The Uses of Darkness: Women's Underworld Journeys, Ancient and Modern.
Operating at the intersection of literary criticism, psychology, and theology, Laurie Brands Gagne analyzes three ancient tales as "women's stories of the underworld" (5): "The Descent of Inanna," the myth of Demeter and Persephone, and the legend of Eros and Psyche. Her goal is to establish the thesis that stories of women's descent into the underworld are unlike men's in that, while the male hero-tales involve "great deeds" (6), women's heroic journeys involve a different, more subtle process of "discovering new life through the surrender to passion, losing that life through the loss of the other, and coming through loss" (7). For women characters like Inanna, Demeter, and Psyche, the underworld journey is related to the "withdrawal" of the beloved from a significant relationship (6). The physical journey moves them psychologically from "the rage and wretchedness which accompany the frustration of desire" to "pure love" (5). While on the journey, the woman hero experiences the kind of "transcendence followed by transformation" that constitutes the "formula for all spiritual journeys ... a movement or change within the self that amounts to realizing a wonderful possibility" (18). Only after experiencing such transcendence can the woman hero move from love of "the beauty that is tangible" to a higher spiritual plane, "perceiving and loving beauty that is intangible" (20).
Gagne begins by analyzing the journey motif in the three key texts. The first, "The Descent of Inanna," is an ancient Sumerian tale of a goddess who, as an adult woman and mother of two grown sons, journeys to the underworld. Her motivation for doing so, according to the text Gagne uses (Diane Wolkstein and Samuel Noah Kramer's Inanna, Queen of Heaven and Earth ), is "`to witness the funeral rites'" of her brother-in-law (5). Gagne asserts, however, that Inanna's true motive is anger, specifically against her husband Dumuzi. The evidence for this theory appears later in the Inanna story. When Inanna has returned from her underworld journey and is required, as a condition of her return, to replace herself in the underworld with another living person, she refuses to allow either her closest female companion, Ninshubur, or either of her two sons to take her place, but she consents to her husband's doing so: she "`utter[s] against him the cry of guilt'" (24). Inanna's rage against Dumuzi contrasts with the beautiful erotic lyrics that describe their early marriage; intervening events that destroyed her love are apparently missing from the Sumerian text. While Gagne's hypothesis with regard to Inanna's anger may be valid, her use of Inanna as a paradigm of women's resentment of men in general may be less so. Gagne observes that "patriarchy had been in place for centuries when this story was written; imagine the resentment toward men and male gods that woman must have been hoarding" (25). The assumption that women from the ancient past would have reacted much as modern women do is, to this reader, a questionable one, ignoring cultural differences and the development of a woman-centered consciousness over time. In addition, since Inanna is a queen and a goddess, seeing her as a representative of the powerless in her time and ours is problematic.
In the second ancient story, that of Demeter and Persephone, the underworld journey of Demeter in search of her daughter Persephone is read as a "myth ... about women's wholeness." Demeter and Persephone represent not merely mother and daughter but also two "opposing figures in a woman's psyche." According to Gagne, these figures "correspond to the difference between being carefree," being a young girl, and "having a care," accepting the responsibilities of motherhood. If Persephone is at once a daughter and a symbol of her mother's lost youth, "when Demeter is searching for Persephone, she is grieving the loss of her child-likeness: her spontaneity, her creativity, her playful abandon" (31). When the two are separated, fragmentation results. Demeter's quest ends happily when wholeness is restored, when "the split between the child-woman and the mother is healed" (38). Gagne is not interested in Persephone as wife of Hades; the important relationships in the myth are those between women.
A contrasting theme appears in the third story, that of Eros and Psyche, from Apuleius' second-century work The Golden Ass. (Gagne appears to depend on a secondary source, Erich Neumann's Amor and Psyche: The Psychic Development of the Feminine , for this tale.) That theme is a woman's overdependence on a man's approval such that, when his approval is withdrawn, her world shatters. In the myth Psyche is a woman so beautiful that men dare not approach her. This offends Venus/ Aphrodite, who sends her son Cupid/Eros to punish Psyche for her presumptuousness by causing her to fall in love with an unworthy man. Instead, Eros falls in love with her himself. Despite his mother's objections, Eros makes love to Psyche nightly, but only in darkness, that his identity might be concealed. When Psyche's sisters question her about her lover's beauty, she confesses to them that she has never seen him. This leads her to break the promise upon which relationship between mortals and immortals in myth often depends when she lights a lamp to glimpse the sleeping Eros. Psyche's betrayal causes Eros to leave her; she, distraught, wanders in search of her lost love. Her ensuing sufferings, according to the author, can again be blamed on "a patriarchal society [that] allows women, indeed, encourages women to live by the myth its children live by--that all is well as long as you are in right relation, the relation of submission, to a father figure" (46). Psyche's underworld journey is a quest to restore this "right relation." While marriage to Eros in Apuleius' story is Psyche's desired goal, the focus in Gagne's work is the journey itself, during which Psyche both "derives power from her growing awareness of the divine spark" (58) and, unlike Inanna and Demeter, "remains herself" throughout (52).
Having developed her theories about the underworld journey in these three ancient works, Gagne applies them to five modern writers: Sylvia Plath, Joan Didion, Mary Gordon, Virginia Woolf, and Etty Hillesum. This reader is best able to comment upon Gagne's discussion of Gordon's The Company of Women (1980). Here Gagne is on firm ground as she shows how the life journey of the central character, Felicitas, has mythic dimensions. Felicitas' venture into a world outside the safe circle composed of Father Cyprian Leonard and his company of women leads only to disillusionment, as she merely substitutes the authoritarianism of her lover, Robert, for that of Father Cyprian. Her unintended pregnancy forces her abruptly to make the transition from young girl to mother, and to make it alone, as Robert abandons her. While in the myth Demeter goes in search of her daughter, in Gordon's novel Felicitas, the lost daughter, is the one who journeys. Like Psyche, she descends into darkness following the loss of love; and, like Persephone, she regains wholeness when she reintegrates herself into the company of women, which now includes her young daughter Linda as well as her mother. Because Felicitas has suffered so from patriarchal authority, she must eliminate both priest and lover from her life, choosing as a husband "another needy creature who is dependent on her" (116). The novel's final scene in which Felicitas and her mother watch Linda running toward them is a visual image of the wholeness of women in a world without (significant) men: the three women represent "the predictable but ever-marvelous reappearance of the life-force after a period of death." Just as the earth renews itself each year when Demeter is reunited with Persephone, so Felicitas' "own life has been renewed through that of her child" (119).
Gagne's book is similar in content and critical approach to a work by Carol Christ titled Diving Deep and Surfacing: Women Writers on Spiritual Quest (1980). Christ also operates at the point where literature meets psychology and theology, believing, like Gagne, that "the expression of women's spiritual quest is integrally related to the telling of women's stories." Unlike Gagne, however, Christ believes that "this does not mean necessarily that women writers deliberately set out to create new sacred texts." In addition, Christ discusses writers who are more similar to each other in time period and culture. In this reader's opinion, this is a more credible approach to the study of literature than that of Gagne, whose analysis is shaped by a complex belief system. Like the heroic women she discusses, she is herself on a quest, seeking through literature a "goddess trajectory to Christianity" that would at least partially compensate for its patriarchal nature (194). Following this "goddess trajectory" requires establishing an alternative canon of religious writings, and Gagne believes that literary texts can be read as "religious texts in the sense of wisdom literature: guides for one's life journey" (11). Whether a reader accepts or rejects this premise will greatly affect his or her response to this book. Would the "religious text" rubric potentially apply to all literary texts or only those that follow the "goddess trajectory"? Another assumption upon which the argument rests is that literary works from widely disparate cultures, time periods, and even genres not only can be read in the light of later developments in the history of ideas but also can be usefully compared on the basis of a single common element, with cultural, temporal, and genre differences minimized. Moreover, the use of ancient texts to establish paradigms, while providing a stimulating reading of these texts, not only allows these texts a great deal of authority but also sidesteps the historical reality that, in the absence of evidence to the contrary, the older the text, the less the likelihood that a woman wrote it. The book will be more convincing to those who share Gagne's assumptions than to those who do not. For me the weight of providing theological as well as literary or psychological insight is a heavy one for these particular works to bear.
Margaret Hallissy Long Island University C. W. Post Campus
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|Publication:||Christianity and Literature|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2002|
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