W. Arthur Mehrhoff, Ph.D, is the academic coordinator for the MU Museum of Art and Archaeology. Please click the highlighted hyperlinks in the body of the text for additional background information.
The 2013 MU Life Sciences & Society Symposium entitled "Claiming Kin" (March 15-17) will explore the evolution of kinship groups and notions of kinship itself. Kinship categories (e.g., the Roman concept of paterfamilias) matter greatly in determining social legitimacy and status. Because these crucial categories vary enormously across cultures and over time, not surprisingly many fields and disciplines vigorously contest their meanings. Blended families, shifting gender identities, same-sex marriage, reproductive technologies, and now even genetic mapping are transforming our contemporary understanding of kinship. How, then, do we relate to each other?
Everyday life in most societies depends upon establishing meaningful kinship roles, which are usually based upon but not necessarily determined by biology. One fascinating construct about this process of creating social meaning is fictive kinship. Fictive kinship refers to a metaphorical kinship relationship between people (e.g., that of godparents) that is not based on blood (consanguineal) or marriage (affinal) ties. People without a place in a traditional kinship system can thereby be adopted into the system through fictive kinship.
"The Ballad of the Sad Café" (1991), a Merchant Ivory film based on Carson McCullers’ 1941 novella of the same name, fictionally depicts a form of fictive kinship in a Depression Era Georgia mill town. Vanessa Redgrave plays a powerful Southern matriarch (Miss Amelia) who dominates her small town until first her hunchbacked Cousin Lymon (consanguineal kinship) and then her ex-convict husband (affinal kinship) Marvin Macy arrive and upend her orderly little polis. Ultimately, however, neither of those kinship ties compares to the fickle fictive bonds that powerfully link these three social misfits.
Their metaphorical relationships of Lover and The Beloved hearken all the way back to classical mythology. Unlike goddess Athena (protector of Athens) scorning the advances of the lame Haephestus in the museum’s painting by Paris Bordone, Miss Amelia surprisingly falls under the odd charms of "broke back" Cousin Lymon, who nevertheless possesses an uncanny ability to forge community identity where none previously existed as well as to evoke the feminine side of the fiercely independent Miss Amelia. However, Cousin Lymon himself falls under the odd charms of menacing Marvin Macy, Miss Amelia’s unconsummated husband, whose anarchic disdain for society and the approval of others makes him even more attractive to Cousin Lymon as a shadow figure. Like Ares/Mars in classical mythology, Marvin has fallen under the odd charms of Miss Amelia and vies with her first for love and then for domination of the town. Unable to defend her authority by her usual means, Miss Amelia eventually confronts Macy in a desperate, bare-knuckle bar fight evoking American artist George Bellows. Its startling aftermath concentrates all the chthonic power of classic Greek tragedy on the tiny mill town.
Despite evolving notions of kinship to be explored in the ninth annual Life Sciences and Society Symposium, Carson McCullers clearly reminds us in "The Ballad of the Sad Café" that the human heart has always been a lonely hunter. The thoroughly Southern final scene of the film, based upon the novella’s metaphysical ending entitled Twelve Mortal Men, confronts us with McCullers’ powerful metaphor of fictive kinship and profound challenge to claiming kin.