Mothering Sunday—The mother of matter is the matter of the mother—A poetic, supreme fiction for our age
|Botticelli’s “The Birth of Venus”|
I originally wrote this piece for Mothering Sunday back in March 2019 for the congregation of the Cambridge Unitarian Church and I offer it once again because I still think it says something useful and highly relevant to a liberal religious tradition which, at least in part, is willing to contemplate (if not always then attempt to answer) the question of how it might be able to move from a basically supernaturalist world view to a more religiously naturalistic one. But I also offer it now in the context of the murder last week here in the UK of Sarah Everard at the hands of a violent, male perpetrator. Sarah’s violent death has revealed, once again, the truly shocking truth that the great majority of women continue daily to live in fear of male violence and that this shocking and depressing fact never seems to change.
My thought and hope is that one creative way forward might be by finding various ways to get our culture finally to let go of it’s obsession with, and conscious (or unconcious) comittment to, the supreme fiction of a violent, male, patriarchal, monotheistic god. The question then becomes what kind of supreme fiction might best be brought into play that could better serve all of humanity, male and female, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender alike? As will shortly become apparent, I think Venus or Aphrodite is by far the best candidate. Although I have tried my best to avoid this, I fully recognise that my offering up here of Venus as my own preferred supreme fiction may still, occasionally, display the “male gaze” at work and I must, therefore, make it clear that I’m open to being challenged and corrected at any point if and when my male gaze becomes apparent to clearer, wiser eyes than my own.
Mothering Sunday—The mother of matter is the matter of the mother—A poetic, supreme fiction for our age
The personification of the godhead, god, the divine, the sacred, and so on, is an ancient and venerable, if always somewhat risky, poetic practice. It is risky, basically because we human beings seem to find it all too easy seamlessly to move from poetic personification to thinking (and then acting “as if”) the same personification were, somehow, an accurate description of some immutable and eternal reality. Poetry becomes dogma and, before you know it, there has grown up a thorny thicket of religious institutions with associated desires to censure, and even destroy on their own altars, all other possible understandings of the gods, the divine and the sacred.
On the other hand, even though I know this well, I remain convinced that we cannot live fully without having something that the poet Wallace Stevens called a “supreme fiction”, namely, without “the creation of an idea that would serve as a fictive replacement for the idea of God, known to be fictive but willfully believed” (Brazeal, Gregory. “The Supreme Fiction: Fiction or Fact?” Journal of Modern Literature 31, no. 1 (2007): 80-100). Stevens’ hope was that such an idea might be able to help us correct and improve our old and no longer persuasive religious ideas about God and which, in their modified form, could then serve once again as a kind of narrative centre around which we may usefully be centripetally gathered and ordered, not eternally of course, but always in a way that could be appropriate and stable enough for our own time, place and culture.
Stevens never seems to have found a new “supreme fiction” that worked for him personally, let alone one appropriate for his own time and culture, but I remain convinced that such a fiction can still emerge and Mothering Sunday gives me an opportunity to place before you once again a few working notes towards my own preferred supreme fiction. Since early 2008, whenever I feel the desire/need to meditate before, and give thanks to a god in a poetic, personified form, it has been to the goddess Venus as I have received her through the poetry of the first-century Roman poet, Lucretius. In recent years this personal intuition has been modified and strengthened thanks to a radical and, to me, inspiring, re-reading of Lucretius by the philosopher Thomas Nail.
Today, this radical re-reading is vitally necessary because ever since Lucretius’ poem was rediscovered in 1417 by Poggio Bracciolini, it has continually been misread as promoting a version of Ancient Greek atomism — the view that all reality is made up of indivisible, individual atoms moving about and interacting together in a void.
Not surprisingly this misreading was further embedded in our culture during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth-centuries as our own natural scientists began to formulate what became a new kind of atomic theory. However, as Thomas Nail points out,
. . . although the Latin word “atomus” (smallest particle) was available to Lucretius to use in his poem, he intentionally did not use it, nor did he use the Latin word “particula” or particle to describe matter. The English translations of “atom”, “particle”, and others have all been added to the text in translation based on a certain historical interpretation of it.
Nail continues by noting that,
Lucretius rejected entirely the notion that things emerged from discrete particles. To believe otherwise is to distort the original meanings of the Latin text as well as the absolutely enormous poetic apparatus he summoned to describe the flowing, swirling, folding, and weaving of the flux of matter. Although Lucretius rejected the term atomus, he remained absolutely true to one aspect of the original Greek meaning of the word atomos, (“indivisible”), from a- (“not”) and temnō (“I cut”). Being is not cut up into discrete particles, but is composed of continuous flows, folds, and weaves. Discrete “things” (rerum) are composed of corporeal flows (corpora) that move together (conflux) and fold over themselves (nexus) in a woven knot work (contextum). For Lucretius, things only emerge and have their being within and immanent to the flow and flux of matter in motion. Discreteness is an apparent product of continuous folded matter, uncut, undivided, and in motion and not the other way around.
This is, as I hope you see, a very different way of looking at the world than that which was employed by both ancient and more early-modern atomists and is one which resonates strongly with what contemporary physics seems to be revealing to us about how our world is structured. If you want to get a sense of how Lucretius can still inspire a modern scientist, just take a look at the contemporary Italian theoretical physicist Carlo Rovelli’s work where Lucretius makes a couple of sparkling appearances.
Naturally, this does not make Lucretius some kind of proto-quantum-field-theorist, that would be ridiculous. But, as Nail observes, it’s not that Lucretius’ description in his poem of nature’s way of working matches that of contemporary science, but “simply that it is not inconsistent with it” (Nail, Lucretius 1, p. 273) and that, therefore, they are “mutually illuminating” and “appreciable in their own terms” (ibid, p. 14).
Anyway, the thing is, once you begin to see clearly that Lucretius is concerned, not with indivisible atoms and void but with the ceaseless flowing, swirling, folding, and weaving of the flux of matter, his evocation of the life-giving goddess Venus as both the mother [māter] of all things and also the very matter [māteria] of all things (including herself as mother, of course), all this begins to make a rich poetic sense that is not inconsistent with our current scientific knowledge. Consequently, for me, Venus has begun to emerge ever more powerfully as a worthy, poetic supreme fiction suitable for our own age.
As an initial attempt to tempt you into considering the goddess in a similar fashion, what now follows is a re-presentation of some of the ways Thomas Nail talks about how Lucretius interprets Venus as the Mother of Matter.
It is, perhaps, helpful to start with the ancient myth of Venus’ birth and to have before you as an aide-memoire Botticelli’s glorious painting “The Birth of Venus”. (I’ve put a link to this picture in the episode notes.) In what follows, remember that Venus is the Roman name of the goddess whom the Greeks knew as Aphrodite.
So, according to Hesiod, while Ouranos (Sky) was having sexual intercourse with his mate Gaia (Earth), he was ambushed and castrated by his son Kronos, who cast his father’s genitals into the sea. Foam issued from them and, within the foam, a maiden grew. The genitals came eventually to land at Cypress, where Aphrodite stepped ashore (William Hansen, Classical Mythology, OUP 2004, p. 105). In Botticelli’s painting, Venus comes ashore, much less gruesomely, from a giant scallop shell. All the images contained in the painting (and in Lucretius’ poem) are evocations of the flowing, swirling, folding, and weaving of the flux of matter. An obvious example in the painting is the depiction of Zephyr, the wind god, blowing Venus ashore. But, perhaps less obviously we see this in the fact that Venus is made of the foam of the ocean. Here is Nail speaking of this:
Bubbles and froth are produced when the continuous flows of the ocean fold back over themselves, trapping air within their pleat. The fold gives the flows of air and water depth, extension and spatiality. The fold produces the appearance of unity, extension and stability, grounded in the continuity of a heterogeneous flux — the ‘Iridescent-throned Aphrodite’ as Sappho writes (Nail, Lucretius 1, p. 27).
Secondly, there is the shell. Nail continues:
. . . the most vulva-like of all seashells . . . the scallop shell is an organism, like other seashells, that gathers in the liquid flows of calcium carbonate from the periphery towards a place of central condensation. The seashell is formed by gathering these pedetic mineral flows and folding them together and over one another again and again. The shell, therefore, introduces a “klin”, a curvature, inclination, or desire, into the chaotic flows of the ocean (ibid, pp. 27-28).
Thirdly there is the idea of “space”. As Nail observes:
It is the “klin” or curve of desire in Venus’ shell that introduces space into the chaos of flux (ibid, p. 28).
Space is vital here because if there were only ever the chaos of flux nothing could come to be in the way things clearly do. But, wonder of wonders, the protective, enclosing klin, curve of Venus’ shell, reminds us that the chaos of flux is always-already producing local and regional stabilities that gift us with the universe of things in which we live and move and have our being.
Importantly, although Lucretius holds Venus up as a goddess in this fashion she is not understood by him as being some kind of supernatural being standing outside nature making the world but, instead, as a way by and through which a person can more easily meditate upon the way nature natures, i.e. how the world continually makes and remakes itself. Lucretius’ depiction of Venus in his poem is a poetic supreme fiction which aims both to help us understand and be passionate about the way nature natures and how her mothering hand, which is always-already making and touching us and all things is, simultaneously, also always-already being touched back by what it touches (cf. Maurice Merleau-Ponty in Nail: Lucretius 1. p 88).
As Nail reminds us, Venus is:
. . . the mother [māter] of Aeneas, from which the Latin words māteriēs [material] and māteria [matter] also come. Māter is also the tree or matrix, the source of the tree’s growth, whose Indo-European root is described by the Greek word hūlē, meaning tree and matter. First philosophy, for Lucretius, begins with the mother, with matter itself, with the creative power of matter itself to produce all things, the aeneadum (ibid, p. 23).
Nail also points out that Venus becomes the material mother-goddess and so the concept of māteriēs “both maternalizes matter and materializes the mother at the same time”:
In other words, the mother of all creation is herself made of the same matter that she creates. Her materiality is the same materiality of the world. The mother of matter is the matter of the mother. Her creation is, therefore, the process of matter’s own process of materialization. Maternalization is materialization (ibid, p. 24).
Of course, in one important sense, Venus cannot be said to exist as a discrete, identifiable entity whom I, or Lucretius, could meet in the temple, town or countryside. However, because everything about her as a poetic supreme fiction speaks so well both to, and of, the way we are coming to think our world works, she is for me a meaningful and beautiful personification before whom my expressions of gratitude for her bounty can be expressed and my poetic, ethical, and natural science-related thoughts and meditations, can usefully and creatively flow, fold, and weave. As Diogenes Laërtius says in his chapter about Lucretius’ greatest philosophical influence, Epicurus, “The wise person will set up votive images” (Lives of the Eminent Philosophers, Book X, §131) and I freely confess here that in my study, and in the Manse yard next door, you will find multiple depictions of Venus dotted around the place before which I often find myself gratefully stopping, thinking, pondering and wondering.
Now, you may think that there really is no need to personify the way nature natures, let alone actually set up a votive image of the goddess Venus. Well, you are probably right, you don’t need to do this in any absolute way, but, along with countless other human beings through the many hundreds of thousands of years of human existence, I do feel such a need and I continue to think that an appropriate, poetic supreme fiction, when knowingly understood as fictive but nevertheless willfully believed in or contemplated, can usefully help us both better understand and fully enter intra-actively into the world and draw forth from it great meaning and beauty.
Indeed, on this subject of personification one of the most influential modern materialists, political theorists and philosophers, Jane Bennett, concludes her book Vibrant Matter by writing this very personal statement:
I believe in one matter-energy, the maker of things seen and unseen. I believe that this pluriverse is traversed by heterogeneities that are continually doing things. I believe it is wrong to deny vitality to nonhuman bodies, forces, and forms, and that a careful course of anthropomorphization can help reveal that vitality, even though it resists full translation and exceeds my comprehensive grasp. I believe that encounters with lively matter can chasten my fantasies of human mastery, highlight the common materiality of all that is; expose a wider distribution of agency, and reshape the self and its interests (Vibrant Matter, Duke University Press, 2010, p. 122).
I think Bennett is right and in an age when an ecological emergency is clearly requiring us urgently to reshape ourselves and our interests, and when, at the same time, we are also appreciating more and more that we are ourselves intra-active parts of ceaselessly moving fluxes and flows of matter-energy, is not Lucretius’ poetic supreme fiction of a ceaselessly creative, moving and material goddess more appropriate and needed than our former, patriarchal, supreme fictions about a static and immovable Father God? I cannot but think so.
Anyway, come Mothering Sunday, in addition to raising a toast to my earthly mother I’ll have no hesitations in raising another glass of aqua vitae to toast and give hearty and joyous thanks to the Mother of Matter, creatrix, bountiful Venus.
If you would like to join a conversation about this podcast then our next Wednesday Evening Zoom meeting will take place on 24th March at 19.30 GMT. You'll find a link to this meeting in the notes to the next blog/episode.