Knowing the shape of your cell; women mystic writers


Dedicated to the Irish Magdalene Women, whose government chose to ignore their plight at the UN Committee  on  Torture  23/05/2011.

“Some of the issues that are raised and looked at in the Ryan report and that have been raised in relation to the Magdalene laundries relate to a very distant, far-off time,” said Mr Aylward in his initial response to the committee’s questions and observations.”

(Seán Aylward, Irish Govt Rep to the UN Committee on Torture 2011).

I have alluded before now on this blog to four women writers in particular who embraced the mystic, or quasi-mystic traditions, their names are familiar to regular readers, Marguerite of Porete, Barbro Karlén, Mirjam Tuominen and Simone Weil. I wrote about some of Weil’s themes last week here .

These women writers wrote from the prison of the body and of the intellect in a manner that is unrivalled, and should be celebrated but instead it is mostly apocryphal  in its hiddenness. 

I have often wondered at the shape and constitution of apocryphon, given that nothing that is ever part of the collective consciousness of humanity can be entirely obliterated and indeed often tends to  re-emerge in  a surprising manner. To take an example from art history for instance, wherein the pattern-books that constituted the architectural language of cathedrals often led to a generalised iconography. Popular sentiment refused the destruction or partial obliteration of some iconographies, thus the new and the old were cast together in a tension not always apparent to the eyes of the participant in ceremony of religious worship, but nonetheless present.

It is impossible to completely obliterate what was in essence an integral part of our societies, though there are faces hacked from statuary or black-marks on books or public records that tend to add poignancy to choices that were made. Most often an incorporation occurred, wherein that which had been cast away became transformed and emerged differently.

Literary incorporation is no different to art-historical, what Marguerite of Porete wrote ( before her inquisition and eventual murder) in Le Miroir des simples ames aneaties et qui seulement demourent en vouloir et desir d’amour has been consciously referenced by John Moriarty in What the Curlew Said,  and subconsciously tapped into in Joyce’s Anna Livia soliquoy from Finnegan’s Wake. What comes from an  identical archetype source, in this case dissolution, does not disappear because it inconveniences those who do not have time to read with attention. This includes ignoring the voicing of women’s experiences, including those our society would rather forget, Vis our history of the sexual repression of women.

“Being completely free and in command of her sea of peace the soul is nonetheless drowned and loses herself through God- with him and in him. She loses her identity, as does the water from a river-like the Ouse or the Meuse- when it flows into the sea. It has done it’s work and can relax in the arms of the sea, and the same is true of the soul. Her work is over and she can lose herself in what she has totally become: Love. love is the bridegroom of her happiness enveloping her wholly in his love and making her part of that which is. This is a wonder to her and she has become a wonder. Love is her only delight and pleasure.”

Marguerite Porete , from Le Miroir des simples ames aneaties et qui seulement demourent  en vouloir et desir d’amour

Mirjam Tuominen wrote of war and of torture but her name is eclipsed by those of her post WWII contemporaries, as Weil’s is eclipsed by Paschal’s. The experience of the anchorite, the woman tithed, or the female prisoner of torture is absent from the literary canon by stint of the greatness we perceive in the male voice, though both wrote on the same theme but from a differing perspective. I have dedicated this post to the Irish Magdalene women , who were incarcerated by their society in the hope that they will use their voices again to tell of what happened to them in the institutions, in their own voices.

It interests me that we often reject and neglect the voices of the societally victimised and instead favour the putting of words into their mouths by the mostly male artistic and political establishment. I expect they like to add insult to injury by attempting to rationalise crimes through a relentless and gendered  tone of empty propriety.

Edit :  06/02/2013

Why is imprisonment and denial of motherhood hidden, why are the words of the victims of an Irish version of Purdah ignored , traduced or treated with political ignorance ? The depth of current Governmental ignorance is a cause for deep shame.

Related article  links 

Creative Commons License
knowing the shape of your cell by C Murray is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. Based on a work at

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