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.

Mary  Daly’s most recent book, subtitled Elemental Feminist Philosopy, is so written that anyone who finds its basic thrust ambiguous must be either one of the phallocentric males against whom it is directed, or else a female who has so internalized phallocratic perceptons, concepts, judgments, reasonings, and passions as to have lost her very self as well as the pure lust (enthusiasm for existence) that is its main topic. Let the reader of this review be aware, then, that this tentative evaluation of Pure Lust is offered by a woman who has male friends (including a husband of nearly thirty years whom she both likes and is like), male colleagues and mentors, and faith in a God-man Savior. The reviewer’s inability to formulate clearly and with certitude the main ideas of the book may well be due to such contaminations.

The book is an instance of what it seems to recommend — new perceptions and judgments, expressed in a new language. It seems indeed, to be its author’s self -portrait. But the recommended novelty is a harking back to primitive perceptions and language which have been suppressed and only seem new because they have never been allowed to become familiar to us. Those perceptions are the perceptions of women freed from the oppression of male thought, language and institutions, from the phallocracy. The perceptions, and the agenda to which they point, seem rooted in a primitive integrity within women as individuals (especially a close harmony between passion and intelligence) and in a pristine unity of women with the four elements of physical nature: earth, air, fire and water.

But the operative word is seems. For after a careful reading of more than 400 pages of Joycean word-play, this reviewer remains unsure of several of its main points. Words which have several different meanings are used in all of their meanings at once, often with intricate efforts to link all of the meanings of a word to the agenda of radical feminism. As often as not, entirely new meanings are assigned to words and new words are coined. The following is a typical passage:

It is encouraging to know that the Latin root of the word code is codex, meaning trunk of a tree. For Lusty women experience our Elemental connection with trees — who are rooted in the depth of the earth and who are in contact with water and air and with the light of the warmth of the sun, the rhythms of the moon and the stars.

At the same time, it is also important to know that codex is akin to the Latin cudere, meaning to beat, which is the root of the verb hew, meaning “to fell (as a tree) by blows of an ax: cut down.” The phallocentric codes are intended to hew women and our sisters, the trees — to cut us down, dismembering us.

The code-breaking of a Metamorphosing woman enables her to protect the trunk, roots, branches of the Tree of Her Life from those who intend to cut her down. It enables her to find and create her own Code.

The notion of phallocracy itself, of the patriarchal consciousness whence the oppression of women springs, is fundamentally ambiguous. On the one hand, the problem seems endemic to men as men, so that all men are oppressors, and hence enemies, because their very perception of reality is phallic. Another passage decries the “universalization” of women’s liberation, which would make it a generally human problem instead of one specific to women. Men should be excluded from classes in women’s studies, for example, because their presence undermines women’s perceptions. In this and other passages, the enemy seems to be men, all men, and all their works and pomps. The feminist project is to overturn civilization itself, and to construct a new one based on feminist perceptions, perceptions of which women are capable. And yet, in crucial points of her argument, Daly relies on male sources — on Robert Graves, for example, for information about ancient myths of female superiority. She even uses Thomas Aquinas’ schema of the passions and the moral virtues — appropriating even the eight parts of prudence — because she considers these superior to the attempts of modern psychology to organize and discipline the psyche. One wonders at times how anything explicated by a male — including the alphabet, syntax, and words with which Daly writes — can have any validity. It is not as if these sources were exonerated of sexism. One could make something of Aristotle’s clear statements, for example, that human beings are more conjugal animals than political, that marriage is an instance of the third (the highest) kind of friendship, the kind that requires equality between friends, and that a husband’s rule over his wife is not despotic but the kind in which ruler and ruled, being equals, might well exchange roles. Instead, she makes much of the very dubious, but famous, labeling of female animals of all species as defective males. Those statements in Aristotle, which Aquinas uncritically adopted, are biological in their meaning, referring to the fact that women do not produce semen. But there is little, if any, clear evidence that Aristotle and Aquinas translated this apparent reproductive inadequacy into support for the oppression of women, making it the basis of our being defective or inadequate as persons, parents, spouses, and members of society.

With the book’s basic agenda unclear, and the language anything but limpid, one is also left wondering about the specifics of the feminist project. The usual liberal and feminist projects are here, of course: abortion on demand, equal employment and educational opportunities for women, protection of the environment from industrial pollution, abolition of the arms race, of discrimination against black and poor women, as consciousnesses are raised and women share their innate holistic perception of nature. Women will then exist more fully, more intensely, and childhood memories will remain vivid. Rage — outrage at the sexual abuse to which all women are in some measure subjected — will supply the energy for restoring the wholeness of women, who will then connect with each other. Once connected, women will then use their power against the patriarchal institutions of religion, slavery, racism, and marriage.

The Church is the target of several particularly angry attacks, primarily for her purportedly urging women to a sadomasochism that encourages them (us) to internalize the phallocracy. Thy theology of the Real Presence, for example, encourages us to mistrust our senses, and the Cross holds up masochism as an ideal. Marian dogmas — the Immaculate Conception in particular — encourage us to deny our inner worth and to accept our oppressed state, to the point of our becoming each other’s oppressors. The core of the Marian dogmas, namely, the fullness of Mary’s grace, is presented as the denial of her freedom and autonomy, her utter submission to the phallocratic power of a male God. With such an ideal of femininity, the way is open for Pope John Paul II to promote the Biggest Lies, namely, that motherhood is a good thing and abortion is not. In fact, the definition of the Immaculate Conception in 1854 is seen as a counter to the first stirrings of the women’s movement in this country, a deliberate effort to use religious symbols to manipulate women subliminally into collusion with their own oppressors. The whole of Marian teaching is said to subvert the ancient myths of goddesses who were the source of women’s power.

Power, in fact, seems to be the name of the game. Once liberated, we women will have power — power to define ourselves and our fulfillment as we see fit. The Enlightenment concept of the person, as an atomic, detached center of rights, seems to be at the heart of this elemental feminist philosophy. The image of human relationships as power struggles easily follows. For once patriarchal religion is exorcised, says Daly, the Archimage will be revealed. She is not, however, a goddess to be adored. She is the Witch within us. One of the hated stereotypes of patriarchal religion is the notion of a god — any god, not just a male god — who is distinct from the world of nature.

What can we learn from such anger? We can, as a matter of fact, formulate an agenda of our own. And the first item on such an agenda ought to be to clarify the nature of love, a clarification which will show the world we live in, which is mightily confused on the topic, the difference between altruistic love and masochism. The devoted, generous, self-sacrificing love which we Christians are urged to show to everyone, and which is epitomized in the death and resurrection of Jesus, differs from masochism on three scores. First, love requires the maximum development of the self that we would offer to others. For women, then, the injunction to love implies seeking education, economic security, development of talents for the arts, for government, for intellectual life, and of every other talent and interest. To present oneself as a gift to a beloved implies not the debasement of that self, but its fullest radiant beauty. Secondly, the love we are called to welcomes every iota of reciprocity, finding its height not in the sacrifice of self to an ungrateful oppressor, but in the intimacy and friendship in which the one who is loved loves in return. After all, to love someone is to seek to have that person’s needs fulfilled, and the greatest need of anyone is the opportunity to give love and to find it accepted. Love does not, then, call women to servitude, to the abasement of ourselves before those who are our superiors. It calls us to the exquisite intimacy of lives lived to the full in reciprocal love, and shared in the living of it. Thirdly, the love to which we are called is not a love that has service as its purpose: not, as we often say, ministry. For in ministry, we look to someone who is needy and put our time, our talents, our energies, ourselves, at the service of those needs. But such ministry is only one of the early moments of love. Work looks to leisure, to play, to joy, ecstasy and rapture. Thus the love which often must begin as service finds its highest point in joy, in the simple ecstatic contemplation of a good already present. The ideal of Christian love, then, is not the mother sitting up all night with a sick child, nor Mother Teresa exhausting herself in the care of the comatose dying baby. Such ministries are part and parcel of love, of course. It would be a poor love — indeed, no love at all — which did not care about the meeting of needs. But the high point of love comes when all needs are met, and we can all simply look at, and listen to, each other, and enjoy what we see and hear. The mother’s vigil with the sick child is not an end but a means — a means to the joy of that day when mother and’ child will meet each other as equals in adult life and enjoy each other, simply for who they are. Mother Teresa’s bathing of dirty bodies is a means to the intimacy which can result when such love is reciprocated, and the dying become friends with their nurses, even if only for a moment.

Such a clarification of the nature of love would happen automatically if we Catholics were to preach the gospel to all men, including women who are oppressed by countless violations of that gospel, even in the Church. Central to such a preaching of the gospel is our unique view of how men and women are to live together in love — a love meant for all interactions of all men and all women, but epitomized in marriage as a sacrament of sexual intimacy. We Catholics are the only religious group who count marriage as a sacrament — a way of participating in the life of God. And our oldest tradition makes sexual intercourse, and the way of life, day-in and day-out, which supports that as an expression of love, the sine qua non of the sacrament. But the implications of these two facts have never been shouted from the housetops as they ought to have been. Marriage is the way to salvation for the vast majority of the world’s people. The Good News for most of us, then, is that sexual love, in which both men and women give up their power struggles and live a life of altruistic love strengthened by sexual passion, is a true and deep and powerful liberation. Sexual intimacy is a paradigm of the ecstasy of joy in which all men and all women are to live, now and forever.

A third item on our agenda is similar to preaching the Good News about sexual love. I refer to a more adequate preaching of the dogma of the Trinity and of the great Marian dogmas. Professional philosophers and theologians have long known of the difficult intellectual problems involved in such beliefs, problems that Mary Daly refers to. They are, to name a few, the relations between individuality and kinship among individuals; the relations between grace and freedom; between faith and understanding: and between the perennial core of the Bible and the cultural conditions of its composition. In Mary Daly we see a professional theologian and philosopher who is fundamentally confused on all of these issues, apparently unaware of the clarifications that have been achieved over the centuries. But if such is true of the green wood, what will happen with the dry? How many thousands of women need to hear themselves affirmed in the preaching and teachings of the Church? Who will tell them? Some of us know that grace enhances freedom, that community enhances individuality, that faith aids understanding, and that the Marian dogmas encourage not the oppression of women but a liberation beyond our wildest dreams. But how will the others believe unless they hear? And how will they hear unless someone preaches to them? A self-proclaimed elemental feminist philosophy has called for a liberation of women which excludes men and all their works and pomps, including the Church and civilization as we know it. We need something still more elemental — a preaching of the gospel which reaches even further into the past, beyond the Enlightenment notions of individuality and freedom, to the pristine message of Jesus that death is resurrection, that God is Love. and he who lives in love lives in God, and God in him.



  • Mary F. Rousseau

    Mary Rousseau taught philosophy at Marquette University and was a member of our Editorial Board. She passed away in 2012.

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