Tuesday, December 27, 2011

For the Love of D-g

Two new posts at Lambda Literary got my attention today, though the newsletter has been in my inbox for a few days. Both touch on sexuality and spirituality, and I wonder if the site editors noticed that they almost cancel each other out.

The first was an interview by Christopher Hennessey with the editors of two recent anthologies of gay and lesbian poetry with "spiritual" ambitions. One collection, Milk and Honey (Midsummer Night’s Press), edited by Julie Enszer, is devoted to poetry by Jewish women; the other, Kevin Simmonds's Collective Brightness (Sibling Rivalry Press), collects "LGBTIQ Poets on Faith, Religion and Spirituality." I haven't read either one of them, though I might if the library gets copies; some of the poems described in the interviews sound interesting.

The other article was a review by Jeffrey Escoffier of a new biography of the gay S&M filmmaker and theorist Fred Halsted. I've never seen any of Halsted's films, partly because I'm not interested in S&M, but reading Escoffier's history of gay male film and video pornography Bigger Than Life has made me want to try to track down some of the classics. Many of them are available on DVD. But for now, I'm concerned with something Escoffier wrote in this review:
The one area of Halsted’s life that Jones doesn’t explore sufficiently is Halsted’s radical philosophy of sex. Several years ago Patrick Moore devoted a chapter to Halsted in Beyond Shame: Reclaiming the Abandoned History of Radical Gay Sexuality. Halsted believed that the erotic is transgressive and sacramental, that it is inherently violent and involves acts of violation. “Sex is not ‘coming,’ that is superficial sex,” he once explained. “Mine is personal cinema. I don’t fuck to get my rocks off. In the best scenes I’ve ever had, I haven’t come. I am not interesting in coming. … I am interested in getting my head off, my emotions off—and if I get my dick off, my rocks off, it really doesn’t matter that much to me. … I am interested in emotional satisfaction and intellectual satisfaction.” In some ways, Halsted seems to have anticipated Foucault’s view of S/M as a “creative enterprise” which imagined “the desexualization of pleasure.”
"Foucault's view of S/M as a 'creative enterprise'" reminds me of what Brian Eno, and others, have said about art as self-expression: that you express yourself every morning when you choose your clothes for the day. Anything can be a creative enterprise, from cooking to deciding how to organize your personal library, so it's no stretch to include sadomasochism in the list. I've also run across the notion that sex is "inherently violent and includes acts of violation." Sex, like most human activities, isn't "inherently" anything. One of our most troubling tendencies as human beings is the desire to define our personal tastes and quirks as the essence of the realms in which they occur; such ex cathedra claims can almost always be translated as the speaker's description of how he or she experiences something. For Halsted sex is is one thing; for someone else, it will be something different.

This is just as true of spirituality. (I'll bet you saw that coming.) It's virtually a cliche that the spiritually-minded person finds God (or whatever) everywhere. As William Blake put it:
To see a world in a grain of sand,
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour.
I've seen this quatrain on wall posters illustrated with pretty pictures of green blades of grass, crystal-clear drops of water, and other beauties of nature. But everything, and I do mean everything, has a spiritual dimension: self-mutilation, fasting, flagellation, the extremes of asceticism; but also highly oppressive social systems, which are of course ordained by the gods; wars and other forms of human sacrifice. The Bhagavad-Gita, for example, spiritualizes war: Krishna tells Arjuna that the warrior slaughters his opponents not for self-glorification or bloodlust, but in the service of one's temporal duty, so go get 'em champ! And Arjuna did. As the Gita's American admirer "Winthrop Sargeant explains, 'In the model presented by the Bhagavad Gītā, every aspect of life is in fact a way of salvation.'" As the Gita itself put it: "No work stains a man who is pure, who is in harmony, who is master of his life, whose soul is one with the soul of all." Such a man could be a torturer, could drop napalm on children, could set fire to bums, as long as he stayed pure. (I'm not being cynical: see my remarks on the New Age teacher Chris Griscom here.)

Spiritual aspirants have also contemplated mortality, decay, rot, the yucky stuff of life; as well they ought. There was a guy Margot Adler mentioned in her survey of American neo-paganism, Drawing Down the Moon (I read the 1986 revised edition published by Beacon Press; Adler has updated the book several times since then), who argued that there were gods of cities as well as of the countryside, and pagans should acknowledge them; but he was the only person she wrote about who thought so. It seems to me that the kind of spirituality with the most commercial potential among educated (and mostly white) Americans today tries to ignore these matters, presenting a cleaned-up, sanitized product. That's not all there is to spirituality, including the ancient sources it invokes to give it authority.

If Halsted and others sought transcendence through an erotic theater of abjection, abasement, explicit power relations, costumes, and paraphernalia, including "acts of violation," fine for them. They could do much worse. But they have no more business legislating this as the essence of sex for everybody than an evangelical Christian has legislating his or her peculiar interpretation of the Jesus cult as normative for everybody.

As with many spiritualistas, I'm skeptical about the effectiveness of Halsted's praxis. He was, says Escoffier, "alcoholic and tortured by self-doubt and insecurities that undermined his public persona as the ultra top—the role he chose to play in his own movies." Like every god I know of, Halsted's failed him; it couldn't stop him from destroying himself. But then I remind myself that self-destructive tendencies are common among religious seekers and teachers; think of St. Francis of Assisi, who died of complications from stigmata, eye disease, and fasting at the age of 45. Halsted was 47 when he died by his own hand, of an overdose of sleeping pills. It's not exactly news that the spiritual quest isn't necessarily good for the body.

To her credit, Julie Enzser resists the boxes her interviewer tries to put her into.
Sensuality and the lesbian body are big themes in my own writing and in what I love to read. I’m drawn to poetry that includes erotic writing about lesbian experiences; I am interested how we write about our bodies and the physical and sensual experiences of our bodies. Although I would like to say that I think that this is a hallmark of Jewish lesbian poetry, I think it is more of an idiosyncratic characteristic of me as a reader and editor.
She also acknowledges that some of the poems' spirituality, or even Jewishness, emerges mainly in the context of the anthology. By analogy, if I sing a set of songs which explicitly express romantic love between men, then sing one which is ambiguous, you're more likely to hear it as a song of romantic love between men than you would if you heard it in a heterosexual context. (Unless you're absolutely determined to hear heterosexuality except when homosexuality is explicitly invoked.) What presumably makes these poems "spiritual" is that they are labeled so. Hennessey asks her at one point, "Eleanor Lerman’s poem’s ending really complicates what we think about God" (because she writes "God" instead "G-d", as religious Jews often do), and as usual my first reaction was "What do you mean 'we'?"

Once again, trying to subsume all kinds of religious (or other) experience under one word -- "spiritual," in this case, which functions along with "faith" nowadays much as "gender" does with regard to "sex" or "ethnicity" to "race", and "identity" does with just about everything -- ends up homogenizing difference into grey mush. Judaism is historically a religion about practice, not faith, doctrine, or even "spirituality." I don't say that to imply that it's a deficiency (or as some Jewish partisans would infer, a superiority); it's just a difference.