The Canadian Red Ensign

The Canadian Red Ensign

Sunday, May 12, 2013

"The Crimes of Motherhood"

Elle ravale ainsi l'écume de sa haine,
Et, ne comprenant pas les desseins éternels,
Elle-même prépare au fond de la Géhenne
Les bûchers consacrés aux crimes maternels. – from “Bénédiction”, in Les Fleurs de Mal, by Charles Baudelaire

The subject of discussion announced in the title of this essay may strike you as being rather odd or even grossly inappropriate for the second Sunday in May which is, after all, Mother’s Day. Mother’s Day is a day set aside to honour our mothers, to express our affection and love towards them, to show our gratitude for them and for all they have given us and done for us. It is not the time to break open their closets and bring out the skeletons, to drag them before the assizes and draw up indictments against them. Would it not be better to write a glowing eulogy about the virtues of motherhood?

There would be countless ways of doing it. One could approach the subject from an historical angle and show how the influence of mothers has time and again steered the ship of human events away from hazards and perils to flow smoothly down a safe course. An example might be the devotion of Susanna Wesley, and how the pious upbringing she gave her sons John and Charles contributed to the evangelical revival of the eighteenth century that helped spare England from the horrors of the revolution in France.  Or we could turn to the Confessions of St. Augustine, where we can read about how he grieved his mother by turning away from the true faith to the Manichean heresy and a life of sin, but how the prayers of St. Monica for her wayward son eventually bore triumphed in the conversion of the man who laid the intellectual foundation for Western Christendom.

Or, if we were not in the mood for history, we might comb the pages of mythology and classic literature for illustrations of motherhood at its best. Perhaps Rhea, the Titan queen who saved her youngest son from her husband’s barbaric culinary tastes by handing over a well-swaddled boulder and then smuggling her son away, would come to mind. In Homer’s Iliad we would find Thetis pleading the cause of her son Achilles’ before Zeus and obtaining from the king of the Olympians the promise that the tide of the Trojan War would not swing back towards the Greeks until Agamemnon gave her son the honour that was due him. Later, when Achilles has sworn to avenge the fallen Patrocles against Hector of Troy, Thetis, burdened with the foreknowledge that if her son persists in this course he too will shortly fall, obtains for him armour fashioned by the gods’ own smith, in a loving, if vain, struggle against fate.

Perhaps, however, it is from Holy writ that we wish to find recourse in our quest for positive inspiration. That would not pose a problem for here there is ample material for positive portrait studies of virtuous motherhood. The New Testament alone is full of examples. There is the Canaanite woman who persisted in pleading with Jesus for the healing of her daughter until she got what she asked. There are Eunice and Lois, the godly mother and grandmother of Timothy, from whom he learned the Christian faith. There is St. Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist and, of course, the ultimate example of motherhood, the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of the Son of God.

With all of these possibilities for a positive approach to motherhood, of the kind one expects to hear or read on Mother’s Day, why choose a topic like “the crimes of motherhood”?

For the same reason that one, intent on gazing upon the constellations of stars that appear in the firmament at night, does not choose as his viewing point, a balcony immediately below a street-lamp in a large, well-lit city. To fully appreciate the beauty of the heavenly lights one must view them against a background of pure darkness. Indeed, even the elimination of artificial light is not enough for some people. Wordsworth compared the fairness of his deceased Lucy to that a star “when only one is shining in the sky.” So, to gain a full appreciation of just how wonderful true and virtuous motherhood is, one must occasionally view it against the backdrop of its opposite.

The phrase we are using to express the opposite of virtuous motherhood, “the crimes of motherhood”, can be interpreted in several ways.   In the right context, it could be imputing crime to motherhood itself.  Or it could be suggesting that mothers are prone to certain types of crimes.   It could mean that in certain circumstances, motherly duty requires the commission of acts that are technically crimes.   Or it could speak of crimes committed by mothers that are in direct violation of motherly virtue and duty.

It is in this last sense that we will be speaking of “the crimes of motherhood”.  This would seem to be the way in which the man from whom we have borrowed the expression used it.  You may have recognized it as a translation of the last two words in our epigram.   That epigram is the fifth stanza in the poem “Bénédiction” by nineteenth century French poet Charles Baudelaire, which is the first poem in the first section of his magnus opus, Les Fleurs de Mals, first published in 1857.  “The crimes of motherhood” is from the translation by Francis Scarfe.  An earlier translation by Roy Campbell (1), renders the fifth stanza like so:

She swallows down the white froth of her ire
And, knowing naught of schemes that are sublime,
Deep in Gehenna, starts to lay the pyre
That's consecrated to maternal crime.

“Bénédiction” resents the life of a poet whose experience would seem to be anything but the blessing alluded to in the presumably ironic title. It begins with his entry into the world by a providential decree, against which his appalled mother blasphemously rails, declaring that she would rather have birthed a brood of vipers and vowing to pass on to her son the hatred she feels God has bestowed upon her. This is what leads up to the fifth stanza in which she swallows her hatred and heaps fuel upon the flames awaiting her for her maternal crimes in hell.

In this context, “the crimes of motherhood”, would appear to be referring to a mother’s instinctive and persistent hatred of her son.  Since a mother’s instinct is supposed to be to love her children this would be a crime against the very nature of motherhood. (2)

The Holy Scriptures, as we noted earlier when considering alternative, more positive, Mother’s Day themes, provide several examples of saintly mothers.  Since one of the main overarching themes of the Holy Scriptures is human sin and depravity, we would expect it to provide plenty of the opposite examples as well.   Examples of sinful and criminal behaviour on the part of mothers are not necessarily examples of the crimes that violate the very nature of motherhood, however.

The sin of Eve, for example, could arguably be described as the ultimate example of a mother’s crime for it brought the curse of sin upon all generations of her descendants.  Eve, however, clearly did not intend harm upon her children in partaking of the forbidden fruit.  For this reason, and because it would be the ultimate act of impiety to impeach the first mother of us all, we will not lay this charge against her. 

An example of a mother who does possess mens rea, whose crimes against her son were clearly committed with malice aforethought, is Rebecca, the wife of Isaac.   It might come as a shock to find her mentioned.  She is not ordinarily thought of as a bad mother. The reason for that is that her story is told as part of the backstory of the Israelites, the descendants of her son Jacob.  One ordinarily reads the text from their point of view, which is Jacob’s point of view, and to Jacob she was a good mother.  The text, however, does not exclude the possibility of an alternate reading, from the perspective of her other son Esau.  From his point of view, his mother’s actions appear quite different.  She conspired against him with his youngest brother to deprive him of what was due him by right as the firstborn.  It was a malicious act towards her older son, but not exactly the example we are looking for.

There is, in Scripture, a story that apart from one tiny but not insignificant detail would be the perfect example.  That would be the story of the two prostitutes who came before Solomon the wise with a dispute over a child.  Each claimed that the child was her own and that the child of the other had died.   Solomon’s ruling was that the child should be cut in half and one half given to each.  We will have to excuse the prostitute who agreed to this ruling on a technicality.  She was not, as Solomon’s ruling was intended to demonstrate in the first place, actually the child’s mother.

None of the three Scriptural examples we have considered are quite what we are looking for, although the third comes closest, having been snatched away from us by a mere technicality.   Let us see if we fare better in our search for the archetypical criminal mother among mythological and classical sources.

An example that comes immediately to mind is Jocasta.    There are two maternal crimes that could be charged to her account.  The one she is most remembered for is that of incestuously marrying her own son Oedipus after he unknowingly killed his own father Laius.  This crime was committed in ignorance, however, as neither she nor Oedipus was aware of their relationship at the time.   The other crime is that of instructing her slave to put her son to death when he was newly born.   In Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, Oedipus learns from Teiresias that the plague which Thebes, the city over which he rules is suffering from is due to the gods’ displeasure over the fact that justice had not been dispensed to the murderer of Laius.  In the course of his investigation, Jocasta casts aspersions on the oracles by saying they had been wrong before, that they had prophesied that Laius would be killed by his own son who would then marry his mother.  By an odd coincidence, a similar prophecy that he would do just that thing had caused Oedipus to flee from Corinth, thinking that the Corinthian king Polybus who had raised him was the father signified in the prophecy.  A timely messenger then shows up to tell him that Polybus is dead, and identifies himself as the Corinthian shepherd who had given Oedipus to Polybus when he was an infant.  Oedipus, who is not the quickest hare in the race, only clues in to what everyone else has figured out already, when he sends for the Theban slave who had given him to the Corinthian shephered, and the slave fingers Jocasta as the one who turned him over to be exposed in his infancy.

That is a promising start.  What other criminal mothers stalk the pages of the literature of classical antiquity?

There was Clytemnestra, of course.   She was the wife of Agamemnon, king of Mycenae.  While her husband was away fighting at Troy, she had an adulterous affair with his cousin Aegisthus, who believed, not entirely unjustly, that Agamemnon’s father Atreus had robbed his own father of the throne.   In collusion with Aegisthus, she murdered her husband upon his return from Troy.   Her son, Orestes, avenged his father by killing her and her lover, and was then pursued and tormented by the Erinyes, the spirits of vengeance.

The difficulty with using Clytemnestra as an example of the “crimes of motherhood” is that while she was a mother who committed crimes, those crimes were committed against her husband rather than her children.   Indeed, many versions of the story present extenuating circumstances which, while hardly justifying adultery and murder, point to an outraged maternal instinct as the source of her anger against her husband.  Agamemnon, according to these versions, had appeased the anger of Artemis which was preventing his ships departure from Aulis, by sacrificing his and Clytemnestra’s eldest daughter Iphigenia. (3)  The way her story is ordinarily presented, it is not her behaviour towards her children that is called into question, but rather their behaviour towards her.  In the Eumenides, the final play in Aeschylus’ Oresetia trilogy, Orestes is put on trial before an Athenian jury and it boils down to a moral dilemma over which is greater, when the two come into conflict, a son’s duty to his father or his duty to his mother.

Clytemnestra, therefore, although usually considered a less sympathetic character than Jocasta, is not as useful as an illustration of crimes against maternal nature.  There is one more example from classical mythology that we ought to consider and that is Medea.

Medea was a sorceress and the daughter of Æëtes, the king of Colchis, a land on the eastern edge of the Black Sea.  When Jason went to Colchis in search of the Golden Fleece, she fell in love with him, assisted him in the tasks her father had set as conditions of his obtaining the Fleece and fled with him on the Argo, assisting in the escape and in the adventures of the Argo on its trip back to Greece. (4)  She married Jason and when they arrived in Thessaly helped him to get revenge against his uncle Pelias who had stolen the throne of Iolcus that had rightly been his father’s.  The couple then had to flee to Corinth because of the wrath of Acastus, Pelias’ son.

Euripides, in his play Medea, tells what happened after they arrived in Corinth.  Jason proved himself to be rather a jerk.  He dumped her in order to marry the daughter of the Corinthian king.   In response, Medea, after obtaining a promise of refuge from the king of Athens, sent a poisoned dress to the Corinthian princess, and then avenged herself on Jason by murdering their two children.

This is the example we have been looking for. When a mother murders her own children it is the ultimate crime of motherhood. For motherhood is all about the production and sustaining of new life, not about its termination. A mother is the person who conceives a child, bears it in her body, gives birth to it and nourishes it. For the mother to wilfully terminate that same life is an obscenity.

In the classical era, fathers had the legal right of life and death over the members of their households. Exposure, the death to which Laius and Jocesta had condemned the young Oedipus, was the usual means whereby infanticide was carried out. Christianity condemned the practice and as its influence began to spread throughout the Roman Empire it was gradually abolished.

In the twentieth century, as Christianity’s influence over Western civilization has waned more and more, the idea of a legal right to terminate the life of one’s children has begun to re-emerge. This time, however, it is being claimed for mothers rather than for fathers. When the feminist movement was revived in the 1960’s, it asserted that a woman has a right to an abortion and demanded that this right be given legal recognition.

This newfound right to an abortion has been expanding ever since. From the right to mercilessly and unceremoniously slaughter your children in the first trimester of a pregnancy, it gradually grew into the right to terminate their existence up until the very moment of birth. This is known as partial-birth abortion and the advocates of abortion rights, who prefer to think of themselves in euphemistic terms as being “pro-choice”, consider it to be dirty pool, down-right unsporting as a matter of fact, for those of us on the opposite side of the issue, to actually have the nerve to try and educate the public about it.

Ah but partial-birth abortion is oh so last season.   In the brave new world of fashionable infanticide, it is after-birth abortion that is all the rage. (5)  It makes perfect sense, after all, that this would be the logical next step.  Why bother with all the fuss and muss of a pre-birth abortion when you can just give birth and have the baby killed immediately thereafter?    What the exciting next chapter in the book of ever-expanding abortion rights will be we will simply have to wait to find out. Rest assured, however, that progressive activists, politicians, and bureaucrats are on the job, ensuring that the march to ever more freedom and equality will continue unabated, until a woman’s right to abort her child up until it reaches the age of majority is enshrined in law.

If this outlook seems dark and gloomy to you, then take comfort in that light which shines ever more brightly in the midst of all this tenebrosity. If you are reading these words then, in this dark age of women’s choice, your mother, bless her soul, did not “choose” to exercise her “women’s right” but instead followed her maternal instinct to give birth to you, love you, and raise you.

Happy Mother’s Day

(1) Francis Scarfe’s translation of the verse of Baudelaire was first published by Penguin in 1961, and then later re-issued by Anvil Poetry Press in 1986. Roy Campbell’s translation was published by Pantheon Books in 1952.

(2) Although the identification is not made explicit, it is fairly clear from the poem that the reader is supposed to identify the unnamed poet with Baudelaire himself. It would be unjust, however, to take the poem as an accurate depiction of the feelings of Baudelaire’s mother as they were or even as he actually perceived them. There had been a falling out between the poet and his mother for which Baudelaire himself was mostly to blame. His prodigal living had led his family to place the estate he had inherited from his father in trust to keep him from blowing it all on booze, women, and magic beans. He was not pleased with this, nor was he ever satisfied with the allowance he was given. His mother was the trustee. Spite, brought about by these circumstances, would seem to be the origin of the astonishing display of filial impiety in these verses.

(3) In the two plays Euripedes devoted to Iphigenia, she actually survived the sacrifice, with Artemis substituting a deer on the altar at the last minute. Clytemnestra, however, did not know of this.

(4) Although the story of Jason and the Argonauts and their search for the Golden Fleece is much older, it is most familiar in the rendition of the Argonautica, a 3rd Century BC epic poem by Apollonius of Rhodes.


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