Zinaida Gippius and Vyliublennost: An Early Modernist’s Sexual Revolution




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Zinaida Gippius and Vyliublennost: An Early Modernist’s Sexual Revolution

Philippa Hetherington


Despite recent the explosion in histories of gender and sexuality amongst Russianists, few historians have chosen to examine philosophies of sexual revolution which fell outside of the liberal or socialist paradigm in Russia. This is undoubtedly in part due to the difficulty of excavating those alternate conceptualizations of radical sexual dissidence which did not form part of a major and well-documented movement or political ideology. An intellectual biographical approach of certain sexual dissidents can help us to overcome this difficulty. Accordingly, this paper will seek to recover the elusive cultural phenomena of unique sexual dissidence by taking the personal life and literary works of the prominent fin de siècle writer Zinaida Gippius as a concrete set of historical texts that can help us to uncover the radical philosophy of gender indeterminism and sexual revolution she formulated between 1890 and 1917.
Zinaida Gippius was the only female writer to gain recognition equal to that of her male contemporaries in Russian literature prior to the twentieth century. She came to prominence during the cultural renaissance of the Silver Age, generally dated from 1890 to 1917, when artists and writers were reassessing the positivist legacy of the nineteenth century intelligentsia, rejecting the stagnant style of realism in favor of a renewed aestheticism and focus on the individual psyche. Public discourse was increasingly preoccupied with questions of sexual morality, and mass industrialization was creating a consumer market more open to female writers than at any previous time in Russian history. At the same time, although the new intelligentsia generally eschewed the old-fashioned materialism of the nihilist 1860s, most Russian intelligenti continued to read and write about social change in terms of revolutionary rather than evolutionary transformation. Gippius' personal philosophy embraced many of these trends and her 'religiously heretical, politically radical and sexually unconventional'1 views reflected a confluence of contemporary revolutionary philosophies and the new individualistic aesthetic. However, her experiments with gender fluidity, inscribing male and female identities onto her body and into her literary work, and her idealization of androgyny, posited a non-essentialist view of gender and sexuality that ran counter to the hegemonic biological discourse of the fin de siècle. Neither did it accord with the ideological precepts of liberal or socialist feminism. While the latter two manifestations of feminist resistance in fin de siècle Russia have received considerable historical attention in recent years, the gender philosophies of figures who stood outside this dichotomous paradigm have not.2 A better understanding of the many and varied conceptualizations of ‘sexual revolution’ in pre-revolutionary Russia is needed in order to understand the way in which many Russian women, not only those involved in organized feminist movements, were resisting hegemonic paternalism and heterosexism in this period. This paper aims to re-assess our knowledge feminist resistance in fin de siècle Russia by examining Gippius’ philosophy of sexual revolution, and the way in which it developed from her personal experiments with gender dissidence.
Gippius' repudiation of 'natural' sexual difference greatly influenced the utopian vision she developed after 1905 of a sexual revolution that would sweep away both the political order and the repressive doctrine of biological determinism, making way for a society of spiritual and sexual freedom, and gender equality (indeed, gender dissolution). Deeply religious, Gippius’ revolution was to incorporate spiritual, as well as social and political, transformation. Central to this spiritual transformation was her concept of vyliublennost or holy erotic love, whereby all erotic love, homosexual, heterosexual or other, was to be sanctified and thus permissible in the future utopian society. Gippius' experiments with gender indeterminism have been the focus of increased academic attention in recent years, particularly by literary scholars such as Olga Matich and Jenifer Presto.3 What has been far less widely documented in the secondary literature is her vociferous advocacy of revolution in Russia in the early twentieth century, and her formulation of a unique (proto-socialist) philosophy of sexual revolution, disseminated through tracts such as the 1906 La Tsar et la Revolution and her journal Novyi Put (The New Way). The neglect of Gippius’ political program by scholars studying her work obscures the extent to which her sexual philosophy was a revolutionary one. It also prevents a full evaluation of the extent to which her sexual politics intersected with the social and historical moment in which she lived, an important point of analysis if we are to use Gippius’ philosophies as a launch pad for a wider examination of feminist resistance in pre-revolutionary Russia.
The Sexual Foundations of Gippius' Utopian Vision - 1890-1905

Entering the small but vocal milieu of the Silver Age literary avant garde in the early 1890s, Gippius' quickly became controversial for her insistence on bisexuality as the only 'natural' sexual state, and her often theatrical attempts to blur the lines between male and female. Gippius acted out poetic celebrations of bisexuality through cross-dressing, evidence of which survives in portraits and contemporaries' accounts.4 In doing so, she engaged in what Irina Paperno has identified as Symbolist life-creation (zhiznetvorchestvo), through which the Symbolists hoped to unify the antitheses of life and art.5 The most famous extant portrait of Gippius is that by the prominent Mir Isskustva artist Leon Bakst, painted in 1906, which shows her dressed not only in the leggings and cravat of a man but also adopting the slouching and simpering pose of a turn of the century dandy.6 Gippius declared gleefully in a letter to journalist Zinaida Vengerova in 1897 that she had caused a great stir while staying at her dacha by her habit of traversing the fields dressed in Ukrainian culottes and eschewing corset and petticoat.7 She seems to have enjoyed the shock value of her behavior – fellow poets such as Valery Briusov criticized her for her deliberate attempts to flout social custom - but in the light of her preoccupation with the boundary between male and female, it would be erroneous to assume this was her only motivation.8 To cross-dress is always a self-conscious act, and in many ways an assertion of gender instability, underlining the fact that what can seem natural and immutable is often socially constructed.9 Gippius' decision to dress alternately as man and woman did not automatically denote homosexuality or bisexuality to the same extent that it may have done for a man, for whom female dress and homosexuality were closely linked in sexological discourses at least until the publication of Magnus Hirschfeld's Die Transvestiten in 1910.10 Women's desire to dress as men could sometimes be attributed to a need to assume the more powerful and less restricted role of a man. However, in Gippius' case, her propensity to also take her female persona to the point of parody, wearing thick makeup or refusing for a time to wear anything but white dresses, suggests that she sought to exercise greater authority and power not by donning the costume of a man, but by taking a position of radical gender indeterminacy, both man and woman.11 As Jenifer Presto has argued, in late nineteenth century Russia 'the female artist was constantly being presented as female and fashionable’ and Gippius found that one of the best ways to uncover the cultural production of female artists was dressing herself in an extremely feminine manner.12 In this way, Gippius performed the gender fluidity she preached, uncovering not only the fallacious view of the female artist, but the fallacious doctrine of gender essentialism.
The most commonly noted manifestation of Gippius' attempts to blur the lines between male and female is the use of the masculine voice in most of her poetry. Russian is a gendered language, in which a masculine 'speaker' can be identified by the use of past tense masculine verb endings, adjectives or pronouns.13 Gippius' decision to use the masculine voice can be seen as a desire to distance herself from the problematic definition of the poetess (poetessa) which in Russia designated a specific cultural mask denoting an 'impure poet'.14 As she famously declared in 1902, 'I wish to write as a person, not as a woman.'15 Her conscious confusion of gender, accentuated by her insistence on signing her poetry with her real, female name (rather than choosing a neutral pseudonym as her friend Allegro [Poliksena Solovieva] did) suggests a deliberate attempt to disconcert the reader, as it draws attention to the issue of gender, rather than obscuring it. In the majority of instances where Gippius used a gendered first person narrative voice in her poetry, it was masculine as opposed to feminine.16 In her 1905 poem 'You' (Ty) Gippius takes her gender bending one step further, alternating between masculine and feminine verb forms and adjectives. This results in confusion over the gender of both the speaker and the object of his/her declarations, the personified moon. Thus, the final stanza of the poem reads,

I (m) waited and I wait for you my clear dawn

I (f) have come to love you tirelessly

Arise then my silvery-red moon (m)

Emerge, two-horned one (f) - My dear (m)

Dear (f) 17

Gippius highlighted the ambiguity of gender in this poem through her choice of personified love object - the moon has a considerable heritage of symbolic association with androgyny and the notion of dual sex.18 In another poem, 'Ballada' (Ballada) the (male) narrator takes on the stereotypical characteristics of the female in Russian love poetry, subverting the association of the feminine (in this case represented by his love object, a rusalka or mermaid) with the animalistic, by declaring,



I am a beast for the mermaid. I have rot in my blood.

And she seems a beast to me.

The stronger in love: We measure love's force

By its impossibility.19

'Ballada' blurs the line between the 'rational' male and 'animal' female, the watery motifs in the poem accentuating the sense of gender fluidity that pervades it. Gippius' poetic choice to write in masculine voices thus reveals itself as not merely the desire to shed oppressive femininity, but to disrupt and reconcile the binary opposition of male and female.


Gippius' open declarations in favor of bisexuality also led to an idealization of androgyny. As she said of herself, 'I do not desire exclusive femininity, just as I do not desire exclusive masculinity...they are so fused together that I know nothing.'20 Androgyny was not an unusual theme in late nineteenth century Russian art. The paradigmatic figure of the androgyne experienced a cultural revival in nineteenth century Russia, inspired by both the popularity of occult traditions and the work of the influential philosopher Vladimir Soloviev, whose concept of the ‘divine androgyne’ was premised on his idealized figure of Sophia, both 'Eternal Feminine' and androgynous man before the Fall.21 Paradoxically, Soloviev's conceptualization of androgyny was not free of sexual dimorphism. In his hope that the highest, and idealized, form of androgyny would unite 'female and male, flesh and spirit' Soloviev perpetuated the prevailing equation of women with flesh, the corollary of their association with nature.22 The idealistic rhetoric of Soloviev's conceptualization of androgyny suggested that a return to primordial androgyny would involve the negation of the flesh (and thus the female), presaging a mystical whole.23
For Gippius, on the other hand, androgyny represented a rejection of the separation of male and female or spirit and flesh, and demonstrated a Jungian desire to reconcile the binary (both male and female, homosexual and heterosexual) in order to progress to a higher level of consciousness.24 Gippius' poetic and philosophical weltanschauung was indeed characterized by a repudiation of dualism in favor of a semiotic system based on threes, symbolized by the desire to reconcile opposites, or forge a middle path between two simultaneously existing and oppositional poles.25 The desire for the reconciliation of opposites is most potently captured in her 1901 poem 'Electricity' (Elektrichestvo) which describes the spark created by the meeting of two oppositional wires:

Two wires are wrapped together,

The loose ends naked, exposed

A yes and no, not united,

Not united but juxtaposed.

A dark, dark juxtaposition -

So close together, dead.

But resurrection awaits them;

And they await what waits ahead.

End will meet end in touching

Yes - no, left and right,

The yes and no awakening.

Inseparably uniting

And their death will be - Light.26
As a paradigm of indeterminate gender, the figure of the divine androgyne embodied Gippius' desire to reconcile binaries, and her explorations of the blurred lines between homosexuality, bisexuality and hermaphroditism. Unlike Soloviev and his ideal of Sophia, however, Gippius' conceptualization of androgyny was not premised on the neutralization of a spirit/flesh binary, but on the fundamentally socially constructed nature of these binaries, and the fallacy of their physiological existence in this world. In contrast to Soloviev, Gippius practiced the androgyny she preached through cross dressing and transvestism. This practice both drew attention to her corporeal and eroticized body, and allowed her to embody the notion of the androgyne, parodying in the process the notion of an essential gender binary on which Soloviev's androgyne was premised.
Gippius' rejection of the supremacy of biology was underscored by a similar distaste for procreation and marriage, a prominent current in late nineteenth century Russian philosophy.27 This philosophical 'crisis of filiation' was exemplified in Soloviev's The Meaning of Love (Smysl Liubov') in which he argued that men and women should save sexual energy for a 'big bang' when this energy would be released collectively and transform the world.28 The origins of the fin de siècle anti-procreation discourse can be traced back to the influence of the mid-nineteenth century philosopher Nikolai Fedorov, who first promoted the idea that, in procreating, humans were surrendering to nature.29 In his Philosophy of the Common Cause (Filosofia Obschego Dela) Fedorov elucidated his central thesis that birth was the precursor to death, and articulated his desire to 'abolish death' by making birth obsolete.30 Fedorov developed a cult-like following both during his lifetime, when admirers would flock to his office at the Rumiantsev Museum in St Petersburg, and after his death, when followers transformed his erratic and scattered writings into a coherent philosophy in Philosophy of the Common Cause.31 The best known attempt to enact Fedorov's theories in real life was that of Symbolist poet Aleksandr Blok, who declared his refusal to have children and maintained a celibate relationship with his wife Liubov Mendeleeva (also involved in a complex ménage a trois with Andrei Belyi).32 The concept of utopia as freedom from reproduction reflected a deep strain of hostility towards the maternal in nineteenth century Russian thought, an often ignored counter-discourse to the myth of 'Mother Russia'.
On hearing of Blok's intended marriage, Gippius wrote to him and warned him that marriage was in 'disharmony' with his poetry, as she perceived a dissonance between the mystical, Soloviev-ian themes of his poems and the mediocrity of quotidienne domesticity (byt).33 Gippius' account of her own marriage to Merezhkovsky when she was nineteen emphasizes her rejection of the normative paradigm of marriage and maternity. As Vladimir Zlobin, her private secretary, recounted, on the evening of her marriage she claimed to have gone to bed 'forgetting she was married'. The next morning, when her mother called through the door, 'You're still sleeping and your husband is here. Get up!' she exclaimed 'My husband? How astonishing!'34 Gippius made a concerted effort to assert her independence from Merezhkovsky. She understood the need for a room of her own: in their St Petersburg apartment, she and Merezhkovsky had separate bedrooms and separate studies, in which Gippius always entertained her own guests.35 In an interesting switch of gender roles, Zlobin stated that Gippius 'fertilized' where Merezhkovsky 'gestated' ideas, and thus the couple replaced literal procreation with literary progeny which, in the case of Gippius, were then used to undermine the notion of woman's maternal role.36
In her 1904 article ‘Vyliublennost’ Gippius picked up many of the themes raised in contemporaneous debates about marriage and domesticity. She framed her article as a response to the well-known journalist Vasily Rozanov's ‘philosophy of the everyday’ in which he asserted the primacy of marriage and family over a conceptualization of sexuality based on 'transfigurative flesh'.37 Like Rozanov, Gippius argued that Christ, through his bodily incarnation, had sanctified the flesh, and thus 'only the flesh, in the realm of sex, with all its power affirms the personal in humans'.38 'Christ himself represents the resolved riddle of sex. Love for man, for people, and for the whole world becomes holy and radiant through Love for Him. Man has only to respond to the voice of his own soul.’39 Sex was thus one of the mysteries of God's creation. However, according to Gippius, sex was not to be premised on biological urges alone, as Rozanov suggested, but rather on its unique ability to transform the individuality of separate personalities, into a union that nonetheless preserves the uniqueness of each. For Gippius, this was best represented by the kiss which, while physical, ensured the equality of both parties. 'Desire and passion stole the kiss from love (vyliublennost) because of greed a long time ago, when it was still asleep...in actuality, desire and passion don't need it at all. Animals don't have it; they implement the law of procreation honestly.'40 The kiss represented sexual love outside of the need to procreate. Such exaltation could extend to all forms of sexual intimacy, as long as they were motivated by 'transfiguration' and not mere procreation. Vyliublennost was consecrated flesh, sex for the transcendent purposes for which God gave it to humankind, and thus the doctrine of vyliublennost, formulated as a direct attack on Rozanov's organic eroticism, elucidated the fundamental importance of Gippius' anti-procreative discourse to her conceptualization of sexuality.
Theories of Sexual Revolution - 1905-1917

The events of 1905, which saw the failed revolutionary uprising of workers and peasants across Russia and Tsar Nicholas II's acquiescence to the creation of a State Duma, had a far reaching effect on the radical intelligentsia and artistic avant garde. For some, it led to the abandonment of the revolutionary dream, as disillusionment fostered pessimism in art and philosophy.41 This trend was typified by the publication, in 1909, of Signposts (Vekhi), a collection of articles attacking the nihilism the contributors believed had characterized Russian thought throughout the nineteenth century.42 For other Modernist artists and intellectuals, however, 1905 resulted not in pessimism but in a process of radicalization, after the violent reality of revolution had converted abstract speculation into more concrete goals for a complete restructuring of Russian society. To this latter group belonged Gippius and Merezhkovsky, who vehemently attacked the reactionary tenor of the Vekhi circle. In her 1906 revolutionary tract Tsar and Revolution (La Tsar et la Revolution) Gippius declared, 'To vanquish Tsarism, the Russian Revolution, the new Russia, must oppose it with an idea no less profound, no less universal than the idea of its enemy. The revolution must take a new route, conscious of its universal worth. We believe firmly that this will occur, because we have complete faith in Russia and the holy truth of our revolution.'43 As a result of the 1905 revolution, Gippius declared, 'the living soul of the people has been uplifted.'44 Her revolutionary fervor can be detected in the social commitment she now considered a prerequisite of her art, asserting in 1909 that, 'we are using art to provide an evolution of the world towards the ultimate goal of mankind'.45 Her poetry also became infused with the spirit of revolution. In her 1909 poem 'Petersburg' (Peterburg), for example, she spoke of the 'red spots of revolution' on the banks of the Neva, declaring, 'These spots, the rust ones, settled deeply / One can't forget or tramp them clean!'46 The new, directly political themes in Gippius' art strengthened her hostility to any Decadent movement. In her 1905 essay, 'Decadence and Society', she argued that Decadence represented individualism atrophied, and as such, those artists who did consider themselves Decadents, such as Konstantin Bal'mont, were 'outside the flow of history, humanity, the struggle between the 'we' and the 'I'.47 As Gippius’ critique of the social inequities she perceived in Russian society (such as gender inequality, religious repression and heterosexism) became more radical, she thus began to argue that the only solution was the complete destruction of the current political and social order.


In 1906 Gippius, Merezhkovsky and their friend Dmitri Filosofov traveled to Paris where they remained for two years.48 It was while there that Gippius, long interested in numerology, developed her abstract theory that 'everything was contained in 1, 2, and 3', and that metaphysically, the one, two and three represented 'Personality, Sex and Sociality'.49 This theory underlines the systematic nature of Gippius' thought: her numerological preoccupations provided the structural basis of her philosophy, and directly influenced the formulation of her proto-socialist revolutionary philosophy. Personality, Sex and Society exemplified the reconciliation Gippius attempted to broach between the individualism that had informed her idealistic outlook of the 1890s, and the theory of spiritual 'sociality' (as opposed to 'socialism') which became increasingly central to her thinking after 1905. It highlighted the new role Gippius' erotic philosophy of vyliublennost was to play in her revolutionary program, a program that saw Sex (and more precisely, sexual freedom) as an integral component of the new utopian society. According to the triad of Personality, Sex and Sociality, all people would be united in a collective body, through a dialectic synthesis of Personality (One), and Sex (Two), ensuring the satisfaction of everyone's personal, erotic and social needs.50

For Gippius, Personality represented the importance of tolerance for human uniqueness and difference, for 'humanity is not a compact, homogenous mass - but a mosaic picture, where each piece should resemble another, but be differentiated by color, form, size and still each piece is nevertheless needed for the whole, fits tightly and wholly in its own place.'51 The concept of 'Personality' was intrinsically connected to that of 'Sex', which for Gippius represented the 'two in one', the perfect union of two individuals who nonetheless retain their uniqueness.52 This idea was closely linked to that of vyliublennost, which necessitated the equality of the two individuals involved, allowing the sexual act to be elevated to the sphere of holiness Gippius believed it rightly occupied.53 Thus Gippius' two central leitmotivs, freedom and equality, overlapped and interacted in her utopian philosophy. The final concept, that of 'Sociality', was in many ways the synthesis of the first two, and required their manifestation in society before it could be achieved. Religious sociality encompassed the diminution of the ego in favor of the collective, via the experience of Sex (which would teach one to unite with another without losing a sense of uniqueness).54 It would 'combine the loftiest aspirations of mankind on earth with the power of God', and Gippius likened its 'collective nature' to socialism, which, divested of its inherent atheism, would become 'righteous and divine only if based on people’s religious consciousness.'55


Religious sociality formed the structural framework of the post revolutionary utopian society Gippius envisaged; politically, this would take the form of anarchic theocracy. For Gippius, theocracy entailed a combination of religious sociality and anarchism. Her conceptualization of theocracy owed much to Vladimir Soloviev's theory of the state, which argued that theocracy, the ideal social order, would work as a three-fold power - royal (tsarist) power, the power of priesthood, and prophetic power.56 The state in Soloviev's theocracy was accorded no purpose in itself, but rather a 'higher destination' sanctified by God.57 Gippius, however, took Soloviev's concept of religious sociality and divested it of its attachment to the state, synthesizing it with the contemporary revolutionary ethos by removing the autocrat and replacing it with the power of vyliublennost and sociality instead. For her, theocracy had to contain a paradoxical element of anarchism, as all states are based on force and therefore suppress individuality, failing to recognize the tripartite nature of society in which all parts (Personality, Sex and Sociality) must exist and interact.58 According to Gippius, in the new society, voluntary acceptance of Christ's law (love) and recognition of Christ as the sole ruler will replace legal force, and thus her anarchy was 'religious rebellion against the infallibility of the state'.59 The Tsar, as manifestation of the state, was the greatest obstacle to the instigation of religious sociality, and was a religious as well as secular oppressor. Gippius expressed this view in her declaration to Merezhkovsky and Filosofov, in July 1905, that 'Autocracy is from the Anti-Christ!', thus fusing her desire for religious transfiguration and earthly revolution.60 Despite the vehemence of her opposition to autocracy, Gippius failed to elucidate in any detail the form she believed the transition to anarchic theocracy would take (after revolution). Instead, she placed her faith in the transfigurative powers of religious sociality and vyliublennost, which she argued would replace the need for a state or organized religion and ensure the dissolution of gender binaries and of sexual repression.61
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