Review: Desire and Divine
Kathaleen E. Amende. Desire and the Divine: Feminine Identity in White Southern Women's Writing. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2013. xii + 162 pp. ISBN 978-0-8071-5083-2.
In the late 1990s, Anne Goodwyn Jones and Susan Donaldson (Haunted Bodies, 1997) and later Patricia Yaeger (Dirt and Desire, 2000), challenged readers to re-examine bodies within southern texts. Yaeger analyzed the body through the lens of race, while Jones and Donaldson focused their collection on gender and the body, although both texts acknowledge matrices of gendered and racial identities. For these critics and others, the body has proven to be a rich topic for feminist critique within southern studies.
Religion’s primary role within southern fiction has long been established, as works such as Susan Ketchin’s The Christ-Haunted Landscape (1994) demonstrate. In Desire and the Divine, Kathaleen Amende brings a focus on bodies into this conversation. Chapters guide readers through the moments when bodies and religion interact in a variety of contemporary southern texts by white women, including Rosemary Daniell, Sheri Reynolds, Dorothy Allison, Valerie Martin, Lee Smith, and Connie May Fowler. Amende’s particular interest, however, is the body in the grip of passion: “the moment of passion that is unidentifiable as being either religious or sexual” (1). She argues that these writers’ young white characters often sublimate sexual desires into more “appropriate” religious pursuits, creating Foucauldian heterotopias—spaces “where the two desires, religious and secular, combine” (26).
Readers might imagine that this argument leads to a vague sort of empowerment or agency for female characters, a kind of “happily ever after” feminist critique. Yet that is not at all where Amende takes us. Instead, in a move her title and subtitle do not predict, Amende squarely faces and analyzes the psychic and material culture of a wide variety of masochism, including self-mutilation, masochistic fantasy, and S/M sexual play. In this analysis, these acts occur in a special place where the sacred and the erotic meet and can be employed in a quest for religious or mystical ecstasy. What begins as an elegantly simple thesis becomes an interrogation of the meaning of gendered power, pain as a “gendered object,” and access to the divine (142).
Although Amende clearly writes for a literary audience, she avoids jargon, even when explaining her particular use of Foucault and Freud, making her work appropriate for a more general audience as well. Casual readers of Lee Smith and Dorothy Allison will find surprising new ways of exploring favorite texts, and teachers may glean ideas for uncomfortable but productive classroom discussions. For instance, Bone, the main character from Bastard Out of Carolina, becomes less a victim of abuse acting out her sexual repression, and more a survivor creating a sexually safe place through sadomasochistic fantasies. Admirers of Fowler and Reynolds will appreciate how a careful critique opens up texts sometimes regarded as more popular than literary (Reynolds’s The Rapture of Canaan was an Oprah’s Book Club pick), although Amende wisely makes no such distinction herself. For feminist scholars of southern literature, especially those with an interest in body culture, Amende’s work is a valuable addition to that of Yaeger, Jones, Donaldson, and Minrose Gwin. Southern studies scholars who have found Elaine Scarry’s The Body in Pain (1985) useful will welcome a text that explores some of the same philosophical territory in terms of southern literature.
The final chapter of Desire and the Divine, “Contemporary Repercussions,” offers a quick primer on feminist theology as well as a fascinating jumping off point for discussions of sexuality and religion outside southern literature—in mega-churches, “reform” groups for gay Christians, and online churches catering to the sex work industry. Here, Amende makes a strong case for the relevance of her topic not only within the field of southern literature, but more broadly within southern studies and cultural studies of the United States.