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The blinding of the maternal feminine

The painting by Paul Cezanne (see cover) named The Eternal Feminine depicts a psychological phenomenon of central importance to humankind: the shocking spectacle of a desirous woman in the parturient (squatting birth) position with eyes gouged out. Her eye sockets echo Aeschylus’ vision of the feminine in the words of Orestes:

Ah, Lord Apollo, how they grow and multiply,

Repulsive for the blood drops of their dripping eyes.

(Aeschylus, 1969: 161)

Made visible through art and depicted in human form is the intrinsically formless archetypal structure of male and female shame. A naked, blinded female who depicts the masculine nature of shame, squats before men who don’t seem to know she exists, an image for the nature of female shame (Ayers, 2003). Men standing around the woman stare blindly at her unseen and unseeing face and bare body.

They display a seeming indifference to her plight as they offer bread and wine or paint her. In the painting, the elemental linking capacity between subject and object, male and female, is reduced and debased while perpetrator and bystander collude in the obfuscation of this woman. An interesting detail about this unusual painting is that it has embarrassed scholars because it suggests aspects of Cezanne’s personality that many commentators in the past would rather “repress.” The bald figure along the bottom center foreground edge is thought to be Cezanne himself, positioned to convey what he is showing the spectator, as if to say that this image comes from the back of his head, in other words, what he cannot see. Indeed, in his depiction of all the men around her with closed or even missing mouths, vacant eyes, and no ears, Cezanne seems to be saying that all of mankind has dulled their most vital senses to the Eternal Feminine. His depiction echoes the words of Psalm 115:5-7:

They have mouths, but cannot speak,

Eyes but cannot see;

They have ears, but cannot hear

They can make no sound in their throats.

The Eternal Feminine's exposed genitals convey the idea of shame. In contemporary English, the use of the word “privates” to refer to the genitals conveys the idea that nudity is a source of shame and should remain concealed. Adam and Eve’s discovery that they are naked is the genesis of shame in the Story of Creation, the Western world’s depiction of the beginning of human history. This idea has its roots in the etymology of our language. The words shame and genitals are inextricable in most languages (Gilligan, 1992). In Greek, for example, pudenda means both shame and genitals: the French word for shame, pudeur, and the English word for genitals, pudenda, both derive from the Greek. In German, one expression for the genitals is schamteile, “part of shame.” In early translations of the bible, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word shame was used to refer interchangeably to the genitals.

Exposure of certain body parts makes one vulnerable to shame. Full nakedness in the face of gawking men, therefore, exposes the feminine to the maximum amount of shame possible.

A dark shadow line creeping up the woman’s belly looks like a serpent emerging from her vagina, hinting at Freud’s Medusa and fears of castration. The serpent, black with a white head, is like the black serpent undergoing the whitening of his head as he is victorious over another black serpent in the opening scene of Jung’s second vision. The serpent line extends down the woman’s right leg, connecting the serpent to the Pope’s miter, the top of which mimics the lines of the opening of the lady’s legs. It is as if Cezanne is saying that The Eternal Feminine's vagina is the place from whence the Pope derives his power. Her vagina, the birthplace for all human beings, with the emerging serpent is echoed still in the meeting of the Pope’s staff with the serpent line on the left leg, also a symbol of the Vicar of Rome’s power.

That the Pope’s power is actually linked to the Eternal Feminine is an idea that is alive and well today. While lying in his hospital bed recovering from five gunshot wounds - the bullets all narrowly missed vital organs - Pope John Paul II ordered that all of the documentation associated with the Lady of Fatima’s predictions be brought to him. (The Lady of Fatima is the presentation of the Virgin Mary the 13th day of May through October, 1917 before three children in Fatima, Portugal. The Virgin revealed three prophecies; her revelations have been recognized by the Catholic Church as a true miracle.) The Pope realized that the assassination attempt on his life was part of the Lady’s third and last prediction, and stated that she “guided the bullets through my body.” For the rest of his life the Pope worked to restore “dignity to the feminine.” In his Apostolic Letter Mulieris Dignitatem he wrote “I am seeking the eternal feminine . . .”

The serpent seeping from The Eternal Feminine's vagina captures the idea of a man’s dread of being called a pussy, a slang term for the female genitals and a word that means being a non-man in every possible way. For men, the specter of being feminine is based on the perception that femininity emerges when the annihilation of masculinity occurs. Intact genitals symbolize honor and pride, and raped or castrating serpent genitals symbolize shame and confer disgrace (Gilligan, 1992: 144). It is for these reasons that castration (or emasculation) and rape are two of the most powerful ways of inflicting ultimate shame and humiliation upon another person - the same way Medusa came to be demonized.

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