One of my annual pleasures is Steven Beattie’s 31 Days of Stories, a tribute to the short story form by way of highlighting and reviewing a wide variety of work, from current to classic. I try to make a point of reading the daily posts (printed out on paper even) with tea each morning. I’m a little behind.
So I read it again.
And this is the most wonderful part about art of any kind, that there are several takes to be taken. The artist’s. Yours. Mine. And the millions of yours and mine’s out there reading/hearing /seeing/experiencing the same thing.
This never fails to fascinate me.
As a writer I enjoy hearing various takes on my own work, the way something I thought so obvious is missed or, conversely, something I hadn’t even seen appears to someone else as THE WHOLE POINT.
Who’s to say what’s right? The artist’s version, in my world anyway, merely counts as one opinion, one vote for ‘what it is’. It may appear to carry more weight because it has all that intention attached, but what it becomes when it flies through the atmosphere of our individual experience, can’t be denied.
And so, with ‘Magnificat’, for instance, my take is a little different from the one I read this morning…
In a nutshell–
Julia, an unattached, never married, middle-aged woman with blisters on her feet and a pretty ordinary life notices a young couple, Cathy and Gabe, having it off in the park. Only something’s not right about the scene and it makes Julia remember an incident of sexual abuse at the hands of a man who recited religious passages, which caused her to sing the Magnificat … essentially, a survival technique.
“She remembers lying in bed, imagining herself the Virgin Mary. Imagining the eyes of the angel on her. And his next words, the ones that would change her life forever, giving her cause to sing the Magnificat. My soul doth magnify the Lord…”
Beattie saw Julia as someone who has not experienced sex on any level and who witnesses the rough play in the park between Cathy and Gabe with a kind of lust. Whereas I see her watching with a sense of helplessness. Because of her own experience, she senses Cathy’s complicity in the situation and knows there’s no point in intervening and no crime to ‘report’. That for whatever reason people, often women, feel they deserve abuse of various kinds and, in order to survive it, are able to find a twisted sort of pleasure therein.
This experience of abuse may be the very thing (coupled with her parents’ cold relationship) that put her off the idea of marriage. Oddly, it may also serve as one of the reasons she’s drawn to the church… a convoluted means of putting things right that were made so wrong in *god’s* name.
That she sees not taking a husband as a “choice”, I think is a reference to burying the memory of the abuse. Anything that triggers it, is a source of discomfort.
And yet… she follows this strange couple, Cathy and Gabe, into a remote area of the park. She is afraid as she does so, “… In a queer, thirsting way.” The way she takes off her shoes, puts them on her hands to relieve her blisters, daring herself to continue past the pain… mirrors, in a way, what Cathy is doing, allowing herself to be drawn into the relationship with Gabe, hating it, fearing it, yet fearing it might end.
I see this as Julia wanting, at last, to confront her demons.
And yet… another reference to angels, this time from Cathy’s perspective in the middle of the aggressive and degrading sexual act:
“The grass is chafing her knees. Her fingers dig into the dirt… But she is surrounded by angels… Gabe. And Owen. And now this lady who is watching her… She is in a blue robe and a kind of white headdress, like a nun’s. Her feet are bare. She is wearing shoes on her hands.”
Julia watches the scene unfold as Cathy (also dressed in virginal blue and white) is undressed.
“When she saw the blue tunic come off, she pressed her palms flat to her heart. Prayed through dry lips… Then when the white T-shirt and the flesh coloured bra were shed, she wrapped her arms around herself to stop the swaying of the freed breasts.”
Julia begins to sing the Magnificat, and Cathy receives it with gratitude while her fingers dig into the dirt during the sexual act. This brief and unspoken connection, this understanding between the women is powerful, transporting Julia back to her childhood and when she comes back to reality, she finds herself checking to see her clothes are intact, “clutching at herself” as if to protect Cathy from the hands of this man, and herself from the hands of the abuser in her past.
Note: The Magnificat is a hymn of praise to god, in which god recognizes “the lowliness of his handmaid”. A song, no doubt, written by a bloke.
UPDATE: Was gob-smacked to find Steven Beattie’s re-visit to Miller’s story; even more gs’d to know my interpretation resonated. Because, well, what do I know?? Anyway, this is CanLit at its best: stories, discussion, open-minds.
I doff my cap.