Wednesday, September 16, 2009

The Invention of Sodomy

Gay Catholic academic Mark Jordan’s The Invention of Sodomy in Christian Theology is an intensely scholarly study of the invention and development of the term sodomia (sodomy) in medieval theology.

In fact, a little too intensely scholarly: Jordan lays on the perils of recovering the past a little thickly, especially the need to have a “real scholar” do it. And I cannot work out why he spends his fourth chapter on a close (indeed claustrophobic) examination of Alan of Lille’s Plaint of Nature. The passing references to it later in the book don’t seem to warrant a chapter whose only point which seems at all germane to the central argument of the book—that Alan of Lille does not use the term sodomia when his subject matter would seem to require it, yet has this inconsistent horror (p.167) of what he cannot name—could have been covered in a couple of paragraphs. But it is a terribly scholarly chapter. Though I did like his comment, late in the book, that modern scholars on medieval texts tend to be both dunce and jades—they typically know far less of the context than do the authors but are familiar with a bewildering variety of texts, notions, languages and tastes unknown to medievals (p.173).

Jordan takes us through the medieval theology of sodomia, a term he cannot find in any source (and he does seem to have read very widely in medieval and patristic theological texts) before the C11th theologian Peter Damien. Eugene Rice cites a C9th monk but it is reasonable to give Peter Damian credit for popularising the term.
Jordan starts—A Prelude after Nietzsche—with various methodological issues and foreshadows his eventual conclusion:
If I am right, the category “Sodomy” cannot be used for serious thinking. It certainly cannot be used for rethinking what Christian theology has to say about human sex (p.9).
He then looks at the hagiography and cult of C10th martyr St Pelagius, a beautiful adolescent who was martyred for refusing the sexual advance of Cordoban Ummayad Caliph Abd al-Rahman III in 925 or 926. His interest in not in what actually happened to St Pelagius (now, probably not discoverable) but in how his story was written up and presented. Particularly in the often somewhat elliptical way the Caliph’s passion for Pelagius is described and the concern over Pelagius’s physical beauty and what it signified.

Elliptical but not unknown. Same-sex desire was a form of luxuria.
Erotic disorder is caught up in a system of causes with opulence, which is itself viewed as feminising, and with arrogance, which is at the root of all spiritual disorder (p.17).
As categorisation of sin developed, sexual sins were to gather increasing pride of place.

The term sodomia is not used, but one of St Pelagius’s hagiographers, the canoness Hrotswitha of Ganderheim (in Saxony), describes the key sin of the Caliph as being disfigured by Sodomitic vices (p.28).

Which leads into Chapter Two, The Discovery of Sodomy. Peter Damien’s alleged coinage (or at least popularising development) of the term, done in deliberate analogy to blasphemia, the most explicit sin in denying God. It is a theological term, and one of condemnation. To go against the procreative/natural form is to deny God.

Jordan describes this usage as the culmination of a processing of “thinning” (taking away details, qualifications, restrictions) and condensed various simplifications into a single category. Why invoke Sodom? Because Genesis 19 is the epitome of divine retribution. And, moreover, divine retribution for self-indulgent arrogance—this is how, for example, Jerome categorises it. Ambrose takes further the notion that it is about fleshy indulgences.

Augustine takes it further still and, though he still sees Sodom as a case of general depravity, he draws the explicit lesson that it is better that (female) daughters of Lot be violated than (male) angels be. In doing so, Augustine makes the crucial move to focus on a very narrow (indeed, bizarre) construction of the story (in flat contradiction to the references to Sodom in the Hebrew Scriptures and by Jesus) that has since become so familiar. Augustine was following in the steps of Jewish natural law philosopher Philo of Alexandria, who is the source of connecting the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah to non-procreative sex. But Philo does not figure in Jordan’s work. Nor does the general anathematisation of same-sex activity by monotheist religions.

The next chapter examines Peter Damien’s Book of Gomorrah where the term sodomia is, Jordan claims, coined. Jordan examines the rhetoric, the logic and sources (or lack thereof) in Damien’s work and Peter Damien’s concern that there is a “Sodomitical Church” within the Church. (A very modern concern, though arguing that a priest who has sex with someone he is hearing confessions from is a form of incest—the priest being spiritual father—is much more about very medieval concerns about incest, defined extremely broadly.) Damien is frantically concerned with the degree of corruption of the Church, with the attraction of the sin. But it is still seen as an activity, repentance from which can redeem the Sodomite (though not make him a fit officer of the Church). Or maybe not—Damien seems in genuine doubt on this point. Jordan notes Peter Damien regularly strays into talking of Sodomite as a type of person.

The fourth chapter is the why is it there? chapter on Alan of Lille’s Plaint of Nature. We then move to a chapter on The Care of Sodomites, looking at medieval confession manuals, starting with Paul of Hungary’s Summa of Penance which gets a touch obsessive about the “sin against nature” (any ejaculation not into a womb), now labelled ‘sodomy’—it takes up about half his text and is denounced in the most absolute terms. Paul plays games with quotes from Augustine to get the result clearly desired. Paul thinks the sin utterly abominable—God damns it, so to do it is to deny God—but is also concerned that it so attractive that talking about it too much and too clearly may spread it. Jordan notes a pattern of silences in various manuals.

Another manual considered is William Peraldus’s Summa of the Vice and Virtues, the main work of Dominican synthesis prior to Aquinas. While not as obsessive as Paul of Hungary, Peraldus is perhaps even more concerned that speaking openly of Sodomy for fear of spreading it. Sodomy becomes a sin that cannot be mentioned, a unique category:
to hold that there is a very important sin against which the faithful cannot be warned is to make preaching and confession a game of charades (p.111).
A sin of suffocating silences. Which comes together in his image that Sodomites are mute before the Throne of God at the Last Judgement:
“They cannot speak to excuse themselves on account of ignorance since nature itself taught the law they transgress to brute animals” (p.112).
(Displaying an ignorance of nature as it actually is that, for example, hunter-gatherer societies living embedded in nature don’t.) Sodomites cannot speak before God (p.112) and Sodomy cannot be spoken of.

The sixth chapter is an examination of Albert Magnus’s writings. Albert Magnus saw sodomy as a sin against grace, reason and nature (p.126). He applies a theory of organ teleology, to the extent of arguing that since humans are the only ones whose females has vulvas to the front, proper sex has to be frontal (p.131). Jordan argues that Albert applies his understanding of medical knowledge (for which he was famed) in a quite inconsistent way. Jordan is again interested in the silence and exclusions in Albert’s works.

In the chapter on Thomas Aquinas, Jordan’s frustration with both Aquinas and the modern misuse of him is very clear:
Thomas Aquinas is not so often read as brandished. He has become more emblem than author (p.136)
no exegetical strategy has done more violence to Thomas’s texts than the strategy of trying to guess what he might have said to some modern dilemma. Thomas ends up saying what his readers wanted to say before turning to him. This is called “Thomism”. (pp156-7).
For Aquinas, the pleasure of the unnatural is deeply troubling (p.156). The key terms for him are sexus (anatomy/physiology), usus (right use) and delectatus (dangerous pleasure). Aquinas does not have modern concept of sexuality (which presupposes the connective role of sex). For Aquinas, divine law fills in silences and ambiguities of natural law (p.157). Sodomy is wrong in part because it is not bounded. Right sex is bounded, sin is not so. Jordan argues that this removes the realism of sin.

Jordan concludes in his A Postlude after Ambrose by examining how the theology of sodomy shows
unstable terms, unfaithful descriptions, inconsistent arguments (p.160).
He asks why the pervasive inconsistencies (p.167)? Homophobia is not an explanation
but a placeholder for an explanation (p.167).
These failings leave a Catholic theologian (or any Christian generally) wrestling with the issue of a deeply problematic tradition (p.170). Jordan attacks the descent of many branches of Christianity into “fertility cults”, arguing that the Gospel notion of love is “deeply unbiological” (p.174).

Jordan concludes:
We might even suspect that Sodomy came into existence as a category just because of that failure. To invent Sodomy was to invent a pure essence of the erotic without connection to reproduction. It was to isolate the erotic in its pure state, where it could be described in frightening colors and condemned without concession. “Sodomy” is a name not for a kind of human behaviour, but for a failure of theologians. “Sodomy” is the nervous refusal of theologians to understand how pleasure can survive the preaching of the Gospel (p.176).
I found Jordan tended to spend so much time on detail that he was much less successful at drawing points together. He also very much assumed that the reader had at least some theological background. He was certainly less than apt at conveying classical natural law thinking but whether that was a failure of conception or execution I am less certain of. Still, there are useful nuggets to be found.

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