Wretched Women

“That Spanish woman who lived three hundred years ago, was certainly not

the last of her kind.  Many Theresas have been born who found for

themselves no epic life wherein there was a constant unfolding of

far-resonant action; perhaps only a life of mistakes, the offspring of

a certain spiritual grandeur ill-matched with the meanness of

opportunity; perhaps a tragic failure which found no sacred poet and

sank unwept into oblivion.  With dim lights and tangled circumstance

they tried to shape their thought and deed in noble agreement; but

after all, to common eyes their struggles seemed mere inconsistency and

formlessness; for these later-born Theresas were helped by no coherent

social faith and order which could perform the function of knowledge

for the ardently willing soul.  Their ardor alternated between a vague

ideal and the common yearning of womanhood; so that the one was

disapproved as extravagance, and the other condemned as a lapse.”

Thus begins Middlemarch, George Eliot’s magnus opus about, among other things, a woman looking for spiritual heroism within the straitened confines of provincial 19th century feminine life. The “Spanish woman” is Teresa of Avila, a 16th century nun possessed of both a great soul and a great mission on which to exercise its powers. Dorothea, Eliot’s heroine, has similar interior stirrings : the novel chronicles her struggles to find a work that is broad in scope and significant in import, and above all, her own—one to which she is suited and to which she can commit herself wholly.

Taking a cue from Eliot, a recent New York times opinion column by Jessa Crispin also uses Teresa as the keystone on which to build a meditation on female life. But while Middlemarch deals with the difficulty of emulating the nun’s religious zeal, the essay approaches Teresa mostly as a kind of mascot for certain choices regarding private personal relationships.

Crispin opens by explaining that she has never been “wife material.” In this, she suggests, she is like the female saints to whom she is drawn. Including Teresa:

“She did not have to remove any body parts to stay unmarried, nor murder scores of men. She did have to defy her family, though….Teresa did not want to be reduced to merely a body, bred and sacrificed for the sake of her husband and children. If she had to choose between being a body and a brain, she would choose to be a brain. So she entered the church — the only way a woman could become a philosopher.”

The presentation of Teresa’s conventual renunciation as a bloodless retreat from the degrading messiness of embodiment is very strange for a woman who described the highest form of contemplation as a primarily physical experience in which bodily control dissolves into faintness, rapture, and tears.

The physicality  of Teresa’s concept of union with God is apparent in her description of one of her mystical experiences:

“I saw in his hand a long spear of gold, and at the point there seemed to be a little fire. He appeared to me to be thrusting it at times into my heart, and to pierce my very entrails; when he drew it out, he seemed to draw them out also, and to leave me all on fire with a great love of God. The pain was so great, that it made me moan; and yet so surpassing was the sweetness of this excessive pain, that I could not wish to be rid of it.”

Whatever else the Carmelite renounced when she left the world, she did not give up, as Crispin puts it “…what she thought she wanted out of life, which was love.”

By Teresa’s own account, quite the opposite.

That a woman might find transcendent love in a life of labor, privation, self-accusation, and abstinence, that she might seek it out for its own sake, rather than merely as a retreat from conventional social pressures, is strange and alienating. Certainly her own contemporaries found her unsettling; so much so that, as Crispin points out, they hauled her before the inquisition.

“Many of her writings were radical, but she used charm to convince her inquisitors that she was harmless. ‘But what do I know, I am just a wretched woman,” Crispin writes.

An inquisition by admiring elision may be more pleasant for all parties involved; but to reduce Teresa’s fears of hell, commitment to communal life, and absolute obedience to God’s will to a fear of losing herself in pregnancy and relationships is to psychologize her out of existence. In this reading, the rough edges of a visionary, with all the attendant outlandishness, complexity, and off-putting commitments, have been sanded off.  She is something both more generic and more relatable: an icon of femininity in revolt, trying to negotiate the choices offered by a female body and social role. Interest or accuracy regarding her actual beliefs is, in the final analysis, unnecessary—she is just a wretched woman.

Framing Teresa’ story as the struggle to be brain rather than a body, as a life lived outside a man, is a way to claim her as a patron saint; but it is also an enforcement of what it ostensibly decries. Whatever women think or do, their proximity to or rejection of male desire must be the avenue from which we approach them. Whatever their actual testimony and commitments, their relevance will lie in their relationship to the private, the personal, and above all, the experience of being female. Women of genius still occupy the same cultural position as Dr. Johnson’s bipedal  dog–while we may now admit that it is done well, our primary interest lies in the fact that it is done at all.

None of this is to say that the intimate, the personal, or the gendered are uninteresting or unworthy concerns. George Eliot, certainly a genius, was acutely interested in them. But by creating a fictional heroine through which to explore her questions, Eliot avoids the trap of reducing Teresa to a mirror for her own preoccupations.  Teresa is invoked as a soul who found her great work; the question is whether Dorothea will find hers. Whether and how she will marry, how she will manage her relationships and the social norms they impose on her, are secondary questions vital to answering the primary one; nevertheless, they remain Dorothea’s, not Teresa’s.

It is unfortunate that Crispin’s visit to Avila did not spark an essay on Dorothea, rather than the woman Eliot saw as her predecessor. Her reflection on singlehood and sacrifice is moving; how much more so had it been cast in dialogue with a writer whose thought she could approach on its own terms.

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