APRIL 2, 2020
THE GODS OF CLASSICAL MYTH had an array of wives and lovers, often acquired through devious means — abduction, seduction, rape, deception, and disguise. The God of Judaism and Christianity however, shares none of their weaknesses of the flesh and erotic proclivities, being infinitely perfect and self-existent. The model family in Christian theology is the Holy Trinity, a family that has no need for female fecundity: the Son is begotten of the Father by an eternal generation, and the Holy Spirit is related to them through an eternal procession. In the “economy of heaven,” as Stephen Dedalus reminds us in Ulysses, “there are no more marriages” and glorified man (like God himself?) is not only “an androgynous angel,” but also “a wife unto himself.”
The topos of marriage, however, is used again and again in both the Old and the New Testament to describe the relation between God and man: God is joined to Israel in a jealous nuptial bond, Christ the heavenly Bridegroom is united with his Bride the Church, and every Christian soul is called as sponsa Christi to be nothing less than “God’s Wife.” This strange nuptial arrangement does not, of course, exclude the soul’s obligation to be at once God’s handmaid, God’s daughter, and God’s mother, while remaining ever-virgin — all after the manner of the Holy Virgin Mary.
In this light, the risk that Amanda Michalopoulou takes in her new novel, God’s Wife, translated from the Greek by Patricia Felisa Barbeito, is that its title will suggest a theological treatise. The tripartite structure of the novel — the book is split into sections labeled Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise — appears to corroborate this assumption, suggesting the Holy Trinity as well as Dante’s epic. Her tale, however, is as Dantean as Joyce’s Ulysses was Homeric. Michalopoulou renders her “epic” “sub specie temporis nostri” while also weaving into the narrative a prodigious collection of literary, philosophical, and theological ideas and debates about faith, belief, metaphysical desire, and the representation of God in Western culture.
Amanda Michalopoulou is a contemporary Greek writer and author of a number of children’s books, short story collections, and novels. God’s Wife, published by Dalkey Archive Press, is the third of her novels to be translated into English, following I’d Like and Why I Killed My Best Friend. This latest book imagines an unnamed protagonist, the narrator, who is married to the Almighty. She is trying to craft a narrative of herself outside of her marriage, though she is, of course, constantly being overshadowed by her spouse.
While the title of Michalopoulou’s novel is daring and contentious, she is not alone in seeking to challenge the silent fate of wives and mothers in history, myth, and religion. The adventures, talents, thoughts, desires, and sufferings of women whose lives have been eclipsed by famous or infamous males have been inspiring a growing number of fictionalized accounts in recent years. But in addition to a voice, Michalopoulou has had to give her heroine an identity. Who then is the wife of God in this novel? Questions around identity and existence are central to the narrative. Through a masterful interweaving of postmodern ideas about the self and writing, this identity is both constructed and deconstructed in the novel in an exploration of faith, femininity, love, and desire.
The Penelopean narrative weaves and unweaves, creates, and “decreates” the identity of “God’s Wife.” Michalopoulou’s postmodern narrative is heavily indebted to Simone Weil’s concept of decreation, which, as Anne Carson explains, is “a program for getting the self out of the way” in order to construct an “erotic triangle […] involving God, herself and the whole of creation.” For Weil, decreation draws partly from “love mysticism,” a Christian tradition established by women authors in the 13th century, which proffered the dissolution of the self as a prerequisite for a “consummate union” with God. It is also a prerequisite for creativity: “We participate in the creation of the world by decreating ourselves.”
While Michalopoulou insists that the story “is about love, about falling in love in admiration,” the creative quest of God’s Wife, who identifies herself from the very beginning as the author of this tale, is also central to the narrative: “Having lived for so long by the side of Him who created All from Nothing, I am finally creating something of my own.” That “something” is not only her text, but also “a human being”: “I am creating you. Who are you? I don’t care be whoever you want to be, as long as you seem real enough for me to talk to.” This “other” is not a child in the traditional sense, and the other’s identity is one of the central “mysteries” of the narrative, is a prerequisite for confirming her existence and therefore a prerequisite for both the telling and the validity of her “terrible narrative.”
The narrator fully acknowledges that the incredulous modern reader will need a leap of faith to follow her incredible story, but her tale is both simply told and oddly ordinary: “It may sound like a lie: I am His wife. We married ages ago. He asked for my hand and I said yes.” The narrative, however, constantly teases and challenges the reader’s faith and faithlessness. The unreliability of the narrator punctuates the entire narrative: “I readily believed things that made others laugh out loud,” she confesses. The greatest mystery in the story indeed does not surround the figure of God or the divine nuptials, but the creation of the tale itself and the “substance” of its author. The wife’s activity, or perhaps her ambition to create, has apparently angered God and must be performed in secret: “I hide the pencil in the only place in the world where God will not think to look: my vagina,” she confides to the reader.
The structure of the narrative also casts doubt on the reliability of her testimony: the atemporality of heaven leads to the breakdown of linear narrative. There is no slow, patient, ascent toward the Divine, but rather a constant spiralling which reflects not only the absence of direct divine will but also the mercurial nature of consciousness. The superimposition of the tripartite structure of Dante’s Divine Comedy on this amorphous narrative which is composed of a prodigious blend of forms — letter, testimony, confession, transcription of third-party account, myth, philosophical treatise, stream-of-consciousness, travelogue — is reminiscent of the modernists’ juxtaposition of modern chaos and classical order, although chaos here is also an ontological condition.
The tale, written in a “small, windowless laundry room,” starts autobiographically, detailing the narrator’s humble and unexceptional upbringing. But the narrator repeatedly returns the reader to the present tense of the writing act, resuming her dialogue with the reader, forestalling prejudices and presumptions and foreshadowing events in a continuous loop of reinterpretation and revision: “We are not the same person at the beginning and the end of a story,” she explains. There is no stable selfhood that can detach itself from the events and give an impartial account.
Circuitously, the narrative details the devastating loss of her parents at a young age. The psychological impact of this event and of the concept of God and Christian doctrines on her childhood imagination are deftly woven into the plot: her ascension to heaven as God’s Wife takes place during a “game” she plays with her brother in the hope of being reunited with her parents, as Christ was with his Father after the Crucifixion. Her wedding ceremony is reminiscent of stories from the Old Testament: she is tied to a tree in a sacrificial ceremony, like in the Binding of Isaac, and she wakes up with an angel sitting next to her in the windowless room, in a replica of the Annunciation.
Her childish innocence and naïveté resonate in her description of God upon their first encounter in heaven. He is presented as he might be in a Renaissance painting: with a “resplendent beard,” “thick brows,” “tousled hair,” and eyes “pure and clear like a dog’s.” He sits on the edge of her bed like a Greek God, “wrapped in a robe, barefoot, toenails iridescent.” This imagery reflects not only the depiction of God in Western art, but the narrator’s own childhood drawings of God — a regular childhood pastime, we are told, which occupied her while her mother cooked in the evenings. This God also resembles Katherine Mansfield’s God in her poem “To God the Father,” an excerpt of which introduces the “Inferno” section of the novel. Rather than ineffable, God is an artistic masterpiece.
Like Mansfield’s God, who sits aloof and indifferent “nodding and muttering on the all-too-big throne of Heaven,” Michalopoulou’s God is a “pitiful” and lonely figure who sits in a room of his own, “His Study,” which is off-limits to his wife, and only dutifully comes down to have dinner with her. His metaphysical allure soon becomes a source of anger and frustration for both the narrator and the reader, as his silence and “unbearable solemnity” become infuriating rather than seductive. He has no answers to her burning questions about life, death, and Truth, and becomes enraged at any mention of “miracles.” He is an avid reader of philosophical and theological texts and tries to both appease and educate his wife by plying her with the work and thoughts of others. When she asks, “Do you love me?” he quotes Spinoza; his great revelation about the mystery of creation begins with a quote from Nietzsche’s Ecce Homo. Rather than all-knowing, this God is “an impassioned collector; a compiler of hypotheses about the workings of the world.”
Her desire for an intimate physical relationship with God — “to kiss [Him], to bury myself in His arms” — also leads to disappointment, as God shrugs off such “mortal comforts.” While God has been married “many times” over the ages to palliate his “maddening” solitude, he declares from the outset that the relationship will be purely platonic. Their marriage takes the form of a legal settlement. He grants his Wife absolute freedom but requests that she stifle her longing for reality and “for logic, analysis.”
This kind of marriage is reminiscent of the kind of unification that female mystics envisioned in their understanding of their relationship with God. The narrator, when hearing the terms of the agreement, aptly asks: “Like a nun?” The purity of this kind of relationship, however, was often inconceivable — if not unbearable — even for those nuns, who often daringly rendered their union with God in erotic terms. The erotic desires of God’s Wife also refuse to be tamped down. They lead her to bestial and self-destructive acts, which the omniscient God chooses to turn a blind eye to with a “cold and callous conscience.” The vastness, emptiness, and amorphousness of heaven, combined with its mythical and fairy-tale elements, render it dystopian in its post-humanity, and the wife escapes nightly to the primordial forest to be raped by wild beasts. These outings bring her the physical pleasure and pain that God denies her, but perhaps more importantly, they make her feel alive.
Her modest desire for a pencil is ultimately the urge that most angers God. Her pencil is both a phallic substitute and a reminder of her lost fertility: “I pull it out like I used to do with my bloody tampons.” In her insistence on the using the pencil and on writing her story, she refuses the dissolution of the self that is otherwise a prerequisite for a union with God. She also refuses to remake herself “in His own image: pure, upstanding, asexual,” trying to recover and recreate her own identity through her fading memory and writing. Creation is strictly forbidden in this version of heaven, lest it remind God of his own disastrous creative endeavors. Even children are “out of the question.” But her desire to write as a means of expression and vindication of her humanity is so primal and overwhelming and leads to such a self-annihilating depression that God takes pity and proposes a salutary trip to earth. He accompanies her in this descent to Purgatory by assuming human form and dressing like a tourist in a linen suit.
The second section of the book, “Purgatory,” turns into a travelogue of an old, traveling couple who try to fit in and understand the local customs. The human God on holiday is rendered both comical and vulnerable, and their travels provide light relief to both the reader and his wife, highlighting the contrast between the emptiness of heaven and the fullness of being on earth. Their adventures, however, are mundane and, indeed, their sightseeing doesn’t last very long. After a trip to a bookstore, where God discovers Don Quixote, both of their lives become wholly absorbed with books. Though “the absurdity of fiction and poetry” was dismissed in heaven, on earth, it becomes an incurable addiction. They read all day, forget about the world outside, and live vicariously through fictional characters. The journey to earth becomes a journey through its vast literary tradition.
Appropriately, the final section of the novel, “Paradiso,” is pure mythopoesis: a reinvention and retelling of Creation, this time authored by God’s Wife. The wife’s usurpation of the creative role, leads to a definitive punishment, best not spoiled here.
The novel ends as a paean to literature but also a reflection on the role and nature of authorship in postmodernity. In the absence of teleology and the absence of a guiding Author, identity and meaning must be continuously reinvented through an endlessly repeated creative effort: I revise therefore I am. It becomes clear that the story is no longer about God’s Wife, but about the struggle to discover, decreate, create, and recreate an identity and self outside of God and his image.
Mary Raffan studied and worked as a tutor at The University of Edinburgh. Her research has focused on representations and reinterpretations of the notion of authorship in modern and postmodern literature.