Like Virgins

If you are reading this, I have safely arrived in the United Kingdom, courtesy of Virgin Atlantic. Given the lens through which I view everything, I somehow supposed that Virgin Atlantic was named after one of history’s two most famous Madonnas—the Blessed Virgin Mary, or just plain Madonna. It turns out that I was wrong on both counts. Virgin Atlantic, famously under the leadership of Richard Branson, borrowed its name from its older sister company, Virgin Records, also founded by Sir Branson. Virgin Records, I had supposed, was named after the only musical Madonna, but again, not so. The record company, new to an inexperienced Branson, was named by a colleague who noted that they were business neophytes, like virgins. The original logo showed an Eve-like virgin with a snake and everything.

Steve Fitzgerald's pic from WikiCommons

Steve Fitzgerald’s pic from WikiCommons

While in the UK I always call on Nick Wyatt, one of my doctoral advisors and now a good friend. As my mentor in Ugaritic, we always joke that I fly Virgin Atlantic because of the Virgin Anat, Baal’s famous warrior sister and sometimes lover. Anat was, of course, not the first perpetual virgin. The Mesopotamians had the idea that a goddess could be a perpetual virgin and still have kids, and what led up to said motherhood. Virginity is a status marker, still unfairly applied to women. I suspect a good part of it is biology (and if this seems weird, blame it on the jet lag), because the essential male reproductive function occurs whether or not a female is present, and even the most saintly men can not, from time-to-time, barring very extreme measures, avoid it. It is difficult to measure virginity in men, so why the double standard?

In this early morning haze (or is it really afternoon?), I suppose it comes down to not wanting to support somebody else’s child. Looks are at best a lackluster proof of paternity, and in the days before effective birth control, the only way you could be absolutely sure was to make sure your spouse was a virgin. Goddesses could get away with sex and still retain their purity. It was less sanguine for the human woman. Thus the Virgin Mary is accorded a special, but not unique status. But it turns out that none of this really matters because the Virgin I fly is merely a business virgin. And with a bit of experience, provides some of the best care in the air.

Whatever Happened to Whimsy?

American Gothic is one of my favorite paintings. I’ve never seen the original, and I know of no other paintings that Grant Wood produced, although I’m sure there are some. The mood in what has been called “the most famous American painting” is unsettled. There’s something not quite right here. When one of my authors wanted to use the image on a book cover, it led to quite a bit of serious discussion. I was a bit surprised by the negative impressions—not of the painting, but of its use on a serious academic book. The discussion seemed to turn on money rather than on wit and whimsy. I confess to being a dreamer, and I admit that the aspects of life that truly inspire me are never financial. When I crave wealth it is so that I might free up some time for creativity. That’s not the way business works.

Sometimes I feel a stranger in my own country. The unquestioned triumph of unbridled capitalism means that you can go from city to city to city and not really be able to tell much of a difference. If you want to buy a bit of tubing or a piece of wood, it’s Home Depot or Lowe’s for you. Office supplies—Office Max or Staples are your only choices. If you want to buy intelligent books, well, you’re just plumb out of luck unless you go to Amazon. The big financial corporations have won. Just admit it. Every time I visit my hometown I come away depressed at all the vacant stores and lost hopes of the small businesses that offered something just a little different. Something to tickle my fancy. Something to tempt me to wonder. Something with a tinge of American Gothic.

AmGoth

The messages we receive from every angle echo Madonna’s hit song, “Material Girl.” Only this includes all genders. Reductionistic materialism tells us that we’re just proteins walking. Mind is an illusion. Soul is a myth. I work a job where the money I’m paid is transferred electronically and if I want to see some of it in paper form I face a robotic ATM rather than a human face. I went to the mall last night and wept. Call it a mid-life crisis if you will. Say nostalgia has no place in a forward-looking society. I just want a few more options besides the plastic, the smart-chipped, and the sterile. The world needs more whimsy. Maybe that’s why I insisted on American Gothic on the cover of the first book I put under contract.

Lady Madonna

IMG_0611

Among the paintings and prints in the Edvard Munch collection on display at the Museum of Modern Art in New York is a rendition of his famous Madonna. I first saw a reproduction of this piece in a discussion of Christian art. The question, of course, was whether it could be considered Christian art or not. Munch was not known for creating religious-themed art. Angst was his more natural home. While not the only Madonna to pose naked, Munch predated the aging pop star by a fair number of decades, and named this piece after an icon of Catholic orthodoxy. The problem is the female body. Religion in the western world has pretty much always had difficulty dealing with embodiment. My generation grew up with Charlton Heston and any number of bare-chested, sculpted idols of manhood playing such characters as Tarzan, Ben-Hur, and Moses. Moses? Yes, even Cecil B. DeMille knew the draw of having a biblical hero bathed by a bunch of young, Egyptian women. We are used to seeing Jesus nearly naked on the cross—but Mary?

The issues tied to embodiment, although they effect every person who has a body, fall more heavily upon females. While there is little agreement as to the why, the excuse is often given that “man” is in the image of God and “woman” is derivative. In actual fact it seems more likely to me that men prefer an easy excuse for bad behavior. Biology sends a pretty strong reproductive message to most males, but, in the human realm at least, the larger burden rests with the females. By blaming the victims the male hierarchy—undeniable in the case of the church, as in many religions—insists that the female body is the problem. Males perform as God intended, thank you. But the reasoning is all backward here. Munch, if he intended this to be the Madonna, is problematizing the discourse.

Art, like holy writ, is open to interpretation. Munch did not explain his enigmatic Madonna, but like Leonardo da Vinci, lets the silent woman speak for herself. Scholars have long noted the multiplicity of Marys in Jesus’ life. At some points the Gospel writers leave a little too much inference up to the reader. It is pretty clear that Jesus had no trouble with women. But he was a singular visionary in a time when cheap blame was easily found. So Edvard Munch may have been following in the footsteps of the master when he portrayed the Madonna who accuses the world of double-dealing and false standards. It is an arresting artwork, and not for prurient reasons. What is being exposed here is a soul. She may be called the blessed virgin or the mother of God, but her gender is still castigated even by those who mouth such holy epithets. We may never know who Munch intended this to be, but we know she is every woman who has been repressed by the religion of men, yearning to be free.