The Great Chain of Being à la Auntie Muriel

Some lines from Margaret Atwood’s novel Life before Man:

Auntie Muriel is unambiguous about most things. Her few moments of hesitation have to do with members of her own family. She isn’t sure where they fit into the Great Chain of Being She’s quite certain of her own place, however. First comes God. Then comes Auntie Muriel and the Queen, with Auntie Muriel having a slight edge. Then come about five members of the Timothy Eaton Memorial Church, which Auntie Muriel attends. After this there is a large gap. Then white, non-Jewish Canadians, Englishmen, and white, non-Jewish Americans, in that order. Then there’s another large gap, followed by all other human beings on a descending scale, graded according to skin color and religion. Then cockroaches, clothes moths, silverfish and germs, which are about the only forms of animal life with which Auntie Muriel has ever had any contact. Then all sexual organs, except those of flowers.

[…]

There are no shades of grey for Auntie Muriel. Her only visible moral dilemma is that she thinks she ought to rank her family with the Timothy Eaton Church members, because of their relation to her; but she feels compelled to place them instead with the cockroaches and silverfish, because of their deplorable behavior.

Rehabilitating desire

Desire has a disreputable reputation in religious circles. When most people hear the term, they think of two things: sexual desire or material wants, both of which are often condemned by some religious leaders. The first is one of the greatest gifts from God to humanity; without it the human race would cease to exist. The second is part of our natural desire for a healthy life – for food, shelter, and clothing.

James Martin, The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything: A Spirituality for Real Life

We tend to think that if we desire something, it is probably something we ought not to want or to have. But … without desire we would never get up in the morning. … We would never have read a book or learned something new. No desire means no life, no growth, no change. Desire is what makes two people create a third person. Desire is what makes crocuses push up through the late-winter soil. Desire is energy, the energy of creativity, the energy of life itself.

Margaret Silf, Wise Choices, as quoted by Martin, The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything

An instrument of torture

And my final quote from Sophie Divry’s The Library of Unrequited Love, this time on the Dewey decimal classification:

What a perverse invention, an instrument of torture. … Stupid, anarchic, mega-moronic. The Dewey system is a secret code invented by the Axis of Evil that binds books and librarians together in order to scare the reader off. It’s terrifying, the Dewey system. Totally inhibiting. Everything goes into it, like a mincer. Your holidays, your house, your tastes, your furniture, just everything. There’s even a classification for sexuality – and plenty of different shelfmarks for all the complications. … I’m telling you, if no-one stops them, the people on the ground floor will end up putting a shelfmark on all of us ….

Enter Herakles

Somehow Geryon made it to adolescence.

Thus opens the next chapter in Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red, which is entitled ‘Change’. First though, still a twelve-year old, Geryon meets Herakles:

Herakles stepped off
the bus from New Mexico and Geryon
came fast around the corner of the platform and there it was one of those moments
that is the opposite of blindness.

‘One of those moments that is the opposite of blindness’. These are the kinds of phrases I so admire in Carson’s work.

Having become a teenager, Geryon acts his age:

He had recently relinquished speech.

His mother can only resort to irony:

Maybe I’ll just keep talking
and if I say anything intelligent you can take a picture of it. She inhaled.

Geryon had taken up photography, while his mother wants to know about his new friend:

So Geryon what do you like about this guy this Herakles can you tell me?
Can I tell you, thought Geryon.
Thousand things he could not tell flowed over his mind. Herakles knows a lot
about art. We have good discussions.

Carson’s story touches on many subjects. One of them is the issue of sexual awakening, a problematic one for Geryon, largely due, of course, to the abuse suffered at the hands of his brother:

Sex is a way of getting to know someone,
Herakles had said. He was sixteen. Hot unsorted parts of the question
were licking up from every crack in Geryon,
he beat at them as a nervous laugh escaped him.

Tell me, said Geryon and he intended to ask him, Do people who like sex
have a question about it too?
but the words came out wrong – Is it true you think about sex every day?

All the while he is deeply affected by Herakles: ‘Geryon felt all nerves in him move to the surface of his body’ ‘His voice washed Geryon open’ ‘Staring at him Geryon felt his soul move in his side’.

There are lovely descriptions of his behaviour, that of a true introvert:

Why do you have your jacket over your head?
……………………………………
Can’t hear you Geryon. The jacket shifted. Geryon peered out. I said sometimes
I need a little privacy.

He is still working on his autobiography, which has progressed from the sculpture work he did as a child to producing a photographic essay.

This was when Geryon liked to plan
his autobiography, in that blurred state
between awake and asleep when too many intake valves are open in the soul.

I can relate to that description of the early morning as a time ‘when too many intake valves are open in the soul’. That he worked on his autobiography ‘from the age of five to the age of forty-four’ also resonates with me. As I have said on the ‘Story’ page, quoting Walter Brueggemann, our ‘story must be told, tested, and retold countless times’ as part of our ongoing attempt to make sense of our lives.

There is a wonderful moment when Geryon catches the arm of Herakles’ grandmother, which ‘was like a handful of autumn’. Her voice in turn is likened to ‘old coals’.

Geryon gets lovesick, which Carson again captures beautifully. Having come home with a t-shirt his mother hasn’t seen before, she wants to know where he got it from.

Herakles gave it – and here Geryon had meant
to slide past the name coolly
but such a cloud of agony poured up his soul he couldn’t remember
what he was saying.

Each morning a shock
to return to the cut soul.
Pulling himself onto the edge of the bed he stared at the dull amplitude of rain.
Buckets of water sloshed from sky
to roof to eave to windowsill. He watched it hit his feet and puddle on the floor.

Rain lashing the kitchen window
sent another phrase
of Herakles’ chasing across his mind.

The chapter that introduces Geryon’s lovesickness is entitled ‘Fruit Bowl’. There is much that could be said about it, especially as the motif of the fruit bowl is an important and a recurring one, having already played a significant part in connection with Geryon’s fraught relationship with his brother. Once again though you will just have to read for yourselves.

Then the inevitable happens: Herakles ends the relationship.

I want you to be free.
Don’t want to be free want to be with you. Beaten but alert Geryon organized all
his inside force to suppress this remark.

‘Tunnel’ is where we leave Geryon for now, suffering, as he is, the consequences of ‘the human custom of wrong love’, as Carson puts it.

Why I read the Song of Songs V

Auguste Rodin, Kissers

Auguste Rodin (1840–1917), ‘Kissers’

Many of us will have come across statistics like: the average man thinks about sex every seven seconds. I have always thought this to be a rather timid estimate. My fifth reason for reading the Song of Songs is that it makes me think about sex all day.


I have been seriously tempted to hit the ‘Publish’ button after finishing the previous sentence. Perhaps I should have done. I am rather worried though that I could be misunderstood, that I could be taken seriously. Of course, I don’t buy that statistic. It seems ludicrous to me, and yet I do believe that there is nothing wrong with thinking about sex all day. In fact, given Christianity’s tarnished reputation in this area, perhaps more of us should think about sex all day, provided we manage to move beyond that endless preoccupation with sexual ethics to a simple enjoyment of our sexuality and sensuality. Should that not always have been the starting point, in our thinking and our talk about sexuality? The Song of Songs would seem to suggest so.

So, yes, I read this delightful book because it makes me think about love, sex and sensuality. Nothing wrong with that, is there?

Why I read the Song of Songs I

So why do I read the Song of Songs, or more to the point, why am I spending so much time with it? Having raised the question a little while ago, I am conscious that I still owe an answer. Or maybe several.

Here’s my first, which is probably self-evident. Then again, it doesn’t seem to be, at least not to most people. As a Christian, one might have thought that the book being part of the Bible would be reason enough to read it. Sadly, that is not, or perhaps it’s best to say no longer, the case. Having been one of the most read, preached and commented upon books of the Bible in medieval times, the Song of Songs features hardly at all in contemporary Christianity and spirituality.

It is easily demonstrated that the decline of the Song’s popularity began precisely at the point when it was increasingly recognised that it celebrates human love and sexuality rather than being concerned primarily, or even exclusively, with spiritual matters (of course, this is not to deny that there is a deeply spiritual side to our sexuality).

So does the Song of Song’s celebration of human love and sexuality (and the body!) lessen its relevance and importance? I would have thought not. Quite the opposite. But that is a different matter that I shall have to come back to some other time.

For the time being, my first answer is quite simply that I read the Song of Songs because it’s in the Bible.