Tuesday, July 29, 2008

#38 Books to Know and Love--Natalie Angier pt. 2

I need to return this book, and I'm feeling lazy, so let me entertain you with this lengthy excerpt from her earlier Woman: An Intimate Geography (2000). It's from the chapter, "Holy Water: Breast Milk." Enjoy--

As a sacred fluid, the milk of the Virgin ranks just below the blood that flowed from Christ's wounds. If there were enough splinters of the True Cross in reliquaries throughout Christendom to construct an entire cathedral, there were enough vials of Mary's milk to feed it's congregation...The Madonna's was not the first latte to be exalted, nor the last. The milk of a Greek goddess was said to confer infinite life on those who drank it....If a woman's menstrual blood is frequently considered polluted, the reputed purity of her breast milk restores her to homeostasis....The practical breast is a modified sweat gland, and it is meant to be used as the pancreas, the liver, and the colon are there to be used. Lactation is a bodily function....Nobody has to beseech us to let our heart pump, our neurons fire, or our menstrual blood flow. Breastfeeding is another matter. It may be natural for a woman to nurse her baby, but it is not guaranteed, and so it has been variously mandated by prophets, legislated by politicians, and hoisted onto a sociomedical pedestal that brooks no excuses or complaints. Lactation has not been allowed to be what it is, the business of the body. The mammary gland has often been underrated, which is why in the middle of this century infant formula was thought to be not merely a passable substitute for breast milk, but an improvement on it. Now the gland is overrated. We believe that it can make every baby into Izzy Newton [it seemed to work pretty well on my boys, however] or Jane Austen. Now breast milk is seen as the universal female elixir. Through it, we give more than a part of ourselves to our children, we give ourselves purified and improved. Our breast milk is better than we are.

Makes me jealous--no, no, not of breastfeeding (well, maybe a little)--rather, jealous of the total tectonic control Angier seems to have over, between, and among her sentences. The allusive wit and historical wisdom are a matter of course.

Footnote: as a companion volumn let me recommend David M. Friedman's A Mind of Its Own: A Cultural History of the Penis (2001). Between the two of them you'll know more than you ever wanted to know.

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