Joyce Carol Oates | Critical Essay by Carol A. Martin

This literature criticism consists of approximately 13 pages of analysis & critique of Joyce Carol Oates.
This section contains 3,604 words
(approx. 13 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Essay by Carol A. Martin

SOURCE: "Art and Myth in Joyce Carol Oates's 'The Sacred Marriage,'" in The Midwest Quarterly, Vol. XXVIII, No. 4, Summer, 1987, pp. 540-52.

Below, Martin analyzes "The Sacred Marriage" as a parable of the transformative power of art, highlighting the influence of ancient myths about art on the narrative's development.

Art is magnificent, divine, because it records the struggles of exceptional men to order their fantasies, their doubts, even their certainties, into an external structure that celebrates the life force itself, the energy of life, as well as the simple fact that someone created it—and especially the fact that you, the audience, are sharing it.


This affirmation of the nature and power of art, made by Joyce Carol Oates in an interview in 1972, just before the publication of her collection of short stories, Marriages and Infidelities, provides a hint to the meaning of the opening story in that collection, "The Sacred Marriage," a story that one critic called "bewilderingly evocative," but that can be understood in terms of Oates's theory of the power of art. A testimony to the transforming power of art and the artist, the story is in keeping with Oates's practice of reworking—or "re-imagining" as Oates herself calls it—the stories of earlier artists. In this volume alone she has several stories whose titles give the clue to their predecessors: "The Metamorphosis" (Kafka), "The Lady with the Pet Dog" (Chekhov), "The Turn of the Screw" (Henry James), and "The Dead" (James Joyce). Eileen Bender connects "The Sacred Marriage" with James's "The Aspern Papers," but the protagonists in the two stories, as Bender seems to recognize, are significantly different. The re-imagining in "The Sacred Marriage" is not, in fact, of any fairly recent story, but of an ancient myth, and, as with the other stories mentioned above, the title of the story makes the connection explicit.

Features of this myth, which involves a young woman's marriage to a god and the attendant practice of sacred prostitution, are recorded in several places in James G. Frazer's The Golden Bough, but especially in a section titled "The Sacred Marriage." There Frazer describes a series of rituals involving the marriage of humans with divinities: "the custom of marrying gods either to images or to human beings was widespread among the nations of antiquity." In some versions of this myth, a young woman married to a god is destined to remain, physiologically, a virgin for the rest of her life. In other versions, the young woman has been married to a mortal, often for some time, has known no man but her husband, and is married to the god only ceremonially and temporarily, as in the Dionysiac festivals in Athens. In still other versions, the young woman married to the god preserves her virginity only in a figurative sense, for she prostitutes herself to the god's worshippers. "In Africa, and sometimes if not regularly in India, the sacred prostitutes attached to temples are regarded as the wives of the god, and their excesses are excused on the ground that the women are not themselves, but that they act under the influence of divine inspiration." All these rituals had some connection with fruitfulness of vine or field and ultimately with continued life, often by seeing the people and crops as participating in the immortal life of the god through the sacred marriage or divine prostitution. "In their licentious intercourse at the temples the women, whether maidens or matrons or professional harlots, imitated the licentious conduct of a great goddess of fertility for the purpose of ensuring the fruitfulness of fields and trees, of man and beast; and in discharging this sacred and important function the women were probably supposed … to be actually possessed by the goddess." The vision was homeopathic, involving a union, an identification of deity, man, and the natural world.

In Oates's "The Sacred Marriage," the wife of the artist-deity, a poet named Connell Pearce, recently dead, invites his worshippers to their bed, the bed she had shared with her husband, a bed in a room still filled with his photographs. Pearce's autobiographical note, part of a collection of "religious parables and riddles," is discovered late in the story by the one man the reader actually sees sharing the bed. It makes the plot clear, both to the reader and to this man: "Let us imagine X, the famous Spanish novelist…. X is about to die and wants to write the novel of his own life, extended beyond his life. In Madrid he selects a certain woman. He is a noble, dying old man, she is a very beautiful young woman. She is worthy of being his wife. And therefore he marries her, and she nurses him through his last illness, buries him, and blesses all the admirers of his art who come to her, for she alone retains X's divinity. Her body. Her consecration. A multitude of lovers come to her, lovers of X, and she blesses them without exception, in her constant virginity."

The correspondences to The Golden Bough in title and plot line are accompanied by other similarities as well. The name of Connell Pearce's wife is Emilia; she lives in the house she and Pearce bought on Lydia Street. Frazer mentions one "Aurelia Aemilia," who was involved in devotional prostitution, as testified by "a Greek inscription found at Tralles in Lydia, which proves that the practice of religious prostitution survived in that country as late as the second century of our era." And it may be a coincidence, or it may be Oates's playfulness that one of the worshipful scholars who comes to Lydia Street is named "Felix Frazer." (Perhaps Oates too has contrived a mystique of names like Connell Pearce's "mystique of places—even the names of places.")

The story is told from the perspective of another worshipful scholar, Howard Dean, whose reflections and whose letter to the widow make it clear that only lovers of Pearce, only those whom Pearce had inspired, may come to his shrine. Howard is surprised that a "coldly opportunistic" acquaintance from Harvard who had wanted to obtain Pearce's papers had never had his several letters answered, while Howard Dean's own shamelessly worshipful letter received an instant reply; he wonders: "How had his single letter, written feverishly, with an almost adolescent yearning, managed to get through to Pearce's widow?" The parts of his letter that he recalls in his reverie answer that question: your husband's first book "changed my life"; "your husband has partly created me"; Connell Pearce "has managed to create a sense of destiny, personal destiny, out of this chaos, and he has made us see that it is not sentimental to believe in something, that it is not simply the pious who have hope of being saved…."

That such a high purpose for art—to create a sense of destiny, to create order and unity out of chaos—is Oates's belief is clear in interviews and articles, given or written close to the time "The Sacred Marriage" was first published, in Southern Review in summer 1972. Challenging the myth of the isolated artist, Oates argued that "Creative work, like scientific work, should be greeted as a communal effort—an attempt by an individual to give voice to many voices" ("The Myth"). In an interview published in late 1972, she affirmed that "Art should be for the entire species, ultimately, aimed toward an elevation of other people through an extension of their latent sympathies." And in an another interview, published just before the appearance of "The Sacred Marriage," she described art as a way of "transcribing dreams" but in such a way that the "private" dream is made public. This is in fact what poet Connell Pearce's art had said to Howard Dean, as he explains in his letter to Emilia:

There is a prose-poem of your husband's that contains the lines, We woke out of adolescence to discover that there is nothing private in the senses. Why not die, then? We are on exhibit. But, why not live? We are not doomed to private fates. When I first read these lines I felt a tremendous shock. I can't explain my feeling. I don't know if I brought this feeling to the poem, which exposed it, or if the poem—I mean, your husband—entirely created it as I read.

It is, in Oates's theory, the power of Art that produces this inexplicable "feeling" of fusion, wherein the artist, the reader, and the work itself cannot be separated, where all are creative forces. Her views are not simply parallel or anticipatory developments in accord with "reader-response" or "aesthetics of reception" criticism such as Wolfgang Iser, Hans Robert Jauss, and others were producing at the same time and since. They are, of course, similar, but Oates's view of the artist's role gives the artist a primary function in what she sees as, potentially, a whole new world-view.

In her essay, "New Heaven and Earth," published in November 1972, Oates calls for an end to the "Cartesian dualism—I/It." She sees the need "to recognize that our minds belong, quite naturally, to a collective 'mind,' a mind in which we share everything that is mental, most obviously language itself, and that the old boundary of the skin is no boundary at all but a membrane connecting the inner and outer experiences of existence." This, she affirms, "has always been a mystical vision." Here, as elsewhere, she connects the writer and the mystic, two who express this vision, who move toward and who help others move toward self-transcendence.

Insofar as Howard Dean feels this bond between himself and Connell Pearce, he has achieved some measure of self-transcendence, though his achievement is incomplete. The possibility that Howard could achieve transcendence led him to be chosen by Emilia as one of the few scholars allowed to visit the "sacred place" that is Connell Pearce's home and to have Pearce's mysterious origins explained by the priestess-queen in charge, who talks about Pearce with "an artless regality, as if she were in charge of a historical site, in charge of the careful recitation of events now past" (20). Such "careful recitation" is suggestive of the importance attached to language in ancient and modern religious ritual. From Howard's point of view, he "had not deserved this place, but he had come here innocently, without selfishness or design." However, until the end of the story, Howard does not fully realize the nature of his bond with Pearce, not the role of Emilia in that bond. At first he had thought of Emilia as one "like the other women Pearce had loved and brought into his life. But she had no reality for Howard, who had hardly thought of her until today: she was simply a presence, a medium between himself and the dead poet." His dismissive "simply" would deny the special mediating role of the woman in fertility cults like that of Dionysus: "Dionysus is a woman's god in the fullest sense of the word, the source of all woman's sensual and transcendent hopes, the center of her whole existence. It was to women that he was first revealed in his glory, and it was women who propagated his cult and brought about its triumph." It was through women that men were enabled to approach the god [Kerenyi, Archetypal Image of Indestructible Life, 1976].

Judith Ochshorn in The Female Experience and the Nature of the Divine observes that in the Sacred Marriage recorded of the ruler Dumuzi in Mesopotamia "as in all other instances, it was the goddess Inanna who selected him for 'the godship of the land.'" In Oates, the initiates are selected by Emilia, but she herself was chosen, for her beauty, by Connell Pearce. Here perhaps the story is closer to the Dionysian rites and beliefs of Greece and Asia Minor; the god "compels" the women followers to join him, he is an irresistible force. Likewise, as Emilia says of Pearce, "any woman would have loved him"; when Pearce selected her, she "had no choice. I had to go with Connell," just as the women of Dionysian rite, inspired, frenzied, have no choice but to worship—like Emilia, often against the "rational" opposition of their families, as Euripedes' Bacchae illustrates.

Like most, perhaps all, religious cults involving sacred prostitution, the Dionysian cult is a fertility cult, in which "In the form of an animal the god suffered the extreme reduction, a cruel death, but he, indestructible zoë … escaped—to Thetis, to the Muses, or however this was expressed mythologically" (Kerenyi). Paradoxical elements are combined: death and rebirth, eros and thanatos. The followers of Connell Pearce mate with the priestess-widow in the room in which Pearce loved and died; in Pearce's death. Howard felt "as if part of himself had died" and yet Pearce too had "helped [Howard] mature. By dying, Pearce had shown him the way to die—otherwise death might have seemed to Howard unimaginable." By making death "imaginable"—by creating an image of death, and of rebirth—Connell Pearce, the embodiment of Art, enables others to live; this, however, Howard at first does not comprehend.

As a new initiate, Howard does not yet understand that Pearce represents the indestructible force of Art, which will enable him and other chosen ("not many") worshippers to live. Before he read of Pearce's death "Howard had been aware of Connell Pearce at a distance, living out a parallel life, a presence, not ghostly but very solid, substantial, the kind of transparent substance Howard had once attributed to God. So long as Pearce lived, there had been a kind of promise…. But Pearce had died." The knowledge to which Howard comes in the painful course of events on Lydia Street is the knowledge that "Pearce was not dead but still alive, more powerful than Howard." After this realization, Howard finds the parable of "X" in which the endurance of the artist is explained in terms of the Sacred Marriage. The connection between the artist's life and the life of the race—its survival and growth—is the central argument of an article Oates published in January 1973: "If art has any general evolutionary function, it must be to enhance the race, to work somehow toward an essential unity and harmony—survival and growth—and perhaps an integration of the human world with the natural world" ("The Unique/Universal"). Fertility myths, with their center in death and rebirth, provide an emblem, in "The Sacred Marriage," for this unity and harmony, both within the human world and between the human and the natural.

The story begins with an emphasis on fertility images and the power of nature. As Howard drives toward the Pearce home, he looks out across fields that "were the same, uniform, dull, sweet green. A kind of paradise. Another world." The fields are green, but it is autumn, the harvest time when the ancient Sacred Marriage was usually enacted. His state replicates that of the new worshipper of Dionysus, who must leave the city and the mundane: "Rarely out of the city, rarely out of his routine of work, he felt a little giddy with the excitement of the trip, like a child. He wanted to see everything." In this new world, at the top of the ridge, he feels a strange sense of power ("he believed he could gaze right across the valley to the top of the mountain range, eyeing it levelly, in a sense as an equal"), as well as a sense of "constant, whimsical danger." He begins to abandon his usual self; his consciousness is altered: the landscape is "hypnotic"; as he sees the "fierce little plunging streams of water" he "felt he was being hypnotized and this thought somehow pleased him"; the garden of Pearce's home is "dusty, dreamy, hypnotic as the valley." Nature and humanity mingle. When he first sees Emilia, she is emerging from the house and going into the garden. Meeting her later, he notices her hair, which "curved in curls and tendrils," and her "leaf-colored green" dress.

In the context of such images, the look of Pearce's eyes in his portrait, "all iris, as if blinded by a tremendous light or a deluge of sights," can be seen as an allusion to the blinding flash of Zeus, which destroyed Dionysus' mother Semele and gave him a first birth. And as the worshippers of Dionysus often sense the presence of the god, so Emilia seems to be both listening to Howard and "to something else—a voice in her head, perhaps." In the barn (the Pearce home is on a farm), which "seemed unhuman, holy," Howard senses a presence, "glancing up at the shadowy hayloft, and behind him at the opened door, as if he expected someone to be watching."

Paradoxically, Howard's strongest moment of connection with Pearce and "the woman who had been married to him"—at the grave, where Howard feels "with an almost violent certitude that he had come to the right place"—is followed shortly by his losing sight of Pearce; he begins to see Emilia, "only her, her self," and interprets his attraction in conventional terms of "falling in love." Forgetting Pearce, he does not hear or understand Emilia's message, which is central in this parable of Art: "If Connell touched someone with his fingertips he would know that person … he could absorb that person…. You felt a jolt, like a small electric shock, go through you and into him, passing out of you and into him, permanently…. That way he brought many different people into him, into his life. He told me that he had lived through many different people." This to Howard is inexplicable, and Emilia's touch leads to his selfish desire for exclusive possession. He becomes selfish and designing, desiring Emilia not as the specially chosen priestess of Art, but as a potential faculty wife in Madison, Wisconsin. Hence his shock when another initiate appears, and his apostasy: "A living woman was worth more than a dead man's novel, any dead man's novel or his poetry or any poetry. That was a fact."

Like Pentheus in his devotion to "fact" Howard is nearly destroyed, because, in seeking to remove Emilia from the sacred surroundings, he would violate the vision of unity in Pearce's poems by an assertion of his individual ego, of possessiveness, of personal power. In various essays, Oates condemns this possessiveness, this competitive selfishness: the "myth of the isolated artist," for instance, gives rise to "a society obsessed with adolescent ideas of being superior, of conquering, of destroying" ("The Myth"). One recalls Pearce's phrase about "working out of adolescence to discover there is nothing private in the senses."

This rise of the competitive self in Howard, a self that wishes Emilia to belong to him and to turn away all other worshippers of Pearce, is akin to the attitude of the "coldly opportunistic" professor from Harvard. That Howard should have such a feeling is incomprehensible to Emilia, who naively asks, of Howard and the new arrival, Felix, "the two of you can work in the same room, can't you? Is that too difficult, for scholars?"

If "The Sacred Marriage" is a parable of the power of art, "working together in the same room" is clearly a metaphor for the unity that, in Oates's vision, great art provides. It is a unity in which the art itself never dies, in which the individual ego is transcended by the sense of community. The poet Connell Pearce has become a kind of savior, demonstrating even how to transcend death. In dying, it seemed, to Emilia, "as if he were making up his own death, like a poem." This "poem" enables his followers to experience death without dying, as the followers of the god in the Sacred Marriage experienced godhead. In the twentieth century, art replaces religion to provide this "identifying" experience. Citing a statement by Picasso that "is so true that no one can really add to it," Oates says: "Painting isn't an aesthetic operation, it's a form of magic designed as a mediator between the strange, hostile world and us, a way of seizing the power by giving form to our terrors as well as our desires" ("Transformations").

Howard's departure in the darkness of midnight is a departure in despair, but it carries with it the seeds of rebirth. Though he considers the possibility that he could drive off the steep roads and die, he does not want to die. Becoming an "ordinary man" again means here giving up the opportunism and possessiveness that had led to his despair. In a final epiphany, as the sun rises, he is infused with a sense of renewal: "the same marvelous energy he had felt upon first seeing those piles of Pearce's" manuscripts infuses him, and he drives "all day with a passion he could barely contain." With the dawn, Howard comes to accept his "mission," his "sacred obligation," to bring Pearce, the embodiment of Art in this religious parable and riddle, to the world's attention. By the end of the story, Howard has come to realize the sacred nature of art, and its transcendence of self, and the reader has come to understand what perhaps Oates meant in speaking of this collection of stories: "Some are conventional marriages of men and women, others are marriages in another sense—with a phase of art, with something that transcends the limitations of the ego…."

"The Sacred Marriage," then, is an appropriate opening story in a volume that includes so many of Oates's "reimaginings," for it is a celebration of the "magic" of art, of its transforming power. Using an ancient and widespread myth, Oates affirms the artist in the role of the divine bringer of new life to the human and natural worlds.

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