Last week, I led a seminar on Virgil’s Aeneid with first-year college students. The second half of the epic is a tumult of battle scenes, corpses piling up with unfamiliar Latin names that are often brought to the reader’s attention only in the moment of death. A brief and bloody introduction. To raise the emotional stakes of this carnage, Virgil includes evocative details that humanize the dying warrior, details that place him (or her) in a web of familial connection. Here’s one of many examples:
The Fates bind up the last thread of Lausus’ life
as Aeneas drives his tempered sword through the youth,
plunging it home hilt-deep. The point impaled his shield,
a flimsy defense for the youngster’s brash threats,
and the shirt his mother wove him of soft gold mesh
and his lap filled with blood, and then his life
slipped through the air, sorrowing down to the shades
and left his corpse behind. (Book X, lines 963-70)
I read these lines while sequestered in my office, discreetly pumping breastmilk into plastic bottles to ferry home to my six month-old. This image of the golden shirt woven with a mother’s tender, careful attention pierced me. The shirt was made to adorn and protect the precious body of her son—a body she uniquely knew and loved, because he was knit together under her heart and nestled against her skin for sustenance and comfort upon his entry into the world.
I know this wordless communion, this silent song of symbiosis that makes known the value of the human being, a value not contingent upon strength, intelligence, or self-reliance – but an infinite, unassailable worth. I know this not through rational argument, but through the very language of the body: the infant body that speaks hunger and need, and the maternal body that responds with milk that satiates and gives life. I know that invisible cocoon that encloses mother and child together, in which time and self momentarily disappear. A taste of the beatific vision, perhaps.
Virgil knows what he’s doing by bringing in the mother. Through her, the body he describes becomes precious and sacred – precisely in the moment that body is being cut apart. Each corpse on the page, no matter how insignificant, becomes a tragedy.
Being a nursing mother changes the way I consume stories. I have found that when I’m lactating, I become acutely sensitive to human need and pain and death, as if the usual armor that cushions me from other people has been stripped away. In the months after the birth of each of my babies, I lose my love for horror films and The Walking Dead, genres that wreak bodily havoc. If I watch Game of Thrones, it’s with one eye closed. Because the human body, every body, seems sacred.
This is the epiphany that strikes at the end of “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” a short story by Flannery O’Connor. In the final scene, the protagonist—a self-absorbed, petty, and mildly racist grandmother—looks into the face of the escaped convict who has just killed her family and sees him anew:
…the grandmother’s head cleared for an instant. She saw the man’s face twisted close to her own as if he were going to cry and she murmured, “Why you’re one of my babies. You’re one of my own children!” She reached out and touched him on the shoulder. The Misfit sprang back as if a snake had bitten him and shot her three times through the chest.
That’s where lactation takes me. Each person, even if fictional, is a potential son or daughter. The adult body becomes a mirage, behind which I can discern the infant form, the nursling in need. And this is a kind of grace, one of the many graces I’ve experienced moving through the world as a female body. Because the nursing mother lens is the Christian way of seeing: each human soul caught in the light of primal compassion, of radiant mother love.