​The symbolic power of women’s bodies - Everything starts from within

2017-12-01 L’Osservatore Romano

From this collection of images an allegorical meaning arises – which is not to say that it is hidden but rather that it is not limited to the immediate and extends beyond the eyes’ reach.

To my eyes the images show women who are forcing their way through a block. Obviously other interpretations are possible. However, I believe that the different interpretations converge towards the allegory of women who challenge men in order to break the regime of unreality which has been created by the subordination of the female to the male. In historical terms I see in these images an allegory of difference feminism which has made the difference between the sexes the passage for becoming aware that everything starts from within (as they say in architecture), a within which contains the secret of the freedom of the individual.

Subordinating others to oneself, starting with women, has made most men believe that they are self-sufficient entities and can control and change the world by putting it into an objective exteriority. In terms taken from Christian doctrine, the women in these images are forcing the block which prevents the circulation of the Holy Spirit.

It was not in Christian doctrine that I found the key to this allegory but rather in a text that appeared in 1980, entitled Vai pure [go ahead] (republished in 2011 by ET AL). This is a text recorded and transcribed, at the will of a woman, of a dialogue between this woman, Carla Lonzi, and Pietro Consagra, the artist, who was then her partner. Lonzi was one of the pioneers of difference feminism between the 1960s and 1970s.

At a certain point in their exchange he said to her: you, unlike me, “present yourself with new needs”. No, she interrupted him, they are my requirements and are things that women know but that they have very frequently given up, “for if you don’t give in you break up your life”. And she explained: I have no intention of giving in but I understand why a woman might do so, “since the need for autonomy comes into such a stark contrast with the need for love, and the need for love is felt so strongly that it gets the upper hand”.

The revelation of how a woman who does not give in can love follows on the same page like a flash of lightning. I, she said, have accepted your contradiction as a man, integrating it into our relationship, while you, instead, propose ready-made solutions which in this way deny the meaning of our relationship. You know well that your life and the female condition are at risk, but this is not all. “What really shocks me and makes me feel estranged from and wounded by this world...”, and she speaks of the priority which in this world is given to the production of things “to the detriment of the authenticity of relationships”.

He tries to understand, asks questions, and it is at this point that her answer makes one think of the Holy Spirit. “By relationship I mean an awareness of the reality which flows between people, and which for me is indispensable for removing the dead ends of a culture that runs only on male consciousness. This is in order to immerse myself in the world, for I see no other possibilities of a livable life”. Then she adds: the man too feels his lack of a female consciousness negatively and asks her partner how it is possible still to go ahead with a unilateral male approach, now that they have reached “this point of crisis and break-up”. Pope Francis’ address to the Academy for Life on 5 October 2017, on the covenant between women and men, was to prove her right: it is impossible.

In an earlier text Lonzi herself had argued with a certain way of addressing men “as if they were children to whom it is necessary to offer their own truth, using the language of their reading books”. This question concerns us women. We adapt so that men may understand us, would be the answer, in other words in order to remain in the common culture. But this is a trap: indeed, the common culture does not offer women the language in which to express themselves as autonomous thinking and desiring individuals. So what is the practice which will bring to an end the symbolic imprisonment of women? Her answer: “Making all the gestures of self-expression and of recognition of the other which open the doors of the limbo in which women are seeking a real embodiment without finding it”. For old feminists like me this is a clear reference to the practice of the separate groups of women who founded the feminist movement in the 1970s, equipping us with a language to mean to ourselves that we exist for ourselves.

Many people, including honest men of good faith, did not understand the meaning of this separist approach, nor the need for it. And they criticized feminism – pretexts are always found in human undertakings – without understanding that rebellion and challenge are the price to be paid for their own denial, as men, of the other, with a small “o”; like them yet different. If she gives up on it, he does not think about it and glosses over it.

Thus the images show women who having emerged from the limbo of symbolic non-existence find their route barred and stay put there undaunted, with a gesture which replaces words that don’t yet exist. In order to find them, Carla Lonzi continues, the block must be forced personally. This is the necessary passage for the birth of our individuality, for the presupposition of any change. She herself did this and became a passage; we passed through it and men can also pass through it.

Among the images that of the Palestinian woman is striking. She is walking along bringing her two children with her, but a man in uniform, squatting, bars her way with a weapon pointed at her abdomen. Through a strange reversal of meanings, to me it looks as if he is begging her for what was once called charity: he is asking her for the charity to take him back with her.

It is impossible to attain the free meaning of the difference between the sexes which is an integral part of the human being with less than the price paid by a Carla Lonzi. And by a Maria Celeste Crostarosa. I shall speak of her shortly. They were both women who faced the block created by a symbolic order which was also disorder, they faced it in the right way, though paying a price that was wrong with the firmness of those who harbour no resentment.

For two and a half centuries history has ignored the figure of Maria Celeste and her great merits. L’Osservatore Romano of 15 June 2016 wrote that, as well as being a saint, Sr Maria Celeste had at last been recognized as foundress of the religious order of the Most Holy Redeemer. This was the felicitous outcome of a series of events which the newspaper itself calls “enigmatic”. To tell the truth, once these events had been reconstructed, there was nothing enigmatic about them, but their ultimate meaning certainly is.

In brief: Crostaros, born to a middle class family in Naples in 1696, became a religious in full freedom; heaven inspired in her a great enterprise which she devoted herself to realizing, together with a friend and companion of the first order, Alphonsus de’ Liguori. But she said “no” to the order of a superior which opposed her spiritual freedom. Alphonsus, who had the means and reasons to defend her, did not understand that she was right and judged her badly (but, as proof of his good faith, he kept the historical proofs of his error which enabled its subsequent correction). For Maria Celeste Alphonsus’ disapproval was the end. Deprived of all credibility, she therefore wrote a declaration in which she did not deny anything but renounced everything, except God who, however, in the “confusion of the abysses” (her own words) did not let himself be found.

Her life was broken, as Carla Lonzi said, speaking of women who defend their autonomy in the most difficult circumstances, women who open passages to freedom on the blocked road through which men may also pass who surrender – I do not say to women, because we do not ask for this – I mean rather those men who surrender to the Holy Spirit…. Call him what you will, as long as you do not confuse him with your ego or with some ready-made doctrine.

Concerning doctrine: through a most undeserved good fortune, which seemed to me to be misfortune, for a few years I taught very young people. At school, as is well known, it is taught that the earth is round. This is not really a doctrine but a fact that can be inferred by reasoning and experience. One day it seemed to me that one of my pupils, a little 11-year-old girl, did not clearly understand that the earth is round. Questioned on how we know with certainty that the earth is round, she raised her hand and, with a gesture that went beyond the school walls, sketched the vault of Heaven. Then, to my amazement, she added: “This is what my mother thinks too”.

She was wrong, scholastically speaking, but hers was an error which conveyed a truth still inexpressible. I continued to think about it, reaching that stage (there is nothing more than that) of research which I summed up in the formula: “everything starts from within”.

In saying “from within” one thinks through opposites of someone outside, and this is not erroneous for from being within the maternal womb one comes out into the world. But there is another birth which happens thanks to the maternal relationship as one gradually learns to talk. One then discovers that the within is recreated and is boundless. It is like another dimension in which things acquire meaning, tongues strangled in the throat are loosened and someone who was silent, distant and threatening becomes close.

Luisa Muraro