The cultural evolution of the taboo completely fascinates me.
I would like to think that I have always been somewhat culturally sensitive, but I would like to attribute my occasionally brazen questioning to nothing more than unabashed curiosity. I realized that this interest might push the envelope a bit once at a friends party in Montréal. My Haligonian friend had moved to the city to improve his French. Doubtlessly facilitated by his French girlfriend, he had moved effortlessly into the European Francophone set in the city. I was always delighted at the chance to practice my skills with native speakers, to see if I could provoke their tight, controlled accents and reserved airs to grow into elaborate hand gestures passionate emoting of their stances on politics and religion. In one such success, a lull in an intensely political debate had provided a chance to replenish our drinks. As I returned, bottle in hand, I found my conversational partner with an atypical grin on his face. “il fait tellement du bien!” He went on to explain that he thought Canadians were completely crazy. That in France, at a party like this, fifty or sixty twenty-somethings crammed into a tiny flat, with liquid fuel, the room would be completely amuck with political discussion (a.k.a., arguments). He couldn’t believe that here in Canada, it was one of the worst things to ask someone about. Although things have since changed in Montréal, at the time I couldn’t help but meekly agree. As I’ve aged, I’m a little sad to also admit that religion seems to have crept into that same category.
Montréal, Printemps d’érable, 2012
I apologize in advance to anyone I may offend with my hazy understandings of religion and my clumsy tendency to smooth over many differences to endless try to relate, to untangle and understand. I grew up going to a public school located between a synagogue and a church, my classmates were almost evenly split between Judaism, Christianity and Other (Muslim, Atheist, Hindi). Mainly monotheistic, my childhood gang chatted about our experiences (the similarities and differences) often while we were young, with curiousity more than contempt or anything else. I remember feeling like I was collecting religious edifices as I was in my pre-teen years, always hoping a family would offer that I accompany them to their place of worship Saturday or Sunday mornings. I was always faintly jealous of the intense festivities and ongoings of the synagogue compared our somber removed activities with our older congregation. For five years I actually took cello lessons in the basement of the building, where how-to-read Hebrew posters lined the halls, which admittedly, had vague Sunday-school type undertones. Futilely trying to absorb some smidgen of an exotic unknown that always ached in a vaguely familiar way.
I had a very basic understanding of the split between the religions, marking their apparitions along with their Holy Texts on a timeline with our cultural meta-narrative, little mental asterisks added in my mind as each religion appeared. Initially this was to understand the Synagogue/Church split, then to understand why my Presbyterian best friend and I did not both go to the Cathedral. Later I used this strategy to add a fuzzy understanding of the Qu’ran and Baha’i, developing a branched flowchart of religion. Later during the Foundation Year Program I stretched a skeleton of the Western Canon, like a fitted bedsheet, over my understandings, resting the whole thing on-top of a box-spring of Greek mythology and philosophy. The Epic of Gilgamesh would be hanging out underneath the whole thing like that indulgent seldom-used but immensely appreciated sheepskin rug that hits your feet first thing in the morning; something superfluous yet so primitive and necessary that you would secretly be happy with nothing else. All of this aside, there is something decidedly controversial I will be I referencing in this post:
There, I said it.
The Old Testament, a.k.a. the written Torah is something that has been with Western civilization for millennia. I know religion has been the root of millions and millions of deaths and trouble. Mentioning it to our generation (at least the set I seem to run-with) has the incomparable show-stopping quality of instantly silencing a room unlike virtually no other topic of conversation. People will look at you funny. Religion aside, I believe the Torah has had held major influence on literature. (I can hear your gasps of shock already). I know this is a bit of a taboo subject (especially in Canada), but it’s absence or presence it’s influence on Western thought in undeniable. (N.B. Looking even farther back to mythology, the Torah is obviously influenced by it’s own millennia of literature, but that’s a whole other post).
I have recently finished reading The Red Tent by Anita Diamant. New York Times bestseller, it has been on my list for as long as I’ve been pinching books from my mom’s book-club list. The name of the novel comes from a red tent wherein these nomadic female protagonist inhabit and rest during their menstrual cycle each new moon. For obvious teenaged lady reasons, the central concept of this book really freaked me out from about 13-17 (you’re just going to name it The Red Tent!?!? And then put a semi-naked lady on the cover?!?! Totally mortifying). When I hit university I was pretty much overcome with the “Yeah I bleed, but I can still go hiking/backcountry camping/wear white pants in karate/run a half-marathon” kind of attitude. The kind stance where if you acknowledge it less, it becomes less of a deal. No one ever told me the book was about the Bible.
So it’s been a decade and a half since the book came out (1997), and after a bit of a tangential discussion at our book club last week I finally decided it was time to get around to reading it. We had been talking about literary classics, how often the abridged children’s version is all you need, when I brought up the Bible came up as a literary work. I had really only read the whole thing once, when I was in my voracious fascination with religion pre-teen stage (right before fierce rebellion kicked in). I had received Mary Batcheor’s a Children’s Bible in 365 Stories for my first communion, and I had decided that I should probably just read the whole thing in one go, all 416 pages of it (a tome for a 9 year old!). I was reminiscing to the group about how much I had loved the Old Testament. The stories are really good, full of deceit, murder, love, travel, a merciless God and tumultuous politics. I hazily offered up a few examples (David and Goliath, Samson, Babel) and then attempted to remember the story of Leah and Rachel. Cue my fellow book-clubbist: The Red Tent!
Finally she spoke with the careful words about the moon. She told me how much she loved the white light, an how she spoke to the moon and called to get by name every month. Leah said the moon was the only face of the goddess that seemed to open to her because of the way the moon called forth the filling and emptying of her body….Are you ready to swallow the moon at last?
When I finished the book and sat down to write this post, I really grappled with what to say. I was going to use that Kissing Sailor article that has been floating around the internet lately, or recount stories of beautiful Josée, sexologist and mother of four I used to live with, her fierce, feminine, decidedly elegant stance on women’s rights. But I couldn’t write that post, because (aside from the passage above) this book wasn’t a feminist novel. In fact it had virtually nothing in it that I would classify as “feminist” (aside perhaps from a sensuous and detailed understanding of midwifery). In part, I think that this surprise was why I enjoyed the book as much as I did. Once I was finished one of my other friends was recounting how much she had also enjoyed the novel, and described it as a blockbuster story. That is exactly what it was:
I walked into a moonless night, bloodying my feet and battering my knees on the path to the valley, but never stopped until I arrived at the gates of Shechem…
I would bury my husband and would be buried with him. I would find his body and wrap him in linen, take the knife that had stolen his life and open my wrists with it so we could sleep together in the dust. We would pass eternity in the quiet, sad, gray world of the dead, eating dust, looking through eyes made of dust upon the false world of men. I had no other thought. I was alone and empty.
Like Titanic, you know the ending, you anticipate it might be cheesy, and then twenty minutes into it you are on the edge of your seat, gnawing at your nails anticipating what might happen next. Diamant writes vividly and expressively. The novel is told from a semi-observational point of view, which adds to it’s creative non-fiction feel. The research she has clearly devoted towards the book has given back in gold to giving the narrative an effortless, believable voice. Details she includes that are somewhat thoughtful become white noise, contributing to rich character and atmospheric development, and allows the reader to absorb the intense action-packed-ness of the ancient plot line. A bathroom fan or white noise to distill an instinctual, painful tale.
Moreover I think what I really enjoyed most about this book was the fact that I loved re-reading a story I had first read as a 9-year old, and first heard as a 5-year old. Instead of hearing the story as a child, to hear it as a woman, who has loved men, who has become familiar with different types of love. As a sister. As a daughter. I am sure one day too I will have a completely different relationship with the story as a mother. Part of it is an importance of familiarity, to read and re-read and study. Part of it is having a good piece to begin with, but part of it also is having the diligence and commitment to re-read how you are identifying with the story, to mark your own story back against the text. To re-read them for a different purpose, from a different place, from a different perspective. To hear another facet of the truth that they might hold.
One of my FYP professors pointed out that what our generation is lacking is an overarching meta-narrative. We’ve rejected so much of what has come before us, instead seeking them in other formats. My partner and our friends have been fascinated with Joseph Campbell‘s work, seeing the inter-epochal strands of monomyths (the Hero’s story) being picked up in everywhere from James Joyce to Batman, effectively turning much of pop-culture back into Roman times, extending reiterations back into history. For me, The Red Tent picked up this story the same way Batman picks up Gilgamesh: a way that was accessible, identifiable, and relevant to a 21st century woman, without pandering to a particular sect of religion, but as a myth.
All myths are the creative products of the human psyche, that artists are a culture’s mythmakers, and that mythologies are creative manifestations of humankind’s universal need to explain psychological, social, cosmological, and spiritual realities.
Finally, in addition to re-reading, I am also experiencing the pleasure of re-writing (and eventually-I promise! *Editing*). Jeanette Winterson ( a true feminist!) wrote a great short story called Weight, which recounts the myth of Atlas bearing the weight of the world. Over and over again throughout the tiny book Winterson writes the mantra: “I want to tell the story again.” Lately (especially after my foray in yeahwrite 78) I am seeing the importance of blogging in my own meagre attempts at myth-making. In our hunger to become story-tellers, creators and artists. Also, our inexperience, our clumsiness, our need to tell the story again.