Picture this: a diptych.
On the left, a sepia-toned sketch of a woman, her arms bent at the elbows and wide before her chest. She cradles a plump infant whose own arms reach out toward her, hands open (like his mouth) in a gesture of desire. The woman gazes tenderly at the infant, her left hand cupping his head, her right hand supporting the generous yards of fabric that fold over and around both bodies together. To the viewer’s left and over the woman’s right shoulder hovers an older man. To the viewer’s right and behind the woman’s left shoulder is an angel. Both man and angel look, too, upon the infant—the man through eyes set deep in his wizened face, the angel with hands clasped in prayer. Both figures are only lightly indicated, their forms hinted at by the barest of outlines. The woman and infant are, by contrast, sketched in considerably more detail. Centered on the paper, these two figures are larger, darker, and more intricately enfigured. Guido Reni’s sixteenth-century Holy Family with an Angel is, if nothing else, a portrait of a romance between mother and son.
On the right, an image of a different sort, this one not a centuries-old sketch but a Christmas card I received in December from an acquaintance. The card features a single photograph, produced in cool tones of black and white. A woman, clad in a pleated white dress, sits holding her newborn infant in her folded arms. Her blond head is encircled with a crown of flowers and her hair falls gently over her shoulders. In this portrait, too, two other figures share representational space with the woman and infant. On the viewer’s left, a man leans in to gaze upon the infant, his hand touching the woman’s shoulder as a sort of gestural acknowledgement of his paternal identity. On the viewer’s right, a little boy (the proud older brother?) looks as if to leap into the woman’s lap, eager to get a glimpse of the infant. The woman herself, like the woman in the sketch on the left, pays this supporting cast no heed. Her attention is rapt, entirely absorbed by the infant she holds so adoringly in her arms.
The two images—the Reni sketch on the left and the Christmas card on the right—are not perfect replicas of each other, but the resonances are unmistakable. Compositionally, the images mirror each other: both center the maternal-filial dyad between two additional flanking figures; in both, the mother cradles the infant before her, eyes fixed on the infant’s form. The experiences of viewing the one image and the other are, moreover, similar. In both cases, the viewer’s attention is directed toward the infant (following the gazes of the mother and her two companions). The sense, however, is of having intruded on an intimate moment between mother and infant. In imitation of the subject-positions of the flanking figures, the viewer is summoned to both images as spectator—one called to admire, perhaps even desire, the intimacy that binds together mother and infant but never to share in its goods. In both the Reni sketch and the Christmas card, it is motherhood itself that commands the viewer’s reverence, motherhood itself that invites devotion.
My own early-career work sits at the hinge between these two panels of the diptych, between religious models of motherhood and contemporary standards of motherhood, between seventeenth-century French mystic Marie de l’Incarnation and my own experience as a mother of four. By the time I encountered Marie de l’Incarnation and the gripping story of her decision to abandon her eleven-year-old son Claude for religious life, I was already a mother to three boys of my own. In my world—a world shaped and colored by a generation of psychoanalysts (like John Bowlby, Heinz Kohut, and Donald Winnicott) who privileged (burdened?) the mother with an almost God-like control over the developmental trajectory of her progeny—abandoning a child to family, fate, or even the Jesuits as Marie had done was unthinkable.
How, then, to think the abandonment? How to explain this “bizarre,” “strange,” maybe even “deranged” maternal act? How to conjure up a different world, a world in which it was not only possible that a young mother could abandon her son for the convent but perhaps impossible that she could do otherwise?
For years, I worked on this puzzle, weaving together webs of explanation that bridged the gap between my own moral universe and Marie’s. The answers I pieced together were answers that pushed beyond Marie’s explication of the abandonment as a sacrifice performed in submission to the will of God and in imitation of Christ (an explication developed in her autobiographical Relations of 1633 and 1654). The abandonment had been possible, even probable, in the thick context of a Christianity that marginalized motherhood to the point of malignancy. In Marie’s moral universe—a universe saturated by a scriptural, theological, and hagiographic tradition that rendered motherhood a distraction from salvation and an obstacle to it—conversion toward God demanded a turn away from the messy, fleshy labor of child-bearing and child-rearing. With the great exception of the Virgin Mary whose child was God, divine intimacy and maternal intimacy stood at right angles to each other, configured not in a relationship of complementarity but competition. In this context, augmented by a distinctively seventeenth-century French spirituality that limned self-surrender (articulated, variously, as annihilation, abnegation, holy indifference, and—crucially—abandonment) as the ultimate in spiritual practice, the logic of leaving Claude for religious life must have seemed to Marie all but irrefutable.
I tried, in making sense of Marie and the jarring incident of the abandonment, to heed the advice to stay “in-between . . ., at the intersection of self and other, at the boundary between [my] own moral universe and the moral world of the other.” I tried to avoid the hornet’s nest of normative judgment, to refuse a verdict, to resist the impulse to condemn Marie by the application of laws intended for another time and place. I tried, in other words, to stay at the hinge between Marie’s world (which limned motherhood a distraction from God) and my own (which, in very real ways, has rendered motherhood a substitution for God). As a historian, I could do no other.
At the hinge between the two panels of the diptych, I sought to make sense of the radical strangeness of the abandonment (on the left) in categories, terms, and theoretical systems familiar to my own world (represented by the image on the right). But what, I wonder, would it look like to perform the operation in reverse? What would it look like to begin on the left in a moral universe in which motherhood, with the glaring and impossible exception of the virgin mother-of-God herself, detracted from and contended with spiritual growth? What would it look like to make sense of what, from Marie’s vantage point, would surely have seemed the bizarre, strange, maybe even deranged enshrinement—divinization, perhaps—of everyday motherhood in terms, categories, and theories culled from a seventeenth-century French Catholic context?
These are not idle questions, but questions that get to the very quick of what it means—or should—to do the work of history. The mandate of history, after all and as I have come to see it, is double: we are charged not just to understand—verstehen—the past, but to recognize the contingency of the present, to register its accidental or at least constructed and conditional character. Disciplining ourselves as students of the past, we enable ourselves as critics of the present. From the hinge, Marie’s decision to abandon Claude for religious life looks a little less strange, a logical (if not necessary) outcome of a religious world molded by a distinct scriptural, hagiographic, and spiritual tradition—and our own sacralization of motherhood itself a strange phenomenon in need of explanation.