Surreal Christology (part 4): The Androgyny

Part of what appeals to me about Surrealism both as an artistic school and also as a way of engaging with human experience, is the way in which it seeks to embrace experiences of fluidity and uncertainty. Surrealist art often dives deep into rich realms of the unconscious where attempts at neat categorisation quickly start coming apart at the seams. This is a twilight realm in which polarities such as animal versus human, safety versus threat and male versus female are both challenged and played with.

I have previously written about the way in which Queer theory and experience has provided for me a language for understanding the blurry liminality that I experienced in relation to my sexuality and in my spiritual explorations. Queer theory often provides an irreverent take on the complex interplay between biological sex and the way in which we perform our genders. This playfulness is as likely to be found in visual art as it is in text and for me depictions of Androgyny (both religious and secular) can help us gain insight into this strange territory.

kahlo

Frida Kahlo Self-Portrait with Cropped hair

 In the work of both Frida Kahlo and Leonora Carrington we see the way in which both of these female artists engage with depictions of the gendered body in ways which seek to disrupt many of the cultural expectations of their time. Kahlo powerfully utilised the juxtaposition of Mexican traditional dress with glorious facial hair to present a more authentic version of themselves. In both her art and life Kahlo bravely explored the fluidity of both her gender presentation and bisexuality, despite her physical disabilities and the personal turmoil she experienced. She even refused to be pigeon-holed as a Surrealist stating; “I never painted dreams. I painted my reality”. In my view artists such as Carrington and Kahlo worked with androgyny in a manner that embraced the dynamic and shifting nature of what this concept might mean. As Erin Hinz has observed in assessing themes of androgyny within Carrington’s work:

“Carrington experienced the social limits of her female body and choose to create bodies that fused these restrictive codes with animals, ancient ideologies in an alchemical way that transmuted these base constructions into precious, mystical and complex expressions of identity.”

dawn-horse

Self-portrait: The Inn of the Dawn Horse, 1937-38 Leonora Carrington

While the interplay of both male and female aspects of the self was lauded in the works of Jung and first wave feminists (cf. Virginia Woolf’s iconic Orlando) others have been less than keen. While the call of these early writers was taken up by later luminaries such as June Singer and Carolyn Heilbrun, some second wave Feminist theologians such as Mary Daly saw it as an escapist trap that “sucks spellbound victims into itself”. From the perspective of her radical separatism, Daly viewed it as an attack on both the essential potency of womanhood (“Why do I need to be half-male?”) and an attempt to falsely reify certain qualities of humanity as being polarised “male” or “female”. From such a perspective, the aspiration towards androgyny amounts to a form of sexual sublimation and fantasy that distances women from the visceral experience of female embodiment and passion.

While such voices need to be part of dialogue concerning androgyny, it could be argued that while they are seeking to challenge ideas of stereotyping and gendered fixity, via their biological essentialism they may be in danger of another existential cul de sac.  While concepts of androgyny may well be in danger of minimising difference and a true valuing of women’s experience, the desire for such an essential separateness also risks missing experiences of playfulness and exploration that seem vital to shared human experience.

For me the challenging deconstruction offered by third wave feminisms and Queer theory, is less about the removal of category and difference and more about a willingness to dance and blur at the edges of where we think such borders lie. There seems to be a psychological complexity to such approaches that allows for the power of dreams and the unconscious in allowing the primacy of the experimental and experiential. Perhaps we are back with the Trickster in prophetically destabilising neat categorisation and asking for the space to be uncertain and to explore.

This queered vision of androgyny provides a sigil for challenging and shifting our sense of what we think we think we know. This androgynous mystery acts a mirror via which deeper aspects of self might be gleaned. Whether when gazing at our own reflection or in viewing the other, the presence of such oscillating fluidity can provide the possibility of change, and with change, hope.

In relation to my own journey I have already sought to describe how my initial flight into Christianity was largely related to my adolescent confusion about the fluidity of my own sexuality and gender identity. Despite the damaging efforts of my self-suppression, I experienced at least a part of my liberation via my encounter with the Queer androgyny of Christ.

While owning my own needs and bias, I eventually encountered in my reading of Jesus a blurry ambiguity that that provided for me an alternative mode of being. This was the Jesus who cleared Temples and overturned tables, but also who blessed the gentle and sought out the one lost sheep. At a more cosmic level he was also the mythic Christ of the Gnostics, who as the “first Adam” existed in some spacey realm in which they at once contained many genders while being also beyond them. This metaphysical fluidity – while looking decidedly freaky to my fellow seminarians – provided me with a doorway via which I could begin a new chapter of greater self-understanding. Such explorations are definitely ongoing, and continue to this day.

SD

 

Reading List:

Ellen Goldberg: The Lord Who is Half Woman: Adhanarishvara in Indian and Feminist Perspective 2012

Carolyn Heilbrun: Towards a Recognition of Androgyny 1993

Erin Hinz: The Work of Leonora Carrington: An Alchemical Transmutation of Gender through Magic, Animals, and Narrative

http://genderstudies.nd.edu/assets/64258/e_hinz_the_work_of_leonora_carrington.pdf

June Singer: Androgyny: Toward a New Theory of Sexuality 1976

 

Heretic Heroes (Part 2)

Book Review: Andrew Phillip Smith The Lost Teachings of the Cathars, Watkins Books 2015

It’s easy to get overwhelmed when trying to get your head around a religious movement. The moment we get beyond catchphrases and pop culture references, the ideas and experiences that lay behind words like “Tantra” or “Gnosticism” can quickly result in the need to have a bit of a lie down in a darkened room.

lost-teachings

Given the potential complexity of such terrain, it always comes as a relief when you find an author who is able to maintain the precarious balance between factual accuracy, readability and contemporary relevance. In the realm of Gnostic studies Andrew Phillip Smith has consistently been such a voice. Not only has he been editor of the fabulous journal The Gnostic but he has also penned a clutch of super-helpful volumes such as The Secret History of the Gnostics and A Dictionary of Gnosticism. In The Lost Teachings of the Cathars, Andrew has now turned his attention specifically to the issue of how the Gnostic religious impulse has continued from antiquity into the medieval period and beyond.

The first part of the book provides us with a well-written account of the Cathars as a religious movement, and their likely connection to other groups such as the Paulicians and Bogomils that pre-dated them. While there are a number of other books out there that cover similar territory, Smith’s account reads like a lively travel journal that incorporates both his own travels through regions such as the Languedoc, and his insights regarding what we know about Cathar teachings and their connection to earlier forms of Gnosticism.

While the Cathars can rightly be viewed as exemplifying a heroic attempt at religious freethinking, their story is ultimately a tragedy. The period between the 11th and 14th centuries in which they flourished in southern France and northern Italy was continually beset with conflicts with the orthodox Roman church, which they viewed as corrupt and in thrall to a false understanding of both God and salvation. Although there was variety and complexity in what we know of Cathar belief, it is generally agreed that they were dualists who viewed the realm of matter as being the product of a lesser god.

What Andrew’s book does more fully than most studies of Catharism is to closely consider their practices and their likely significance within the community of believers. He explores the available material that we have regarding their primary sacraments such as the consolateum and the apparellamentum, as well as the purpose behind the celibacy and vegetarianism adopted by the group’s adepts (the Perfecti). He also examines the manner in which their radical reinterpretation of Christ’s teaching ultimately brought them into such violent conflict with both civil and ecclesiastical authorities. Whatever one makes of their dualist theology, it is hard to remain unmoved by the devastating holocaust that was inflicted upon them at Montsegur at the culmination of the Albigensian crusade.

Brother on Brother Action

Brother on Brother Action

Most of the previous books that I have read on the Cathars have tended to end here, trying to make sense of these peace-loving mystics who fell foul of a corrupt church so desperate to hold on to its ability to control. Here though, what Smith does next is consider the way in which the last embers of the Cathar tradition have been revived by various teachers and groups in subsequent centuries. Like so many traditions that produced few written documents to define their teachings, the Cathars have become a screen onto which all manner of groups and writers can project their own desires and agendas.

From here it gets both weird and interesting as we get to dig into some more recent history.  Otto Rahn’s imagining of the Cathars as the custodians of the Grail brought him to the attention of Himmler and the SS  (Indiana Jones anyone?) and probably contributed to his early demise. Also we have the French Gnostic Church getting revived  (in 1889) via disembodied Cathar Bishops turning up at séances, and perhaps most spectacularly we have a mass Cathar reincarnation occurring in Bath, England. This latter story of an English psychiatrist being convinced by a patient that both of them were reincarnated Cathars, illustrates something of the way in which they have become a conduit via which the aspirations of our Aquarian age have been funnelled.

While lesser authors (and cynical chaos magicians) might take cheap shots at the nature of these explorations, Smith examines such efforts in a spirit that is at once critical and yet generous in understanding them as part of our shared human attempts to find meaning and identity. Such generosity is to be applauded and to my mind reflects a tolerance that the Cathars themselves would have welcomed.

Highly recommended.

For a chance to see Andrew and myself co-presenting about the Gnostics at the Occult Conference in Glastonbury, here’s a link! http://www.occultconference.co.uk/schedule/speakers/exploring-gnosticism

SD