Saturday, November 05, 2011

Samesex, Not Queer: How the Brahmans Do It


First, read Eileen!

Our women are not adorned to please us. Indeed, they reckon adornment a burden since they wish to be beautiful not for their ornaments but for their innate nature alone. For who can improve on nature's work? If anyone does wish to improve it, that is a crime which cannot be permitted. (History of Alexander's Battles 92)
Neither they nor their womenfolk strive to make themselves more beautiful than the way they were born; they realise that no-one can improve on the work of nature. Hence they think that the use of ornaments is more of a burden than a decoration. There is no fornication, incest or adultery, nor do they sleep together except for the sake of having children. (Robert Grosseteste, On the Six Days of Creation 23)
Oure paramours vs to plese, ne pride þaim beweues,
Nouthire furrers, filetts, ne frengs, ne frettis of perle.
Is þam na surcote of silke ne serkis of Raynes,
Ne kirtils of camlyn, bot as þam kynd lenes.
Ne ne3e we neuire þaim on ni3t to naite for na luste,
Bot for to sustayne oure sede & syn ay to voide. (Wars of Alexander 4465-71)
I've talked here already (this and this) about the medieval tradition of Alexander and the Brahmans, focusing on the text's peculiar ecological thinking. Something odd struck me the other day, though, about the women Brahmans. I'm glad it did, finally. With these texts, as with my work on humans and animals more generally, I haven't done much on gender, much to my annoyance (though I think I might be fair in saying that most critical animal theory doesn't do much with gender, for what it's worth: but see here).

Here goes something.

The Brahman women are basically men. Though the women make barely any appearance in the most popular of the medieval Brahman traditions, I can safely say from what little we see of them that there's no real sexual difference. They're no disunity among the Brahmans. They're all philosophers, all contemptuous of cultural excess and perhaps of culture as a whole, all contemptuous in particular of cosmetics and fancy clothes, the features in any number of textual traditions (an early one: 1 Corinthians 11:6-15) of women and dandies.

Brahman sexuality, in other words, is, structurally speaking, samesex sexuality, but antiqueer samesex sexuality. It attempts to imagine a sexuality without the disintegrations of desire (see for example this guy). It's not quite Augustine's Eden, but it's close enough.

Women tend to be put on the side of Nature, there to be conquered and dominated. Though this may be true, say, for the Albina legend, it may not be the case for classical and medieval texts more generally, where women, along with cosmetics and nonreproductive sex, belong to culture and its human errors (linked to aspirationally as a book I'm looking forward to reading). It's not the case, either, for moden masculinist nature writing (as condemned, e.g., by Morton), where men go out into the wilderness to commune with a masculine sublime nature, free of all inauthenticity (read: cosmetics, decorations, etc.).

In the medieval Brahman tradition, though, these philosophical women and men are on the side of nature and reason, categories indistinguishable from one another. On the one side Nature/Reason and on the other (where we find Alexander, and his silk shirts and nice food) culture. As usual, the queer's on the side of culture, against nature. Except this time, it's what the kids used to call "opposite sexuality" that's queer. Odd? Worth playing around with some more?

Something else to play around with for the persistently interested: Dindimus speaks on behalf of the Brahmans, but especially on behalf of the men. "Oure paramours vs to plese" divides us, the male philosophers, from our women, even as the presentation of the women immediately subsumes them into masculinity. Here, then, is the first obstacle to my reading. Find more obstacles with my blessing!


Jeffrey Cohen said...

Samesex, and essentially masculinist, with a patina of misogyny. It is too bad that the text cannot seem to imagine a femininity that is afffirmtive, creative, and not subsumable.

Karl Steel said...

True, unless it locates that femininity in Alexander itself. In several witnesses of Alexander and Dindimus, he more than holds his own in the debate. It's an honest-to-goodness debate between two ways of life. In which case we have the philosophical men on the one side and a gender-indifferent conqueror on the other.

Furthermore we could note that Alexander tends to encounter sylvan Amazons shortly before or after he encounters the Brahmans (maybe between the Gymnosophists and the Brahmans?). So there's more going on here than these particular passages let on.

Definitely masculinist and misogynist yet at the same time makes so-called normal sexuality look really weird. Which brings us to Karma Lochrie territory, yeah?

Also, if one wants to imagine a philosophical community, then one needs either conversion (which doesn't work here: in some versions, Dindimus turns Alexander down) or reproduction (otherwise we have something like the the community of knights who refuse to marry and then die out...mentioned in Anna Klosowska Queer Love in the MA?). Since a philosophical ideal is male (see inter alia Jerome's Against Jovinian, portions of which I taught this semester), this puts the community in a very odd position.

It's that oddness that interests me.

The trick of course is not just to look down on it, as if to say "oh those stupid misogynists! look at the trouble they got themselves into!"). I need to find some way into another approach to this weirdness.

Jeb said...

Leaves me with an image of the Pretty Feet Deodorant slogan ("what's the ugliest part of you're body?) sung by Frank Zappa with a chorus line of austere early med. Celtic monks doing the backing vocals.

Karl Steel said...


Nathaniel M. Campbell said...

I don't know if this would be helpful, but have you considered (at least as analogues) the cases of female religious who hide/subsume their gender to enter male religious houses? Or, from a more secular perspective, the case of the maget in Hartmann von Aue's Der arme Heinrich, whose feminine (and childish) weaknesses are subsumed and empowered by what is presumed to be the power of the Holy Spirit? (Despite that fact that she's not named, she's the most loquacious character in the poem!)

Or perhaps someone like Hildegard of Bingen, who imagined femininity as both affirmative/creative and subsumable, that is to say, for whom feminine weakness was the springboard for vaulting far beyond the masculine (operating in a mirrored metaphysics that allows God's grace to raise the lower woman to a higher position than man)? I'm thinking of the tension (never resolved, as Barbara Newman pointed out) between her affirmations of equality of the sexes and indeed of the creative power of the menstrual blood, and the fact that she herself was not comfortable making her prophetic office public until her forties, i.e. until menopause, when the physical signs of the (sinful) difference between her womanhood and masculinity ceased to flow.

I understand, of course, that Dindimus is working in a philosophical rather than theological milieu. But the theological arguments made by women might at least offer some analogous modes of thinking about this.

Anonymous said...

"Brahman"...interesting word...what precisely do you mean when you use it in the context of your post?

Karl Steel said...

Nathaniel: great comment and I hope to respond by this evening.

Anon: why do you find the word interesting? I'm using it in this sense. The Alexander legend has him meeting Gymnosophists and then, sooner after, "Brahmans," whose are perfect ascetics living in a Utopia. The word of course has other meanings, but in the context of this specific medieval tradition, it refers to this ascetic people.

Jeb said...

Karl slightly off topic, if you are going to look at gender further given you're interests, there is a type of narrative found in Ireland and Scotland that is essential reading I think. How do you make the best little wife? In Dubh Ruis case starts with an interesting cure for melancholia and grief.