As the annual Dajia Mazu Holy Pilgrimage (大甲媽祖繞境活動) comes to an end I think of those key passages in Henry Adams’ great work “The Dynamo and the Virgin” (1900) where the author interrogates the American’s prudish disdain for the feminine:
The Woman had once been supreme; in France she still seemed potent, not merely as a sentiment, but as a force. Why was she unknown in America? For evidently America was ashamed of her, and she was ashamed of herself, otherwise they would not have strewn fig-leaves so profusely all over her. When she was a true force, she was ignorant of fig-leaves, but the monthly-magazine-made American female had not a feature that would have been recognized by Adam. The trait was notorious, and often humorous, but any one brought up among Puritans knew that sex was sin. In any previous age, sex was strength. Neither art nor beauty was needed. Every one, even among Puritans, knew that neither Diana of the Ephesians nor any of the Oriental goddesses was worshipped for her beauty. She was goddess because of her force; she was the animated dynamo; she was reproduction — the greatest and most mysterious of all energies; all she needed was to be fecund. Singularly enough, not one of Adams’s many schools of education had ever drawn his attention to the opening lines of Lucretius, though they were perhaps the finest in all Latin literature, where the poet invoked Venus exactly as Dante invoked the Virgin: —
“Quae quondam rerum naturam sola gubernas.” [“You who alone once ruled the nature of things.”]*
The Venus of Epicurean philosophy survived in the Virgin of the Schools: —
“Donna, sei tanto grande, e tanto vali, Che qual vuol grazia, e a te non ricorre, Sua disianza vuol volar senz’ ali.” [”Lady, you are so great, and so powerful,that whoever seeks grace without recourse to you will send up his prayer to fly without wings.”]*
All this was to American thought as though it had never existed. The true American knew something of the facts, but nothing of the feelings; he read the letter, but he never felt the law. Before this historical chasm, a mind like that of Adams felt itself helpless…
Often, in other parts of the world, I have been reminded of Adams’ writings on Americans’ misunderstanding of the feminine. And as I struggle to understand this culture, its Temple of the Five Concubines 五妃廟 and its chief goddess, Mazu 媽祖, I too find myself wondering how our Southern Baptist upbringing killed off access to the “law of the feminine.” Why can there be no veneration of feminine fecundity in that world? Is it because we try so hard to put ourselves above nature, beyond female fertility, and away from sexuality? Or is something else distancing us from it/Her? *De Rerum Natura by Lucretius.