Wednesday, June 3, 2020

Natalie Carnes's "Motherhood: A Confession"

Natalie Carnes is Associate Professor at Baylor University, where she teaches feminist theology and religion classes. Her books include Image and Presence: A Christological Reflection on Iconoclasm and Iconophilia, and she is the author of multiple articles and online essays, including pieces on Pope Rihanna and nursing Madonnas.

Carnes applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Motherhood: A Confession, and reported the following:
On page 99, my seventh chapter, “Domination,” begins. Like every chapter in Motherhood: A Confession, it opens with an epigraph from Augustine’s parallel chapter in the Confessions. In this case, the epigraph reads, “What torments my heart suffered in mental pregnancy, what groans my God!” Then the chapter turns to my own domestic drama. “We are locked in a bathroom in a cafĂ©. While washing your hands, you had elbowed your friend on the nose, and now you won’t apologize for hurting her. It was an accident, you claim; why apologize for an accident? Your friend is upset. Her mother is outside, reserving a table for us. I will not let you out of the bathroom until you apologize; if you refuse, you will lose the pink lemonade we came for.” The rest of the text on page 99 describes an increasingly difficult standoff with my child, as we each entrench in our positions. I am determined she will apologize; she is equally determined she will not.

The page 99 test here does not work as way to find the heart of Motherhood’s argument, though the juxtaposition of the epigraph and the domestic episode could evoke for the reader a premise of the book: the pregnancies of motherhood, physical and mental, generate dramatic and sometimes failed encounters with the divine no less significant than those Augustine experiences. What the page 99 test yields in this case is immersion in an episode that serves as a turning point for the narrative, when I come to terms with my lust to dominate and begin to move towards conversion. In sum, page 99 is an important page in the book, but it does not yield a clear picture of the work as a whole in any straightforward sense.

The (moderate) failure of the Page 99 test in this case likely results from the genre of the book, which is narratival, in imitation of Augustine’s Confessions. While there are arguments throughout the book—about what mercy is, for example, and how motherhood can both open a person to mercy and harden her against it—the book’s most important arguments are implicit in its form: namely, first, that women’s bodies, no less than men’s, are important sites of theological reflection; second, that even texts as patriarchal as Augustine’s Confessions can be taken up, re-attuned, to mediate feminist commitments; and, therefore, that third, women can make themselves insiders to texts and traditions that have construed them as outsiders. Those arguments are the heart of the book, what motivates it and makes it work, and yet they are not stated on an any single page of it.
Visit Natalie Carnes's website.

--Marshal Zeringue