With a novel such as “Chanting the Feminine Down” it is almost impossible to cite all the sources that contributed to the novel because there are so many seeds of germination. After my experience in that very unchristian Vietnam War I wrote a poetry collection, “That Kingdom Coming Business,” first imagined in the shadows of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Serving on an ammunition ship kept the danger close at hand. I wrote my PhD dissertation on “The Catholic Imagination,” helped by Conor Cruise O’Brien’s “Maria Cross” that explored in a number of so-called Catholic novelists the narrative tangle that resulted when the Virgin and the Cross showed up in the same breath.
Several years ago I dreamed the title poem, “Chanting the Feminine Down” and turned it into a poem, I wasn’t thinking about writing a novel. But I was deeply involved in the study of psychology at the time and was inundated with “religious” dreams for a couple of years. Every dream in the novel appears exactly as it was dreamed, with minor changes in syntax and grammar (when transcribing from my dream journal).
The spark for the novel was “Trent: What Happened at the Council,” a book by John W. O’Malley. It was a good overview and sent me in lots of directions exploring the backstory, the tensions, the political intrigue, and the Reformation that hung over the 18-year long proceedings. Feeding that spark included “The History of the Inquisition,” and “The History of the Council of Trent” by Paolo Sarpi, a Venetian friar; “Paul the pope and Paul the friar: a story of an interdict” (1861); “Life of the Most Learned Father Paul” (1651); “The Life of Paolo Sarpi” (1869); “Female Martyrs of the English Reformation (1844);” “The Golden Book of Venice” (1900); “A Brief Presentation of the Cruel and Barbarous Proceedings in the Inquisition” (1733); “Enneads” by Plotinus (circa late 3rd century); and “The Recognition of Clement” (circa late 3rd century).
“Chanting the Feminine Down” is a psychological, religious and historical novel, a focus that became clearer after reading the books just mentioned. The books helped frame the novel in space, time and memory. Some such as the Plotinus work provided an interested psychological lens and “The Recognition of Clement” offered an early example of Christian romance fiction in which familiar biblical characters at times take on a fictional aura. Here metaphor provides distance, the very perspective a novelist works with.
In a similar vein Giovanni Boccaccio’s “Famous Women,” published in the 14th century, is a wonderful account of the virtues and vices of goddesses that seem to mask very human traits. Some have called it the first Western feminist book and it certainly a forerunner of the Italian Renaissance where the feminine and the anima in general would take center stage.
Boccaccio seemed very aware of the fictions he is writing. At one point he invites readers to amend or alters accounts they are unhappy with. While the chorus rages in the background Boccaccio continues his celebration of famous women through the haze of myth, time and circumstance. The narrator of “Chanting” will learn from Boccaccio and tale her tale to Trent. (While I consulted various editions of “Famous Women,” I recommend the excellent translation by Virginia Brown).
For “Chanting” the Council of Trent (1545-1563) is a fact, idea and fantasy. While I pay attention to the doctrinal issues debated at the council, I am equally interested in the psychology of Trent (and other councils) and especially the roles of art, image, imagination and individual symbol formation played in these and earlier proceedings. In this regard I am indebted to “Revisioning Psychology” by James Hillman for the discussion of these issues. I am also indebted to Carl Jung’s immense contributions, and especially to his “Symbols of Transformation” for the discussion of the role of symbol formation in the development of the Christian religion.
At the end of the day the stuff of a novel passes through the defining intelligence of the main character that shapes a certain fictional reality. In this instance the main character is Colette, a graduate student in the Bronx, NY, who is looking for the feminine in Trent and other church councils. She has listened to Boccaccio and entered into his fictions. She is equally content to wander through the Holy Land with Clement. She is a restless, wounded soul, looking for the feminine in her dreams, in the archives and in the words of the female mystics. She can imagine the divinity within.