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.

There is a story, perhaps apocryphal, which recounts the efforts of the entire Boston College football team to register for one of Mary Daly’s courses. It is said that she restricts her courses to women, and her latest explication of her view of feminism explains why:

Particularly instructive has been the virulent and often vicious undermining by university administrators of the efforts of feminists to reserve some Women’s Studies classes for women only. Such classes can provide the occasion for true encounters with Metamemory, for perceiving and reasoning beyond the schemata of “adult,” i.e., male-authored memories.

As with a lot of what she writes, there is a ring of truth to this. The women who, with her, seek to recreate their psyches to eliminate the male (and therefore negative) influence of whatever culture or society, cannot conduct their projects except in an all-female environment. This is because the feminist’s view of history is the history of absurdity, and the feminist’s goal, as she explains it, seems to be a rehabilitation of the personality to eliminate male influence or any possibility of male influence.

If this seems confused or convoluted, it may be simply because it is a loose translation from “Dalyese,” a language invented not by and through the cooperation of men — or women — working together, but by Mary Daly herself, sometimes in conversation with the small group of feminists who share her views. Her very personal language and her very personal views close her world to all but the most persistent.

The book is unreadable.

The author includes a five-and-one-half page “Index of New Words,” but no glossary. She tells the wearied reader that “Although many of these words are not new in the old sense, they are new in a new sense, because they are heard in a new way.” New way or old way, most of the time she is nearly incoherent.

And that is a shame. In Gyn/Ecology: The Metaphysics of Radical Feminism (1978), Mary Daly was often witty and genuinely funny. She poked fun at the pompous male bastions which stood between women and their goals. She looped language and myth and common idiom into genuinely new usage, and stretched the mind’s eye to see really what she meant. In Pure Lust she has either lost her knack or overdone it, or both.

There is a need for some invention of language, and surely a need for examining the kinds of “doublethink,” as she calls it, many women are faced with. “Undoublethinking” is the name of her solution to understanding the Associated Press report as run in the Boston Globe which, in its first paragraph, stated that “Pope John Paul II took his strongest stand yet against ordaining women as priests ” and in its next paragraph said, “But the pontiff also called on the bishops to oppose ‘discrimination against women by reason of sex.” — She does, of course, have a point.

Other positions are not so clear, nor are they quite so pleasant to contemplate. Daly excoriates the very ideas of Virgin Birth and Immaculate Conception in language which would make even the most liberal theologian cringe:

Mary is so “full of grace” that she is de-natured, destined to become the mother of a god-son who bestows upon her his pseudo-nature, this “grace.” In this pornographic mythic mirror-world, the son totals his virgin-mother-victim.

And while she seems to decry the Navy’s naming of a sub-marine after Corpus Christi, Texas, she dismisses the doc-trine of the Eucharist:

The traditional theology of the “Real Presence” of Christ in the eucharist, then, is a particularly graphic example of sado-spiritual indoctrination into “swallowing the lie.” Under the guise of offering spiritual food and drink, the Christian church for many centuries has starved the souls of women, stuffing minds with false food, with unreal absence, making the Real Presence of truth, of Elemental knowing and sensing, less and less accessible.

She rejects, it would seem, all of Western culture which is derived from Christianity, as if she blames a foolish world for accepting the Incarnation as it occurred without demanding a counterbalancing second Incarnation to form a separate role model for women.

Throughout Daly is obsessed with the metaphor of rape. The male world of male values, she says, encourages the female victim of rape to recognize her own guilt and her own complicity in the violation. A woman is forced by her culture to internalize her anger and her guilt, to recognize that it was probably her own fault, and to beg forgiveness from some male authority — priest, husband, lover, psychiatrist. That may be true, but the mind-rape Mary Daly accuses women of complying with, by their accepting the roles and mores of the present society, is by analogy equally devastating. We are therefore puzzled as to whether this rape, unlike physical rape, is or is not the fault of the victim. It is by now axiomatic for feminists to remind women that they control their own destinies and that they must recognize their own complicity in their own denigration in order to rise above it. But the rape analogy simply does not work, especially when Daly manages to offend just about everyone in her explanation of it:

In the “Annunciation” the male-angel Gabriel brings poor Mary the news that she is to be impregnated by and with god. Like all rape victims in male myth she submits joyously to this unspeakable degradation.

Daly’s rejection of parthenogenesis which requires the intervention of God is based on her rejection of religion which depends on any reliance upon anthropomorphism to explain its tenets, since for her “anthro” is the enemy. In Daly’s understanding of the birth of Christ, Mary was and is the rape victim. She acts as men would have her act in the face of rape: she seeks male acceptance and forgiveness.

Already violated at her conception, Mary affirms at the annunciation her need of male acceptance. Her initial violation made the later one — when “she conceived of the Holy Ghost” in order to become the mother-of-god — unavoidable. Pure rape is inconceivably circular.


This rape continues throughout the life of the female victim of society, so long as she allows herself to fulfill its expected roles and so long as she allows herself to live by its accepted mores. Daly’s argument for return to “Metamemory” argues also for a world without men and without male influence, one which will bring women to their potential without their feeling guilty over it. Yet this world of “Metamemory” does not exist, and, as she has pointed out earlier, men will not allow it to exist in quite the same way they seem to have allowed it to exist for themselves. And so the women who are educated, are educated not to the recreation of themselves, but to “the advanced subliminal indoctrination of a Bennington College, a Vassar College, UCLA, or the University of Notre Dame. From her earliest years, a woman is dependent for elementary formation upon the assumers, who engender lack of confidence in her own perceptions.”

The “assumers” are they who assume that things are fine and women can make it in the present system. The assumers will hinder the personal development of women whom they meet, because they do not challenge all the male-symbols and refuse to “speak Radiant Words,” as in, “Claiming that speaking Radiant Words has Angelic power is Naming/re-claiming primal force.” And here is the breakdown in Mary Daly’s book. While there is much anger, much derision, much outright hatred, she has become her own prophecy. By alienating herself from anyone who believes in that which most Christians believe, she has created an either-or fallacy which destroys her own powerful thought. As she has written, the relationships of women have historically revolved around people and events, not around ideas. “Our creativity is misdirected into misplaced rage against other women. It is tracked into soap-opera level aspects of ‘relationships’.” Women by and large will be able to reject her brand of feminism and her feminist theology because it does not speak either to them or of them, they will be able to rage against Mary Daly for her efforts, which, they will argue, hinder the advance of women rather than help it. Mary Daly’s book is almost a caricature of that which it proclaims, and as such it will not solve the problems which she identifies or the problems which she invents.

To speak a language which is part philosophical, part poetic and part private is not to speak at all. So we have here a book which is in dialogue with itself, a book which has avoided the intrusion of the world of men insofar as such could illuminate its ideas, and a book the dangers of which will be overlooked because it runs a serious risk of not being taken seriously.

Mary Daly is very serious, and so are the many women writers, students, and teachers who follow her line of thought. That we can or ought to exist separately from the culture which presently happens to be predominantly male is a recommendation, either for scholarship or for life, which will merely prove that fruitful parthenogenesis is extremely rare.

  • Phyllis Zagano

    When Crisis was originally published in 1982, Phyllis Zagano was Assistant Professor in the Department of Communications at Fordham University.

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