I asked for three graces of God’s gift.
- Julian of Norwich, 1413
It began with three gifts. It began with three wounds, it began in three parts, it began with three days and three nights, it began with three heavens, it began with three nothings, it began with three sayings—father, son and holy ghost.
I stood in the cloisters, dank ochre stone and pelting rain beyond, and thought of her, white wimple, white cheek, here in this dark place of men and learning from which she was omitted, ‘for I am a woman, ignorant, weak and frail’.
I, though not blessed with faith in God, had wondered how she fits into all this and sensed that she does. She, Julian of Norwich, she, the first woman writer in the English language, she, an anchoress who believed that the mother of Christ was ‘greater in worthiness and fullness of grace than all that God made below her.’ She, of literary mysticism, she who wrote in and of abundance as litany, she speaker of the story of creation, divine revelation ‘red blood trickling down from under the crown of thorns, all hot, freshly, plentifully and vividly.’
I stood in those cloisters that I knew from childhood, as September shook a cloud burst directly from heaven and found you Graces there in that opening line of the book, which smelled of salt, the way cheap paper does in damp countries.
In Revelations of Divine Love, Julian speaks of her communion with God—sixteen ‘showings’ broken into three parts—that of bodily sight, discernible word and some kind of spiritual sight so visceral that it aches on the page. And like you, these showings are moral guidance. While the text’s power—like your power—and its weakness—like your weakness—is that it is read as some sort of ‘feminisation of devotion’ and is criticised under those same terms for assuming an excess of emotion, with all that is senseless, all that is sensual. Julian’s prose is heady and is abundant, complicating literary form through a transcendental and material slippage, ’writing between the surety of her bodily experience, the fallibility of memory and the openness of interpretation, she demonstrates that knowing is also characterised by not knowing,’ says Jonathan P. Watts.
And after this I saw, as I watched, the body of Christ bleeding abundantly, hot and freshly and vividly, just as I saw the head before. And I saw the blood coming from weals from scourging, and in my vision it ran so abundantly that it seemed to me that if at that moment it had been natural blood, the whole bed would have been blood soaked and even the floor around.
Feeling and flesh and blood converge in ‘a rarely broken stream of devotion and love that loops and circles around its point’ and I am drawn into it––into Julian’s skin—alive and wanting, ambitious and sensory. And we share an obsession with the body—articulating it—and with threes—they structure her text, these repeated new beginnings. And both of us no doubt, understand the risk of chastisement for our litany, like the wailing holy woman outside the underground station or the multiplicity of #MeToo marks on our screens. But ‘just because I am a woman, must I therefore believe that I must not tell you about the goodness of God,’
And so we push on regardless, because it opens things up.
‘Julian has the fluidity of talk, now brief, now expansive, moving in and out of autobiography,’ and it is tentative. in its ‘as I see it’ and ‘as I understand it’—‘an exploratory style in which even the most definite statement remains provisional.’ And so it is because of this that I am drawing Julian into the circle and because she told the original story and because revelations precede a shift—spiritual, moral, often both—so that the thing we have begun and should continue to do in words and paint and marble and cloth can take from her something radical, can repeat and circle and—.
Three Graces, I do not know whether to begin with your image—beloved in our collective consciousness—or your story—rarely spoken. But we must start somewhere and this, it seems, is about stories.
In the beginning—or a beginning—there was Chaos. And from that chaos was spawned Gaia, or Ge—Mother Earth—who brought forth Ouranos (sky), Mountains and Pontos (sea); and from this, Gods who were powers not persons—Zeus, Themus, Oceanus and their goddesses—Eos of the Dawn, Selene, keeper of the moon— Or, as Sarah B.Pomeroy tells it:
Ge’s husband Uranus (who is also her son) hates his children and so hides them deep in Ge. She then persuades her son Cronus to castrate his father with a sickle. The story repeats itself in the next generation of gods, when King Cronus swallows his children by Rhea, G’s daughter […] Establishing a patriarchal government on Olympus, Zeus introduces moral order and culture by fathering the Hours, the Fates, the Muses and the Graces.
In droll terms Pomeroy reminds us that Zeus retracted women’s sole claim as child bearers by birthing spawn from his head and thigh, and fathering feminine hallmarks of moral order, mostly passive and serving. While at the crest of Olympus all-powerful masculine immortals bargained and battled, scattered seed across mother earth, imprisoned foes in her depths, pilfered her riches as she lay, unshaken. The patriarchy began long ago.
Myths unfurl not from a canon, ensured and sealed, but a diaphanous number of interpretations, here by a woman but originally by men, translating into Roman deities and later poetic verse, each of them seeking to impose symbolic order upon his universe.
Let us try again—
In the beginning, three meteorites—displaced mottled rock—fell from the sky. This was Ancient Greece, amongst Boeotian hills and farmland. There, still, is your fabled sanctuary. You are Aglaea, of beauty, Euphrosyne the grace of delight and Thalia, the grace of blossom. But amongst the various conflations of Greek mythology, old and new, your assignations ricochet around a prism until it is Thalia who represents youth and beauty, Eurphrosyne mirth and Aglaea elegance.
Never mind they say, as you dissolve under their gaze, for you are the joyful ones, the dancers, the ever youthful companions of Aphrodite, preparing her for seduction, dressing her and arranging her hair. You are emblematic of the arts—poetry and dance—but don’t cut their shape. You are the daughters of Zeus. Though you are also said to be the daughters of Dionysus and Aphrodite or was it Helios and that naiad Aegle? Never mind, they say ‘what you are is a woman. Possibly not human at all, certainly defective. Now be quiet while we go on telling the Story of the Ascent of Man the Hero.’
Le Guin’s assertion of women as inhuman bares a lot of resemblance to myth, so I stop scrambling in the mud to find your roots, because the mud is paper and the roots are ink and I realise now that I will fail to reach any single spring of truth.
Simone Weil—activist, pacifist, militant, mystic—says—
What is called the historical spirit doesn’t pierce through the paper to discover real flesh and blood; it consists in a subordination of the mind to documents.
Now, according to the nature of things, documents originate among the powerful ones, the conquerors. History, therefore, is nothing but a compilation of the depositions made by assassins with respect to their victims and themselves.
This respectful assassin, and his flattening through the ‘historical spirit’, is telling of myth-making too. Under his charge, it fails you Graces. And as such, fails us all.
Like Julian of Norwich, Weil wrote in revelatory flashes, outside of eternal order. The farmer who inherited her literary estate wrote that ‘her vocabulary is that of the mystics and not of the speculative theologians: it does not seek to express the eternal order of being but the actual journey of the soul in search of God.’
I think T.S Eliot was being puritanical about Weil when he said that 'we must simply expose ourselves to the personality of a woman of genius, of a kind of genius akin to that of the saints.’ He—that modernist man who locked up his wife—equates what is for her a transcendental, revelatory and emotional experience with measurable intelligence. He’s cutting her shape in the modes of New Criticism—removing her from herself, us from ourselves.
That the constructed ideologies and outcomes of history—like new criticism, like myth—remove us from the story is central to Le Guin’s lesser-known work Lavinia. Its form is peculiar, assuming, I think at first, some wry irony, as a historical novel, replete with cover image of a veiled maiden and a riverscape of ships and hills in faux-old venom-like ochre wash. The cover line reads like a Mills & Boon. She chose her man and her fate. The price she paid was war.
The prose is spare, un-ornamented but is in fact Le Guin’s ode to Virgil’s unfinished epic The Aenid—a ‘partial, marginal but, in intent at least, faithful’ translation and reimagining of the last six books—and hangs on the moment when Greek and Roman histories spark, when Trojan men set foot on Italian soil in the making of a winding epic. Le Guin skips the great battles and hangs back with the women, in the palaces and surrounding wilds, and told through the eyes of its namesake princess, Lavinia, and narrating the formation of Lavinium, once said to be the spiritual heart of the Latin people in Italy—a place where the gods resided—superseded long ago by the containment and rigour of Catholicism and the Vatican City. Lavinia is written into being by Virgil; Le Guin reminds us often that his creation conflated fact with legend, myth, religion. But aren’t most of women’s stories made like this? For Lavinia, like you, the ‘truth’ is unwieldy, insoluble.
In the opening lines, she—princess, later queen—says—
No doubt someone with my name, Lavinia, did exist, but she may also have been so different from my own idea of myself, or my poet’s idea of me, that it only confuses me to think about her. As far as I know, it was only my poet that gave me any reality at all….Before he wrote, I was the mistiest of figures, scarcely more than a name in a genealogy. It was he who brought me to life, to myself, and so made me able to remember my life and myself, which I do, vividly, with all kinds of emotions, emotion I feel strongly as I write perhaps because the events I remember only come to exist as I write them, or as he wrote them.
So much of Lavinia resembles you.
Your story in the inked marks of men.
Your limited provenance.
Your small lives.
Your long lives.
Lives that are too contingent to lead to anything as absolute as death.
(But Lavinia is not you; and her freedom in writing herself into being was not yours.)