Apr 302013
 

Salon.com has an interview with former nun Mary Johnson, who worked under Mother Theresa at her mission in India. Currently being considered for canonization, the late Mother Theresa has come under scrutiny for her beliefs in the nobility in suffering, not only the voluntary kind, which border on religious masochism.

During your time with the sisters, you gave up all possessions—your hair, which had to be shorn every month, an audiotape sent by your parents, even photographs. How does this relate to the fusion of love and pain?

The Missionaries of Charity set out to live like the poor they serve. We each had two sets of clothes, which we’d wash by hand every day in buckets. We ate rotting vegetables and stale bread that we’d begged from wholesale grocers. We slept in common dormitories, without any privacy, on thin mattresses we’d made ourselves. Living poorly day by day convinces you that life is hard. For a Missionary of Charity, ideal love was self-sacrificing, even to the practice of corporal penance.

Your first session of self-flagellation is imprinted in my mind: “My knees shook. I took the bunch of knotted cords into my hands. From Sister Jeanne’s stall, I heard the beating sounds, one, two, three. . . . I swung harder. The skin of my lower thighs turned red, then red with white streaks as I hit harder.”

When I took that rope whip into my hands, I was scared, I was excited, I hoped that I was on my way to conquering my selfishness and becoming a holy person. When you visit the homes and shrines of various saints, you often see hair shirts or whips or spiked chains on display. This is a religion in which nearly every house of worship, classroom, and private home has as its most prominent feature the image of a bloodied, tortured man. We were taught that wearing spiked chains and beating ourselves allowed us to share in his work of redemption. I know it doesn’t make much sense when you say it just like that, but within that entire system it had its own weird logic.

I’m reminded of Hannah Cullwick and her nun-like devotion to her labours, based on her own private value system. Is this masochism? Of a kind.

The problem with this kind of thinking is what happens when you are in a position to impose it upon others, who have no choice in their conditions. Subsequent investigations have shown that her mission provided a standard of care that would be intolerable in any non-religious institution, and she avoided modern medicine. She followed a medieval line of thought that the soul in the afterlife was all that mattered, not the body in the moral world.

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Dec 052012
 

Davis, Robert C. Christian Slaves, Muslim Masters: White Slavery in the Mediterranean, the Barbary Coast, and Italy, 1500-1800. Palgrave MacMillan, 2003 Amazon

What you might call “Mediterranean slavery”, of Christian Europeans captured through piracy or raids and enslaved in North Africa or the Near East, coexisted with Atlantic slavery, roughly paralleling the dates. While the numbers about Atlantic slavery are pretty solid, the numbers on Mediterranean slavery are far less so, and Davis is forced to piece together rough estimates from a variety of different sources.

Trying to pin down numbers of Barbary slavery is beyond the scope of this blog, and I don’t want to get into any kind of “oppression Olympics” about different slave economies. (Discussions of white slavery tend to bring out people with an axe to grind. One discussion of Barbary coast slavery on Fetlife included a post with a link to a white pride site. This included lengthy incoherent rants about the place of white people in history. One passage included an array of pictures of tribal people with facial tattoos or body modifications, followed by another array of white people with facial tattoos or piercings. The caption said that these white people took no pride in their heritage and were trying to imitate other races.)

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Oct 022012
 

Brooten, Bernadette J., ed. Beyond Slavery: Overcoming Its Religious and Sexual Legacies. Palgrave MacMillan, 2010.

Although Jewish, Christian, and Muslim religious leaders have always recognized the difference between slavery and marriage between men and women, they have sometimes applied concepts from slavery to marriage.

Pg. 8, “Introduction” by Bernadette J. Brooten

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Apr 062012
 

Nude woman in nun's habit with her breasts being poked by two monkeys

My article on the strange case of Maria Monk and her connections to anti-Catholic propaganda and the nun as a fetish archetype has been published in Maisonneuve magazines 10th anniversary issue. (Print only, for the moment. And no, I don’t know what the monkeys are doing in the illustration.)

This was my first article in a national, glossy magazine for a while, and I hope this carries with it some prestige. It took several rewrites to get it done, but overall it looks pretty good. There’s only so much you can do in 1,500 words.

I had wanted to include a comparison between Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk and Story of O, since both are narratives of initiation. I wonder if there’s a more direct connection, if as a girl Anne Desclos (aka Pauline Reage) read some bit of Gothic pulp or anti-Catholic tract and it gestated in her mind the way Anna Freud remembered a snippet from a book about book on medieval knights and wove that into her fantasies.

An excerpt from an early draft:

While the content of Awful Disclosures and related works survive to this day mainly in anti-Catholic crank conspiracy literature, the format has been stripped of any overt political or religious message and used in a variety of pornographic works. The classic Story of O (1954), written by Anne Desclos (who once flirted with the idea of being a nun), follows a similar structure to Awful Disclosures. Like Maria Monk, O is initiated into a secret society where she is to serve her new masters sexually. The orders O receives echo the Mother Superior’s commandments to Maria Monk: “You are here to serve your masters… Your hands are not your own, nor are your breasts, nor, most especially, any of your bodily orifices, which we may explore or penetrate at will… both this flogging and the chain… are intended less to make you suffer, scream, or shed tears than to feel through this suffering, that you are not free but fettered, and to teach you that you are totally dedicated to something outside yourself.”

If Disclosures uses transgressive sexuality to deliver a warning of the dangers of transgressive religion, O is a sexual fantasy built on nun-like selfless devotion. Maria Monk returns to the Protestant world to bear witness, but O throws herself deeper and deeper into the underworld, attaining a kind of martyrdom.

I also wanted to include PETA’s campaign of images of people (usually attractive women) as animals in cages or even as packed meat products, images that require only the slightest shift in optic to become pornographic.

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Apr 062012
 

It’s been said that Hallowe’en is Christmas for queer people, but if there’s a holiday for kinksters, it is Good Friday. This is the day when a man was tortured to death for trying to get people to be nice to each other.

While I don’t have this quite figured out yet, I get the impression that the primacy of the Passion, the story of Jesus Christ’s betrayal, murder and resurrection, was a late medieval invention, and earlier depictions of Christ in graphic art and storytelling focused on his life as teacher and miracle-worker. The violence of the Passion came later. One person I know suggested that the cult of the Passion coincided with the Crusades, violent art reflecting a violent society, or even as intentional anti-Semitic propaganda.

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Jan 212012
 

Eller, Jack David. Cruel Creeds, Virtuous Violence Prometheus Books, 2010.

I’m going back into chapter one of the book (hopefully to get a draft done by the end of the month), and that means going back into religion and violence. Eller’s book is about the relationship between religion and violence, not only that humans incorporate violence into religion, but that we also invest violence with religious meaning.

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Nov 072011
 

Peakman, Julie Mighty lewd books: the development of pornography in eighteenth-century England Palgrave Macmillan, 2003 Gbooks

As in just about any discussion of pornography, this book addresses the problem of definition. Peakman “place[s] pornography as one genre within a superfluity of other types of erotica, erotica being used as an overarching description for all books on sex… either overtly or in a ‘hidden’ form; for example, through metaphor, innuendo or implication.” (pg. 7) She defines pornography based on carrying the intention to sexually stimulate. I don’t consider that an adequate definition, as texts that are not pornographic or even erotic (in Peakman’s usage) can be read pornographically. This is particularly relevant in discussing anti-Catholic propaganda/”Convent Tale” pornography. Peakman introduced me to the useful term of metalepsis, “layer upon layer of figurative terms (particularly metaphors) distancing the real subject (sex) under discussion…. It also reveals the multiplicity of images and understandings of men’s and women’s bodies which were current, many of them conflicting, some of them constant.” (Pg.9)

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Nov 052011
 

Peakman, Julie (ed.) Sexual Perversions, 1670-1890 Palgrave Macmillan, 2009 Gbooks

Julie Peakman starts off with an interesting question: whether you accept Foucault’s theory about power and discourse or not, how to we explain one person’s choice of sexual acts and object over all the other possibilities?

It is the question of why a person might decide on any particular act which fascinates the historian. Why did some of these activities diminish over time (bestiality diminished when rural activities shifted to urban living), or expand (auto asphyxiation has become more widespread today as the word passed around of its link to sexual stimulation) – this is what really broadens our understanding about sex.

Pg. 8

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Oct 202011
 

Schultz, Nancy Lusignan (ed.) Veil of Fear: Nineteenth-century convent tales NotaBell Books, Purdue University Press, 1999 Amazon

While Rebecca Read’s earlier Six Months in a Convent (1835) was a relatively sober and realistic work, Maria Monk’s Awful Disclosures (1836) heads straight into paranoid xenophobic “virtue in distress”. This is what happens if young women heed the siren song of Catholicism, and it was popular enough to sell 300,000 copies by 1860. The fears of a young republic with large, unassimilated immigrant populations that were often Catholic, and an economy shifting to industrialization with consequent shifts in gender roles, found expression in anti-Catholicism. “In times of rapid social change, such as that experienced in antebellum America, intolerance and demonization of marginal groups find fertile soil.” (pg. viii) One of the anti-Catholic agitators, incidentally, was minister Lyman Beecher, father of Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

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