Mythic realism: magic and mystery in Marele Day's Lambs of God.
theoretically I wondered what would happen if you took a group of people out of contact with the rest of the world, because I realized that if you leave things alone and don't interfere they generally go back to the earth .... So the stones we pick up from the ground and put into a vertical fashion to build houses and high rises, if you leave them alone they will eventually crumble, and I wondered if that would happen to people as well. (qtd. in Margetts 2)
The resulting novel has a somewhat odd premise: three aging nuns live a materially impoverished yet spiritually rich existence in a crumbling island monastery, which a pragmatic priest wants to sell. Whether these characters crumble or, instead, somehow flourish through the goodness of divine creation depends on Day's success in creating a Christian mythic realist text.
The novel was an immediate hit, published not only in Day's native Australia but also the United Kingdom, the United States, Germany, Spain, and the Netherlands. Nominated for an International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, it has been praised for its "universal resonance" (Atkins 1), its "strange interweaving of the comic and the mystical [that] is simply divine" (Corrigan B12), its "acute view of women and men, worldliness and transcendence" ("Great Reads" D7), and its success in "convinc[ing] us that the lives of the principals have changed forever" (Wolfe 50). However, other critics were disturbed by its presentation of "corrupted Catholic liturgy" (Hughes 18) and a "bastardized sort of Catholicism" (Treneman 19).
Though as a writer Marele Day is known neither for her attention to religion or spirituality nor for the artistic experimentation associated with magical realism, I argue that in Lambs of God she combines the two to create an unusual synthesis that effectively offers its readers a Christian comedy created in large part through magical realist literary devices. Comedy affirms life; while acknowledging that human experience does not unfold exactly as one might wish, the comic world view always concludes that life is good and is worth living. In a Christian comic world view, the goodness of life is affirmed most universally in the sacramentality of divine creation and most concretely in the myth of Christ's birth, death, and resurrection. Such a world view does not deny life's struggles, but sees their meaning as derived from Christian myth. Christian literature ranging from the grittiness of Graham Greene's The Power and the Glory or Georges Bernanos' Diary of a Country Priest, to the far less dark The Tree of Man by Patrick White, Evensong by Gail Godwin, or "Babette's Feast" by Isak Dinesen, offers a comic world view that emerges from attention to Christian myth and its temporal manifestation in Christian ritual. This is the basis of Alejandro Garcia-Rivera's understanding of theological aesthetics: an appreciation of representations of "the fullness of the cosmos" (172) that both transcends the merely material aspects of life and integrates them into a deeply spiritual engagement with divine beauty and creation.
What is particularly interesting about Day's novel is not merely its presentation of "the fullness of the cosmos" through its reliance on Christian myth, but its employment of magical realist devices to achieve this. Far from being associated with Christian myth, magical realism tends to focus on the political. Certainly magical realist literature--especially that of Latin America--is peppered with references to Christianity and its representatives, but these tend to be either mere elements of the cultural landscape or agents of colonial oppression. For example, priests abound in Isabel Allende's The House of the Spirits, ranging from the judgmental Father Restrepo, to the kindly if rather inept Father Antonio, to Father Jose Dulce Maria, who "transform [s] biblical parables into Socialist propaganda" (137). Together the priests offer a varied set of Catholic clergy, but none is ever fully developed enough to represent anything other than a thread in the tapestry of Allende's created world,
Catholicism's function in most of the writings of Gabriel Garcia Marquez is likewise either cultural or political. His masterpiece One Hundred Years of Solitude is sprinkled with both direct and indirect references to Christianity, most of which are disruptive rather than life-affirming: Jose Arcadio Buendia's insane speaking in Latin; Colonel Aureliano Buendia's obsession with making tiny gold fish; Arcadio's attacks on the Catholic church and its association with conservatism; the insistence of the seventeen mothers that the seventeen Aurelianos be baptized, and the sons' subsequent permanent Ash Wednesday cross, which enables them to be identified and assassinated by the government; and Remedios the Beauty's famous ascension while folding laundry. His novella In Evil Hour uses Father Angel primarily as a framing device to demonstrate cultural stasis, while the inept Father Gonzaga can only initiate a hierarchical series of letters asking advice (which never materializes) in dealing with the mysterious old man with enormous wings in the short story of that title. Even Garcia Marquez's novella Of Love and Other Demons, which centers on Father DeLaura's struggles to ascertain whether the young Sierva Maria is a saint, a lover, or possessed by demons, ultimately shows love itself as a demon and the Catholic hierarchy as a tormentor.
Magical realist engagements with Christianity are by no means limited to the Latin American tradition. Native American magical realist authors such as Leslie Marmon Silko in Ceremony and Louise Erdrich in her multigenerational novels of North Dakota Ojibwes both represent Christianity as fundamentally in tension with and often destructive of indigenous culture and myths. Moving closer to Day's native Australia, we find anti-colonialist attacks on Christianity in Doris Pilkington's Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence and, to a lesser extent, Keri Hulme's The Bone People (New Zealand). In all of these magical realist texts, Christianity functions primarily as an emblem-often a historically concrete one--for the ills of colonialism against which the indigenous characters are struggling.
Yet Marele Day demonstrates that magical realism need not be at odds with Christian aesthetics by employing magical realist devices to neither trivialize nor demonize Christianity but to take it seriously. Indeed, the oxymoron magical realism brings together literary realism and the world of the spirit, juxtaposing two conflicting world views: one material and the other supernatural. While the resulting clash can create a space for trenchant cultural and religious critique, this combination can also open complex visions of life. John McClure points to this potential, arguing that such texts
make room in the worlds they project for magic, miracle, metaphysical systems of retribution and restoration; ... they explore fundamental issues of conduct in ways that honor, interrogate, and revise religious categories and prescriptions; ... their political analyses and prescriptions are intermittently but powerfully framed in terms of magical or religious conceptions of power. (143)
In Lambs of God, Day demonstrates how elements of magical realism can work with a mythic Christian world view to create a hybrid genre that might be called Christian mythic realism.
Jeanne Delbaere-Garant applies the term "mythic realism" to magical realist literature in which there is "unconsumed space ... where the ancient myths still break through" (262). She identifies mythic realism as one of several "new categories that would leave more room for border-cases and help to situate any contemporary magic realist text, or part of a text, more accurately in a larger conceptual and terminological constellation" (250) without fully defining the term. I propose that several key components of magical realism might be expected to carry over to mythic realism: an easy acceptance of the supernatural, a hyperrealism that verges on the grotesque, and a clash of world views that creates space for cultural critique. But mythic realism also takes myth and its constituent elements of sacred space, sacred story, and ritual to be sources of real power. In the case of Lambs of God, the core myth is the narrative of the birth, teachings, passion, and resurrection of Christ. The novel's title immediately evokes Christian myth, metaphor, and ritual in its echoing of the Agnus Dei of the mass. However, the use of the plural Lambs complicates the familiar Christian metaphor, permitting the title to refer also to the three nuns and their sheep, which they call their "Agnes sisters" and which they believe house the souls of the convent's deceased nuns, a decidedly un-Christian, but potentially magical realist concept.
From the outset, then, this novel invites us to explore the core question: how can magical realism and Christian myth function simultaneously? And more specifically, what do we find when we read literary elements as drawing on both the power of landscape (magical realism) and sacred place (Christian myth), both legend and original storytelling (magical realism) and parables and sacred story (Christian myth), both metamorphosis (magical realism) and resurrection (Christian myth), and both magic and ritual?
The Mythic and Magical Realist Plot Structure of Lambs of God
Day opens her novel with three nuns, the last members of an enclosed community. Iphigenia, the eldest, is also the most intelligent and functions as the abbess. Margarita, somewhat younger, was sexually abused as a child, and is still suffering the post-traumatic effects of these events. Carla, the youngest, with child-like qualities though not a child, was "found" in the monastery and has never been outside it. In community with their sheep, they live a life of spiritual contemplation and practical self-sufficiency, having had no contact with the outside world for decades. Though they are thus the site for Day's experiment of human crumbling, through their prayer and work surfaces what Day calls "the shimmer factor, a kind of spirituality behind every moment of their lives" (qtd. in Margetts 2). Into their regularized world comes Fr. Ignatius. An up-and-coming member of the bishop's staff, he has "discovered" the island monastery and proposes to sell it to ease the diocese's financial woes. In a visit to inspect the property, he is surprised to find the three nuns, but their presence initially deters him not a whit.
The three nuns form a triad that immediately evokes both Classical Greek and Christian myth. They are explicitly connected with the Greek myth of the three Fates; other than praying, their primary activities center on gathering their sheep's wool, carding, spinning, and knitting it. When Iphigenia tells Ignatius the story of Lachesis, Clotho, and Atropos to explain the importance of spinning, she prefaces their names and respective tasks in ensuring each soul's destiny with, "Some say they are the trinity, not separate but three faces of the one" (Lambs 152). The "trinity" label thus intertwines the realms of classical and Christian myth. Ignatius likewise likens the nuns to the trinity, seeing them in prayer as "locked together in holy trinity" (66), and extends the Christian motif by musing, "like the Virgin Mary had cloned herself" (66). In addition to these Christian allusions, he mentally describes them as "Three hermit nuns, the perfect image of mystic Christianity" (42), thereby evoking the Christian legend of The Three Hermits, popularized by Tolstoy. In this legend, three hermits, like these nuns, live on an island. The Bishop who visits them is somewhat bemused by their simple prayers, a reaction similar to that of Ignatius, and both religious leaders attempt to improve the three naive believers. Yet the Bishop ultimately must recognize the superior holiness of the hermits' lives, suggesting to the reader one possible plot trajectory for this story.
In addition to classical myth and Christian allusions, the novel's scenario draws on several plot conventions of science fiction, a genre closely related to magical realism (Bowers 29-31). The trope of the "alien encounter story" (Barr 22)--the traveler through time and space to an unknown, mysterious world--is first suggested by the manner of Ignatius' arrival. Like the alien traveler, Ignatius more or less crash lands on the island in a vehicle "with a dashboard beyond [the nuns'] comprehension" (Lambs 122), wearing strange-smelling, synthetic clothes. Finding his map useless, he eventually stumbles his way into the nuns' enclosure. Once there, he foolishly announces his imperialist plan to return with others and take over the island. During his first attempt to leave and fulfill his plan, he feels a "surge of power" as he thinks of himself as "the explorer who had discovered this virgin territory and it would never be the same again. In forging his way in he had produced the crack which tore asunder the past and future" (104). Although technologically superior to the nuns, he proves no match for their indigenous knowledge, and he soon finds himself their subject rather than their conqueror, the conventional--if temporary--lot of the science fiction traveler.
Together these structural elements suggest that a conflict over core elements of human existence--life and death, holiness and humility, alien technology and indigenous knowledge--will drive the novel, creating the kind of clash often central to magical realist texts. Rawdon Wilson defines "the hybrid construction" (225) of magical realism: "it is as if there are two worlds, distinct and following dissimilar laws, that interpenetrate and interwind, all unpredictably but in a natural fashion" (222). Indeed, as the novel unfolds it becomes clear that the nuns and the priest have significantly different views of the world and can even be said to "follow dissimilar laws." The nuns lead lives in accordance with nature, adapting human needs to what the land can sustain. For them, time is circular, and community, with its strong attachment to ancient traditions and myths, is paramount. The priest's life-focus is on progress, both technological and financial. He prides himself on his individual initiative in "discovering" the island and has no qualms about exploiting its capitalist potential. To use Orenstein's terms, the nuns' "mode of experience" is "holistic" and the priest's "linear" (Carter 353).
It is entirely possible to read the resulting conflict as a conventionally magical realist clash between colonizer and colonized. The nuns can be seen as colonized in that their lives are physically circumscribed by the walls and the water that surround the convent, and by Pope Boniface VIII's 1298 establishment of the perpetual enclosure of all women religious, which they recall word for word. One might even say that the nuns' fidelity to the life structured by the institutional church, in spite of the fact that the institutional church has ignored them for decades, is a mark of the extent of their colonization. As colonized people, the nuns have become so invisible to the institutional church that it believes it can simply claim the land when it suits its needs. Ignatius can thereby be seen to function as the colonizer, simply assuming that he can de-cloister the nuns against their wishes. He also claims the colonist's right to name and define the other as, in a moment of humiliation and rage, he screams out Turtullian's misogynist rant that women "are the Devil's gateway" (Lambs 146).
However, Iphigenia knows that institutionalized Christianity has not always colonized women, and therefore need not always do so. She recalls "the great double monasteries of medieval times" in which "priests ministered to the nuns. Such monasteries were ruled by abbesses. There were rich and powerful abbesses then, who owned lands, conferred with kings, sent knights into battle" (Lambs 198). Above all, she recognizes that the nuns and the priest do not merely represent two ways of living; they represent two ways of living as self-identified Christians. Using medieval theological terms, the nuns are "religious" in that they live in community, while the priest is "secular" in that he lives in the world. Though they serve different functions, they are members of the same church. Their interactions therefore differ fundamentally from the conventional magical realist clash between colonizer and colonized, and a magical realist reading of the novel that focuses solely on its political aspects proves inadequate. The worlds of these characters do not merely conflict; they "interpenetrate and interwind" (Wilson 222); they clash within a shared belief in Christianity.
Landscape and Sacred Space
The clash between these two world views ostensibly centers on the ownership of a piece of land. This is not just any land, however; much of the novel's spiritual power first emerges through and in connection with this land. The monastery is Christian sacred space; it is a place ritually made sacramental and delineated for the purpose of communion with God. Though crumbling, its chapel still contains stained-glass windows, statues of saints, and an altar. A wall separates it from mere secular space, and old timber doors mark its threshold. Within, the hours are observed by prayer and the night by the Great Silence. As sacred space, the monastery and its inhabitants exist in sacred time: "it had an everlasting life unbound by temporality. There was a round of days and nights, light and dark, sun and moon" (Lambs 197). Though its foliage has so over-grown it and the weather has so beaten its buildings and paths that the earth is literally reclaiming it, to the nuns this is simply evidence of the ongoing mystery of creation. Carla reflects most directly on the mystery of this sacred ground: "The eye of God is in the grass, round and perfect, smooth as the surface of jelly ... A black circular aperture which allows light to enter ... When Carla looks up at the sky this hole gets very, very tiny. But still the light floods in" (176). In the purity and simplicity of the space and its inhabitants, it appears, and is frequently called, utopic. The myth of the Garden of Eden inheres in this land, and the story of Adam and Eve and the snake is both comically and seriously employed as tensions between the nuns and the priest escalate.
Yet in magical realist manner, this space is not solely edenic; it is hybrid, permeated both by divine presence and by the exaggerated coarse details characteristic of (though not exclusive to) magical realism. Sheep dung and thistles proliferate. The realistic effects of living in this land are manifest in the nuns' yellowed teeth, lined and leathery skin, and once-a-year bathing in the sheep's water trough. This realism seems far removed from the sacred at times, such as when the nuns' eating, immediately after collecting sheep dung, is described as "tearing off chunks of food, swallowing almost without chewing," after which they wipe their "grimy hands ... down grimy garments" (Lambs 32). This hyperrealism even moves into what Delbaere-Garant calls "grotesque realism": a "hyperbolic distortion that creates a sense of strangeness through the confusion or interpenetration of different realms like animate / inanimate or human / animal" (256). So it is that as Margarita shears the sheep, "She became one with the sheep, with all of Creation, with the growing grass, the growing wool, the growing hair, the nurturing, benign Beneficence" (Lambs 49). Paradoxically, this interpenetration of the nuns and the land reinforces their mutual holiness, as it combines the grotesque materiality common to magical realism with an insistence on the role of God in all of life.
What Day offers here is not merely an acknowledgement of the grittiness of life, such as can be found in any number of Christian novels, but a magical realist exploration of the mysterious power that the land exudes. This enclosed space is "no longer passive but active" (Delbaere-Garant 252), a source of "magic" or spiritual power. As Wendy Faris points out, "Many magic realist fictions ... carefully delineate sacred enclosures ... and then allow these sacred spaces to leak their magical narrative waters over the rest of the text and the world it describes" (174). Though the monastery grounds are walled, the power that can be drawn from this sacred space knows no bounds. As the nuns are calling their lambs, their chant becomes both mythic and magical:
Then an 'amen' echoed through the world. And soon the ovine baas came into harmony with the nuns' voices as one voice accords to the other, the music of the spheres.... It was an infinite resonance that might endlessly circumnavigate the globe, gathering itself unto itself with each round like the hosts of people standing up to be counted, each individual voice joining the multitude to become one. It was a sound that could at the same time charm birds from the trees, sheep into courtyards, cause granite to vibrate, calm the savage beast. It was the A-M-E-N that God might have uttered after creating the world, bringing forth the multitude of things, the sound billowing from His mouth when He woke on the seventh day and saw that it was good. That He could rest. Amen. (Lambs 47-48).
Here the "magic" breaks through, but in a Christian manifestation. As Wilson describes it, magical realist space is marked by "the ease, the purely natural way in which abnormal, experientially impossible (and empirically unverifiable) events take place" (220). The ambiguous narrative voice in this passage leads the reader seamlessly from the nuns' and lambs' voices, to the miracles of unity with and power over nature, to a possibility of God's speech, to its reality, all within the single chanted word, "Amen" The praise and glory expressed in this word perfectly exemplifies what Garcia-Rivera describes as "the heart of theological aesthetics":
Beauty's origin, theological aesthetics asserts, is divine. Beauty's origin is God himself. This theological insight, however, reveals a chasm. An abyss, as deep as the one between the divine and the finite, separates Creator and creature. A theology of Beauty alone would take the creature to this abyss and be content to leave him and her there to ponder the infinite distance between him/herself and his/her Creator. The category of Glory, however reveals a theological aesthetics. Beauty's Glory crosses the divine chasm between Creator and creature and shines forth in the creature's side of the abyss. (14)
"The divine chasm" is here crossed as three "tatty" women, as Ignatius thinks of them (Lambs 34), corral sheep for shearing.
The interpenetration of magical realism and Christian myth in the production of such miraculous sound in this sacred land is disrupted, however, by the perspective of the priest. Rather than being attuned to the sacred nature of the land, he views it primarily as a commodity, land whose sole value is reflected in its sale price; his reflections on how he will transform the island are summed up with the thought, "There were no problems that money couldn't solve" (Lambs 56). As a result, Ignatius serves as a perfect example of one axiom of sacred space: "that sacred space can be tred upon without being entered. Its recognition is existentially, not ontologically discerned. The identification of sacred place is thus intimately related to states of consciousness" (Lane 15). The fact that Ignatius' "state of consciousness" does not allow him fully to recognize the sacredness of the space is shown first in his language. Upon entering this space, he curses "Damn, damn, damn" (Lambs 24) to express his frustration and fatigue in battling the undergrowth. His self-absorption prevents him from respecting the sacramentality of the space he has entered.
This deadness to the sacred is comically reinforced the morning after Ignatius' arrival. He observes the three nuns praying in the courtyard, but rather than joining them in their prayers, Ignatius enters the chapel where a bird promptly greets him with a dropping. His immediate "Damn" reminds the reader of his essentially secular approach to the place. He then notices the statue of "the Virgin Mary ... who had, like a miracle, sprouted vegetation from the accumulation of leaf mold and bird droppings on her head. A halo of green vines, in emulation of her son's crown of thorns" (Lambs 43). Seeing neither the "miracle" nor the "emulation" but only the need "to clear the profane from the sacred," (43) he pulls on the vegetation, succeeding only in pulling off"the top of the statue's head,' resulting "in a grotesque clumsy scalping" (44). While he identifies the statue as "sacred" the life of the land is "profane" not miraculous, to him. As Iphigenia mentally observes:
He doesn't understand. It hangs together as delicately as a spider web. Once the fabric is touched the whole unravels. It is not just the three of them, it is the Agnes sisters, St. Anne, and the Blessed Virgin, every prayer, every chant that has seeped into the stones, every private thought and contemplation, each birdsong, blade of grass, worm and insect. The earth itself. It is the place and everything in it, the light and the dark, the day and the night, the generations of sisters, everlasting life, all this contained in the egg of the monastery. (238)
Iphigenia prompts the reader to see the integration of the sheep and the saints' statues in marking this as sacred space. Sacred space is not created by eliminating the coarse materiality of the world but by including it as part of a precious whole. Its existence is grounded in Christian myth and it contains magical powers, if only one can perceive them.
The Magic of Storytelling
Perhaps because the nuns and the priest experience the land and therefore the world so differently, they initially speak in entirely different semiotic registers. For the nuns, "Words were for prayers, chants, and stories. In the silence they could carry on eternal adoration of the Lord" (Lambs 137). Their language is not to be wasted on mundane, day-to-day communication about material matters; it offers precious access to the spiritual and the world of the imagination. The priest's language, in contrast, is marked by the casual use of mild curse words and the glib vocabulary of commercial persuasion. Because his semiotic register is essentially profane, Ignatius must learn a new, ritual use of language if their shared belief in the Christian myth is to serve as the reconciling force between the nuns and the priest. He needs to learn the art of storytelling.
In Lambs of God, storytelling functions both as a major source of power and as a major site for working through the conflicts at the heart of the novel. Initially it is the domain of the nuns, and it is through their storytelling that we first see Day's use of two magical realist dimensions of storytelling--autogenerativity and circulation--which magically draw storytellers into living stories in ways that give fiction power over reality.
As Faris points out, magical realist texts "affirm the magic of the storyteller's art" (186). This is shown most clearly in the nun's use of the Arachne story, a story of spinning and divine power and metamorphosis which they chant in unison each evening in preparation for their carding, spinning, and knitting. As they recite this story, the nuns' minimal, fragmented daily speech is miraculously replaced by Ovidian poetry; as storytellers they are, in a real sense, magically metamorphosed. Further, "It wasn't just the meaning of the words, it was the rhythm and the rhyme" (Day, Lambs 8). As Trinh T. Minh-ha describes, "To produce their full effect, words must, indeed, be chanted rhythmically, in cadences, off cadences" (122). The power of the "litany" (Day, Lambs 8) of Arachne's story is noticed even by Ignatius, who mistakes it for a "prayer" (33), an invocation that attests to the mystery of the storytelling that is to follow, and that serves as a magical realist grounding for what will prove to be the efficacy of the narration of the Christian myth.
In addition, the magic of storytelling both arises from and gives rise to "the autogenerative nature of fictions, indeed of language itself" (Faris 164), which manifests itself through the Arachne recitation in a number of ways. First, the opening words generate the story; it is "the litany they used to get the rhythm of the knitting going. The pattern of the story was deeply etched in their minds, any one word from it would evoke the whole" (Day, Lambs 8). Second, in addition to perpetuating itself, the story is essential to the creation of the "stories" that are reflected in their knitted cloths. Iphigenia explains: "The knitted piece tells a story, a fabric stitched from the thread of language, an artifact bright with meaning. It holds the memory of learned stitches, the inventiveness of imagination, and the cables and ribs of the knitters' own lives" (155). Primed by one story, the nuns, like Christian Arachnes, knit patterns that retell biblical stories; they knit landscapes and narratives into fabric. Finally, reciting Arachne's story prefaces the nuns' oral telling of fairy tales and legends that help give their lives order and meaning. It sets in motion the circulation, and thus the life, of all of the other stories--lived and told. Trinh describes this next magical dimension of storytelling: "A story is not just a story. Once told, the story is bound to circulate; humanized, it may have a temporary end, but its effects linger on and its end is never truly an end" (133). This aspect of circulation is critical because it keeps a story alive; "And the same story has always been changing, for things which do not shift and grow cannot continue to circulate" (Trinh 123).
This ability of stories to take on lives of their own is an important element in the functioning of storytelling in many magical realist texts. Isabel Allende in particular uses storytelling both within her novels and as a narrative flame for her novels, and she takes the autogenerative nature of storytelling to its logical conclusion when she creates an entire new collection of short stories (The Stories of Eva Luna) from the Sheharazade-identified character of one of her novels (Eva Luna). Likewise, the importance of the telling in setting the circulation of the story into motion can be seen in Leslie Marmon Silko's Ceremony and Witi Ihimaera's The Whale Rider. In both of these novels an indigenous creation myth is interwoven through the main narrative, circulated by an unidentified, almost extra-textual narrative voice to provide a context and meaning for the main character's life choices. These stories thereby emanate a magical power. But Day takes storytelling a step further. In Lambs of God the magic inherent in telling, interpreting, and living the stories enables them to become a primary site for the real--not just the analogical--working through of the conflicts between the main characters.
One story that circulates throughout the novel, taking on a life and power of its own and thereby potentially serving as a site of conflict resolution, is Beauty and the Beast. This is Margarita's story; she employs it in an effort to revise her personal history. Her youthful virginity, like Beauty's, was exchanged to pay her father's debts to a man she refers to only as "the Beast" The conventional version of Beauty and the Beast carries the powerful colonizing message that a girl "must learn that [the beast's] desire is her desire just as she had learned that her father's desire was her desire" (Zipes 37). This is a lesson that Margarita in her own life was unable or unwilling to learn, so she set fire to her tormentor's bed and ran to the nuns. Perhaps in an effort to humanize both the conventional story and her own life, Margarita revises the fairy tale's ending, making the beast-turned-man recognize "that Beauty was hardly more than a child, far too young to be mistress of his house. He shook hands with the man and Beauty left with her father. They all lived happily ever after" (Day, Lambs 12). She thus revises, even if minimally, the story's colonial power dynamic.
However, once Margarita has initiated the magical realist strategy of narrative interchangeability through her association of the fairy tale's beast with the real man from her past, the interchangeability of fact with fiction seems to take on a life of its own. Fiction appears to take over, as the Beast assumes a new identity: Ignatius. Even Ignatius' manicured hands remind Margarita of her abuser's, and his very presence makes her tremble with fear and hatred. The power of the story in Margarita's life culminates in an ambiguous event. At one moment Margarita is recalling setting fire to her abuser's bed curtains; then, in a shift from past to present tense, "She can smell the fire and hear the terrible, terrible screaming. Margarita runs and runs" (Lambs 261). The smell is that of Ignatius' burning hands, and the screams are his. But we never learn whether Margarita is running to or from Ignatius and the fire, for the next we see, the priest is found with a smoldering blanket, an overturned candle, a burned copy of Lives of Saints and Martyrs, and bandaged hands.
The text's silence regarding what has occurred exemplifies the "foregrounding of those gaps, absences, and silences produced by the colonial encounter and reflected in the text's disjunctive language of narration" (Slemon 410-11) common to magical realist texts. The resulting ambiguity allows for both magical realist and Christian mythic readings. If Margarita is the cause of Ignatius' injuries, then the incident fits the magical realist storytelling pattern of repetition-with-substitution. Ignatius substitutes for the Beast, and Margarita repeats her resistance to his colonizing power, not just by reframing the story, but in real-life actions. However if, as Ignatius himself suggests, he carelessly caused the fire and Margarita came to his rescue (his hands have been bandaged, apparently by Margarita), then the story has been revised yet again. This is made more likely by the insertion of another text into the story; shortly before the fire Margarita was reading and reflecting on I Corinthians 13 and the Christian ideal of charity. Perhaps the Christian counter-narrative has outweighed all previous versions of the fairy tale. Such an interpretation--made possible but not necessary by the gaps in the text--gives the playing-out of Margarita's revised fairy tale yet another possible ending, one in which she is no longer either a sexually colonized woman or a victim of sexual abuse who resorts to murder, but the rescuer of the man she deemed her enemy. Yet, as typical of magical realism, this narrative ambiguity is never resolved.
While Margarita's story seems to function as an exploration of the complex interconnections between narratives and an individual's life, with Ignatius largely unaware of his role as an actor in it, Carla's stories function as an early site on which the clash between the nuns' world view and that of the priest is overtly played out. As Carla begins to tell the story of Briar Rose during Ignatius' first evening at the monastery, Ignatius recognizes it as "Sleeping Beauty" and silently notes a number of peculiarities. The ending, however, when the now-thirteen-year-old Briar Rose encounters the thirteenth wise woman spinning, elicits from Ignatius an emphatic protest. In Carla's version, "as soon as ]Briar Rose] stepped over the threshold she discovered that she was bleeding" (Lambs 34), but not from her hand. Carla's story ends, "Then the thirteenth Wise Woman, for it was she who was spinning the fabric of life, explained to the woman newly emerged from the girl, the mystery of the body that bleeds but is not wounded. And she lived happily ever after" (34). Drawing on patriarchal ideology, Ignatius finds the elimination of the rescuing prince intolerable; drawing on the colonialist's confidence that history as he has created it is the only source of truth, he demands that his version is correct because "He had the weight of history behind him, thousands and thousands of years" (35).
The magical realism of the bleeding-but-not-wounded female body and the spinner of life does one kind of cultural work; the version familiar to Ignatius (and likely the reader) of the thirteenths fairy's vengeful sleeping curse does another. Whereas Carla has used "the magic of the storyteller's art" (Faris 186) to create feminist meaning, Ignatius is invested in what Zipes refers to as "the patriarchal code of civilite" (24). Carla's version of the story asserts a positive attitude toward the onset of menstruation and adult womanhood and values the act of spinning for its close identification with fate and the renewal of life. Ignatius' more familiar version emphasizes different gender roles: the female is to be passive, helpless, and barely alive until a man comes along; the male is active, the source of life's renewal, and essential to woman's living "happily ever after." Ignatius is either unable or unwilling even to contemplate the world view of Carla's version of the story, and the resulting conflict between the priest and the nuns takes the form of a dispute over who "owns" the story, a dispute that anticipates the plot problem of who "owns" the convent. Though at this point Iphigenia intervenes and asserts that Ignatius is "quite right" Ignatius "felt something shift underfoot, the feeling he'd had as a child at the beach when the tide was going out" (Lambs 35).
That Ignatius is somehow losing his footing takes on wonderful irony when the nuns metamorphose him into a merman. Perhaps because for the nuns stories such as the metamorphosis of Arachne intersect so completely with life, they decide to shave Ignatius' body and encase his legs in plaster to prevent his leaving until they can solve the problem of his plan for the convent. The metamorphosis conventional to many fairy tales and classical myths thereby becomes literalized, in typical magical realist fashion. When Ignatius wakes to his metamorphosis, his initial reaction is understandably "weeping, shuddering and weeping, when he saw what had become of him" (Lambs 114). But this physical metamorphosis is crucial to Ignatius' personal transformation. Whereas before this "He had never imagined, never really imagined, that he and the unfortunate belonged to the same species" (138), now he mentally insists that he is "flesh and blood, the same as them" (136). Ignatius thus begins to develop the Christian virtue of compassion. This new capacity for sympathetic identification then leads Ignatius to turn to internal storytelling for strength and solace: "He would think of saints and martyrs, those who had undergone every humiliation, and he would dwell with them" (139). By according narratives this real, consolatory power in his life, he takes the first step in becoming a storyteller.
The nuns eventually bring Ignatius-the-merman back into the community of their evening storytelling in order to "minister to him" (Lambs 147). They decide that integrating him into the community requires teaching him knitting, beginning with the history, science and mythological basis of spinning. As Ignatius is initiated into the craft, he tells his first spinning story, The Twelve Swans, about brothers regaining their human shape through the silent, self-sacrificial needlework of their sister. Though Ignatius has clearly selected this story for self-serving reasons, as it tells of female facilitation of the re-metamorphosis of dehumanized males, he becomes so caught up in the telling that he surprises himself with the results:
Though he had finished the story it had not gone away. He had conjured it up and it sat in the room like a hologram. When he looked at it from one angle he saw swans. If he tilted it a little the swans became men again. And the women in the story--beautiful from one angle, vengeful and witchy from another. Daughters turning into wives and mothers; mothers and wives into wicked witches and old hags. (161)
Here he becomes a storyteller in the magical realist mode: forming something lasting yet changeable, seeing the connections among animals and people, and creating a real yet ephemeral world.
Ignatius also here experiences for the first time a powerful possibility in storytelling: textualization, when a text is incorporated into a larger text so that the two become fused. Magical realist texts frequently employ this device to create worlds within worlds, worlds that "interpenetrate" while being "irreconcilable" (Theim 244). One of magical realism's most powerful types of textualization is "the textualization of fictional readers, that is, readers who are already characters in the fictional world of some text and who themselves get literally absorbed into the world of fictional stories at the hypodiegetic level" (Theim 236). This occurs regularly with Margarita as she is absorbed into the world of Beauty and the Beast, and occasionally with Carla, but both Margarita and Carla are practiced storytellers. Here Ignatius for the first time experiences a literal absorption into the world of the story he is telling, as he "flew like a bird with the princes, felt the welts the nettles made on the princess's skin" (Day, Lambs 161).
Ignatius' magical realist textualization can then be carried over from the realm of fairy tale to the realm of Christian parable, where it offers an initial opportunity for him to develop and internalize a Christian comic world view. One evening Ignatius chooses to tell the parable of the prodigal son, thinking of it as "an invisible thread, a prayer. His contribution" (Lambs 209) to the garment the nuns are knitting for him. Yet "again this time, once started on the journey Ignatius found himself going along with the story, entering into it and being mesmerized by it" (212). Through this magical realist textualization, Ignatius is opened to a whole new understanding of the parable. For the first time, he is able to sympathize with the younger brother, achieving an appreciation of the parable that is more fully Christian (and perhaps less imperialist, foregoing the entitlement of the conventionally obedient elder son) than any he has experienced in his many readings of the story.
While Ignatius is learning a new semiotic register of storytelling, Iphigenia acquires a new linguistic register from Ignatius' world. After securing Ignatius in his cast, the nuns go in search of the marooned car. By rocking the car, the nuns manage to topple it into the sea, but not before removing the contents of its glove compartment, including a spare battery for Ignatius' cell phone and a book titled Negotiation Skills. Though Carla and Margarita quickly become bored with the book, Iphigenia studies it: "Here was a whole new set of phrases: non-verbal alert, personal space, persuasive strategy, synergy, bottom lines, worst-case scenario, teleconferencing. It was a whole new world, a whole new vocabulary" (Lambs 206). Iphigenia realizes that if she is going to save the convent, she needs to speak the language of the world that is threatening it. Just as Ignatius needs to enter a new world of magical storytelling, she needs to engage a new "realism" Using Ignatius' cell phone, she eventually contacts her long-dead-grandmother's solicitor's firm, learns that she has a large inheritance (which causes her great distress, as it violates her vow of poverty), and engages the firm to purchase the convent, all of which requires "negotiation skills."
This new linguistic register can take her only so far, however. The problem of Ignatius remains. Iphigenia realizes that just as life in the convent thrives in part through the magic of storytelling, so must engagement with the world outside the convent. But Iphigenia needs Ignatius' help to create a new story that will be able to live and circulate in that other world; together they must create the story of their story. She approaches Ignatius with the story of "three sisters who lived in a big house high on a hill" happy until a visitor comes and wants to sell the house. The "fairy grandmother" of one of the sisters, her helpful "elf" (the solicitor), a "pot of gold" (her inheritance) and a magic relic (Ignatius' cell phone), combine to provide a happy ending for the sisters. Ignatius' task as co-storyteller, Iphigenia says, is to find the happy ending for the visitor, which, she assures him, is already present "in the story" (Lambs 302). However, Ignatius must do more than just complete the story. For the story's magic power to become fully effective, Ignatius' storytelling textualization must become permanent; he must enter the story as himself, and continue to perform that story for the rest of his life.
Rituals: Eucharist and Easter
The performative dimension of storytelling is regularly highlighted in the text, as the storytellers use different voices and gestures to bring their stories to life. Ritually prefaced by the evocative incantation of the Arachne myth, the stories are not mere ornaments in the world of the novel; they are the lenses through which the world is experienced and understood as well as the site of some major clashes. But because all of the characters are Christian and, moreover, have chosen to dedicate their lives in service to Christ, they share the most important story of all: the narrative of Jesus Christ. Since ritual is cosubstantial with myth--the "formal and dramatic" presentation of myth in "its immediate punctual aspect" (Gaster 113-114)--a reader might expect to see the Christian myth "told" through the performance of Christian ritual, a variant of storytelling that draws on yet additional magical--or, more precisely, mysterious--power.
Early in the novel, prior to the priest's arrival but after Iphigenia has smelled his coming, the women perform the ritual of the Eucharist. Reading the description of this ritual as an intertwining of magical realism and Christian myth can provide a path through its powerful yet disturbing elements. First, a lamb is slaughtered by Margarita, who reflects on her actions as a betrayal akin to that by Judas, explicitly connecting the sacrifice of the lamb with that of Christ. the lamb is then hung "above the Eucharist table, dressed in a fine cloth so that it could drip blood without being interrupted by flying insects and other forms of life that like to fasten themselves to the corpses of the newly dead" (Lambs 21). Bread is broken and apportioned, as is the "still warm" blood, which is distributed "from the sacramental vessel into bowls" (22). Finally, in unison, the women, as transgressive (because female) concelebrants, speak the words from John 6:54-56, then kneel, "heads lifted upward to the patches of sky through the roof, to the eternal life all around them" (22), and partake of the Eucharist elements.
Here Day employs the magical realist strategy of literalizing a metaphor. The graphic description of the lamb's slaughter, the shedding and drinking of its blood, and the nourishment and pleasure received through its consumption renders all too concrete the metaphor of Christ as Agnus Dei, the Lamb of God whose sacrifice takes away the sins of the world. Though this ritual may seem far removed from our relatively sanitized practices of holy communion, Iphigenia announces that it is the Eucharist, and the relevant words from scripture are intoned. Through this defamiliarization, the power of the ritual is reinvigorated; rather than simply being sacrilegious, this description invites us into the sacredness of the ritual and the full meaning of its myth.
A similar combination of traditional ritual elements and defamiliarizing alterations marks the novel's Easter celebrations, moving to an even more powerful conclusion. When the nuns learn that they have miscalculated time, have missed Lent, and are on the eve of the Easter vigil, they are thrilled to have "A priest for Easter!" (Lambs 279). Yet on Holy Thursday, Iphigenia--not Ignatius--reenacts Christ's washing of the disciples' feet, a doubly transgressive act in terms of gender, as she not only again assumes the role of the male priest, but she washes the feet of women as well as the face (since his feet are encased) of a man. On Friday, the nuns prop Ignatius up at the altar, and together they perform their respective scripted roles in reciting the story of the arrest, condemnation, and crucifixion of Christ. Finally, after the silent contemplation of Saturday, at midnight one candle is lit and Ignatius is once again carried "like a comical king into the darkened womb of the chapel. They deposited him in front of the altar. In this familiar place Ignatius took up once again his priestly role" (282). The carnivalesque description of Ignatius as "comical king" juxtaposed with "his priestly role" reminds us of the joyful essence of the Christian myth as reenacted in the Sacred Triduum rituals, where little is what it appears to be, but all is for the good.
As Easter morning is welcomed with ritual words and the lighting of multiple candles, the magical mystery of the Christian myth is manifested:
The stained-glass saints came alive and the angels danced and voices rang out ... On went the Exsultet until Ignatius felt his song lift and soar with the congregation. A white dove opened its wings and his spirit was airborne. Alleluia. Alleluia. Alleluia. The breath started deep within him, aaaaaaaaaah, rose in his throat and up into his mouth where he lapped at it with his tongue, llelu llelu llelu. Then out it came, warm, resounding, shaped into words, winging its way back to God. Alleluia. (Lambs 282-83)
Here we have a reprise of the magical sounds of the nuns and sheep calling and being called, blessing and being blessed. But this time, using the Christian ritual words, Ignatius joins them, and is overwhelmed by the power of the mythic moment. As their voices blend, we see the fulfillment of what William Beers calls "one of the primary functions of ritual" which "is to allow for the transition across the contagion that lies between classificatory boundaries" (41). The "classificatory boundaries" of nun versus priest and female versus male are crossed during these rituals, with the result that, at least for a time, "the ambiguous tension" between them is "resolved" (Beers 41); for the first time Ignatius magically and mysteriously becomes one with the women, the saints and the angels.
The culminating ritual of this Easter Sunday morning is the unwrapping of the bandages on Ignatius' hands. Within the economy of ritual, Ignatius' bandages substitute for Christ's shroud; the nuns seem to stand in for the angels in Christ's tomb. Ignatius' healthy skin replaces Christ's missing body, signifying the power of resurrection.
Ignatius broke down and wept. He became every fluid thing, ebbed and flowed. ]he stilted fish he had been for so long now swam and rippled in the tide. He brought his new hands up to his face. Tears baptized them. For the first time as a priest, for the first time ever, he understood the meaning of resurrection, the eternal renewal of life. (Lambs 284)
Because of the changes in the ritual, Ignatius now experiences the full power of Christian myth's resurrection message. Before he had thought, "Ritual and ceremony uplifted the spirit of the masses but a priest needed answers" (236), preferring logic to ritual, logos to mythos. But through the magical realism of metamorphosis and the living Easter ritual, he is finally able to experience the full mystery of the Christian myth.
This unity of nuns and priest within the shared myth of Christianity is still shaky, however. Though the priest presumably says Easter Mass, we do not see it, but move directly to Easter dinner. Carla presents Ignatius an "Eastre's egg" and tells a creation story that ends 'And the people honored Eastre in the month when spring returns to the world and the resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ is named after her" (Lambs 286), melding two elements common in magical realist texts: pagan and Christian myth. Although her story has the potential of retriggering the conflict between the nuns and the priest, "Ignatius had a niggling suspicion that what she was saying was true" (286). His discomfort increases, however, as he realizes that the "egg" (actually a potato) is dyed with blood, presumably the menstrual blood in which the reader saw Carla glory a few days earlier. The real blood of the menstruating woman and the real blood of the crucified Christ--the blood that connects life and death and life again--is handed from Carla to Ignatius as a gift through which, once again, the metaphorical is made literal, the expected is defamiliarized, and the reality of the mystery is insisted upon.
The uneasy back and forth between a mysterious, unifying transitioning over classificatory boundaries and the political tension between the nuns and the priest resurfaces during one final ritual. After Easter, the nuns still must perform the "magic" of re-metamorphosing the priest from merman to human. They do so using a Christian ritual that metamorphoses a woman into a nun: the ritual of robing. The nuns spin and knit a new robe for Ignatius, "a garment of our design, with his hair knitted into it. A garment to make him ours" as Iphigenia describes it (Lambs 192), a garment in which they will send him forth to live the new story that he has told his bishop. The robe thus functions as a permanent site of the interconnection between magical realism and Christian myth: it is the result of the knitting that has been intimately associated with the sheep, fairy tales, and Greek myth, as well as a ritual object signifying the Christian vows shared by the nuns and Ignatius. In this last ritual together, the nuns become "a trinity of prelates" (312), asking the questions used during a robing; Ignatius formulaically responds. But when they bless him, calling him "my daughter" he corrects them under his breath; in so doing he effectively if momentarily disrupts the transition across classificatory boundaries that the ritual would otherwise effect. After the nuns remove the plaster cast, they place the garment over his head, clip some of his hair, and the transformative Christian ritual is complete: "They had robed him, he had repeated the words of Simple Profession. He had become a nun" (315). Ignatius is still a bit resistant, however. He avoids joining their closing prayer by starting to recite his favorite prayer of St. Ignatius Loyola. But when he stops himself, reflecting that "This was not the prayer for a man who had just regained his human form, his dignity" (316), he acknowledges the changes in him, changes symbolized by the robe and wrought by the magical and ritual interventions of the nuns.
A Hybrid Resolution
As the novel draws to a close, Carla uses the patterns in Ignatius' robe and in the land itself to tell him the stories of their knitting and of his visit. There are several hints of sexual tension between Carla and Ignatius, but no romance is allowed to develop. Ignatius, the would-be science fiction explorer, returns to his bishop and receives a new appointment in the church; he seems fully reintegrated into its institutional structure. Though Carla initially follows him across the sandbar and into the world, she chooses joyfully to return to the convent. In the monastery, the cell phone battery dies, the brambles again cover the wooden gates, and the nuns resume their rhythms of praying and knitting.
Yet Christian myth and magical realism remain in the creative tension of mythic realism. A year later, the nuns "set the table with forks, sat facing outward, watching and waiting for visitors in the vast blue emptiness" (Lambs 329), a position that exactly repeats their attentive waiting for the arrival of Ignatius at the beginning of the novel, but with a new embracing of the priest's reality in the inclusion of the forks. In a separate but simultaneous observation of Easter, Ignatius wears the garment spun and knitted for him by the nuns at a service led by the Pope himself. Embracing the nuns' miraculous world view, Ignatius experiences a final vision:
And as the candles are lit and the Exsultet begins, he sees Carla walking toward him on the ribbon of light. And now Iphigenia and Margarita, the Agnes sisters, the Blessed Virgin, St. Anne and the stained-glass saints, the worms and the birds. Shimmering. (329-30)
The procession integrates the holy and the material, the Christian and the magical realist. To use Stephen Slemon's terms, it is "an image of resolution in binary separation, a symbolic drawing together of ... oppositions ... in a suspended moment that requires both terms of the text's narrational mode"--in this case Christian myth and magical realism--"to sustain it" (420). The two modes hang suspended, intertwined in a hybrid, mythic realist moment.
The last words of the novel are drawn from scripture--I John 1:1, 3-4--ending, "And these things write we unto you, that your joy may be full" (330). Here we have a final example of a magical realist device in conjunction with a sacramental, Christian comic world view. While the scripture offers a sense of closure grounded in Christianity, it simultaneously opens new "gaps, absences and silences" (Slemon 409), raising for the reader a series of new interpretive questions. Who is the narrative "we" that is suddenly introduced? Whose joy--the nuns', the priest's, the reader's--is to "be full"? And why is the introduction of John's letter used as a conclusion for the novel, perhaps creating a magical realist blurring of time and sequence? With an absence of answers, the novel thus ends with a final example of mythic realism: an integration of sacred text with magical ambiguity.
University of St. Thomas, St. Paul, Minnesota
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|Author:||Powell, Brenda J.|
|Publication:||Christianity and Literature|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2010|
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