Suffering can be complicated. There are times our sufferings seem to us completely meaningless. The solution here is simple: we wish these sufferings not to be. Yet there are other times our sufferings seem meaningful to us. Caring for an aging parent or undergoing persecution for one’s politics can seem this way. To say that we wish these sufferings not to be is too simple.
If we accept the relative truth of the above assessment, how then do we construct a coherent theoretical account of suffering? Is suffering something redemptive, able to be integrated into the development of a self toward the good, or is it something strictly deleterious? Is there a way to assemble a theory that could coherently account for the possibility of either option? We could do as the high and late medievals did, and say that suffering is always a good, in that it draws us closer to the suffering Christ.1 Or we could do as the modern project did, and say that suffering is always bad: it is an unnecessary aberration, a surd, that needs to be eliminated.2 Both these theoretical accounts are coherent, but they are so at the expense of doing justice to the actual human experience of suffering, which—as suggested above—remains stubbornly ambiguous.
In order to construct an account of suffering that does full justice to its ambiguity, we cannot turn without revision to medieval or modern theories. What then should we look to? One possible alternate way forward, thankfully available to us now, are the works of modern literature.
From even a cursory glimpse at literature in modernity, it is notable how many of its works do not attempt to reduce the complexity of suffering, but give full voice to both its meaningless and meaningful sides (Mrs. Dalloway, Housekeeping, and Salvage the Bones are just a few examples). Can we then construct a theory of suffering that remains continually open to the ambivalence we find represented in literature, while still retaining a level of theoretical coherence? Can a second order of theory be soundly built upon a first order of literature? And can theological thinking, in the history of which there has been a great deal of reflection on positive and negative valuations of suffering, be an ally in this effort? Cynthia Wallace’s Of Women Borne is an attempt to show how these questions can be answered in the affirmative.
Throughout history, women have borne the brunt of suffering, of pains both cultural and natural in character; and women’s writing reflects this reality. As Wallace puts it, “Women have been exploring questions of suffering and redemption for as long as they have been writing in English” (8). From Julian of Norwich through to Louise Erdrich, suffering and redemption have been central topics.
Though many other references are woven in, Wallace looks principally to the writing of four women: Adrienne Rich, Toni Morrison, Ana Castillo, and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. All four authors share a commitment to exposing and addressing oppression, but they also insist that their subjects are not completely defined by the powers attempting to subjugate them (in this way, all four writers bear similarities to Gloria Anzaldúa’s indelible Borderlands/La Frontera). In the midst of a variety of imposed difficulties, women repeatedly escape reductive forces and articulate new modes of liberation. These new modes complexly intertwine experienced problems with their solution.
This is how redemption of suffering happens in general, though particular details will always be schematized in a way that cannot be assigned from above, instead coming from the individual herself. Rather than a unilateral praise or condemnation of suffering, Wallace wants to say: suffering is not always redemptive, but it can be. Such a nuanced position, requiring continual discernment, is precisely what we see in the literary prose of the above authors. Their narratives allow us to practice our imaginations in the kinds of judgement needed to decide whether a particular suffering is either purely redemptive, strictly injurious, or some mixture of the two (and, if the latter, how the complicated threads of these experiences are to be sorted).
The following symposium approaches Of Women Borne from multiple angles, though each approach is notably personal. These are issues and this is a book that really matters to the participants’ lives.
James Cochran offers a multilayered assessment in his piece, interweaving the pandemic crisis, environmental degradation, the connected degradation of agricultural laborers, and the potential importance of Wallace’s ethics of reading for classroom pedagogy. Cochran’s many different sites of engagement with Of Women Borne show just how productive this text can be for serious ethical reflection.
Mariana Alessandri has given us a remarkable entry in our ongoing conversation about Of Women Borne. It is on the one hand a thoughtful assessment of the damage and the value Catholicism has had for Latinas. It is on the other hand a profoundly personal and vulnerable meditation on how theology can play an important liberating role amid the felt fragility of pandemic life.
Suzanne Bost’s contribution takes the form of a moving and exploratory letter, addressed to Wallace herself. It specifically presses issues raised by Wallace’s interlocutors of color, and poses the question: “What does it mean to join?”
Throughout, Wallace’s text resists the temptation of reduction. So also the discussion that follows stages an enriching and lively dialogue by continually circling back to the key issue posed by Of Women Borne, the redemption and non-redemption of suffering, or “how beauty and pain and goodness meet and argue and mingle in the twenty-first century” (84).