The Notion of Universal Bi-Sexuality in Russian Religious Philosophy

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The Notion of Universal Bi-Sexuality in Russian Religious Philosophy

Evgenii Bershtein

Homosexuality and bisexuality have been a sensational and hotly discussed topic in the post-Soviet media. The tenor of these discussions proves that despite its decriminalization in 1993, homosexuality has remained a controversial and problematic issue for the Russian public. Addressing this topic, contemporary Russian policy-makers, journalists, writers and scholars find themselves having to consider religious taboos, scientific explanations, philosophical interpretations and moral judgments attached to same-sex love. Moreover, the debate that is taking place today is shaped and informed not only (and not so much) by the social and political vocabulary produced by the gay movement in the West, but also by the interpretations developed around the notion of homosexuality in Russia in the early twentieth century. At that time, important religious thinkers, such as Vasilii Rozanov, Pavel Florensky, Nikolai Berdiaev, and Sergei Bulgakov, examined the spiritual meaning of same-sex love. As Brian Baer has noted, “the enduring figure of the spiritual homosexual suggests at least one way in which homosexuality in Russia today is imagined: not as an “otherness” but rather as the very embodiment of traditional Russian values, underscoring the complex relationship that obtains between local and increasingly global discourses on the subject of homosexuality.”i The terms in which today’s Russian intellectuals tend to conceptualize homosexuality may strike a Western observer as premodern. However, these terms are rooted in a number of specific modern and modernist philosophical ideas that preoccupied the Russian intelligentsia in the fin de siècle. The following essay addresses the sexual theories developed by the Silver Age philosophers, to whose authority participants of today’s debates frequently appeal. I believe that accounting for the intellectual roots of today’s ideological discussions will help to better understand the cultural specificity of the attitudes to (homo)sexuality common among post-Soviet Russia’s educated elite. In that spirit, I offer a study of the three uses of a single sexual motif that gained prominence in Russia a hundred years ago, regained its role in the post­Soviet sexual discourses, and remained significant even today.
Introduction: Bi-Sexuality (dvupolost’) in Weininger and Rozanov

My investigation begins in the period between 1906 and the years of the First World War, when the debate of the Sexual Question (polovoi vopros) in Russian society coincided and overlapped with increasingly prominent modernist trends in literature and the arts.ii The understanding of sexuality as both a crucial aspect of human existence and all-important field for exploration became a characteristically modern artistic and journalist phenomenon. Among the multiplicity of new voices that addressed sexual themes at the time, the most expressive and provocative one belonged to Vasilii Vasil’evich Rozanov (1856-1919). A widely read author, Rozanov articulated the modern preoccupation with sexuality in an idiosyncratic and strikingly lyrical literary manner. His contemplation of sexuality led Rozanov to critique the official Orthodox church (and Christianity as a whole), state institutions, as well as social and intellectual movements in Russia. The theme of sex also gave him material for building his peculiar, unsystematic metaphysics. Although leading figures of the Silver Age acknowledged their intellectual debt to Rozanov as a philosopher of sex, the mechanisms of his influence have not yet been studied in detail.

In this essay, I will examine the ways in which one ideological motif developed and advocated by Rozanov (although not “invented” by him) generated consequential philosophical and theological responses from three major Russian thinkers who came from the Symbolist intellectual background - Pavel Florensky, Nikolai Berdiaev, and Sergei Bulgakov. The motif in question is Rozanov’s notion of universal bi-sexuality (dvupolost’), that is, the idea that every human being is a combination of masculine and feminine elements. With his trademark stylistic brilliance, Rozanov presented this concept in People of the Moonlight: Metaphysics of Christianity (Liudi lunnogo sveta: metafizika khristianstva, 1911, 2 ed. – 1913) and returned to it in many subsequent works.nd

In People of the Moonlight, Rozanov employed the idea of bi-sexuality to explain what he named "spiritual sodomy," that is, certain people’s lack of sexual desire for the opposite sex, and the role of this lack in religion and culture. Rozanov claimed that a small but enormously influential part of humanity — “spiritual sodomites,” “people of the moonlight,” or “third sex”— experienced (often unconsciously) predominantly same-sex desire. According to Rozanov, though largely failing to act on their desire, “spiritual sodomites” feel the same aversion to the heterosexual act as that which the "normal" person feels towards the "actus sodomicus.” Excluded from reproductive existence and the satisfaction it provides, people of the moonlight sublimate their inverted sexuality into spiritual, cultural and political activity. Rozanov credits them, for instance, with creating Christianity and the ascetic Christian civilization. At the same time he accuses them of suppressing natural heterosexual expression: spiritual sodomites fill the universe with their animosity toward procreation and the world of biological reproduction. According to Rozanov, Christianity is sodomitic inasmuch as it ignores the sexual, reproductive core of being. Rozanov sees the sexual division not only as the most fundamental feature of human ontology but also as the part and parcel of the divinity: “there are two Gods – His masculine side and the feminine one [Dva Boga – muzhskaia storona ego, i storona – zhenskaia].”iii

In Rozanov’s view, the omnipresent and culturally prominent “third sex” (tretii pol) possesses a peculiar psychological and sometimes biological constitution. While the feminine and masculine elements co-exist in every person, a person of the moonlight is distinguished by a stronger presence of the opposite sex in his or her psyche and possibly body. The moonlight person is not necessarily a strongly effeminate male or masculinized female. Between such extremes as virile man and man-maiden (muzhedeva) stands a continuum of men, in whom the degree of heterosexual desire progressively decreases and the degree of sodomitic inclination progressively increases.

Rozanov’s notion of the gender/sex fluidity and his vision of homosexually-inclined people as a separate intermediate gender/sex (“tretii pol”) were not of his own making: they reflected the authoritative contemporary opinions in the emerging medical field of sexual psychopathology. Books by this field’s leading authors, such as Richard Krafft-Ebing, Iwan Bloch, August Forel, and Magnus Hirschfeld, were translated into Russian and read widely by the intelligentsia in the period between the revolution of 1905 and the onset of World War I.iv The public absorbed these works within the framework of the Sexual Question that dominated Russian print media at the time when the newspaper Novoe vremia (New Time), in which Rozanov was a leading author, diagnozed all of Russian society as experiencing an epidemic of “sexual psychopathy”.v In People of the Moonlight, Rozanov generously quoted case studies of sexual pathology, borrowing from classic works of early sexual science, such as Krafft-Ebing’s Psychopathia Sexualis, as well as confessions of contemporary Russians. He subjected these biographic narratives to philosophical analysis, and by doing so he acted both as a modernist thinker and journalist, producing a metaphysical interpretation of this highly sensational material.

Formulating his theoretical views on sexuality, Rozanov drew on many sources and contexts, though none as important as the ideological trend dubbed, by Nikolai Berdiaev, as veiningerianstvo. In this respect, Rozanov's interest dovetailed the popular mania for Otto Weininger‘s best-selling Sex and Character: A Principled Study (1903; 1908, the first complete Russian translation).vi Not only were Weininger’s ideas a likely source for parts of Rozanov’s theory, but they also conditioned the Russian reception of Rozanov’s notion of “people of the moonlight."

Between 1908 and 1914, Weininger's Sex and Character was required reading for every self-respecting educated Russian. As its new translations and printings continued to come out, the very discussion of the book became an industry. In the capitals and provincial cities, scholars lectured on Weininger; pedagogical, medical and philosophical analyses of his ideas filled periodicals and pamphlets; and the humor magazine Satirikon satirized the spread of veiningerianstvo. “Everywhere is Weininger, Weininger, Weininger,” the critic Kornei Chukovsky wrote in January 1909.vii

In Sex and Character, Weininger tried to construct a philosophical anthropology based on sexual categories. Boldly mixing scientific and metaphysical arguments with popular beliefs and the results of his personal introspection, he saw sex as a psychological and metaphysical element that defined every human being. Writing before the scientific discovery of sex hormones, Weininger claimed that every person was bisexual, that is, had elements characteristic of the ideal masculine and feminine types. Translating Weininger's sexual terminology into the language of today, one can say that his feminine and masculine archetypes are the categories of "gender," “sex” and "sexual orientation," understood as a unity. Weininger sees M and F – his “ideal types” – as always coexisting in the human world. No one is an absolute man or an absolute woman, he claims, but each individual person is located somewhere on the continuum running between these two poles. Mutual attraction takes place not between biological males and females, but between their masculine and feminine elements: the manlier a given biological male, the more feminine is the partner that he desires, and vice versa. Biological women in whom the male element exceeds fifty per cent tend to be lesbian, or they seek effeminate male partners. Weininger proposed a mathematical formula for his "law of sexual attraction." According to this formula, sexual attraction was the highest in those couples in which the combined totals for femininity and masculinity reached one hundred percent.

Weininger arrived at the definition of his ideal types in a speculative manner, and his view of the feminine type was fiercely negative. According to him, W (that is, the absolute woman) is amoral and antisocial, she lacks a self, her life is much less conscious than a man's, and she cannot act as an autonomous subject or possess genius. Her whole being is defined by sexuality and built around the sex act. Unlike the man, the woman experiences continuous and overwhelming sexual desire but she does not know love. Love is a spiritual state, and the woman has no access to the realm of spirit. The woman's "ugly" body is designed for the purposes of procreation, and being a slave to her body, she only strives to belong to man. Socially, two functions come naturally to her: that of a mother and that of a prostitute. The man created family and monogamy, while the woman cannot control her desire for the penis.

The sexological part of Weininger's book reflected a scientific trend of the time.viii His opinion that male homosexuality was often, if not always caused by physiological and psychological effeminization was common in fin-de-siècle European medical science: it was shared by Richard Krafft-Ebing – Weininger's professor at Vienna University – whose Psychopathia Sexualis laid the foundation to the scientific study of sexual deviation. It was also supported by Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld, the leading early advocate of homosexual rights, who popularized the term "the third sex" to designate those who had female souls trapped within their male bodies. However, Weininger's book had a number of distinctive features, such as his strikingly personal intonation; his premonition of the coming collapse of culture, caused by its loss of masculine creative ability; his sexually-based anti-Semitism (he saw Jewish men as effeminate); his peculiar mystical discourse supplanted with mathematical equations and examples taken from the natural sciences; and – the last but not the least -- the fate of the author, who committed a theatrical, staged suicide soon after the publication of his work, at the age of twenty-three.

Rozanov’s model of fluid gender/sex and Weininger’s calculus of desire had many similarities (see Laura Engelstein’s brilliant comparative analysis of the two theories in her The Keys to Happiness).ix Yet the social and philosophical prescriptions that Weininger and Rozanov drew from their analyses differed dramatically. While Rozanov advocated the sexualization of culture (he famously demanded that sex be sanctified by placing the marital bed into the church), Weininger saw abstinence as the only path to salvation of civilization and spirit.x Weininger believed passionately that masculinity was threatened in the modern world: becoming effeminate, men not only stopped feeling natural disgust at coitus, but also started defining themselves through sex, an entirely feminine feature. Weininger’s call for the masculinization of culture found no sympathy in Rozanov who described it as merely the symptom of the Austrian writer’s own “sodomitic” nature.xi It is necessary to note that despite the fact that the cultural prescriptions suggested by Weininger and Rozanov pointed in the opposite directions, contemporaries perceived the two thinkers’ models of sexuality as “related by blood” (rodstvennye, to use Pavel Florensky’s expression.)xii More often than not, Russian opponents of Rozanov also had to address Weininger’s speculations.

The concept of bi-sexuality (dvupolost’) as presented by Weininger and Rozanov cannot be seen simply as a modification of the visions of androgyny that Symbolist culture borrowed from Platonic, Gnostic and Christian mystical sources.xiii While the images of the androgyne -- mythological, philosophical or (in the thinking of Vladimir Solovyov) prophetic – referred either to the primordial, mythological past or the post-apocalyptic future of transfigured flesh, the phenomenon of universal bisexuality was understood as a scentifically observed reality of the current human condition. Androgyny revealed itself to mystical philosophers; bi-sexuality to medics and social scentists. Despite multiple exchanges that took place between the mystical and scientific discourses of the time, the notions of androgyny and bi-sexuality did not merge: each retained its own distinct epistemological function and set of connotations.

Case Study One: Pavel Florensky and People of the Moonlight
Pavel Aleksandrovich Florensky (1882-1937), Russian theologian, philosopher, art theoretician and scientist, studied Weininger’s book with great attention. In the endnotes to his main work, he even compared its two different Russian translations with the German original.xiv Florensky’s own extensive comments on gender and sexuality, specifically those on mechanisms of same-sex desire, were influenced by both Weininger and Rozanov (the latter was Florensky’s friend and correspondent).xv Moreover, his views contained a cohesive theory of same-sex love, which was both critical of his predecessors’ models and derivative from them. I will argue that Florensky’s sexual theory helps illuminate some crucial ideas in The Pillar and Ground of the Truth (Stolp i utverzhdenie Istiny, 1914), his seminal theological work written in 1906-1914.

In 1909, Florensky had just finished his degree at the Moscow Spiritual Academy and began teaching courses in the history of philosophy in his alma mater. That year his friend Aleksandr El'chaninov, who had known Florensky since their Tiflis childhood and remained close to him in Moscow, made several entries in his diary. In these entries, he recorded his conversations with Florensky about the latter's "indifference to ladies and his frequent infatuations with young men."

The conversation was long, and I only remember the main points. We talked again about Pavlusha's indifference to ladies and his frequent infatuations with young men; we struggled with explanations for a long time, and only at the end P came across the following hypothesis. Man seeks for himself an object which is passive enough to accept his energy. For most men, such an object will be women. There are men whose nature is hypo-masculine, who seek their complements in masculine men. However, there are hyper-masculine men, for whom the feminine is too weak, just as a pillow is too weak for a steel knife. Such men seek and love either simply men or hypo-men.xvi

El'chaninov made this entry on July 7, 1909. Around that time the Russian press was full of heated discussions about Weininger’s book; its Russian translation had just hit the stores several months earlier and become a major bestseller. Not that the erudite Florensky needed a Russian translation to read Weininger's famous work. However, its wide popularity precisely at that time made it the immediate intellectual background against which Florensky built his own polemical theory of same-sex love. Moreover, he applied this theory to himself.

As noted by El’chaninov, Florensky claimed that along with the model of male same-sex attraction, recognized in science and described by Weininger, there is another model, in which same-sex desire was caused by one's hyper-masculinity. He repeated and developed this idea in his 1913 addenda to the second edition of Rozanov’s People of the Moonlight. In his commentary to Rozanov’s work, Florensky (or the Anonymous, introduced by Rozanov as " a person competent in such matters") politely noted "the profound correctness" of Rozanov's theory and proceeded to attack it, along with Weininger's, as insufficient.xvii Florensky suggests his own "theses" on the subject, and notes that he is convinced of their "unshakeability" (v nepokolebimosti kotorykh ia uveren).xviii He claims that along with the inferior type of same-sex attraction, typical of effeminate “psychopaths,” there is a superior type, characteristic of hyper-masculine men and races (as was the case with the Ancient Greeks). While "the third sex" is doomed to eternal wretchedness, the superior type is actually gifted with genius and "incessant satisfaction." Florensky names Oscar Wilde as an "appalling example" that fits well with Rozanov's collection of the "third sex," and opposes him to Goethe, Socrates and Plato, who exemplify the genius that is always both hyper-masculine and bisexual at the same time.xix As for Rozanov's central point, the sodomite character of Christian asceticism, Florensky acknowledges that "the conditions of everyday life" often drive those "who are incapable of marriage" into monasteries but argues that Christianity "elevates" one above sexuality (pol) and "distracts" from sexuality, doing so by "the songs of paradise but not in the least by intermediate forms. A true monk does not become a woman, but he ceases being a man "xx

Florensky's theory of same-sex attraction based on hyper-masculinity has a parallel (and possibly a source) in the works of Marc-André Raffalovich. Raffalovich was a prolific author on the subject and, in the 1890s and 1900s, the leading contributor to Archive d'anthropologie criminelle, a French scientific periodical that had become at the time a major European forum for the discussion of sexual deviation. In his 1896 book Uranisme et unisexualité: étude sur différentes manifestations de l'instinct sexuel, Raffalovich claimed the existence of the superior type of male inverts: they are more masculine than "normal" men and for this reason abhor femininity. The sexual attraction that these "superior inverts" experience is rooted in the principle of similarity, not difference (“Les invertis ne se contentent pas du tout de la vieille explication de l’âme féminine dans un corps masculin. Certains sont plus masculins que les hommes habituels, et se sentent portés vers leur propre sexe en raison de la ressemblance. Ils disent qu’ils méprisent trop les femmes pour être efféminées”).xxi

Raffalovich presents the superior type of Uranians as a respectable alternative to the criminal urban subculture of inverts: the superior type have a more generalized and more controllable sexuality, they can remain chaste and sublimate their sexuality into religion and art ("le génie le plus sensuel, le plus sexuel, peut toujours se reprendre après s'être abandonné," [27]).xxii Raffalovich names Goethe, Michelangelo and Shakespeare as examples of men of genius who belonged to this superior type of "Uranian." Oscar Wilde, to whom Raffalovich devotes a spiteful, although informative chapter, represents the base and criminal type of the effeminate "invert." In contrast to him and to other immoral effeminate inverts, Raffalovich’s "unisexuals" of the superior type are not inclined to practice anal or oral sex (cf. Oscar Wilde who, as Raffalovich writes, "pratiquait la succion pénienne et payait des galopins qui se laissaient adorer de cette façon" [119n]). They find sexual satisfaction in platonic love and virtuous friendship-passion ("l'amitié passion virtueuse," [121]). Raffalovich devotes a large section of his book to friendship, noticing how difficult it is to differentiate between platonic love and "virtuous friendship-passion.” The boundary between the two (as well as between the platonic and the physical) is extremely fine: e.g., kissing the beloved as well as sleeping in his embraces in the same bed is "the physical goal of platonic love, according to Plato," says Raffalovich. ("Coucher dans le lit de l'aimé, avec caresses, mais sans actes sexuels, est le but physique de l'amour platonique selon Platon," [120n]).

The life story of André Raffalovich sheds interesting light on the image of the "superior type" of Uranian, which he sketched so sympathetically in his book.xxiii Raffalovich was born in Paris in 1864 to a fabulously wealthy family of Jewish bankers, natives of Odessa. Raised in France, he settled in London in 1884 and began a literary career as a novelist and a poet of decadent persuasion. He also hosted a literary salon in his fashionable home, where dandies and men of art dined lavishly, and where Oscar Wilde made frequent appearances. In London’s high artistic society Raffalovich was seen as somewhat of a parvenu; this judgment was reflected in Wilde's famous bon mot about "poor André," who "came to London with the intention to open a salon, and [...] succeeded in opening a saloon."xxiv By 1892, Wilde's personal relationship with Raffalovich was already so hostile that Wilde refused "to sit next to him in the hairdressing establishment in Bond Street which they both patronized," citing as the reason his former friend's ugly looks.xxv

This relationship was not helped by the fact that at that time Raffalovich developed an intimate friendship with the young and extraordinarily good-looking poet John Gray, a literary protégé of Wilde and possibly his former lover. Wilde himself pronounced Gray, who wrote and published homoerotic decadent poems, including one entitled "Passing the Love of Women," the model for his Dorian Gray. The friendship between Gray and Raffalovich turned into a life-long relationship. In February 1896 (several months after Oscar Wilde's scandalous trials and spectacular fall), Raffalovich followed his friend into the Catholic Church. In 1898 Raffalovich entered the Dominican Third Order under the name Brother Sebastian. John Gray was ordained priest in 1901. Together they moved to Edinburgh where Raffalovich funded the construction of St Peter's cathedral. Father John Gray became a First Parish priest of St Peter's. The two spent a long life by each other’s side in a chaste union. They died only days apart in 1930.

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