The "Matrification" of Perpetua 

Rebecca Resinski

In Modernity and Self-Identity (1991) Anthony Giddens discusses "the reflexive project of the self"--a self's ongoing formulation of a narrative about its own identity. Giddens maintains that such reflexivity is marked in the post-traditional time of late modernity, but I propose that we may also be able to detect heightened reflexivity during the rise of Christianity in the Roman Empire. Christians like Perpetua found themselves articulating new understandings of self as they distanced themselves from Roman traditions and institutions. The first-person narrative of the Passio Sanctarum Perpetuae et Felicitatis can be seen as an intensive exercise in self-reflexivity: as Perpetua's account of interactions with her father detaches her from old means of identifying herself as a daughter and a mother, her visions move her closer to a heavenly father and a spiritual existence. Since antiquity others have tinkered with the particularities of Perpetua's intensely articulated sense of self: for instance, liturgical tradition eventually presented Perpetua as a virgin, while Maureen Tilley (1994) has sought to counteract that misrepresentation by emphasizing Perpetua's motherhood. For Tilley, Perpetua becomes a "martyr-mother." I aim to compare Perpetua's self-reflexive narrative with two artistic treatments which, like Tilley, portray a Perpetua who is more essentially a mother than Perpetua's portion of the Passio suggests.

Alex Miller's novel, Conditions of Faith (2000), uses the Passio of Perpetua as a backdrop for the fictional story of Emily Stanton, a young woman coming of age in the early 20th century and forced to choose between a career as an archaeologist and a life as a wife and mother. Emily's choice of career over family is inspired by Perpetua's choice of Christianity and martyrdom over the claims of her father. But in order to heighten the drama of Emily's decision to leave her newborn child, Miller implicitly revises Perpetua's Passio. In Miller's version as read by Emily, Perpetua wrenchingly writes of handing her baby through the bars of the prison, never to see her child again. This renunciation of motherhood is made the climactic moment of Perpetua's narrative. Miller refigures Perpetua's central struggle as one over her motherhood rather than over her filial identity, for in Perpetua's text the Roman pater provides the major emotional and institutional challenge to Perpetua's self-articulation.

Ade Bethune (1914-2002), an artist affiliated with the Catholic Worker's movement, compresses Perpetua's narrative into a single image. Bethune gives us a Perpetua standing alongside Felicity, with both women tending their babies; Bethune sows only the faintest hint of imprisonment and none at all of impending martyrdom or children left behind. Bethune's depiction asserts the inherent dignity of labor, but it also shifts from antiquity to draw on the idiom of Bethune's present day. Bethune configures the relationship between Perpetua and Felicity as one between a white woman and a black one. Although both women in Bethune's image claim our respect, Perpetua's status is clearly higher than Felicity's. Bethune's Perpetua is forever a mother, and Perpetua's self-reflexive narrative is replaced by the implicit narrative of race relations in the 20th century United States.

In reshaping Perpetua's narrative, Miller and Bethune make Perpetua's story into a vehicle for social reflection rather than individual articulation. Miller's novel becomes a commentary on struggles (historical and ongoing) concerning motherhood and its place in women's identities. Bethune's image prompts viewers to supply understandings of race and gender prevalent in the mid 20th century. In order to advance the meditations of Miller and Bethune, Perpetua must become crucially or essentially a mother.

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