Archive for February, 2009

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Edward Taylor: Becoming a Man Again

25 February 2009

[This follows the previous post]

How does Edward Taylor return to the world of men, the world of the masculine, after playing the woman? Taylor never trades places with God, making God feminine, as Clendenning suggests. No, the ultra-masculine God reissues Taylor his masculine identity because of his willingness to undergo feminization/humiliation. Taylor receives his manhood back, restored and amplified.

We find this in a drama related to gynesis – but this time a distinctly masculine drama. Consider the fascinating (and overlooked) metaphors of circumcision and emasculation in the Preparatory Meditations. The first, the ritual of circumcision, Taylor invokes in all its biblical richness (see meditations II.10 and II.70). A man must be separated from his sinful, gentilic identity, symbolized by the foreskin. But this means having a real part of one’s manhood cut off, just as Jesus Christ Himself was cut off from God at the cross:

  The Infant male must lose its Foreskin first,
  Before Gods Spirit Workes as Pulse, therein
  To Sanctify it from the sin in’t nurst,
  And make’t in Graces Covenant to spring.
  To shew that Christ must be cut off most Pure.
  His Covenantall blood must be mans Cure. (25-30)

Male blood – whether in the type represented by infant circumcision, or the reality in Jesus Christ’s crucifixion – needs to be shed in order for God’s glory to be granted to him. The effect of this bloodshed is not just forensic justification but total male restoration. This happens ultimately because of Christ, and at Christ’s hands: with His circumcising power He initiates men. He has authority to reshape (not unman) Taylor.

The more radical measure, of course, would be that of emasculation, the very procedure the Puritan minister cannot bear, and pleads against. Relevant here is the work of maverick theorist Gary Taylor, who has claimed to find in western literature the ubiquitous theme of castration. “This is a specter that has haunted men for centuries,” he says, “the fear that manhood will become, or has already become, obsolete, superfluous, ridiculous, at best quaint, at worst disgusting.” One need not invoke Freud to understand Puritan fears associated with such de-sexing. More than surrendering a certain physical vitality, emasculation would imply a forfeiture of one’s claim to authority in home and church. How is Taylor to head his family, his church, his town, if he comes away from worship without his genitals?

His anxiety materializes most acutely in the image of the purse. Rather than the accessory we today associate with women, the most literal meaning for a Puritan audience would have been the money bag. Thus when Taylor implores, “Yet may I Purse, and thou my Mony bee” (I.2.29), or asks, “Am I thy Gold? Or Purse, Lord, for thy Wealth”? (“Another Meditation at the Same Time,” 1), he presents himself as the empty wallet, and God the financier who provides the gold coinage of grace. The purse, I maintain, has nothing to do with the female personae. It is a male object – truly, the male object to the colonial mind. The English word “purse” derives from the French bourse, also translatable as “testicles.” Accordingly, the Puritan man was generally in charge of the home finances, thereby associating the money bag with his manhood. Jokesters of the era regularly made puns about “coins,” “stones” and “purses” in the seventeenth century, and, most suggestively, Daniel Patterson’s glossary of Taylor’s poetry straightforwardly defines “purse” as “the scrotum of an animal.” So the Westfield minister fears for his manhood, and with good reason! He has met the living, all-masculine God before whom no competitor can stand.

There is no doubt as to Taylor’s need to confess his discredited manhood. In meditation II.18 the beleaguered minister confesses that he is a “Pouch of Sin, a purse / Of naughtiness,” and, by the end of the poem, having exhausted all manner of cultic and sacrificial devices, he comes up with the true offering: Shall I my Sin Pouch lay, on thy Gold Bench My Offering, Lord, to thee? I’ve such alone But have no better . . . . And shall mine Offering by thine Altars fire Refin’d, and sanctifi’d to God aspire? (43-45, 47-48) His wealth, his purse, his very man-self, has been splayed upon the sacrificial table. He voluntarily submits, even humiliates, himself. But he pleads for God to refrain from permanently rejecting (or excising) his manhood. In place of his dilapidated offering he prays, Lord let thy Deity mine Altar bee And make thy Manhood on’t my sacrifice. (55-56) At the last minute, by design, the incarnation is invoked. Jesus Christ’s deity is Taylor’s altar, and, more importantly, Jesus Christ’s “Manhood” is the substitute in lieu of Taylor’s own. Christ’s manhood is acceptable, for, exchanged for the Christic substitute, it harmonizes perfectly with the divine. Taylor is spared. He has kept his purse – but now with Christ as his “Mony” ringing within it. The holy coins, replete with honor and authority, fill the poet’s container.

Again in meditation II.9. This time Taylor compares himself to Moses, who must endure the fiery glory of the Lord.

  I long to see thy sun upon mee shine,
  But feare I’st finde my selfe thereby shown worse
  Yet let his burning beams melt, and refine
  Me from my dross, yet not to singe my purse. (55-58)

The radiance of God fascinates and threatens Taylor. He recognizes that the “burning beams” are for the purification of his wealth, his coins, but still he fears that God will “singe my purse.” The literal meaning simply plays out the metaphor, wanting his money refined in such a way in that everything else is not ablaze in the process. Still, in Taylor’s paradigm, this can only mean the fear of permanent damage and dissolution through psychospiritual emasculation. Exchanging one’s coins for purification’s sake is one thing; having one’s sack burnt off quite another. Submitting to circumcision one thing; facing irreparable de-sexing something quite different. Fortunately, God has not neutered him, or, if he has, has done so temporarily in order to fill his purse with gold. Taylor remains the bag, the container. Christ has become the gold coins, Taylor’s new manhood, Taylor’s new wealth.  He can now return to his home, his church and town with a new, robust, manly authority direct from God Himself.  If gynesis emphasizes Taylor’s renewed authenticity, the divine masculization shows that authenticity to be (for him at least) the ground of earthly male authority.

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Edward Taylor: Playing the Woman

21 February 2009

puritansculptureBecoming a female is no new thing for male devotional writers in the Christian tradition.  Theologians and mystics have often resorted to feminine alter (“altar”?) egos to speak of their response to a proactive, authoritative God.  American Puritans did the same thing by reading biblical erotica in terms of the believer’s spiritual intimacy with God.  Edward Taylor embraces this tradition through an anagogical reading of the Song of Solomon in his Preparatory Meditations, interlacing it with the New Testament motif of the Church as the bride of Christ.

Consider how Taylor chooses to emphasize metaphors of womb-like receptivity.  He writes, “My Silver Chest a Sparke of Love up locks,” explaining how when the penitent’s chest sees Christ’s beauty, “Her Downy Bosom opes” (I.4.1,5).  More often this receptiveness is construed in terms of a “Cabbinet,” where the body houses the soul, and the soul houses Christ:

     Oh! that my Soul . . .
     Might be thy Cabbinet, of Pearle of Price.
     Oh! let thy Pearle, Lord Cabbinet in mee
    
I’st then be rich! nay rich enough for thee. (I.2.13, 16-18) 

This “Cabbinet” is a shoddy home for Christ’s presence, but Christ overlooks its poverty and deems it acceptable.  God is at work in this implantation.  As Michael North puts it, “The pearl, God’s donation, comes sperm-like into the soul; its growth into full glory is implicit in it, promised in the original donation.” Sperm-like indeed: “The Soule’s the Womb,” Taylor says plainly in II.80.31, and “Christ is the spermodote.”  Taylor wishes to bear God’s holy seed (II.4.25-26), pregnant with divine glory.

Albert Gelpi explains how this was an acceptable pattern of Puritan humility for Taylor, who, among the “Christian poets who saw their manhood broken by God’s holy lust,” became women before God.  God reigns in supreme power, righteousness and honor, so if masculinity is characterized by potentia, then one may deduce that God himself is the masculine by which all other things become feminine.  Even male saints must enact a gendered drama and become passive partners to their saving, being wooed by Him.  Ivy Schweitzer calls this process “gynesis,” playing the woman in order to signify “a rhetorical position of subordination and subservience to God.”

Much of Taylor’s poetry presents this marriage to God in frightful, forceful ways.  God drills a new heart in him.  God overcomes him at every turn.  This is for male poets “the logic of spiritual conversion – figured as a rape or ravishment, or, at the very least, a welcomed intrusion – to position themselves in relation to God and Christ as feminized, deauthorized, and self-denying souls.”  A man must be violated for his own good, which, by God’s hand, actually means un-defilement.  The divine rape is not rape after all.  It is regeneration.

Suffice it to say that Taylor recruits his feminine alter-ego for the claiming of authenticity. It enacts the drama of humiliation and glorification by God, Schweitzer’s “model of redeemed subjectivity.”  The bride of Christ archetypally, apart from the inconvenient particulars of real women, permits space for Taylor to empty himself and receive the fullness of grace, all in the form of  “the Other who completes him in the mystical and ecclesiastic sense.”  He comes away from his private piety cleansed and whole, intact as a man – if only because he has not wagered himself as such.  Or has he?

[See next post]

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“Saving Edward Taylor’s Purse” in Literature and Theology

20 February 2009

Last fall I had an article published in Literature and Theology, a pieced entitled, “Saving Edward Taylor’s Purse: Masculine Devotion in the Preparatory Meditations.”  Knowing that many of the readers of this blog don’t have access to academic journals, I’m devoting the next two posts to the main thrust of my argument.

Unless you’ve studied American Puritanism or American poetry in some depth, chances are you aren’t familiar with Edward Taylor.  He was a Puritan minister living in the late 1600s in the fledgling frontier town of Westfield, Massachusetts.  He is a curious figure for various reasons, not least among them that he opted to write hundreds of esoteric, erotic, strongly gendered poems for private devotion in preparation for administering the Lord’s Supper.  What I bring out in my essay is his struggle not only for spiritual authenticity, but for his very masculinity.  The next two posts will elaborate how Taylor seeks to subject himself to God via a feminine persona, and simultaneously to temper radically his masculine authority by risking his “genitals” with God’s masculine initiation.

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Fathers with Cameras

10 February 2009

It is striking sometimes just how rarely fathers show up in family pictures.  The obvious reason for this is that fathers are most often the ones shooting the pictures, not the ones in them.  I ask myself, why is this?  Because men are more comfortable and competent with technology?  Because there is something particularly masculine about photography?  This doesn’t seem to be a good enough avenue. 

wheresdadI was recently told about a psychologist who does family photo therapy.  He has his clients bring in old albums and interpret the pictures.  In this activity the expressions on people’s faces matter, and their poses.   It also matters who is in the snapshot and who isn’t.  Dad usually can’t be seen, and can’t be seen in a double way.  He is not in the static image, and even back then, when it was taken, you couldn’t see his face anyway.  It was covered by a Minolta.

John Mayer song calls us to a important thought: 

     Didn’t have a camera by my side this time
     Hoping I would see the world through both my eyes 

How strange to think that our attempts to capture the world can take us out of it so much!  When fathers pick up the camera too often they risk missing the very engagement that sees life as something animated and kinetic – and something that involves them as subjects.

On the flip side, how wonderful a thing it can be that fathers perceive and document the family history as they do.  Being behind the camera can be, in some way, like the partially-visible mother in the kitchen throughout Thanksgiving Day.   There is a sense of gift in all of this.  With a camera in hand, there is also a sense of fatherly contemplation.  Not only have I myself experienced this, but I remember a few years ago seeing one of my uncles circling the room at a family reunion.  He simply walked around the perimeter of the room as his children played a game on the area rug.  With obvious enjoyment he noted the conversations and jokes and quirks of the children in their sibling drama.  He wasn’t restless or disengaged at all.  On the contrary, he was brooding in the most beautiful way a father can.

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Rumpelstilskin, as Interpretated by a ManKind Project I-Group

1 February 2009

For those of you who don’t know, I am part of a ManKind Project (MKP) I-Group, which seeks to pursue healthy manhood in a small group format.  Besides some more modern therapeutic techniques, the I-Group utilizes “non-linear” methods like ritual, poetry and working out emotions through kinetic activities. 

Last month I brought to the group a classic fairy tale which, to no surprise, none of them had heard in years: rumpelRumpelstilskin.  I used the later version from Grimms’ compilation, one you can read here if you’re also having a hard time recalling the story.  I had rediscovered the story in a German textbook (the story was originally named Rumpelstilzchen) and was struck by its multifaceted presentation of important life themes.  Although (or maybe because) the story features a girl as the protagonist of the story, I wanted to see how a men’s group would respond to it. 

After telling the story with as much flair as I could muster, I launched a basic question: “With whom did you resonate most?”  Most of the men immediately said, “The girl.”  “Why?,” I asked.  “Because she was exploited again and again, and she did what she had to.” 

But upon my pushing for more details it seemed that, while they liked the story and felt it to be somehow important, they couldn’t put a finger on why they resonated with the girl, or anyone in the story for that matter.  We spent a chunk of time picking apart the significance of each character.  All of them are men, and most of them seem like evil bastards.  But did they have to be interpreted that way?

My own conclusion, one I had come to earlier, was that this story had pretty thick social meanings attached to it.  I suggested to the men that any girl who heard the story would be learning about what it is like to be a woman in the world of men.  Though people would expect her to have magical powers (even turning straw into gold), she would have to hope for resources beyond her, powers to deceive, manipulate and, through them, to survive in an androcentric world.  Maybe it helped us peer into the world of women and the demands we as men make upon them.

mentalkThis seemed to make sense to the men, but it didn’t make sense of it for a men’s group.  Where was the value in it for us?

Still, I stayed with this tack.  I wondered aloud if there might be a way to understand the story as an address to (or at) homosexuals.  Could it be that both girls and boys alike in old Germany were being warned about strangers, in particular “strange little men” who had their own magic at work, but were, at best, strange, at worst, conniving paedophiles?  The I-Group could agree to this hypothesis, at least cognitively.  Or, I mused on, we could queer the story by telling it a little differently, that this strange manling, Rumpelstilskin, was trying to deliver the girl-queen’s son from the world of oppressive men; that the reason he wanted to take the boy away in order to initiate him into a different kind of manhood, one not based on the patriarchal tyrrany exhibited by the girl’s father and king. 

This time no response from the I-Group. 

The problem, I realize now, was not that these hypotheses were uninteresting to them.  Nor were they unsavory (I would describe most of them as more consistently to the political left).   The problem was that my interpretations were primarily sociological, not psychological.  In a group dedicated to personal health (of five heterosexual men), social ramifications played second fiddle to personal application. 

With the evening coming to a close, one of the older members of the group began a very productive line of thought along Jungian lines.  He suggested that, perhaps, the bizarre character of Rumpelstilzkin could be interpreted as  one’s “shadow,” that part of us which we suppress but comes out anyway as a kind of dangerous but creative alter-ego.  That shadow must be honored in order to deal with crises in life.  One must deal with the devil, so to speak, in order to meet the demands of the “king” (or father), that archetype which would direct us in life directions.  The king’s men who go out through the kingdom to figure out Rumpelstilskin’s name are expressions of the “warrior,” the get-it-done part of the soul (or, externalizing a bit, maybe the king’s men can be our warrior brothers in ManKind Project).  And, lest the shadow dominate our lives too much, at some point the shadow must be “named,” exposed for what it is in the limits of its power. 

Now, you’ve got to admit, this is a pretty dang good interpretation.  Thanks to the last minute personalizing hermeneutic, everybody felt edified by the activity, myself included.

Still, I feel a little uneasy about how the personal so often operates independently of the political.  Can we hear the story of Rumpelstilskin and find in it something that speaks to us and addresses the situation of others? 

– – –

Next session we’re hoping to do some mask-making.  Yes, I know you think that’s weird.  If you find wearing a tie and watching ESPN makes you a whole man, more power to you.  For some of us there are shadows to name – and who’s to say you don’t have one?