«By Robert Hilliker M. A., Brown University, 2003 B. A., University of British Columbia, 2000 Thesis Submitted in partial fulfillment of the ...»
Those scholars who have studied de l’Incarnation’s life and writings most closely would certainly be surprised by my putting her alongside Bradstreet, since they tend to view the central event in her life—her departure for Canada—as an abandonment of her son, and thus of her role as a mother, as much as a departure for a “New World.” Her two most recent biographer-critics, Marie Florine-Bruneau and Natalie Zemon Davis, have positioned her struggle with the decisions to become a nun and then to travel to Canada following her husband’s death as the key to understanding her psyche. Yet, de l’Incarnation’s writings evince much of the same concern about the division between the secular and divine worlds as Bradstreet’s poetry. Thus, in her Relation, de l’Incarnation
recounts her struggle with how to respond to her calling in great detail:
In a word, I was besieged on all sides and my natural love pressed upon me so sharply that it was as though my soul were being wrenched from my body. Nothing about my obligations concerned me except my love for my son. Furthermore, I never stopped hearing an inner voice which pursued me everywhere, saying, ‘Hurry! It’s time. It’s not good for you to be in the world any longer.’ These words made their point. (Selected Writings 95) The total exclusivity of her religious calling and her secular life expressed in this passage—“Nothing … concerned me except love for my son”; “It’s not good for you to be in the world any longer”—are further reinforced by the words that convey her state of mind at the very moment of her leaving to become a nun: “Watching [my son cry], it seemed to me that I was being cut in two” (95). De l’Incarnation, then, faces much the same dilemma as Bradstreet, trying to maintain an integral identity while being pulled between the mundane, embodied world and that of the spirit. And yet, even at this most intense moment, she insists that she “did not let [her] emotions show” and focused on the fact that she was “[p]utting [her] son into the hands of God and the Blessed Virgin” (95), suggesting the rhetorical devices that will enable her to symbolically bridge the gap between these disparate worlds.
Hewing first to her suppressed emotional response, we must recognize that the logic of modeling is at work here, too, since her justification for keeping her feelings hidden is precisely to prevent them from provoking a more intense response. Indeed, she indirectly admits to Martin, in her Relation of 1654, that she consciously withheld her caresses from him when he was a child because she knew that she was destined to be a nun and wanted to minimize the emotional bond between them (Selected Writings 97). While both her and her son’s initial response to their separation demonstrate that this tactic was insufficient in and of itself, when coupled with de l’Incarnation’s characterization of God, Jesus, and Mary as members of a holy family—and thus, by extension, her and her son’s true family—it accounts for her actions in a convincing manner and thereby produces the effect she desires: her son’s own entry into religious orders.
The answer to the problem represented by her “abandonment” of her son, in other words, is de l’Incarnation’s insistence on the literality of her familial relationship with God, Jesus, and Mary. In a letter to her son written shortly after her arrival in Canada, for example, de l’Incarnation asks him: “Cet abandon ne vous a-il pas esté utille?”, pointing out that God promised her “qu’il auroit soin de vous” and that Mary, “la Mère de la bonté,” also “prendroit soin de vous,” particularly since Martin himself has taken her and her son, Jesus, “pour Mère & pour Espouse, lorsque vous entrastes dans vos études” (Correspondance 130-31).89 According to de l’Incarnation’s symbolic logic, this has indeed been to her son’s advantage because Jesus and Mary are the true models for the “secular” family that she and her son constitute, and so, in taking them for “Mother” and “Spouse” in place of de l’Incarnation, he has brought himself closer to salvation. He has also, we should note, brought himself closer to his mother, since in joining the Benedictines Martin conforms to his mother’s desire and to her example.
In this letter—and elsewhere in her writing—de l’Incarnation positions herself as the intermediary between Mary and Jesus and her son, since it is she who sends Martin the message that they will take care of him. Bruneau identifies this mediation as evidence of “Hasn’t this abandonment been to your advantage?”; “that He will take care of you”; “the Mother of goodness”; “will take care of you”; “for Mother and for Spouse once you began your studies” (Translations mine).
her “clerical rather than maternal authority in relation to” Martin (Women Mystics 75), but I would argue that it is in fact evidence of her integration of those roles, as her particular insistence on the language of family relationships to characterize religious ones further indicates. Examining the meanings at work in de l’Incarnation’s own name exposes how thoroughly she had bound the world of the spirit and the world of the flesh together through the medium of the family as a justification for her role as an educator.
As Davis notes, de l’Incarnation chose her religious name “since it was as the Word Incarnate that she had most often thought of Christ” (75), and thereby positioned herself as a privileged apostle of the Word of God. The further resonances of “incarnation,” which evokes the central Christian mysteries of the conception of Christ and his birth as the embodiment of the spirit, draw our attention to the same dynamic of translation between spiritual and physical worlds that we saw at work in Bradstreet’s poetry. Tying these associations together with those of de l’Incarnation’s Christian name, Marie, her role as apostle overlaps completely with her role as mother; though she would never have presumed to take the (blasphemous) position of mother vis-à-vis Christ, she clearly took Mary as a model. It was Mary herself who, in a dream vision, had told de l’Incarnation of her apostolic mission (Relation 86-88; Selected Writings 108-10), with God later confirming for her that “[c]’est le Canada que je t’ai fait voir; il faut que tu y ailles faire une maison à Jesus et à Marie” (Relation 93).90 “It is Canada that I have shown you; you must go there to build a house for Jesus and Mary” (Selected Writings 116).
Through this identification with Mary, de l’Incarnation genders the educational process much more definitively than Bradstreet, though both authors clearly overturn the conventional tropes of genius upon which Alsop played in his “Author to His Book.” Thus, Martin, in a discussion on the Song of Songs based on his mother’s own notes, interprets women’s breasts as a symbol of the capacity to teach, citing the metaphorical invocation of “le lait d’une sainte doctrine” (Retraites 243). We find the same figure elsewhere in her extant writings, such as a letter she wrote to him in 1644, in which she tells him of some “damoiselles qui ont sucé la vertu avec le laict de leur bonne mère” (Correspondance 240).91 In the place of male sexual conquest as the symbol of education, then, Bradstreet offers us a dialogue between mother and daughter, and de l’Incarnation—remotivating a conventional early modern trope—a mother suckling her child. De l’Incarnation’s figure thus bring us ever closer to the modern conception of the family as the bridge between nature and culture, with the mother in particular singled out as the vehicle that translates us from one to the other, though we must remind ourselves that this is not the symbolic chasm that she intends to bridge with her writing and her instruction.
As if to prove the success of her methods, and disprove those of her subsequent editors who would doubt his faithfulness to her words and intent, Martin provides an elaboration
of her method in his introduction to her Retraites:
Ainsi je ne sçay point de livre en ce genre, qui soit d’un plus facile usage;
car ceux qui s’en voudront servir, n’auront qu’à suivre celle qui la composé: ils pourront penser ce qu’elle a pensé, produire les affectations qu’elle a produites, faire les resolutions qu’elle a faites, parler à Dieu “young women who have imbibed virtue with their mother’s milk” (Word from New France 232).
comme elle luy a parlé, se remplir de son esprit & de ses sentimens; de la sorte ils feront les mémes oraisons qu’elle a faites, & il sera difficile d’en faire de plus saintes & de plus pures. (a iii)92 In this passage, Martin effectively reproduces the rhetoric modeled for him by his mother, and thereby produces an even stronger sense of the recursivity of this educational method: in following de l’Incarnation’s words, after all, her readers will be doing what Martin has already done. Martin’s style raises this imitative logic to a new level, with the syntax of this passage mimicking, and thus reinforcing, the very process of mirroring that it represents.
In his own account of how he treats his mother’s writings, Martin openly addresses the changes he makes to her work, stating in his preface to La vie that “[i]l y a plus d’un Autheur; il y en a deux, & l’un & l’autre étoient necessaires pour achever l’Ouvrage” (a2v). Martin further insists that “il n’y parle que comme un écho [de Marie de l’Incarnation].”93 While we may doubt how completely or accurately Martin echoes his mother, we must still acknowledge his choice of words is an interesting one, especially in light of de l’Incarnation’s own insistence, in her letters and elsewhere, on the value of imitation as a means to moral improvement. Even an echo, we should note, follows a “Thus I know of no other book in this genre that is easier to use. Those who wish to make something of it have but to follow she who wrote it: they can think what she thought, produce the effects that she produced, make the resolutions that she made, speak to God as she spoke, to fill themselves with her spirit and her sentiments. In the end they will make the same prayers that she made, and it would be difficult to make any more sacred and pure than those” (Translation mine).
“There is not one Author to this work; there are two … [b]oth … necessary to its completion” (Translation from Davis 104); “He [the second author—i.e., Martin] speaks but as an echo [of the first, Marie de l’Incarnation]” (translation mine).
principle of selection, since only the loudest, most clearly articulated phrases are reproduced.
De l’Incarnation’s account of her religious development demonstrates how such selectivity is in fact a key aspect of an educational method based on modeling.
Recounting her youthful faith, she notes how God gave her “une grande inclination à la fréquentation des sacrements”—that is, those religious ritual practices imbued with the greatest symbolic significance, such as baptism, communion, and confession (Relation 22).94 The initial attraction of these practices comes from their striking sensual elements—as de l’Incarnation notes, she “[les] trouvai[t] si beau et si saint que je ne voyais rien de semblable” (25)—and this attraction draws her into an accumulating and intensifying cycle of repetition: “tant plus j’approchais des sacraments, plus j’avais désir de m’en approcher” (23).95 Furthermore, this attraction is, for de l’Incarnation, at least initially distinct from any intellectual appreciation of the meaning of the sacraments, since, as she states quite explicitly, it is only when she had “devenue plus grande” that she was “capable de recevoir leur signification” (25).96 The dynamics of this progress into deeper faith through ritual practice are well illumined by de l’Incarnation’s observation that she “used to watch the posture of people who were praying” in Church and “feel urged by an interior spirit to withdraw to pray without even “a profound desire for the reception of the sacraments” (Selected Writings 44) “found them incomparably beautiful and holy” (47); “The more I approached the sacraments, the more I desired them” (44-5).
When she “grew up” she was “able to understand their meaning” (47).
knowing what the interior spirit was or being acquainted with the words, ‘interior spirit,’ as I have already said” (Selected Writings 42).97 Though de l’Incarnation identifies the source of her impulse to pray as an internal one, it is the act of observing a behavioral model that, in fact, sets the process in motion; the interiority belatedly follows upon the action itself, a fact which de l’Incarnation’s distinction between “knowing” and “being acquainted with the words” suggests that she understands. Imitation, in other words— and of words we should note—produces the understanding requisite to the proper performance of religious identity. And when understanding follows it helps to reinforce
the cumulative process of accoutumance (“accustomization”) already well under way:
“Plus j’avançais en connaissance, plus j’avais de touches et d’amour pour ces saintes ceremonies de l’Église” (25).98 It even helps propel de l’Incarnation towards her apostolic mission, since, feeling the love the sacraments inspire in her, she “want[s] everyone whom Our Lord let[s] me encounter to experience this love” (45).
Yet, while de l’Incarnation’s primary focus is the reproduction of a religious identity, rather than a national one, we must recognize that the two identities were closely linked for her. While her figure of a mother suckling her child may call forth the beatific vision of Leonardo da Vinci’s Madonna Litta, it has as much to do with the assimilationist colonial impulse as any of Sir Walter Raleigh’s or Thomas Morton’s sexual puns. From the very beginning of their colonization of the New World, as Vincent Grégoire notes, the This passage appears in English because the only French edition of de l’Incarnation’s Relation that I have been able to locate is a redaction edited by Jamet; Mahoney’s translation is based on the complete French manuscript but includes different selections than Jamet’s.
“The more I understood them, the more I was filled with love for these holy ceremonies of the Church” (47).