Mary Daly’s Pure Lust: A Symposium

 Editor’s Note: The incommensurability between occasion and reaction has been called the mark of genius. Mary Daly’s new work, Pure Lust: Elemental Feminist Philosophy (Beacon Press 471 pp., $18.95), is not, a first blush (we speak advisedly) the kind of book we would want to review, let alone devote a symposium to. It reaches a nadir in postconciliar theology. Nonetheless, this exemplum horribile has elicited from our reviewers a bouquet of delights. Each in her or his own way exhibits the mark of genius.

In the first few pages of Mary Daly’s Pure Lust one is able to catch the tone and even the main line of the “argument” quickly: Daly calls upon women, referred to in an affectionate way as Wild, Wanton, Lusty, Shrewd, Prude, Scolding Nag-Gnostic Nags, to escape from phalocratic society, from snooldom, and discover their elemental demonic powers by lusting after elemental memories of connectedness. We learn later that this is best to be achieved through lesbian witchcraft.

In preparation for moving her readers through the Archesphere, and the Pyrosphere to the Metamorphospheres, Daly identifies the enemy: they are snools or the “agents of the atrocities motivated by phallic lust” (also known as bores, flashers. plug-uglies. snitches, botchers/butchers. framers, pricks, snookers, cocks, frauds, prickers, snoops. danglers. hacks, rakes, snot boys, dicks. hucksters, rippers, snudges. drones, jabbers, shams. snuffers, fakes, jerks, sneaks, studs, fixers, jocks, sniffers, wantwits). Daly, holder of seven degrees and doctorates (her cat tells us) in The-Ology and Full-Osophy, puts her scholarly acumen at the service of defining many of these words for those of us who can’t tell that she means — men. For instance, of “fixers” she tells us:

The fixers’ plan is the permanent establishment of fixocracy. The female inhabitants of that ideal state, if all goes “well” are pierced to the core, fastened forever within the confines of the touchable caste. Prior to the attainment of this final state — the Beatific Fission of women, which is fusion with the fixers — women are subjected to a multitude of pre-fixes. These include fabricated emotions, fictitious memories. Filled with such fixed feelings, fixed ideas, pre-fixed women become more and more fictitious, even to themselves, unknowingly trapped within the fixocrated house of mirrors.

You get the idea, I trust. Daly’s is not a philosophy so much as it is a polemical incantation. In fact, to speak frankly, the cadence of Pure Lust resembles the disconnected relentless jive of a doped up disc jockey. If you have ever walked across a bucolic college campus only to have the serenity violated by a stereo blaring out some obscene and inescapable noise, you know the alternating waves of hostility, desire for escape, and helpless frustration I felt in becoming acquainted with the elemental feminist philosophy of Mary Daly: I balk, as we used to say in my college days, at letting Mary Daly invade my space.

Daly also puts her scholarship to work exposing the sadistical thrust of Christian myths. Her treatment of the meaning of the incarnation gives a general idea of her interpretation:

Restoration should be seen within the context contrived by the sado-spiritual myth reversers/restorers. The sado-societal sovereigns’ will to warp Original Words requires sublimated incarnations — warped words/ideas made flesh. In the world of pornographic theological myth this involves an archetypal rape. The Christian incarnation myth fulfills this requirement on a grand scale. The trans-sexed, broken spirit of the Goddess, guised as the holy ghost, rapes the broken and dis-spirited matter of the Goddess (Mary). Thus the myth-molding voyeurs have produced what could be designated the Purest Peep Show of the millenia, a male-identified counterfeit lesbian love scene, issuing in male off-spring. The product of this fantastic feat is Jesus. This spectacle of the trans-sexed, divided goddess raping herself is the ultimate in sado-spiritual speculation. It is an idiot’s revision of parthenogenesis, converted into rape. The myth of the Incarnation, then, logically implies the usurpation of female power. Moreover, since the Virgin Mother symbolizes matter to the myth-masters, the myth legitimates the rape of all matter.

Daly’s reinterpretation of Christian myths.’ as you can see, knows no bounds.

In her discussion of the three magi, she notes that it would be more appropriate (for her theory) if the Three Wise Men were instead Triple Goddesses (she calls this a “subliminal suggestion”). Then we would have the spectacle and symbolism of women kneeling before a male god: “The message of surrender of mind/spirit to the incarnate boyhood is obvious.” On the basis of this conjecturing she claims: “The spectacle of the patriarchal symbolic conquest of Female/Elemental divinity is perceptible here, as in other patriarchal myths and it is “simple and striking” (though completely made up). What we have here is a scholar who, when she can’t twist the meaning of a “myth” sufficiently to support her theory, simply rewrites the “myth,” all in the name of compulsively precise scholarship (which, as we learn in the cat/egorical appendix written by her cat, is Daly’s habit).

I hear you crying “Enough, Enough!” Yes. I will spare you and refrain from citing more, if only because I feel polluted simply reporting this blasphemy. It makes me squeamish to read such words as “phallocratic.” or “lesbian  Witchcraft,” and the litany of insulting epithets Daly has for men; it makes me even more uneasy to write them. Yet, what I have cited is altogether representative of Daly’s work; to put it in less offensive terms, the main line of Daly’s argument is: women have been suppressed in a male dominated society; the symbols of church and society perpetrate the sick dominance of males; women need to discover the secret and hidden power within and, unafraid of sin, should unleash their healthy lust for creativity and power. The tone throughout is a forced euphoria at these insights and delight in the power they yield. Parallel with the mind-boggling word play is a persistent hatred of men and all women who do not subscribe to her views.

Certainly, it is not my preference to speak of another’s work as blasphemous and to use the strong language employed above in describing Daly’s work — if only for fear the others may suspect exaggeration or overreaction. But unless we call things by their proper names and use words correctly, we abet those who, under the guise of academic respectability, promote views which should be unthinkable. It does present a quandary for the critic to read a work which is so fundamentally wrong-headed that a point by point refutation would seem to give the work more respect than it deserves. I envy my staid colleagues who seem to read texts which are deficient only in neglecting some source, or miss-citing some reference! Perhaps the more pernicious works are weeded out at another level. But what would one do, if one were faced with reviewing a work advocating genocide? Wouldn’t the appropriate response be to set up a hue and cry that this work is DANGEROUS – especially the more so as it was touted as a scholarly work? Is not a similar response warranted when a Catholic theologian’ teaches that witchcraft is superior to the Real Presence?

Yet, although the content of this work does not merit analysis, perhaps the phenomenon of the work does. Mary Daly is only one of what Dietrich Von Hildebrand referred to as Trojan Horse[s] in the City of God. We have long been familiar with theologians at Catholic Universities who teach what is manifestly contrary to Catholic doctrine. The commonness of this occurrence, of course, should not numb us to its dangers. Consider the fact that Daniel Maguire recently held a visiting professorship – a chair in moral theology – at Notre Dame. (He is on the permanent faculty at Marquette.) This is the same Daniel Maguire who under the auspices of Catholics for a Free Choice is attempting to persuade his Catholic colleagues to sign a statement acknowledging Catholic pluralism on the issue of abortion. Like Daly. Maguire engages in rather “creative” scholarship: his claim that there is no clear tradition against abortion in the Catholic Church has led even Archbishop Weakland to publish a disclaimer in the Milwaukee press. Those who would rush to Maguire’s defense would most likely say that he is a popular teacher, that he is a nationally known scholar, and that being pro-abortion is only one of his positions; he can be trusted on many more issues. All these defenses, of course, make those who are concerned with the intellectual formation and spiritual well-being of the students he teaches even more wary: one who mixes truth with falsehood, who has the authority, linked with fame, and who wins the students over as a popular teacher is to be feared the more for the influence he wields.

A recent interview with Bruce Ritter had him observing: “One of the biggest mistakes some people make (and it is now almost a philosophical principle in our society) is to believe that people are not influenced by negative factors in the environment or in what they read or in what they see.” He speaks to parents who make every effort to send their children to good schools because they believe that they will find good literature and good influences there but who ignore the “universal sleaze” in the media. He insists: “The argument that there is no discernible connection between what we read and see and what we do is ludicrous, absolutely ludicrous. It’s intellectually dishonest.” Yet, it is not only the media which is to be feared: these good schools to which parents send their children, too, are filled with negative influences and intellectual dishonesty. I am sure that Catholic parents still trustingly send their children off to such schools as Boston College, little aware that their children may be taught by the likes of Mary Daly.

The requirements of the new canon law code for who may teach at a Catholic university are designed to protect such students. But as we know, some of the top administrators at Catholic universities have indicated their un-willingness to cooperate with canon law on this matter. Indeed, in response to the above, Mary Daly would cry “Witch-hunt;” her less precise colleagues would cry “academic freedom.” They see an inquisition under every plea for some sort of standard. Yet, without standards, we are at the mercy of such “scholars” as Mary Daly: get yourself a few degrees and a publisher (which isn’t hard to do when you write provocatively — no matter how outrageously) and “voila,” academic credibility. Many scholars, in rejecting such measures as canon law, do not wish this to mean a rejection of standards altogether: they argue that peer review will clear the ranks of those who do not meet the standards of scholarship. But Daly and Maguire slipped through. What does one have to do to merit censure by one’s peers?

Indeed, the works of Daly and Maguire have robbed us of the reductio ad absurdum argument by making it impossible and unnecessary. That is, one would like to be able to offer the argument: “Without standards one might find scholars justifying abortion or promoting witchcraft at Catholic schools.” One wishes one’s opponents could retort: “Don’t be absurd.” One only hopes that the works of Mary Daly can serve at least one good purpose — and that is convincing those in positions of responsibility that whatever system of checks and balances we have now for insuring that nonsense does not get published or taught, simply isn’t working.

Finally, (hold on to your hat!) there is one point on which I agree with Mary Daly. And that is that we do indeed need to hear more of the feminine perspective on all matters. Personally, I am thrilled to live in an age where more women are earning advanced degrees and applying their learning to disciplines where few women have worked. It is special to read women mystics and women novelists and works of women scholars in general: one does sense that there is a perspective distinct to women which enriches the understanding of us all. It would be such a pleasure to read the works of female theologians which would offer one some true spiritual insight. Thus, I read Mary Daly’s work with the profoundest of disappointment, for it seems a great betrayal of a potentially fine talent and a loss of an opportunity for making a unique contribution.

  • Janet E. Smith

    Janet E. Smith, Ph.D., is a retired professor of moral theology.

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