmother, she married the man she went off with. By the time I was on the scene he was dead and he was never really spoken of, and of course us being a Catholic family made my grandmother's past even more difficult to discuss. It was the half-secret that wasn't to be talked about. I only found out some details from my grandfather's second wife, my step-grandmother when I visited her in Sydney when I was older.

The Depression oral histories made me aware of various facts about life in Brisbane and Queensland and also Sydney and New South Wales that were unknown to me (I had no idea that the dole used to be paid out by the police back then!). And I've read one biography of an Irish couple who ended up in Brisbane in the second half of the 19th century. But most of the material I've read so far is about people living in or around Sydney. Many of these people are part of the Sydney my parents knew and so all of a sudden I have been immersed in these worlds, these communities, that possibly my parents and even my grandparents knew. Margaret Coen was not only a friend of Norman Lindsay but the pair had been lovers at one stage too. Thing is I remember being told that my grandmother went to parties at Lindsay's house in Springwood, at least once anyway (stories tend to embellish things). This was long before Margaret Coen was on the scene. But it's an odd feeling to think that there may be a connection to this world in my ancestral past. Another biography was of Robin Dalton who was born Robin Eakin, the daughter of a doctor Eakin. Dalton was born the same year as my mother but their lives were extraordinarily different, radically so when Dalton left Australia for London at the end of WW2. I asked my mother if she'd known of the Eakins or the doctor when she was nursing at St Vincents back in the war years. My mother remembered a doctor called Eakin then but he was too young to be the father of Robin. But, again, little points of connection. I can't hope for much more because my mother and my aunt are the only ones left of that generation in my family. And my grandparents and step-grandparents have long since left this earth.

The Eleanor Dark biography was extraordinarily well written and was richly illustrated by quotes from her correspondence and that of her circles (and political police reports too). I felt that I had somehow entered her world and it was a world that fascinated me, a world with which I had points of connection through shared ideals and hopes. They're all dead now. I would love a a TARDIS so that I could go back and meet them all.

Biography and history; bringing history alive; discovering a sense of place in the past, through the past. I look at those lives and think, aren't you all extraordinary! How amazing we humans are! Each one a microcosm of hope and dreams and loves, of stories countless. Biography and history. Maybe that's why our school curriculum set out to bore us with history. Yes we can learn from the mistakes of the past. But more importantly I think biography and history can awaken in us a sense of wonder, a sense of compassion, a sense of solidarity with those who went before and consequently with those around us now too. Wonder? Compassion? Solidarity? In a capitalist society? No surprise we were taught amnesia instead.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Some Thoughts on the Tyranny of Marriage

A friend of mine recently went to a school reunion. She's in her mid-forties, working, unmarried, lives in her own unit alone. She's not single though; she has a partner. They met through work. He lives in his own place, has done for quite a few years, alone. He was married but that ended a long time ago. My friend and her partner actually live not far from each other and theirs is a commuting relationship. So anyway at the school reunion, when my friend told her former classmates about her relationship, they heaved a sigh of relief, "we'd been wondering if you were gay because you weren't married and didn't have kids." It's in just such little ways that the tyranny of marriage makes itself felt. Presumably having a man in her life has restored some credibility for her, even if she isn't married. And yet my friend's situation is not that unusual. I have another friend who has been in a relationship with a man, a man also previously married and with kids (and grandkids, with whom she has a strong step-grandmother relationship too), for over 18 years now; they have never lived together in that time. And it's not just straight people. I have a gay friend who not does not live with his partner despite their 20 or so years together, they actually live in different countries, here and in Thailand! I'm told that in Thailand it's not the norm, or at least wasn't in the past, for male lovers to live together. Married people do that and marriage is husbands and wives and babies. Marriage there is primarily about children.

So I was curious to discover this essay over at the Guardian the other day. It's called The Tyranny of Marriage by Lara Pawson. Lara is a married woman in the UK and she and her husband want to end their marriage because they've learnt that marriage "conveys gravitas and status ... it's a smug club to which my husband and I no longer want to belong." I recommend you read the whole piece; I reckon it's pretty good, although I also disagree with some parts of it too. I'm going to quote and comment on parts of it but first some background. In the UK marriage is only permissible between a man and a woman. However the UK also has civil partnerships. These are only permissible between two men or two women. A man and a woman can't contract a civil partnership and male or female couples can't get married. Nevertheless, civil partnerships are pretty much like marriage although they lack some of the privileges that marriage has. I'll get back to that shortly.

In the UK there's an Equal Love campaign which is being coordinated by the tireless gay activist, Peter Tatchell. In part it's about the right for same sex couples to get married but it's also about the right of opposite sex couples to contract a civil partnership. A number of opposite sex couples, including Tom Freeman and Katherine Doyle, have applied to enter into a civil partnership. They've been knocked back as have the same sex couples been denied to contract marriage. I think this is a brilliant campaign with the potential to unleash some major changes which will lessen the tyranny of marriage. I used that term last year in one of my pieces on marriage and I was curious to see Lara Pawson use the same term as the title of her piece.

She starts off saying:
I want to divorce the man I love and he wants to divorce me. We do not wish to separate – simply to end our seven-year marriage... we would prefer "to secure official status for our relationship in a way that supports the call for complete equality and is free of the negative, sexist connotations of marriage". We are both fed up with being part of the hetero-husband-and-wife brigade that is accorded so much status and privilege

They got married in 2003 because they wanted "a public celebration to acknowledge our love, and my husband- to-be felt strongly that a ceremony with singing and reading was important, as well as the almighty knees-up." Marriage, "albeit a God-free one, seemed to be the only available path." They also got married for a practical reason. They were planning to live in Angola and getting visas as two 'single' people, in other words unmarried people - they were, after all, a couple - was a difficult process. Marriage enabled them to cut through the red tape. Marriage is recognised by international treaty, so long as it's monogamous. Polygamous and polyandrous marriages aren't recognised under international law even though they might be allowed in specific countries. Monogamous marriage is the only non-biological relationship that has international recognition, it's one of its privileges and it is privileged by it. (I'm very conscious of that privilege. After I finished my PhD I had high hopes of getting an academic job. I knew too that it would most likely be an overseas job and certainly most of the academic jobs I've applied for have been overseas since I began making applications 10 years ago. I purposely held back as much as possible from getting involved with anyone for most of the last decade because I knew that if did get a job overseas, it would be extremely difficult to get a male partner into which ever country I'd end up in, perhaps impossible with many).

Lara says that she soon discovered how sexist marriage is. "Before we even tied the proverbial knot, I became swiftly aware of discrimination against wives. A job in journalism I was up for suddenly became unavailable: a female manager called to say that now I was married she presumed that it would be difficult for me to be a foreign correspondent." This was in 2003! But it's not the inherent sexism of marriage that most got to her. Rather it's the privilege that marriage receives.

When you marry, you gain a certain unspoken gravitas, as though society heaves a collective sigh of relief: "Thank God they've grown up." Several husbands and wives actually said to me, albeit with a weary smile, "Join the club". Clink clink. And I soon discovered that marriage really is a club.

Being married pulls you into a new elite. It lends you an air of stability and reliability that singles and divorcees are denied. We assume that those who are unmarried probably have something just a teeny bit wrong with them because they have never managed to persuade another to settle down into that cosy unit of coupledom. This is the smug tyranny of husbands and wives.

I think what Lara has discovered here is the fact that marriage is the default in our society, the default of what constitutes a normative relationship, the type of relationship we are all meant to aspire to, the type of relationship that is considered makes for a well-adjusted and happy individual. As my friend found at her school reunion not being married put her in the category of 'suspected to be gay' (presumably lesbian was something too shocking for her classmates to consider). Consequently a suite of privileges attach to marriage. I think marriage even affects the way we have sex. Just today I saw this article someone had posted on Facebook, "Was it (not) good for you? Men say they fake it, too" - it seems that men fake orgasms too, 25% of male respondents in a recent US study. Apparently most of the time guys faked it was during penis-vagina intercourse (it seems the respondents were all heterosexual) which was also the same for women. In other words men and women were both following an erotic script and faked orgasm because they wanted to get out of it without putting their partner on the spot. One commentator, Carol Ellison, makes the astute observation:

"When sex is a performance, and when sex has performance goals — erection, intercourse, orgasms— it's problematic," Ellison, who was not involved in the research, told LiveScience. Ellison argues that sexual success should be redefined as anything that makes you feel goodabout yourself, good about your partner and as something that enhances your relationship.

"If you change the goal of sex to creating mutual pleasure and finding all the different ways to create pleasure... you'll learn a lot more about sexual responsiveness," she said. "Sex will be a whole different experience."

I would argue that this performance based approach to sex comes from the reproductive priority accorded it by making marriage the template of normative intimate relationships. Marriage traditionally and primarily has been about having children. That and property (children themselves are traditionally a form of property) and inter-family alliance have always been the main purposes of marriage. Marriage has given sex a form of legitimacy through its procreative function, especially in Christian societies. Erection, intercourse and orgasms (especially the male's) are linked to that procreative function. They form a script that people believe they have to follow if they are to be counted as normal - normative - human beings.

I've taken a bit of a long detour here but I found the resonances between the fake orgasm article and the broader issue of the privileged default status of marriage too compelling to ignore. However the privileged status of marriage almost has a common sense quality. No one ever questions the centrality of marriage in our society. No one questions the laws against bigamy or plural marriage - everyone assumes that monogamy is the normal 'natural' way to be. No one questions the 'happy ever after' romantic aura that's cast around marriage. As Lara says when people marry they're given a "gravitas" and regarded as "all grown up." And I've been told that, anecdotally anyway, many young women today regard being a bride, getting married, as a kind of formal coming of age. And of course when you get married you're wedded to your soulmate, your partner, your complement, without whom your life is incomplete. It's the ultimate in co-dependency, it's also considered central to maturity. There's a whole industry of psychobabble literature designed to prop up the mythology.

And yet, as I pointed out in my first post on this topic last year the current status of marriage as the stand alone non-biological kinship relation and as the way to psycho-emotional affectional maturity and fulfilment is a fairly recent development in human history. Marriage has always been central, the demands of patriarchy and progeny always made it so, but for our ancestors, it did not have the tyrannical dominance that it does today. The late gay historian, Alan Bray, points out that in medieval Europe marriage sat amongst a web of non-biological (kinship) relationships. Indeed marriage was not regarded as the main vehicle of affectional fulfilment. Such fulfilment was more likely found in one's friendships. If it also happened in your marriage then that was regarded as a blessing. But in that medieval world, people might have entered one or two sworn friendships, they may well even have a sworn brother or sworn sister (sworn brotherhood and sworn sisterhood are more common in the Orthodox East but there were Latin rites of making men brothers too). Baptism and godparenting brought people into relationship - people lived amidst elaborate networks of god-kin. And that's just some of the web of relationships in which people lived and of which, marriage was a part.

All of this began to change in the Renaissance and the Reformation. The practices of sworn friendship, sworn brotherhood and sworn sisterhood were stopped and the church rituals that instituted such relationships were suppressed and forgotten, especially in the West (they linger still in isolated pockets in the East). The networks of god-kin were pruned back. The web of relationship was unravelled. At the same time, marriage moved more and more into the centre of life. It became more formalised, reified, sacramentalised. For the Reformers, marriage instituted the godly household which was to become the fundamental basis of the godly Reformed Christian state. (The Reformers also closed down those suspect same-sex households of convent and monastery). The Roman Church also played catch-up making marriage a sacrament and tightening the regime of confession to monitor the sex lives of the faithful.

But with the rise of the modern capitalist state, marriage became very much a state institution. In much of Europe, the state took it off the Church. In the UK the state sub-contracted to the Church, in the 18th century the British Parliament mandating marriage in the Church of England as the only way to legitimate cohabitation (Jews and Quakers were given an exemption). This process goes hand in hand with the development of capitalism. In its raw state capitalism discourages all human solidarity - ultimately we are nothing more than individual consumers and wage slaves. Marriage, monogamous, couplist, patriarchal, and the nuclear family that goes with it, (once again described and valorised in the literature of Reformers such as Calvin) is the minimalist compromise for capitalism to make with human need for solidarity, in order to ensure new generations of consumers and wage slaves. The marriage household also makes a good unit of consumption and so it's easily integrated into the capitalist state. And propaganda is peddled promoting marriage as the focus of human affectional and personal fulfilment and maturity. The rich literature on friendship, going back through the centuries of Christianity and beyond into the many centuries of ancient pagan cultures too, peters out by the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Friendship is instead demoted and trivialised, a situation that would astonish our ancestors for whom it was of such importance.

I've had to summarise briefly and crudely but I do so to bring home just how recent a development the, dare I say morbid, centrality of marriage in our society is. And not just a general concept of marriage but a very specific instance, monogamous, couplist, exclusivist (I won't say patriarchal, sexist or hierarchical because most historical forms of marriage have been that).

But back to Lara's article. She goes on to say that she and her husband will divorce and hope to eventually form a civil partnership if the Equal Love campaign proves successful. But she then goes further announcing a much broader vision of relationship recognition:
As I have argued elsewhere, if we really seek equality we must refuse to accept a society that prioritises conventional coupledom over other forms of love and fellowship. Those who would like to live with people who mean a great deal to them, but are not lovers, are left out of this entire debate. Again, I turn to Tatchell. Five years ago he wrote: "Many non-sexual friendships are as sincere, loyal and enriching as relations between people in love. They, too, should have legal recognition."
She's quoting Peter Tatchell here from an article published in the Guardian back in 2005 when civil partnerships were introduced. Tatchell then rightly condemned the effective apartheid of a dual civil partnership for same-sex and marriage for mixed-sex couples set-up. He then outlined his own proposal for a single civil commitment pact which could be tailored by partners from a pick and mix menu of rights and obligations to work out a pact that best suits their needs. He then goes on to declare:

Many non-sexual friendships are as sincere, loyal and enriching as relations between people in love. They, too, should have legal recognition. Restricting partnership rights to people in sexual relationships discriminates against close friends who support each other but are not in a traditional love coupling. If an elderly brother and sister set up house together and care for one another, why shouldn't they have legal rights?

Unfortunately, few partnerships last a lifetime. Single people account for nearly a third of all households. Friends now play an increasingly important role in people's lives and support networks. It's wrong to deny legal rights to close friends who have a strong, supportive bond, just because they are not lovers and don't have sex.
Similar legislation exists in Tasmania. Legal rights are granted to all relationships of mutual devotion and support, including gay couples, carers and unmarried heterosexual partners. It works Down Under; why not here?

I agree with both Peter Tatchell and Lara Pawson in the need to recognise a wider range of relationships than just monogamous marriage and marriage like relationships/civil partnerships and like Peter Tatchell I like the Tasmanian Relationships Register as a model. My only problem is that Tatchell still seems to stick to a monogamous model. Only one relationship will be registered and that only with one other person. And yet as Tatchell himself says "Friends now play an increasingly important role in people's lives and support networks. It's wrong to deny legal rights to close friends who have a strong, supportive bond." It's wrong to deny the fact that a person might have more than one key friendship. And they might also have a sexual relationship at the same time, too. Furthermore coupledom is not the only model for lovers and significant friendships; there can be triads and other poly arrangements just as we can have more than one significant friendship. Any relationship recognition worth its salt must also have provision for such polyamorous relationships too. It's also not clear from either of the articles whether people who don't live together are covered. I started off this post detailing three such relationships that I know of in my own network of friends, two of which span decades. They don't fit the standard marriage model and neither should they have to. These relationships are also entitled to recognition.

And I'll quote here from a post I wrote on this subject last year:

I would argue that it is about time that friendship was valued and celebrated. It's not clear from my reading whether medieval practices of sworn friendship were another form of adelphopoieia or something different. If adelphopoieia actually brought families into kinship whereas sworn friendships didn't then there is a difference already. One is kinmaking in a strong sense, the other blesses and affirms relationship without necessarily linking two kinship groups. It's time friendship was celebrated, affirmed and blessed. I'm not speaking here about solely romantic erotic same sex relationships. Imagine if two or three male or female friends wanted to celebrate their friendship and have it blessed. Imagine a world in which friendship is celebrated and honoured, including friendships between men and women!

And while I imagine the ways this could happen in a religious setting by drawing on rituals from the past, it doesn't only have to be in a religious setting. Australia now has a well established network of civil celebrants. Their main role has been to perform civil weddings. But as our culture has secularised, many of these celebrants have branched out into funerals and baby namings and same sex commitment ceremonies as well. Maybe it's time for the celebration of friendship or commitment to friendship to be added to the repertoire.

In other words celebrants could develop a range of ritual forms suitable for different types of relationships people wish to celebrate and have recognised. Committed or sworn friendships could then be entered into a relationships register along with the whole gamut of significant relationships in people's lives including marriage and other sexual relationships. Indeed it might make us recognise that marriage-like and other sexual relationships are really forms of friendship and are themselves sustained and maintained by broader webs of friendship.

That's one of the reasons I can't support the rush towards same-sex marriage. I fear that it will close off possibilities for a genuine equal love, a genuine relationship equality. Furthermore that closing off of other options buttresses the status of marriage as the default for relationships and even worse spreads the aegis of that default to cover homosexuality and same sex relationships. I would argue that marriage is not good for heterosexual people but that it is even worse for us queers. Taking marriage as the default for same sex relationships cuts us off from the variety of models in which same sex love was expressed in the past, models which we could be exploring and reviving and reconstructing, rather than forcing our relational lives into a model, marriage, which is oppressive, hierarchical and was not even designed for same-sex love. Quite the contrary, it might even have been shaped by the pressure of homosexual panic (at least that's what my reading of a number of Reformation texts suggests to me). If we are to have same-sex marriage it should come at the end, once we have dethroned marriage from its central position by setting in place a range of options and alternatives for all people in relationships, recognising, affirming and celebrating the variety and richness of human relationships.

Alas, I fear that wont be the case in Australia. When even the right wing nasties in the ALP start calling for same sex marriage then the writing is on the wall. If only the Equal Marriage campaign had been a real Equal Love campaign.

If we do end up with same sex marriage I think the next queer struggle might be to convince queer folks that marriage is not the be all and end all of life, that it's actually pretty rotten in fact; and that maybe we queer folks should not only avoid marriage but instead try to develop new ways (even revive some old ones too) and better forms of love and fellowship.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Bible, Canon and Liturgy

At the funeral I attended recently, the priest commented in her sermon on the differences between Anglicanism and some other forms of Christianity. What she had to say related to the liturgical nature of Anglicanism. I can only paraphrase from memory but the gist of it was that Anglicanism was not a very doctrinal Church; it had no founding statement of doctrines, instead it had a prayer book, the Book of Common Prayer. I remember being struck by her saying "We Anglicans believe that the most important things we can say about God should first of all be said to God." What struck me most about her words was that they pretty much encapsulated what Catholic Christianity is all about when it comes to scripture - and by Catholic I mean, of course, not just the Roman communion but the broad framework of liturgical, sacramental Christianity, of which the Roman communion is the largest example. It is that liturgical dimension of scripture and the formations of canon that I want to address today.

Last month I wrote two posts here about the biblical canons of Christianity and Rabbinic Judaism. My usual practice is to crosspost these pieces on Facebook. Often times there's more discussion about what I write on Facebook than here. The Facebook discussion on the Christianity post generated this response from Albertus which I want to use as the springboard for my discussion:

You write that the Jews began to determine the canon of the Hebrew scriptures during the christian era. I remember from my studies in Rome at the Pontificia Universita Lateranense, that, indeed, the Jews first began to perceive the need to determine which books were ''scriptural'' in reaction to the use by christians of the Septuagint Old Testament to ''prove'' that Jesus Christ is the promissed Messias, and other christian beliefs.
In Catholic and Orthodox christianity - in spite of some modern ecumenical tendencies in some quarters to approach Protestantism in this and other matters - it is not the Holy Scriptures at all which stand at the centre of our religion - but rather, the God-man Jesus Christ, whose mysteries are celebrated and relived in the Mass and the Sacraments. The Scriptures were written to serve the Liturgy. The traditional Liturgies therefore use texts of Scripture as needed to make a liturgical point, even going so far as to paraphrase texts, such as the ''Epistle'' of a Bishop Confessor: Eccli 44:16-27; 45, 3-20....
...Interesting too, and contrary to the strict ''canonical thinking'' of some, esp. in protestant quarters, is the fact that the New Testament quotes not only the ''deuterocanonical'' OT books found in the Septuagint, but also books presently held to be Apocryphal by Jews, Protestants, Catholics and Eastern Orthodox. And the NT does not quote or refer to several books which are found in all present-day official OT canons

It's his point about the links between Scripture and liturgy that interest me now. He's absolutely correct to say that for Catholic Christianities, Scripture does not hold the central place. Instead, as he says, it is "the God-man Jesus Christ" who is encountered and celebrated in the Liturgy, most centrally in the Eucharist. He's also correct, I would say, that the "Scriptures were written to serve the Liturgy." I remember being told many years ago by someone (can't remember who now) that what had made a text canonical was the fact of its use in the liturgy. I would suggest then that the various canon lists issued in the first centuries of Christianity are lists of texts that were being used in the liturgy of the local communities. Hence when, much later, the Councils of Trullo and 2 Nicea made decisions endorsing previous and apparently contradictory canon lists, they are in fact affirming the Orthodoxy and Catholicity of those various communities. Catholicism, especially in its Eastern forms is very much a religion that thinks globally but acts locally. Consequently Trullo and 2 Nicea were also not closing the canon either but giving ecumenical approval to flexible and open canonical practice grounded in the liturgy and life of the community. That ecumenical approval makes such canonical flexibility and openness the hallmark of what it means to be Catholic, Orthodox. I would argue that the ongoing canonical variety in the medieval West and Byzantine East derived from that understanding, perhaps even that ecumenical authority. I would further argue that the subsequent Western Councils of Florence and Trent did not have the authority to over-ride that older ecumenical warrant, not least because of its ecumenicity.

But back to liturgy. In my post on the Canon in Judaism, I pointed out that process of forming a Jewish Canon, took place at pretty much the same time as the process in Christianity. I'm sure too that, as my commenter observes, in part the Jewish canonical process was in reaction to Christian claims, most likely after the integration of Christianity by the Roman state in the 4th and 5th centuries.. I've thought that the canon forming processes in both religions would likely have a lot in common, including the importance of liturgical practice. Recently I found this discussion on the formation of the Jewish canon by Gerald Larue from his Old Testament Life and Literature (1968) in which he identifies four principles guiding the Jewish canonical process.

    1. The writing had to be composed in Hebrew. The only exceptions, which were written in Aramaic, were Daniel 2-7, writings attributed to Ezra (Ezra 4:8-6:18; 7:12-26), who was recognized as the founding father of post-Exilic Judaism, and Jer. 10:11. Hebrew was the language of Sacred Scripture, Aramaic the language of common speech.
    2. The writing had to be sanctioned by usage in the Jewish community. The use of Esther at Purim made it possible for it to be included in the canon. Judith, without such support, was not acceptable.
    3. The writings had to contain one of the great religious themes of Judaism, such as election, or the covenant. By reclassifying the Song of Songs as an allegory, it was possible to see in this book an expression of covenantal love.
    4. The writing had to be composed before the time of Ezra, for it was popularly believed that inspiration had ceased then. Jonah was accepted because it used the name of an early prophet and dealt with events before the destruction of Nineveh, which occurred in 612. Daniel, a pseudonymous writing, had its setting in the Exile and therefore was accepted as an Exilic document.

Unfortunately, Larue gives no source for these principles.

In my opinion, none of the literature was composed before the time of Ezra (early Persian period) but certainly that principle could be a handy way to eliminate texts that clearly date themselves later such as the various books of Maccabees. The Hebrew language requirement likewise would rule out many texts, too, both those written in Greek, and those, like Greek Jeremiah, that were markedly different to the Hebrew edition. The third principle is sufficiently nebulous and elastic but clearly, as Larue notes, could be deployed to save a text like the Song which on first reading might be considered insufficiently 'religious' in its content (there were plenty of Christian debates about the Song as well). Ultimately we are left with principle 2, community usage. Central to community usage is the synagogue liturgy. So in other words, the rabbis in creating their canon based it on the texts in common liturgical usage in the Jewish communities that accepted rabbinic authority (not all did, of course). As with Christians, I would argue that liturgical usage, then, was a key factor for canonicity in the making of the Jewish Bible.

The rabbis had another trick up their sleeve too. In my post on Canon in Judaism, I observed that the "Mishnah stands beside Tanakh as equally Scripture for Jews. And furthermore, the subsequent texts of Judaism, Talmudim, Midrashim, Targumim, even the much later Zohar come to be counted as part of that Oral Torah Tradition that ends up in writing and so all share to some degree in the authority of Scripture." Many of the narratives in the discarded scriptures, especially Jubilees, Maccabees and Judith, were subsequently retold as commentary by the rabbis and thus inscribed in the Oral Torah Tradition. Scripture becomes commentary to become scripture.

One question I keep pondering which I might take up at a later stage. Given how important liturgy was for the shaping of biblical canons, how important was it for the shaping, even the composition of texts?

Friday, November 5, 2010

A Good Tip for Biblical Scholars from an Aussie Communist Author

As I said in my previous post, I've been reading Frank Hardy's The Hard Way, his account of the writing of Power Without Glory and the trial that followed publication. It's likely some people haven't heard of Hardy or of his book which he self-published back in 1950. The book was a fictional account of political powerbroker and businessman, John Wren, who had considerable influence in Victorian state politics and especially the Labor Party. In the book, the character John West is based on Wren. Hardy, a member of the Communist Party of Australia, was charged with criminal libel by Ellen Wren, wife to John Wren. In the book her character, Nellie West, is portrayed as having an adulterous relationship from which she became pregnant and had a child. If found guilty of criminal libel not only would the book have been banned and suppressed but, as the author, Hardy faced a lengthy gaol term as well. As I said in my previous post, reading The Hard Way has sent me back in time through my memories of living in Melbourne back in the early 70s. Most of the time I lived in Fitzroy, part of a network of Catholic Worker inspired households in the area. In many respects the world that Hardy describes in the Melbourne of 1950 was still there in 1972. The Melbourne City Watchhouse was largely unchanged, the streets, the pubs, for the last two days I've even been reliving the smells of the Fitzroy I knew then. Oh the tantalising tricks of memory. Because, of course, that Melbourne, that Fitzroy no longer exists. When I was last there on 2004 the working class neighbourhood had become pretty gentrified and up-market. I found that quite sad, in fact. I think that all those memories flooding back now may prompt some reflective posts of my younger days in Melbourne but not tonight. Tonight I want to pick up on something that Hardy wrote that seems quite relevant to biblical studies today.

As I said, Hardy's book was an historical fiction. It was based on the Wrens, especially John Wren and was designed to expose the corrupt workings of power in Victoria, especially as it related to the Labor Party and working class struggles. Hardy aspired to be a realist writer and, as a Communist, wrote the book as a tool for politicising and consciousness-raising amongst working class Australians. The Hard Way is fascinating for its portrayal of the way Communist and union activists brought literature into the lives of working class people, even when on the job.

At the end of Power Without Glory Hardy included an Author's Note on fiction and history and the writing of characters. It's referred to a number of times during the trial and so is quoted a few times in The Hard Way. I'm going to share those quotes here because I thought Hardy's observations were quite pertinent to biblical studies.

Hardy points out that there are three types of characters in his book, fictional, 'real people' and composite characters. The composite characters are a blend of real and fictional elements. He then observes

Will the characters be real or invented ? Characters – that is, people - cannot be invented, they must be based on persons drawn from real life… But no single person, as he exists, is concentrated or typical enough for literature; something must be added, something taken away. In every person there are characteristics typical of many people… Sometimes actual historical events and people will be portrayed, often composite incidents and characters…

I'm struck by the thought then that no matter how 'real' a character may be they are still in some sense composite because even for real people "something must added". At the same time too, even fictional characters in some way are derived from real people. All narrative then, even or especially narrative about real people and real events is in some sense composite, a blend of fiction and actuality. Power Without Glory is an example of such a composite work, so too is The Hard Way. Frank Hardy himself used a nom de plume, Ross Franklyn, based on both his and his wife's given names. Ross Franklyn becomes a character in The Hard Way; it's Hardy's way of reconciling the two people he had become, the novelist and the activist. Ross Franklyn is a fictional character but he is also a composite character, too, based on Frank Hardy himself.

Hardy's insights can also be applied to the biblical narratives, both Old and New Testaments. Even when they are dealing with real people, among whom I would place Ahab, Hezekiah, Josiah, Judas Maccabeus, Jesus, Pontius Pilate, Herod, Mary the mother of Jesus, these are all to a greater or lesser extent composite characters. The events that surround them, that they perform are likewise composite events, blends of fiction and reality, reality fictionalised. As for the fictional characters and events, they too are drawn on real people and events in some way, we just don't know who these people and events are and we will likely never know.

Many people might be upset by this fictionalising, the composite nature of the people and events recounted, probably no more so for large numbers of people, that the Gospel portraits of Jesus might be composite, fictionalised. In response I want to quote another passage from The Hard Way. First I needed to point out that despite the fact that the criminal libel was brought by Ellen Wren due to Nellie West's adultery, it's a fact that Nellie West is portrayed sympathetically all the way through Power Without Glory. She is driven to adultery by her husband. Also in The Hard Way, Hardy alleges that information he and his defence team received, gave them to believe that Ellen Wren was pressured by her husband into the action because he didn't want to bring an action himself. If he did he'd be putting the spotlight on serious allegations of criminal behavior on the part of the book's character, John West, criminal behaviour that might actually have been composite in nature, much moreso than Nellie West's adultery.

After the trial when Hardy is found not guilty by the jury, he relates this account of the reactions of John and Ellen Wren to the result.

I put the pen aside and idly began to read press cuttings which lay on the table.

‘John Wren was reading a copy of Fortune, the American business magazine,’ I read the interview by Herald journalist, Noble. ‘He put it down. I said, “Mr Wren, have you heard the news? The Hardy jury has returned a verdict of Not Guilty!” Not an emotion showed on the face of the seventy-nine-year-old financier. There was a long silence, broken only by his occasional repetitions, “Not Guilty… extraordinary!”… With a pale blue shawl around her shoulders, grey-haired Mrs Wren opened the kitchen door herself. She was white-faced but composed. She said, “The verdict is nothing more than I expected, that’s all I can say.”’

Ross Franklyn seemed as if he had been reading over my shoulder: ‘Well, John and Nellie West acted in character,‘ he said.

‘Yes,’ I replied simply.

What really counts is not that a figure has been made a composite of fiction and real. That's how narrative works. What counts most is that they act in character, in the text and vice versa. It's up to us to work out whether or not they do.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

The Shock of Recognition

I'm currently doing some research assistant work. I've got 150 hours. What I have to do is speed read Australian biographies and record any references to reading. I started last week and since then I've read 5 books and am on my sixth. It's by Frank Hardy, The Hard Way, and it's his account of the writing of Power Without Glory and the court case that followed its publication in 1950.

I wont go into details of the case except to say that Hardy was charged with criminal libel not civil libel which meant he was liable to imprisonment and the book to suppression, as well as any damages. In the end he was successful but it was a quite a struggle. Hardy was a member of the Communist Party and 1950 was the year the Menzies tried to outlaw the the Party eventually going to a referendum which was lost.

Anyway at one stage of the court case, Hardy was denied bail and put into the City Watchhouse where he spent a couple of days. When he was brought there from the court which adjoined it he was put in the Watch House Yard. Here's his description:

The yard of the City Watchhouse is surrounded by brick walls rising forty feet high to shut out all kindness and all hope that shame might end. Curving above the walls is a roof of bars meshed with wire as though the authorities believe a miracle might lead some lost soul up the wall to the brink. The enclosure itself is perhaps thirty yards by twenty with a concrete floor. In its centre are two double-sided benches. In one corner is a stinking lavatory in which the sewer is out of order. The urinal, too, smelt foully and the yard seemed never swept. Bread crusts and scraps of paper strewed the floor and blocked the gully trap (67-8).

As I was reading it, the image of the yard filled my mind, including that wretched lavatory and urinal. Suddenly I realised, 'I've been there!' This was not imagination but memory, not suppressed but filed away. I was in that same yard 22 years later in 1972, not once but twice.

Back then I was an idealistic but closeted 20 year old. These were the days of the Vietnam War and, in Australia, conscription. There was a strong anti-conscription movement with a massive campaign of civil disobedience designed to make conscription unworkable. Central to the campaign was the refusal of young men to cooperate with the conscription process, to resist the draft. By 1972, there was a large number of young men, some in prison, some in hiding, others waiting for the law to move against them for refusing to participate in the call up process. The National Service law kicked in on males when they turned 20. 1972 was the year I turned 20 so I had begun my journey of draft resistance which I expected would lead me into a life underground in hiding unless there was a change of government at then end of the year (there was - the Whitlam gov't was elected in December 1972 and promptly began the dismantling of the conscription process and pardoning everyone who had broken those laws. I was in hiding, on that election day and had been for about a week).

I'd grown up through my teens under the shadow of conscription and I knew that I would face a confrontation with the power of the state. I knew that I would have no recourse but to defy the laws and risk the horrors of prison. Resisting the draft was a process comprising several stages all of which carried penalties for non-compliance, the final being 18 months gaol. As a cancer survivor I could have gotten a medical exemption as a couple of family members reminded me but it wasn't about avoiding conscription but ending it. So there was no way I was going to take advantage of my cancer.

While conscription was something only we young guys faced the law provided avenues for a wider range of people to participate in civil disobedience. In particular, it was against the law to encourage guys to break it by not co-operating with the process. Pamphlets were produced urging guys to resist the draft; distributing such pamphlets was regarded as an offence under the federal Crimes Act. So by 1972 it was usual to hold demonstrations against conscription in which people chose to give out such pamphlets and get arrested. That's what I did along with many others back then - we stood on the GPO steps in the Melbourne CBD with placards and banners and then one by one we'd each grab a handful of pamphlets and go down onto the foot path and give them. Of course there were coppers down there waiting for us, Commonwealth coppers not state police because this was federal criminal offence. So at two separate demos on those steps I took my handful of pamphlets and went down basically to the arms of the law. From memory the cops were in plainclothes. The moment I stepped off the stairs proffering a pamphlet I was arrested and led away to the paddy wagon. The second time it happened so quickly I had to yell out 'I've been arrested' just to make sure people knew the cops had me. Once the paddy wagon was full we were taken off to the Watch House and then put in that yard.

My memories of that place are vague. There were plenty of us so it was not as daunting as it might sound. The demos and my subsequent times in court stand out much more strongly in my mind. When I think about my court appearances I'm struck by how much I got away with because I turned both of them into political theatre. And I look back on myself then with great affection. How idealistic and how naive and how beautiful! I'm not going to write about the court appearances here. I will one day because I learnt a valuable lesson about how rotten our justice system can be. At least part of my theatre in my second court appearance was designed to expose how rotten and arbitrary the whole system actually was.

But for now it's my time in the Watch House that holds my attention. How strange that I could so forget my time in that place? I don't think I was there for more than a few hours, we were all bailed once the demo was over. I can't even remember who was there with me although I know one person was with me on one of those occasions because he and I worked together on the theatre of court - my second appearance. But I can only remember him in court, not in custody. Maybe because I was in my own private prison then, the closet, which I began to slowly push open later that year and finally kick that door down in early '73.

The only clear memory I have of that Watch House was that grotty lavatory that Hardy describes and the urinal too. It still smelt foul and I'm sure there were problems with the sewer when I was in that place too.

It's all a museum now and probably the place is kept cleaner and in better working order than ever it was when it was chocked full of prisoners.

And I still regard such places as abominations.

Monday, November 1, 2010

For the Feast of All Saints: Remembering John McCulloch

Today is All Saints Day. Here in Australia we've had a bit of a sensation over the recent canonisation of Mary McKillop last month (on 17 October), the first Australian to get into the calendar of saints of the Roman Church and probably of any of the sacramental liturgical Churches. The usual practice is to observe the saint's day on the anniversary of their death. Mary McKillop's feast day is 8 August.

All Saints Day has a long history which you can read here at Wikipedia but the principle behind it is that there are many more saints than simply those who get into the calendar (and while, over the last 40 years, a lot more saints have been added to that calendar, quite a few have sadly also been removed). This is the day to honour them all.

Of course the reality is that we are all saints if we but knew it. I look back on my life and think what an extraordinary, amazing mixture of people I've had the privilege of knowing and loving. All of us are extraordinary in the dreams we dream, the moments of awe and wonder, the acts of kindness, generosity and love. In Christian terms a saint is simply a friend of God and God is friend to all, God offers friendship to all. It is my belief that the whole of creation will be joined together in divine friendship or maybe more correctly the whole of creation is joined together in divine friendship; it's simply a matter of us opening our eyes and recognising it.

Friends. In my previous post I wrote about a friendship ruptured in depression and my hope that one day that rupture will be healed and all will be well. But I began that post referring to another friendship just last week ruptured by death, the death of John McCulloch. John had a long connection to University of Qld including a significant part in UQ's history of Queer or LGBT organising. He was part of the first group, Campus Camp, which was formed back in 1973 beginning a continuing history of organised LGBT and Queer community and activism at University of Qld. It was because of that fact that I sent a message via Facebook to the current members of the Queer Collective. And so for All Saints Day I'm going to post that message here with maybe just a little bit of tweaking here and there to fit the blog format.

To the Members UQ Queer Collective (2010)

I'm writing to let you know about the recent death of someone who is actually quite important to the history UQ's organised queer history and activism and who was a friend of mine. I refer to John McCulloch (1938-2010) who died of pancreatic cancer a week ago (24 October). His funeral was on Thursday (28 October).

I got to know John 14 years ago through the informal queer postgrad and friends lunch group here at UQ which we called Munchkins. Back then John was tutoring at QUT but I found out from him that he was involved in Campus Camp, the first gay (as was the terminology back then) group at UQ and which kicked off in 1973. John told me he was the secretary, he was always a very unassuming person and I think he might have been the first secretary and he held the position in 73 and 74, I believe. Back then Campus Camp was politically and socially active, staging demos, writing a detailed submission to the Commission on Human Relationships set up by the Whitlam govt, and working to build a queer community at UQ and in Brisbane. The old Campus Camp dances held in the Refec were legend; live bands including Railroad Gin with lesbian lead singer, Carol Lloyd.

John finished his BA and worked in the Arts Faculty as a tutor. Back then full time continuing tutoring jobs were quite the norm, unlike today. Even more extraordinary from today's perspective was that John was elected by his colleagues in Arts as sub-dean of the faculty, a position he held for several years.

I'm not going into all the details of John's life. Anna Bligh issued a ministerial statement on Thursday in tribute to John, the text of which I'm pasting below plus the link to Hansard. John was a longtime active member of the ALP and a strong supporter of women's rights and women's representation in Parliament. He has written a book on women in politics, From Suffragists to Legislators, to mark the 100th anniversary of womens suffrage in Qld. Here's a link to the National Library holding for it

For the last few years John was doing PhD here at UQ in EMSAH in Women's Studies with Carol Ferrier. His was writing on a woman who was an activist for women's suffrage in Qld in the 1890s and early last century. I'm happy to say that the thesis was submitted shortly before John's death. Even more importantly he also had the text edited for publication (it even includes an index) so I hope to see it published at some stage in the future.

It had been my hope that John could have made the UQ Queers reunion I organised a year ago but he wasn't able to. It was my hope then to organise something once he'd submitted his PhD but alas that was not to be. I'm sure he would have loved to have been able to meet you all. He was a man who enjoyed people

His funeral went off well. It was at the St Lucia Anglican church; the local vicar there is a woman. While John's background was Anglican, I don't think he was all that religious but I'm sure he would have liked the idea of being sent off by a woman priest. There was a big turnout of people to remember John and support his partner Gary. John and Gary met at UQ many years ago but they didn't start their relationship until much later in the 90s.

The history of marginalised communities is easily lost, only the powerful can ensure their history is preserved. I'd also hoped to interview for the LGBT Oral History project, again after he'd finished the PhD. Alas that too is not to be. But what I can do is make sure you all know about him and how important he was for all of us, for the work he did here at UQ all those years ago. I'll miss his friendship - it was a privilege to have known him


the achievements of Mr John McCulloch are also extraordinary. John was known to many on both sides of the chamber. He was a senior parliamentary research officer, joining the Parliamentary Library in 1984 and remaining there for 10 years. John was an excellent research officer and he wrote several research background publications for general distribution to members and also to a wider audience. His Parliamentary Library background papers stood out, particularly his paper Women members of the Queensland Parliament 1929-1994, published in 1994 by the Parliamentary Library. The library produced an exhibition in association with this publication and at its opening all women members to that date were present, apart from the two who had passed away. I believe the Leader of the House would have been present at the exhibition in 1994. That was the year before I was elected. John’s paper was a very important record of the political history of the House and the chamber to date.

John was born in London in 1938 and moved to Australia with his parents when he was 12 years old. As a young man he worked at Bayards—and some of us will remember Bayards—as a shop assistant and managed to complete his senior through night school. John was a researcher with a
special interest in the advancement of gender equity in politics and as part of his research into women in politics John identified the original petitions in Queensland that called for women to get the vote. It was an important piece of research. John was awarded an Order of Australia Medal in January 2000 for service to youth, especially his 17 years of voluntary work for the Queensland and Australian Youth Hostels Association. In addition to his work on women and politics, John served as convenor of the Homelessness Taskforce 99. He was also a part-time researcher for St Vincent de Paul.

John co-convened with Mary Crawford the International Women in Politics conferences for many years in association with QUT and, as the Speaker outlined yesterday, he was scheduled to give the welcome address at the next conference to be held on 5 November as part of the Queensland parliament’s 150th celebrations. The word ‘progressive’ is bandied about constantly in political circles and its definition is widely argued, but to my mind John McCulloch was a true political progressive. He was a deep thinker, an activist and a doer. I extend my condolences and those of the government to the family of John.

It's worth noting that Anna Bligh's statement paid tribute to both John and a union official, Austin Vaughan, whose funeral was also held that day. In her statement, the Premier acknowledged and named the partner and children and grandchildren of Vaughan, But nowhere did she name let alone acknowledge John's partner, Gary.

Nevertheless today is a day for celebrating all the saints so I ask you to celebrate John McCulloch, thanks to whom life for all of us made a little bit better. His life is a reminder how we all are, how we all can be saints. It is customary in Judaism to say of a dead person, may their memory be for blessing, and so I say for John, may his memory be for blessing.