Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Bernard, Amadeus, & A Little Freud

While reading the Homilies in Praise of the Blessed Virgin Mary by Bernard and Amadeus, I could not help but mire my interpretation in a pseudo-Freudian perspective. I chalked it up to my having recently watched Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method, an excellent historical fiction about the relationship between Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung. I assumed that when I returned to the texts following Monday’s lecture, the inclination to do so would have passed, and I would be free to analyze Bernard and Amadeus in a manner that excluded the potential for a discussion of their repressed sexual desires.

Such a hope turned out not to be the case. During my second run through of the texts Freud stuck with me, exclaiming loudly whenever I came across an example of Bernard obsessing over Mary’s virginal state, or the endless pages of Amadeus’ flowing, objectifying description of Mary in Homily II. I was hesitant to indulge myself in such an analysis as, of course, both Bernard and Amadeus were pious enough to be conferred the honor of sainthood, and both texts have stood the test of time as well regarded and historically significant. In addition, it is admittedly problematic to introduce upon a nearly 900 year old text a framework of underlying sexuality; the danger lies in the reading of overtly modern perspectives of love, sexuality, and relationships into places where they do not exist.

However, in the cases of Bernard and Amadeus (Bernard perhaps a little more), such an analysis is warranted. The texts glow with a reverence for Mary that, repeatedly, tips over into a physical (and sexual) fixation. Freud, I would assume, would have had a field day examining Bernard’s mental state when he drafted his four homilies; here was a man, only 25 years of age, removed from the normal duties he was accustomed to, secluded in a cabin alone for much of the day, and left to his own devices for an entire year. He then chooses to fixate on the only feminine figure of whom it is permissible for him to think about; Bernard must have envisioned her endlessly, and his homilies read, particularly in the first few pages of Homily III, as a male fantasy being played out between a virgin (“always timid, and never to feel safe”), and the swift moving males (the angel Gabriel and God) who rush to her side to protect her and profess their love. Bernard’s repressed sexual desire oozes to the surface. “The king rightly desired the Virgin’s beauty,” Bernard states, a declaration preceded by the fact that God (the king) had rushed to her side for he, “came to the Virgin whom he loved, whom he had chosen for his own, whose beauty he ardently desired,” (35). It is by no means a stretch of the imagination to substitute Bernard for God, and what is really playing out is Bernard’s fantasy about the Virgin Mary.

As a celibate male dedicated to the divine, the relationship between Mary and God during the annunciation (and the impregnation of Mary by the Holy Spirit’s seed) presents a ‘perfect storm’ through which (whether subconsciously or overtly) Bernard’s repressed desires can be played out. When taking into account Bernard and Amadeus’ vow of celibacy and renouncement of carnal desire, the God-Mary relationship contains the only kind of sexual fulfillment they can partake in; their suppressed sexual desires can only be expressed through their overt religiosity. Mary mirrors their own virginal, celibate state, God represents their ardent spirituality. Through the impregnation of Mary by the Holy Spirit (God), Bernard and Amadeus (and probably all of those males who decided she had to be a virgin) succumb to their desire for Mary, yet still remain chaste, holy, and orthodox. It really isn’t a stretch to imagine that their admiration for the woman who gave birth to their savior would evolve past devotion and into the realm of sexual desire, one that reaches its climax when the Holy Spirit places its roots inside Mary’s womb.

The beauty of Mary is unnecessary; however both Bernard and Amadeus continually drive home the point that Mary really was just drop-dead gorgeous. Homily II of Amadeus reads as a work of physical and romantic obsession. Mary is described endlessly, imbued with purity (her whiteness), alluring humility, beauty (beautiful as the moon because of her chastity), and a smell so lovely that it repels demons. We hear descriptions of the ornaments that adorn her thighs, her breasts; Amadeus skirts the line of fetishistic objectification. Freud would have much to say about Amadeus’ lengthy description of breasts (in particular Mary's breasts). He would throw in pages of analysis on psychosexual development, and how, by so completely suppressing the natural state of sexual desire (for his entire life), Amadeus has mired himself in the first stage of oral development (the pleasure center focused on the mouth and the mother’s breast).

However, to return to the desire to classify Mary as a physically beautiful being: it, coupled with the overwhelming references to virginity, humility, and chastity, may simply be an externalization of Bernard and Amadeus’ feminine ideal (an ideal still quite prevalent today). A beautiful woman, full of humility, accepting of the male will, still a virgin (the obsession with virginity is a five volume book in and of itself). Since Bernard and Amadeus are restricted from fulfilling to completion that desire to join with the feminine ideal, they then rejoice in, celebrate, and fixate on the only one who can: God/the Holy Spirit. Imagine for one moment that Mary is opposite of what she is commonly depicted as, and let’s say she is deformed, crippled, ugly, homeless, and sexually deviant (maybe even a prostitute). This represents a stronger metaphor for the transformative power of God and Christ: to take something most would categorize as abhorrent, and make the point that God can rise out of the most unlikely of places. God can make pure even Mary, the lowest of the low (not a representation of perfection), and the dreg of society.

It is not my intent to call in to question the piety and religiosity of Saint Bernard and Saint Amadeus, but merely to draw out, in a little thought experiment, the strong undercurrent of sexual desire that pervades both texts. Sexuality and spiritual experience often intertwine themselves in the most unlikely of places (devotional texts, religious poems, descriptions of ecstatic mystical experiences like the transverberation of Saint Teresa of Avila), and I found it to be quite apparent here. Blame it on the movies.


EDIT- I appreciate MCS' inclusion of a picture, so for visual reference this is who I imagined was slapping me on the back while chomping on a cigar and exclaiming loudly. Yes, Viggo Mortensen with a nose prosthetic.


  1. Oh, the dangers of juxtaposition! Of course, both Bernard's and Amadeus' descriptions of Mary are highly erotic, even sexual. The question is whether Freud's description of sexual desire is the only one that we can use to understand their devotion to Mary. There is a difference between drawing on human emotions and desires in order to *understand* the desire for God by analogy and drawing on these human emotions and desires in order to *explain* the desire for God. Freud thought that he could *explain* sexuality; Bernard and Amadeus only thought that they could use it metaphorically in order to *understand* mysteries that were otherwise inexpressible. Does this make sense?


  2. This is a provocative response, of course. Within its explanatory framework, your analysis is convincing. And, certainly, you have presented something that we should think about. You also highlight (and recognize explicitly) the problems with “universalizing” analytical theories or tools for the analysis of particular historical situations.

    The question becomes one of the “fitness” of the frame to explain the data. This is a commonplace critique of Freudian analysis, but my concern is that, especially when exploring themes whose forms seem to match those of traditional psychoanalysis, such an explanation is too “easy.” I’m not endorsing obfuscation, and have nothing against Freudian interpretations a priori, but can’t help but wonder what/how such interpretations may militate against our gaining understandings (both that which would have made sense to the actors themselves, and which may broaden our thinking).

    For example, what do we do with the eroticism of the Song of Songs, when the context of its composition is so removed from the situations of Bernard and Amadeus? Or, is the point of focusing on Mary’s beauty precisely that such profane concerns (of “the natural man,” as one scriptural tradition calls it) as preoccupy us in our fallen state are meaningless when one knows Mary’s true nature?