Joy Dixon’s Divine Feminine: Theosophy and Feminism in England (John Hopkins University Press, 2001) is a fascinating study of the relationship betwee...moreJoy Dixon’s Divine Feminine: Theosophy and Feminism in England (John Hopkins University Press, 2001) is a fascinating study of the relationship between the Theosophical Society and emerging feminist politics from the 1890s to the 1930s. Dixon shows how the relationship between personal transformation and political/ethical change became inextricably linked during this period, and looks at the tensions produced by these debates – both within the TS itself and the wider culture. Also, anyone with an interest in occult gender politics will probably find this book useful, as Dixon reviews the emerging conceptions of sexuality & gender during this period and how they clashed – from the all-too-familiar idea of masculinity as “positive” and femininity as “negative” to the challenges to this position found in the writings of Francis Swiney and Susan E. Gay, for example. She also discusses nascent occult theories of homosexuality, such as the “Uranian” as a spiritually advanced being whose emergence was a “sign of the times”. Some of these debates are still going on today in the contemporary occult scene – and some of the justifications are pretty much the same too.(less)
Focusing on European attitudes to sex for the period c.1100-1800, the authors: Kim M. Phillips (a Medieval Historian) and Barry Rea (a specialist in t...moreFocusing on European attitudes to sex for the period c.1100-1800, the authors: Kim M. Phillips (a Medieval Historian) and Barry Rea (a specialist in the history of sexuality) – argue that too many historians attempt to describe premodern sex in terms of contemporary categories and conceptions of sex which are just not applicable, and that “there are many strands to premodern sexual cultures” than modern terminology and concepts allow for.
In contrast to contemporary notions of sexuality in terms of identities which constitute, as Foucault put it “the truth of our self”, the authors argue that premodern Europeans did not have a notion of sexual identity in the same way that moderns do. In advancing their argument, they draw on a wide range of contemporary scholarship, highlighting key texts and arguments, and drawing some thought-provoking conclusions along the way.
The first chapter – Sin – examines the development of Christian theologies of sex and sin in the Catholic Church within Germanic and Mediterranean cultures from their roots in late Rome to the disputes of the Reformation, demonstrating both continuities and discontinuities in Christian attitudes to sex, and highlighting that there was a highly diverse range of opinions. The authors ponder to what extent that these disputes actually impacted on the laity and clerics, and explores the ways in which they were continually disrupted and contested.
Chapter two – Before Heterosexuality – begins with a review of the way that historians have tended to assume that heterosexuality is normative when examining the past. Phillips & Reay argue (pace Jonathan Katz) rather, that modern concepts of heterosexual desire should not be applied uncritically to the past: “One of the great problems with the history of heterosexuality is that we all think we know what it is. Whole generations of historians, art historians and literary critics have just assumed that the desires and actions of those in the past are expressions of the same sexual impulses and frameworks that we have today.” This chapter alone makes Sex before sexuality worth a close reading.
The authors point out that sex was licit between married partners (or those in a pre-marital condition) but desire could be found in a wide range of other conditions. They argue that that sex between married partners was not the private affair we consider it to be today, but that sexual acts both within and external to marriage were subject to public scrutiny and policed. That oral sex was held to be a greater sin than rape, and as they point out: “in Italy a rapist might be forced to marry his unmarried victim is an indication that we are talking about different sexual worlds.” They consider courtly love, marriage patterns across Europe, and John Donne’s understanding of sex as humoral – – driven by the body’s particular constitution, and by its heat and abundance of blood that physically produced lust and desire for the act of sex rather than the desire for a particular other.
In the third chapter – Between Men - Phillips & Reay review a wide range of sources and argue that in premodern Europe, male/male interactions were both extensive and routine, and that in the 12th century, for example, the accusation of Sodomy referred primarily to notions of (sexual) excess and loss of self-control, rather than a particularised object choice. Drawing on studies of Renaissance Florence (Micheal Rocke) and parts of Early Modern Spain (Cristian Berco) the authors discuss how sex between men was structured around hierarchies of age/power – hence older men penetrated younger ones, masters penetrated servants, and in general, more powerful men penetrated less powerful ones in part as a display of masculine prowess.
In Chapter four – Between Women – the authors, whilst acknowledging the premodern usage of the term “lesbian” – propose replacing it as an analytic category with Elizabeth Wahl’s phrasing – “female intimacy”. Bearing in mind the problems of interpreting female same-sex relations, they adopt the methodology suggested by Valerie Traub – examining the tropes and images of female same-sex desire; and examine cases such as male impersonation, female sodomites, manly women, tribades, and female husbands. They discuss how, in both the medieval and early modern periods, women were punished less than men for same-sex acts, and few were prosecuted (none at all in England).
Chapter five -Before Pornography – begins with a discussion of pornography as a modern category, arising in the 17th century, with texts and images designed specifically to provoke arousal. Medieval material (and material from the 15-16th centuries) – such as phallic carvings, sheela-na-gigs, early modern ballads and plays, although it may have provoked arousal in some viewers or readers, is, according to the authors, not part of the continuum of pornography. The Medieval period, for example, allowed “useful obscenity” with the aim of inculcating moral or social values. Nor, they argue, was erotic art necessarily transgressive, and they also discuss how pornography in the 17-18th centuries was frequently written as a form of political and social critique.
The epilogue -Sex at Sea? – deals with early European encounters with peoples of the Pacific in the first wave of colonial expansion, and although the authors accept that the majority of these sexual encounters were between Europeans and native women, they also touch upon accounts of female-female and male-male desire, such as Bligh’s accounts of the Tahitian mahu.
Overall, this is a fascinating and engaging book, demonstrating not only how limited contemporary notions of sexual identity are when attempting to interpret the past, but also the recency of these same formations. (less)
Ellen Goldberg's book is the first extensive study of Ardhanarishvara: the Lord Who is Half Woman. She examines the influence of Ardhanarishvara throu...moreEllen Goldberg's book is the first extensive study of Ardhanarishvara: the Lord Who is Half Woman. She examines the influence of Ardhanarishvara through iconography, mythology, devotional poetry and the role of Ardhanarishvara in Hatha Yoga practice. She also provides a critical analysis of the image in terms of the gender construction of 'male' & 'female' and androgyny across cultures.
In the first chapter, Goldberg critically examines the representation of Ardhanarishvara in temple iconography. She points out that Ardhanarishvara should be understood as a symbolic representation of theological norms and doctrines - and that in general, iconography functions as a meditational and devotional aid for devotees. She analyses different representations of Ardhanarishvara - looking at differences in features such as the number of arms, or mudras dispalyed. For Goldberg, Ardhanarishvara represents "a paradigm of sacred human knowledge - a symbolic cultural landscape, formulating, regualting and legitimising religious and ideological presuppositions including gender, on the one hand, while also providing a diagnostic paradigm for mapping the transformations of human consciousness through the subtle conjunction of the male and female form."
The second chapter - Ardhanarishvara and Hathayoga - deals with Ardhanarishvara in Hathayoga practice - how the often convoluted concepts relating to various elements such as nadis, chakras, kundalini, etc., move the practitioner towards an inner reconciliation of "all apparent dualities". Citing the work of Susan Bordo, Goldberg asserts that through the various practices of Hathayoga, "culture is made body" - so Hathayoga practice cannot be seperated from "a systematic network of patriarchal insitutions that oftentimes promote images of male dominance and female subordination." Goldberg points out that women's bodies are not considered the "normative models" on which yoga practices are based - that few, if any of the Hathayoga classics have been written from the perspective of female practitioners. An example of this trend that springs to mind is the 16th century Sat-Cakra-Nirupana Tantra, translated by Arthur Avalon as The Serpent Power wherein all references to the esoteric anatomy of the yogin are couched entirely in male terms. Goldberg is rightly wary of metaphysical claims to sameness which, on examination, show one-sided (male) gender assumptions, and "subtle mechanisms of negation and absorbtion."
In the third chapter, Goldberg turns to an examination of Ardhanarishvara in devotional poetry - in particular, Tamil devotional poetics, and also the Ardhanarishvara Stotra, which has been attributed to Adi Sankara. Goldberg demonstrates, through her analysis, how Tamil Saivite poems uses highly stylised representations that relate to the rules of temple iconography. Whilst the poems are primarily devotional - invoking for the listener the presence of the deity through the poet's ecstatic experience, Goldberg asserts that these 'verbal icons' also encode normative patterns of gender & behaviour. She analyses these patterns in terms of a dialectical relationship between nature and culture. Goldberg also provides a translation of the Ardhanarishvara Stotra and subjects its imagery to a thorough analysis to uncover its gender markers. She asserts that rather than uncritically accepting "the illusion of equality in androdgynous images" (be they Western or Eastern) what is required is a critique of their 'subtle' gender constructions.
In chapter four - An Indian and a Feminist Perspective of Androgyny, Goldberg draws on the work of Wendy Doniger (Women, Androgynes and other Mythical Beasts) and Kari Weil (Androgyny and the Denial of Difference) in order to present a general overview of the image of the androgyne. She also provides a critical review of Feminist responses to the concept of androgyny, such as the 'psychological advocates' of androgyny such as Sandra Bem and June Singer; the critics of androgyny offered by Mary Daly and Adrianne Rich, and the "third phase" critiques of Toril Moi, Kristeva and Luce Irigaray - who highlight the problem of an androgyny which promotes wholeness or sameness by negating difference. This is a useful chapter for anyone interested in the cross-cultural analysis of the androgyne, although Goldberg maintains, justifiably in my opinion, that the image of Ardhanarishvara cannot be understood outside of its cultural context. Interestingly enough however, she also feels that feminist theory "could benefit from Indian philosophy's living application and experiential understanding of androgyny."
The final chapter Sakti and Parvati: A new Interpretation - Goldberg proposes a 'new' reading of the relationship between Siva and Parvarti. She reviews the major elements of her thesis thus far - how the androgyne acts as an encoded cultural motif both in terms of cosmogenesis and human processes. She also notes that "issues of equality" between men and women is an entirely modern concern (although I do feel it is worth recalling that many of those interested in Indian religious concepts often use them in such a manner as to assume an 'equality' which, on examination, may not actually be present). Goldberg also cites Diane Hoeveler's analysis of the androgyne in the Romantic literary tradition, particularly her observation that the British Romantic poets created their female alter-egos, only to 'destroy' them by the end of the poem. Goldberg finds a similar pattern in Hathayoga practice whereby the practitioner absorbs and 'purifies' the feminine only to eliminate 'her' in the final stages of laya (NB: David Gordon White's Kiss of the Yogini traces the gradual internalisation of the divine Yogini into 'feminine energies' within the male body is a useful reference in respect to this process).
Goldberg turns her attention to the Indian concept of Sakti and Parvati's role as heroine - as tapasvini. She recounts the story of how Parvati wins her self-chosen husband, Siva, through her Tapas, which Goldberg sees as a sign of her agency and independence (noting that Parvati pursues Siva despite strong disapproval from her family). Turning to Sakti, Goldberg briefly reviews the historical development of this concept, from its earliest appearence in the Vedas through to the Sixth century Devimahatmya by which time Sakti is seen as fully autonomous and the primary source of All.
Overall, The Lord Who is Half Woman is a fascinating work and belongs on the bookshelf of anyone with a serious interest in androgny, Tantra, or gender studies. I can only echo Jeffrey J. Kripal who, on the back cover, says that "It has the potential to become a classic Indological work."(less)
Dr. Devdutt Pattanaik is the author of a number of popular books on Hindu deities and mythology. The Man Who Was a Woman and other Queer Tales of Hind...moreDr. Devdutt Pattanaik is the author of a number of popular books on Hindu deities and mythology. The Man Who Was a Woman and other Queer Tales of Hindu Lore is a gentle, yet enthralling critical exploration of themes of gender transgression and queer readings of Hindu narratives, ranging from episodes from well-known epics such as Ramayana and Mahabharata to Puranic tales and little-known regional folklore. Thus in The Man Who Was a Woman we encounter women who become men, men who become women, pregnant kings, gender-liminal tricksters, tales of self-castration and strange creatures who are neither "this nor that."
The Man Who Was a Woman is much more than a collection of queered retellings though. For the English reader, Dr. Pattanaik provides some valuable insights into the fluidity and sometimes dizzying range of perspectives encompassed within the Hindu worldviews:
Unlike most biblical narratives, every Hindu tale has several versions, innumerable interpretations, and no specific place in the religious canon. Symbols and metaphors mingle and merge with characters and plots. Idea and imagination thrive on the roller coaster of transmigration and the fluidity of identities. Locked within the tales of gods, kings, and sages are the blazing philosophies of ancient spiritual masters ... the tales have, over the centuries, become integral parts of the Hindu spiritual landscape. ... As one internalises the tales, one comes to accept a universe that is boundlessly various, where everything occurs simultaneously, where all possibilities exist without excluding one another.
But Dr. Pattanaik is quick to point out that there is a disjunction between the lore that seems to accept queer liminality and the reality of a social culture which is, to a large extent, deeply uncomfortable with "queer" identities. He notes that whilst many Hindus enjoy hearing the gender-liminal exploits of a particular god or hero, that highlighting the "queer" aspects of the tale often draws reactions such as the tale is merely entertainment, comedy; or that it is an allegory not meant to be taken literally - or that the ways of gods are not those of humans - or, that such interpretations are down to "perverted" Western influences (See my review of the outcry prompted by Paul Courtright's psychoanalytic appraisal of Ganesa as an example of the latter). He recounts an infamous incident where an orthodox Hindu narrated the tale of Mohini & Shiva to a French audience, who immediately siezed upon its "gay" subtext, much to the disquiet of the narrator. He also discusses (briefly) the influence of British Colonialism in shaping contemporary Indian attitudes to sexuality.
During my reading of The Man Who Was a Woman I was particularly struck by Dr. Pattanaik's ability to present a complex and sophisticated perspective on gender & sexuality in Hindu lore in any easy, engaging and above all, accessible manner - without descending into academic jargon or painting an overly 'pink-tinted' view of an entirely queer-friendly ancient romanticised past, as some western authors have tended to do. Dr. Pattanaik is critical of authors who all too quickly make interpretions of convenience that do not take into account the complexities of the Hindu worldview. And - sensitive to the awareness of queer interpretations, Dr. Pattanaik emphasises that he is not presenting reproductions or translations of literal texts - these are his retellings of narratives - some from Classical Hindu sources, and others from popular Indian folklore. What he also does, very ably, is provide a commentary both on the tales themselves and the wider cultural contexts within which they are embedded.
Not only is this book unique as an exploration of queer subtexts in Hindu lore, it provides some useful insights into the roles that myths may serve in cultures. Dr. Pattanaik writes in his introduction:
Myths, legends and lore capture the collective unconscious of a people. They are revered inheritances, a complex weave of ancient attitudes and ambitions. Deemed sacred, they generate a worldview for a people, explain the inexplicable, and give life meaning, direction, and certainty. To understand the unexpressed worlds of a people, to decipher coping skills of a culture, an unravelling of myth, a decoding of lore is essential.
A problem I find with much occult writing regarding myth is that there is a tendency to seek 'sameness' rather than embrace, acknowledge, and yes, celebrate, difference. I become increasingly irritated, the older I get, with superficial attempts to draw parallels between, for example, deities from different cultures, purely on the basis that they share some similar function or feature. As an aside, it's useful to bear in mind that the 'science' of comparative religion grew out of the work of orientalists such as William Jones and Max Müller. Works such as The Man Who Was a Woman highlight the poverty of this rather reductionist approach.
The Man Who Was a Woman is a thoroughly engaging and insightful work which I feel sure that anyone with an abiding interest in the often complex relationship between a culture and its myths will find engrossing and delightful. You don't have to be queer to enjoy this book, but if you are, then then this is definitely not to be missed! (less)
The Red Thread: Buddhist Approaches to Sexuality by Bernard Faure manages to be both scholarly and a fun read at the same time. In an attempt to uncov...moreThe Red Thread: Buddhist Approaches to Sexuality by Bernard Faure manages to be both scholarly and a fun read at the same time. In an attempt to uncover "a Buddhist discourse on sex" Faure examines a wide variety of source, ranging from monastic texts, novels, plays, poetics, legal texts myths etc., and considers the role both social and political factors play in shaping religious doctrine. Faure does not dwell overmuch on the Indian roots of Buddhism, and most of the materials he draws upon are from Chinese and Japanese sources. A key point he makes is that there is really no universal Buddhism, but rather multivocal 'Buddhisms'.
Faure notes, at the outset, that in the text: Woman is conspicuously absent, or she appears in as much as she is an element of the Buddhist discourse on sexuality: not for herself, as individual, but as one pole of attraction or repulsion in a gendered male discourse about sex. Denied the role of a subject in this discourse, she is primarily the emblem of larger generative, karmic or social processes, with positive or negative soteriological value.
Indeed, The Red Thread does focus almost entirely on male desire for women or male-to-male desire, and whilst there are occasional references to women's desire (for men or for other women) this book is largely about addressing issues around desire from a male perspective - hence he does not really get past the portrayal of women as either dangerous seductresses or potential 'saviours' (he promises to look more closely at gender issues in Buddhism in a future work). Faure has a good deal to say about the problem of desire in the monastic Buddhist setting - there is an extensive examination of the Japanese nanshoku tradition of 'male love' ranging from aesthetics to jokes about Buddhist priests and their novices and the 'forced moving' of particularly alluring acolytes from monasteries; he also discusses Zen, the 'crazy wisdom' traditions and Buddhist Tantric instances.
Whilst I enjoyed reading The Red Thread I'd say its' probably better to view it as a 'sourcebook' rather than anything more substantive, particularly as Faure actively shies away from drawing anything that resembles an overall conclusion about the wealth of material he examines.
Example of a Japanese 'joke' from Faure:
"Once a priest and his disciple went to a benefactor's house with some religious papers. When they reached the door, they found that the disciple's belt had come loose and the papers had fallen out. 'It looks as if you had no bottom' said the priest. 'If I hadn't,' returned the disciple, 'you wouldn't be able to exist for a single day."(less)