4.17.2013

Currently Reading: Mariette in Ecstasy

Mariette in EcstasyMass of St. Hyacinth, Confessor

Work. Mariette kneels on ginger-brown earth as she plants winter seeds in a hot-weather garden that Sister Saint-Luc has harrowed and Sister Saint-Pierre has grooved with a stick. Brussels sprouts, kale, and savory cabbage. Sister Hermance is just behind her with a tin watering can. Sister Saint-Luc sings the hymn "Immaculate Mary" and the sisters join her.

Hot breezes slide through the bluejoint grass. Sister Sabine is walking behind a horse-pulled thresher in the barley field. When Sister Hermance pours, she sees the water puddle like hot cocoa, but soon it just a faint stain in the earth. Killdeer kite down and dally above Mariette, as if suddenly interested. Turtledoves watch from the telephone wire. And Sister Hermance thinks, We will have a bounty. Everything she touches will grow. Dirt puts itself in her hands.

Author: Ron Hansen

Mini-synopsis: A cloistered convent is thrown into social and spiritual disarray when a beautiful, charismatic young postulant begins having ecstatic visions and develops the stigmata.

Notes: It is sometimes said that good novels should make the reader uncomfortable. For various reasons I've never quite bought into that statement, particularly because there are a lot of less-than-profitable means of making people uncomfortable—some of them silly and vain, and some of them outright dangerous. This short, easy read is not silly or vain, but it is potentially dangerous. Whether that comment is praise or censure may be left to the reader to determine.

I would not recommend the book to Protestants unless they're familiar and very comfortable with the weirder tales of the saints. This story is much more likely to exacerbate confusion than clear it up.

The primary danger of the story—the subjective and, to my thought, inaccurate twist on the experience—is the author's startling sexualization of Mariette and, to some extent, the nuns around her. There's nothing modern high literature loves more than a little Freudian eroticism, but I've got practical womanhood enough to look at all of that and think, like sixty-year-old maiden Marilla Cuthbert, "Stuff and nonsense." (Quote taken entirely out of context, but still.) There's certainly some tradition of romantic imagery in Judeo-Christian symbolism; many an interpretation of the Song of Solomon goes that direction, but when it contains flat references to breasts and thighs and mussy hair, when the girl on the receiving end of the ecstasies is forcibly depicted as fresh and nubile, it all gets very awkward very quickly. Though Hansen obviously made a deliberate artistic choice, it was hard for at least this practical woman not to huff, throw the book aside, and say, "Only men and the really extreme feminists would write about a woman this way."

Mariette herself is secretive and preternaturally humble, which allows her to remain a mystery to the reader—and remain so right through the ending, as the central facts of her case are never laid open. For myself, I leaned toward the belief that her story worked as a portrayal of acute innocence surrounded by misinterpretation and folly, inspiring intense love and hatred. It could also work, however, as the tale of a fraud so consistent and so powerful that she convinces herself. Hansen succeeds at the mystery and even succeeds at spinning hope out of the odd and uncomfortable ending.

As for the writing itself, I do very well with stylized prose right up to the point where it starts messing with sentence structure. Hansen's work is just over that line. Those who like their literary prose with a strong poetic flair will probably enjoy the artistry. I found it a touch distracting, especially since the sentences that did contain subject and verb and object often combined verbs and nouns with a lot of originality at the expense of natural feel.

I shouldn't make it sound like I disliked the book, though. Outside of the hypersexualization, which is one of my pet peeves, the story called up some sincere love. It carried a meditative quietness that I thoroughly appreciated, and I liked the paragraph-length scenes of different sisters doing different tasks, emphasizing the rhythmic work and prayer of the monastery. Much of Mariette's thought—whether sincere or not—was beautiful, believable, and striking in its reverent humility.

In the end, it's a thoughtful and fascinating tale, recommended for those with a taste for literary exploration of an idea and an interest in prayer, but not recommended for those already predisposed to think of the Church as driven by sex and/or the devil. Those predispositions are both made of balderdash, and as long as they're this rampant in American society, I stand firmly against feeding them.

Just because art reveals truth does not mean that every narrative underscoring any story is true. With that in mind, however, some of you may yet find Mariette's tale worth the read.

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