Our Lady of the Counterculture
Marina Warner writes about the lives of the Virgin Mary
As a child, I searched out lives of great women. Some of my heroines appeared on the back page of the comic I read then, called Girl: Eleanor of Aquitaine, Elizabeth Fry, Florence Nightingale and Marie Curie mingled with Albert Schweitzer and Davy Crockett; their stirring words were blazoned in balloons, against backdrops of crenellated castles, jungles, battlefields. In the pages of the magazines my mother took, I followed the lives of divas, queens and stars; one of these was the pictorial weekly Oggi, modelled on Life, but also a harbinger of Hello! in its lurid curiosity about its rich, mostly doomed subjects. The women who appeared in its pages were usually embroiled in tragic, flagrant lives as abandoned lovers, infertile wives – victims, one way or another. Car crashes figured prominently; also drink and other intoxicants. Maria Callas, Queen Soraya, Françoise Sagan, Marilyn Monroe – these were my role models (you could say I was raised by negative example).
[*] Viking, 112 pp., £12.99, October, 978 0 670 92209 9.
[†] Viking, 272 pp., £12.99, August, 978 0 670 91990 1.
Vol. 34 No. 22 · 22 November 2012
From Tom Snow
Marina Warner has become a mischievous cherry-picker of the Marian (LRB, 8 November). For every lovely motet in which she finds ‘serenity’ there are thousands of dismal plaster statues. She may prefer Mary the shop steward, but only by ignoring her place on the throne of heaven. Warner says the connection between stumbling into a Vietnam War atrocity and her early exploration of the Marian cult is ‘stretched’. But, by making it, she cannot help but locate the famous photograph of Kim Phuc in the myth of Christian death and resurrection. For, although she is present so little in the New Testament, Mary is as central as the immortal soul, likewise absent from sacred text and Conciliar creeds. Nor is there anything a movement of New Marians can do to detach her from her history as a source of solace in the deep shadow of the Father. As the Church came to play father confessor to post-imperial statelets, it became increasingly trapped by their own transformation into empires which could be held together only with almost constant, overweening violence. It was at least possible for elite Anglo-Saxon women to obtain high monastic office. The contrast with the status of women in the Carolingian court is compelling. It could only get worse until, twelve centuries later, European warfare manufactured widowhood on such a scale as to cause a shortage of men.
The sanitising of the martial into ‘rendition’ and ‘drones’, now console-operated at home in the UK, fits perfectly with the Mary whom Warner psychoanalyses out of the grasp of the ‘motherless boy’, Pope John Paul II. How can Warner airbrush out of her imagination the two millennia of organised, male violence which has always fired up passive, female Mary worship? Its revival can only be a matter of the same refusal from consciousness. America spent forty postwar years inventing a Soviet enemy capable of industrial-scale aggression. Following its unexpected collapse, the US has worked hard at its Islamic replacement. As empire begets empire, the last thing Warner’s Mary is going to do is tell those who worship at her shrine that men have to be stopped. On the contrary, prayer sublimates doing. It may be too late. Women are getting guns. Meanwhile, Warner finds it ‘a little less difficult to enjoy Marian worship’.