Thursday, January 26, 2006

Virginity, Annunciations

Virginity is not a topic I care much about—I didn’t like being a virgin, I didn’t feel much better about the word or the category once I wasn’t any more. I find the topic and the word embarrassing.

But I’ve been thinking about virginity more than usual lately, thanks to Nicholas Kristof’s devastating reports in the Times about sex slavery in India (TimesSelect, only, alas). In one of his video diaries, a woman activist in a Calcutta slum (She educates the children of prostitutes, all of whom [the children] are now the first in their families to become literate.) alludes to the high price men pay for the privilege of sleeping with a virgin. Prostitution, she says, is the only profession where your pay is the highest when you begin.

With this haunting me, I recalled Daphne Merkin’s recent essay on women who get plastic surgery on their genitals (to make them prettier, more like those of porn stars, or more virginal—an idea I find almost too horrifying to write, let alone think, about—and thought with a more critical eye about this article about the new boom in China: rich men advertising for virgin brides. The light tone of “everything’s for sale” did not match the sense that this was a very, very old-fashioned marriage bargain: money for a “pure” bride. At least many of the women interviewed for the article feel the same.

It felt good, when I was younger and it mattered more, not to care about virginity too much. This fetishization of virginity stuns me. But should it?

I went to the Met today to catch the Fra Angelico show before it closes. Since most of his work is in frescoes in Florence, I hadn’t seen it since I was last there—19 years ago. At twenty, I decided that he was one of my favorite artists and I made the pilgrimage over to the museum to see if, two decades later, my earlier judgment held. I was particularly curious to see if I could understand why it was that I was so especially enamored of his annunciations.

The paintings are stunning. I was moved and transported. The colors are glorious—many, many golds and blues. The facial expressions are solemn, solitary, unguarded, and individual. You really get the sense, looking at each face, each Christ, each Mary, each saint or cleric, of looking at person. More than that, each person looks like a holy person so the experience of contemplating his art is meditative and spiritual. All the more pleasure for me, then, of course, comes in seeing all those paintings of people reading. And that, I think, is the appeal of the annunciation. Mary is sitting and reading: the only reading woman we ever see, the only time we ever see Mary reading. That figure of a young woman reading in the midst of many, many images of older male readers must be central to the appeal of the annunciation. Of course, the bitter joke and great blessing of what comes next--the angel’s terrifying and wonderful announcement of her imminent motherhood—will curb, if not end, Mary’s reading for a while.

This, then, is the continuing story of women, education, and sex. It’s a story I have a lot more to say about, but I wanted at least, tonight, to sketch the links I see at the moment, to bookmark the story about Fra Angelico and current educators in the slums of Calcutta so that, if nothing else, I can remember something of the skeleton of my thoughts.

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