Lies of the Left: “Gender Fluidity"

I have to confess that I tend to have a hard time staying awake when colleagues in academia start talking about gender. There you are in a seminar talking about, I don't know, nationalism or the Ark of the Covenant or Milo's hair, and as sure as eggs is eggs, someone, not necessarily a woman, will clear her throat and intone: "I think what we really need to consider here is gender." At which point I fall asleep.

It is just so boring.

Gender (you have to say it with that special emphasis, as if pronouncing the Name of the Deity) has been the hot topic of analysis since I was in college thirty years ago. To give credit where credit is due, I might not have taken up the work that I have done on devotion to the Virgin Mary without the interest in gender of many of my teachers at the time. My dissertation advisor, Caroline Walker Bynum, is famous for making gender a category of analysis in the study of medieval Christianity. (It says so on her faculty page at the Institute for Advanced Study.) But even she stopped writing about gender after publishing Holy Feast and Holy Fast in 1987 (where she was actually talking about women and men and their relationship with God, not gender per se). Somehow the rest of the field never got the memo.

Milo looking sexy
Sure, they have since added other identities to the mix. The field as a whole might better be defined now as "Christian-Jewish-Muslim relations in the Middle Ages," with the emphasis decidedly on the latter two groups for which the Christians provide the normative (i.e. boring) background. (You can tell by how breathless people get when talking about Judaism and Islam in comparison.) But gender remains the primary analytical category for those of us studying the history of medieval Christianity, so much so that I regularly have prospective graduate students tell me about how much they want to work with me on gender despite the fact that I never use that term to describe my work. (Presumably because I'm a woman who works on Mary?) Sex, sure; I'll talk about sex. But gender? I am putting myself to sleep just talking about it here. (Which is why I have a picture of Milo on the side, to keep both you and me awake.)

Gender, you see, unlike sex, does not exist, except in the head. People have ideas about gender, but gender as such, being a construct of the imagination, has no existence in physical reality. Unlike sex, as it says in the Bible: "Male and female he created them." (As one of my gay professors in graduate school liked to put it: "Sex is what is between your legs, gender is between your ears.") You say gender exists? Show me. Where? In your clothes? Your hair? Your use of make-up? Your voice? Your ability to hold reasoned argument? Your emotional self-discipline? But what if you change these? Does that mean your gender changes or just your ability to stay calm in an argument? What if you can't change your hair or your voice without changing yourself hormonally or anatomically? Does that mean your gender is in fact tied to your physical sex? Or is it all just in your and other people's heads?

Klinger, not so much
John Milbank put it perhaps most succinctly: "Without bodily sexual difference, there would of course be no prompting to the social imagination of gender."

Are you old enough to remember the character Klinger in M*A*S*H? Do you remember what he did in order to try to get a Section 8 so that he could be discharged from the army and sent home? Wear heels and a dress. Because, of course, a man wearing heels and a dress would have to be crazy, dressing as if he were a woman (and out of uniform, but somehow that never featured in Klinger's gambit). It never worked, again, of course, because wearing heels and a dress has nothing to do with being crazy (or a woman); it is just a choice of fashion. Look at Louis XIV, famous for his red heels and long skirts. Neither Klinger nor King Louis (ask his many mistresses) ever looked like anything other than a man, despite wearing clothing that would now (arguably) gender him feminine.

And yet, who--woman or man--does not find Dr. Frank N. Furter sexy? Or, for that matter, Milo? Do you care what gender they are, or just want to have sex with them? (Stop lying!) Which, if you think about it, is really what gender is all about: sex, whom you get to have it with, and why you want to fuck at all. Take Origen, for example.

Origen showing his love for God
Origen of Alexandria (d. 254) was so in love with God that, according to tradition, he cut his dick off in order to be worthy of the kingdom. (Or maybe just his testicles, reports vary. Which according to our contemporary parlance might make him a woman--I'm not entirely sure about this; but according to the New Testament lexicon made him a eunuch.) Famously, he wrote about his love for God in his commentary on King Solomon's love song, the Song of Songs, casting himself (or the Soul) in the guise of the Bride and God in the role of the Bridegroom. In Origen's words:
"This little book is an epithalamium, that is a wedding song, which it seems to me that Solomon wrote in dramatic form, and sang burning with heavenly love, like a bride to her bridegroom, who is the Word of God. For whether she is the soul, made in his image, or the Church, she loved him greatly." 
This was the reading of the Song of Songs that inspired medieval commentators like the Cistercian monk Bernard of Clairvaux (d. 1153) to exclaim:
Only the touch of the Spirit can inspire a song like this, and only personal experience can unfold its meaning. Let those who are versed in the mystery revel in it; let all others burn with desire rather to attain to this experience than merely to learn about it. For it is not a melody that resounds abroad by the very music of the heart, not a trilling on the lips but an inward pulsing of delight, a harmony not of voices but of wills. It is a tune you will not hear in the streets, these notes do not sound where crowds assemble; only the singer hears it and the one to whom he sings--the lover and the beloved. 
Although Bernard, unlike Origen (or for that matter Bernard's great rival, Heloise's husband Abelard), still had (and kept) his dick when he became a monk, you might be excused for thinking he didn't. Here he is, preaching on the Song of Songs to his fellow monks:
"Let him kiss me with the kiss of his mouth," she said. Now who is this "she"? The bride. Why bride? Because she is the soul thirsting for God....  No sweeter names can be found to embody that sweet interflow of affections between the Word and the soul, than bridegroom and bride.... They share the same inheritance, the same table, the same home, the same marriage-bed, they are flesh of each other's flesh.... "I cannot rest," she says, "unless he kisses me with the kiss of his mouth.... It is desire that drives me on, not reason.... My shame indeed rebukes me, but love is stronger than all.... Headlong love does not wait for judgment, is not chastened by advice, not shackled by shame nor subdued by reason. I ask, I crave, I implore; let him kiss me with the kiss of his mouth."
Who is speaking here: the bride of the Song or Bernard? Bernard constantly insists that he has not enjoyed the experience he is describing himself, apologizing lest his exposition not measure up "to the dignity of the subject." And yet, how could he talk about it at all if he had not experienced at the very least a taste of the divine kiss for which he, like the bride of the Song, yearned?

Bernard's older contemporary, the Benedictine Rupert of Deutz (d. 1129) was less shy. You've heard Rupert's name, I'm sure; Milo mentioned him in one of his talks, as being entered into by God, much like the Virgin Mary. Milo was being coy. It is more accurate to say that Rupert, like Mary, was ravished by an all-consuming fire, filled with the living light, and transformed.

"Behold," Rupert recounted in his commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, where he was attempting to explain to his friend Cuno, the abbot of St. Michael's at Siegburg, how it happened that he came to write--and write, and write, and write, and write:
I was lying on my bed at the close of the day, and I had scarcely closed my eyes in sleep, when a figure in the likeness of a man prone and uniformly extended came down from above, with only his face hidden. Sinking down on me, he filled the whole substance of my soul, impressing me in a way that I can in nowise describe in words, more swiftly and deeply than the softest wax is able to receive the strongly impressed seal. Immediately I was shaken out of the dream which had just come over me, and now wakeful I sensed a sweet weight, wakeful I was delighted, and what shall I say? "My soul melted" (Song of Songs 5:6); my soul, Lord, almost broke loose, almost poured out of my body.... Indeed, it is true to say that, if that sudden overflowing of holy pleasure had continued much longer, it would have by its very strength drawn the soul swiftly from the body like a torrent and carried it away.... But as I said, that overflowing force of love soon stopped, and went away little by little. From that time on, however, "I have opened my mouth" (Psalm 118:131), and I have not been able to stop writing. Up to now, even if I wanted to, I could not be silent.
The soul ravished by God
A few years later, in his commentary on the Song of Songs, Rupert attributed this same experience to a certain "young woman" lying on her couch, who saw the crucifix on which she was gazing in vision come alive "with a regal visage, radiant eyes, and an aspect utterly to revered." As she looked on,
the beloved one condescended to pull his right hand from the cross-beam and to make the sign of the cross over her....[and] the power of the sign bore her that it seemed her whole body was brought to his, her hands stretched out to his hands fixed on the cross, and her mouth likewise pressed to his; and when she awoke from sleep...she trembled delightfully for some time with that divine tremor.
Now do you see what I mean by Milo's being coy? In the Song commentary, Rupert leaves it highly ambiguous who, exactly, this "young woman" (adulescentula) who shared her vision with her maidservants is. (One medieval reader got it and wrote in the margin to the manuscript: "Here he is speaking about himself.") According to Rupert, he told the story so as to give a hint of the kind of experience the Virgin Mary must have had when, in the words of the Song, "My beloved put his hand through the lattice, and my belly trembled at his touch" (Song of Songs 5:4). "This," Rupert says casually at the end of the story before returning to the Scriptural text, "is what has been said by some concerning the experience of the hand or the touch, and of the divine tremor," in comparison with which Mary's experience of the touch of the Lord's hand must have been all the greater, "far exceeding our understanding." And yet, somehow, Rupert knew.

"Let him kiss me with the kiss of his mouth," Mary says at the beginning of the Song in Rupert's reading. "What is this exclamation so great, so unlooked for?" Rupert asks her. "O blessed Mary, the inundation of joy, the force of love, the torrent of delight, covered you entirely, possessed you totally, intoxicated you inwardly, and you sensed what eye has not seen and ear has not heard and what has not entered into the heart of man." Bernard may not have had this experience--but Rupert had.

Mary filled with the Light
It was the night of Ash Wednesday around the year of Our Lord 1108. "Lightly sleeping," Rupert found himself in a dream talking to a friend about what he believed to be his impending death when, suddenly, it seemed he saw heaven opening just to the right over the head of his friend, from which opening a luminous talent of an ineffable substance descended and flowed into his breast, waking him immediately with its magnitude and weight. It was, Rupert remembered ever after, "heavier than gold, sweeter than honey." By this point, Rupert was fully awake and lying quietly, waiting to see what might happen next. At first, the heavy sweetness lay where it had fallen, in his breast, but soon, however, "it began to move, and to circle round the womb of the interior man, the womb of the interior soul." Continuing its circuit "in a wonderful and ineffable way," "this living thing and true life" at last filled Rupert's whole heart and soul "so that it could hold no more." The movement stilled and Rupert waited, longing to see what this living substance might be. After a while, it began moving again and poured like a river from Rupert's left side so that he could now see (with his interior eyes) that it was an exquisitely beautiful liquid gold. A liquid gold with which, like a crucible, he found himself filled.

Have you had such an experience? Would it make a difference what sex you were? Rupert describes himself being filled, almost as if he were pregnant, with a "living thing and true life," a heavy sweetness that he could see with his interior eyes as a liquid gold as it poured from his side. Does it matter that he was not a woman, but a man when he experienced, in a later vision, the image of the Lord crucified opening the altar to him, receiving him inside, and kissing him eagerly with open mouth? Although he disguises his experience in the commentary on the Song as that of a "young woman," in the commentary on Matthew written about the same time, he is clear that it was he who experienced these ecstasies of being kissed, pressed down, and filled with God.

Bottoms know what this experience is like. Just ask Milo. (Okay, don't, you'll probably embarrass him.) Here are what long-time lovers, S/M players and co-authors Dossie Easton and Janet Hardy advise wannabe bottoms to expect:
A crucible is the pot a metalworker uses to melt together ores--a receptacle for strong metals and high heat, transforming two lesser things into a greater thing, the alchemist's cauldron where lead becomes gold. You, as a bottom, are a crucible. You take the top's energy into you. Within you, liquified with the heat of spirit and sex, that energy swirls together with your own energy, and turns into something stronger, sharper, brighter than either of you could generate alone. When your top believes you are beautiful, you become beautiful. When you believe your top is powerful, he becomes powerful. Your body and spirit are the locus for the creation of a newly minted reality...a reality with all the power and wisdom that you and your top can together bring to it.
The Virgin Mary herself could not have said it better. What greater ecstasy could there be than to be "the locus for the the creation of a newly minted reality," the incarnation of the Knowledge and Wisdom of God? It is every masochist's dream. Who would not give him or herself over to being topped and made beautiful by the power of the divine Word?

"I sleep," the bride of the Song of Songs says, "and my heart keeps watch. The voice of my beloved knocking: 'Open to me, my sister, my love, my dove, my spotless one, for my head is full of dew and my hair of the drops of the nights.'.. I rose to open to my beloved, my hands dripped myrrh, my fingers full of the finest myrrh...  I opened the bolt of the door to my love... My soul melted as he spoke." "I rose up," Mary says in Rupert's commentary. "For how could I sleep any longer or fall back asleep after this?... 'I opened the bolt of the door to my love'...that is, I opened my mouth in teaching, so as to make known the beloved to those listening."

From what I understand about the scene-space of contemporary S/M, topping or bottoming has very little to do with gender traditionally conceived, nor is topping, the more typically "masculine" role, the preferred experience. According to Patrick Califia, bottoms (by no means exclusively women) are proverbially said to outnumber tops (of whom the most prominent stereotype, the dominatrix, is of course a woman) by a ratio of 10 to 1. Given the opportunity, how many bottoms, one wonders, would imagine themselves as Mary? I would. What, after all, could be more exquisite than to be topped by God, ravished in the knowledge that one was loved by Love, beheld as beautiful by Beauty, infused with wisdom by Wisdom, thereby enabling Love/Beauty/Wisdom to see itself reflected as such? Neither, I am convinced, is what we are dealing with here primarily or even necessarily a question of gender. Severin von Kusiemski, the prototypical masochist, was, after all, a man.

Bottoming God--and for those who still have doubts, I highly recommend Rupert's commentary on the Song--Rupert and Mary, contrary to most feminists' expectations, were not silenced, but empowered. If, at the Annunciation, Mary declares herself God's handmaiden, and submits to his will: "Let it be to me according to your word," she is not humiliated, but exalted, filled with the living light of the glory of God and blessed above all other women to become the Mother of the Most High. Likewise, Rupert, as he lay on his bed and felt himself pressed down by "the likeness of a man," was so filled with holy pleasure that it seemed his very soul might be carried away--after which he was filled with the wisdom to write. Far from dying or even wilting away, having submitted to God, Rupert found himself compelled to become the single most prolific Scriptural commentator of his day. And Mary, as Rupert tells it, humbling herself before the Lord as his Mother became the great teacher of the Word, feeding all the souls of the world with milk from her breasts. (Do you still wonder where Milo gets his courage to speak and to write?)

Ivana Wall, cross-dressing for God (NB: she is holding a Bible)

"Male and female he created them." There would be nothing transgressive in a man dressing like a woman if there were nothing in our gendered expectations about biological sex to transgress. This, it seems to me, is the real problem with almost every discussion of gender during which I have managed to stay awake: the more people talk about transgressing something that they are trying to convince themselves doesn't matter (sex as a source of wisdom, beauty, and fertility), the more boring they are obliged to become lest they become conscious of the lies. And by far the greatest lie that we are told is that we are not creatures, but accidents, animals for whom sex is nothing more than an instinct and a physical pleasure (if that), with the corollary that the sense we have of our sexuality is all in our heads and thus wholly up to ourselves to construct. If all we want is to fuck each other so as to feel physical pleasure or validate our sense of self, we can imagine ourselves in relation to each other however we like. But how much the more transgressive--and exciting--is it to imagine oneself as a creature surrendering to the Creator of heaven and earth so as to be filled, body and soul, with liquid, living, empowering, transforming, beatific light?

I'm sorry, did you say something? I must have dozed off.


On Rupert and Mary: Rachel Fulton, From Judgment to Passion: Devotion to Christ and the Virgin Mary, 800-1200 (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002), pp. 309-44.

On bottoming: Dossie Easton and Janet W. Hardy, The New Bottoming Book (Emeryville, CA: Greenery Press, 2001), pp. 166-67.

On tops and bottoms in S/M community: Patrick Califia, Sensuous Magic: A Guide to S/M for Adventurous Couples, 2nd ed. (San Francisco: Cleis Press, 2001), p. 139.

Origen castrating himself: Roman de la Rose, Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Douce 195, fol. 122v.

The soul and Mary filled with light: Rothschild Canticles, New Haven, Beinecke Library, MS 404, fols. 64r, 66r.

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