f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n: Day 3 of <em>Mariette in Ecstasy</em>—Talking Themes and S-E-X

f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n

Wednesday, January 21, 2004

Day 3 of Mariette in Ecstasy—Talking Themes and S-E-X

Of the things likely to get me fired, at the top of the list are the search words I just entered into Google: nuns, sexual ecstasy. The results are a mixed, and predictably disturbing bag, but #1 on the list is a link to readinggroupguides.com, a really impressive and wonderful site operated by HarperCollins on behalf of their authors and readers. The link is for Mariette in Ecstasy; there are two of ten questions offered that deal with the notions of sexuality in this book. I think, therefore, my job is safe—so long as we’re clear I didn’t visit any of the other links that Google recommended.

High at the top of this book’s priorities is to examine the notion of ecstasy. Since the “happy” drug of the same name wasn’t really around when it was written, Hansen chooses to juxtapose and intertwine the other two most common expressions—religious and sexual. The surprising part really (given the cover of the book, which—unless my mind is just really guttered—can pretty much be interpreted one way) is the delicateness, subtlety, and understatement with which he plays it.

I like this because the opportunity to be lurid or excessive is so readily available. Instead, he offers three or four scenes that tackle issues of celibacy, love, lust, and sex for a group of women who’ve figuratively (any maybe literally, too) become “brides of Christ.” It’s not like living in a convent is going to make all the needs that define us as humans go away. Hunger, thirst, companionship, and even sex are on the women’s minds. How they go about taming, meeting, subduing, or channeling those urges is interesting, even enlightening.

My point today isn't really to talk about nun-sex which is a pun I’ve been waiting to use since I started this entry. Instead, it’s to give a some pats on the bak toward Hansen for a few things he did that we can learn from.

A. He didn’t avoid a “sensitive” topic. Why sex is treated with kid gloves by Americans in general and Christians in whole, is a topic for another day. Sufficed to say, it’s not something that makes too many of our books.

B. He broadened the understanding and scope of his themes. Maybe he started out just wanting to talk about religious ecstasy—the notion of losing yourself in a moment to something supernatural. That alone is interesting, but what can we compare it to? Thinking about the theme in broader terms deepens our understanding of it. Can you do the same in your writing?

C. He relied on understatement. Thematic writing (and I’m as guilty of this as anyone) is such a place where writers are inclined to really highlight the importance of what they’re writing about. Usually the best thing seems to be to get it all out into a draft and then start scaling back. Maybe there were more explicit scenes in other drafts—if so, they were rightly removed. The provocativeness of what we read right now seems just about pitch perfect.

D. Let your characters define your themes, rather than the other way round. Hansen could have, in theory, made a link from religious ecstasy to that induced by psychotropic drugs. Or some performing arts. Instead, he created a seventeen-year-old beauty with father issues who is in touch with her sexuality and sees it as part of her gift offering to Christ. The connection comes naturally in such a case.

That’s all for today. Stop back tomorrow. I’ll get off this slightly creepy topic. And if you stopped in because of some keywords you entered into Google and are disappointed by my lack of pictures—well, I’m praying for you.