Gregorys Virginity

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In the treatise On Virginity, the earliest of his surviving writings,5 Gregory skillfully demonstrates his humility by representing himself as lacking what he nonetheless dares to praise - namely virginity. He expresses regret that his own knowledge of virginity's beauty is like water placed out of reach of a thirsty man - "vain and useless." "Happy they who have still the power of choosing the better way, and have not debarred themselves from it by engagements of the secular (tCC koivCC ... pico) as we have, whom a gulf now divides from glorious virginity" (On Virginity 3; Gregory of Nyssa 1994: 345a).6 In a state of lack, Gregory is also in a state of yearning for what he does not have (for what no one really has?) - no less a good than the incorruptible divinity of the spiritual realm, as he has defined the virginal condition (On Virginity 1-2; Gregory of Nyssa 1994: 343b-345a). Gregory does not possess virginity, but he hints that he is in pursuit of it in so far as he is capable of recognizing the poverty of the "common life" and thus of longing for something better (On Virginity 3; Gregory of Nyssa 1994: 345a-348b).7

The "common life" is metonymically represented by marriage in Gregory's text. His uncompromising denunciation of family life proceeds by cataloguing the daily course of intimacy between spouses, parents, and children, and the repeated woundings of grief that necessarily accompany any finite love. As Michel Barnes (1996) has shown, Gregory's description of marriage draws heavily upon Stoic tradition, while placing new emphasis on the paradoxical conjunction of joy and sadness that is woven into the fabric of mortal existence. "They are human all the time, things weak and perishing; they have to look upon the tombs of their progenitors; and so pain is inseparably bound up with their existence, if they have the least power of reflection." Page after page, Gregory sustains the spectacle of familiar suffering in an excessive and yet still seemingly insufficient attempt to answer his own challenge: "How shall we really bring to view the evils common to life?" Setting out to write of life as a tragedy, as he puts it, he raises his voice in the hyperbolic language of lament, taking the role attributed to the servants who, "like conquering foes, dismantle the bridal chamber" of the young wife who has died in childbirth: "they deck it for the funeral, but it is death's room now; they make useless wailings and beatings of the hands."

Gregory introduces Elijah and John the Baptist as positive biblical models of the single-mindedness of the virginal soul who has avoided the vicissitudes of the familial. "It is my belief that they would not have reached to this loftiness of spirit, if marriage had softened them," he remarks (On Virginity 6; Gregory of Nyssa 1994: 351b). The theme of single-mindedness is further developed through the image of a stream's flow; while referring explicitly to the gush of a mind's creative potency, it also enfolds within its meaning the rush of generative fluids that produce a man's bodily "issues." "We often see water contained in a pipe bursting upwards through this constraining force, which will not let it leak; and this, in spite of its natural gravitation," remarks Gregory. "In the same way, the mind of man, enclosed in the compact channel of an habitual continence, and by not having any side issues, will be raised by virtue of its natural powers of motion to an exalted love" (On Virginity 7; Gregory of Nyssa 1994: 352a). If this comparison suggests that spiritual transcendence must be achieved by closing down all other erotic channels, above all the physically sexual, Gregory nevertheless makes it clear that he has no intention of deprecating "marriage as an institution." Nor, as it turns out, does he intend to present marriage as merely an honorable alternative to virginity for those too weak to abstain from the conveniences and satisfactions of family life. On the contrary, he now audaciously proposes that it is a literalized virginity that is the refuge of the less muscular Christian: "He who is of so weak a character that he cannot make a manful stand against nature's impulse had better keep himself very far away from temptations, rather than descend into a combat which is above his strength." Another biblical type is placed alongside Elijah and John, as Isaac is introduced as the privileged model for the man who is able both to put "heavenly things" first and to "use the advantages of marriage with sobriety and moderation" in order to fulfill his duty (Xewopyia) to the civic community.8 The biblical father had intercourse with his wife up to the point that she gave birth, as Gregory tells it; his dimness of sight in old age is taken as a sign that he subsequently shut down "the channels of the senses" and gave himself wholly to the contemplation of the invisible. Here Gregory turns to the example of the experienced farmer who is able temporarily to divert a portion of water for irrigation and then skillfully redirect it back into the stream, thereby meeting multiple needs without significantly weakening the water's flow (On Virginity 8; Gregory of Nyssa 1994: 353a). How are we to read this illustration in light of the previously offered example of "water contained in a pipe bursting upward" (On Virginity 7; Gregory of Nyssa 1994: 352a)? The water bursting from a single pipe may seem excessive in comparison with the measured flow of the second farmer's diversified irrigation system (this somewhat idiosyncratic position is argued quite forcefully by Mark Hart 1992: 4). Equally plausible, however, is that the second farmer's compromise with the fleshly demands of marriage may be seen to distort and even parody the singular heroics of true virginity. Resolution is deferred.

Having thus left his definitions of virginity and marriage suspended in ambiguity, Gregory draws on the Platonic myth of ascent and the biblical creation narratives to refine his erotic theory further. In a lengthy passage that is among the most overtly Platonizing in his works, drawing particularly heavily on the Symposium,9 Gregory notes that, for the "climbing soul," material beauties "will be but the ladder by which he climbs to the prospect of that Intellectual Beauty," or "the hand to lead us to the love of the supernal Beauty" "But how can any one fly up into the heavens, who has not the wings of heaven?" he queries, adding that "there is but one vehicle on which man's soul can mount into the heavens, namely, the self-made likeness in himself to the descending Dove" (On Virginity 11; Gregory of Nyssa 1994: 355a-357a). Rising heavenward on the wings of the one-and-only bearer of desire, the soul achieves "union" with "the incorruptible Deity" in a match based on sameness. A receptive lover, "she places herself like a mirror beneath the purity of God and moulds her own beauty at the touch and sight of the Archetype of all beauty" "The real Virginity - the real zeal for chastity - ends in no other goal than this, namely, the power thereby of seeing God," Gregory concludes (On Virginity 11; Gregory of Nyssa 1994: 357a).

Sliding from Plato's vision of the end to the Genesis account of the beginning, Gregory notes that the human being originally possessed that untarnished image of the Divine Mind prerequisite for the act of love as the mimetic consummation of likeness. Disruptive "passion" came later, bending free will to the fabrication of evil. Sin thus entered with the force and "fatal quickness" of a bad habit, darkening the soul's mirror with the rust of corruption, smearing the reflective purity of the original creature with a coat of filth, by which it acquired a "resemblance to something else." "Now the putting off of a strange accretion is equivalent to the return to that which is familiar and natural," explains Gregory. The Platonic ascent is thereby scripted as a return to created nature. Like the woman of Luke's Gospel who searches her home for a lost coin, the "widowed soul" need only turn within to recover her lost self, which is also to say to find the divine lover in whose image she is molded. Gregory exhorts the reader to "become that which the First Man was at the moment when he first breathed," stripping off the "dead skins" of sin and death. Innocent of sexual relations with his "helpmeet," the First Man "found in the Lord alone all that was sweet" in those blessed times before marriage was instituted as "the last stage of our separation from the life that was led in Paradise." Marriage's institutionalized heteroeroticism - a concession to the taint of difference that was introduced into love's economy - remains a barrier between humanity and Paradise. Marriage, then, is also "the first thing to be left" on the path back to future bliss. Virginity's salvation is for those who know how to love in a spirit of sameness, its goal the consummating absorption of all sexes in the one (On Virginity 12; Gregory of Nyssa 1994: 357a-359a).10

Of course, virginity's version of same-sex love cannot possibly have anything to do with fleshly procreation: "life and immortality instead of children are produced by this latter intercourse." By refusing to perpetuate life's cycles, the virginal body becomes a barrier against mortality; the "virgin mother" conceives only "deathless children" by the Spirit. Having now (with a little help from Paul) wed Plato's concept of philosophic motherhood as a property of men to a biblical notion of a fecund virginity originally Adam's and recovered in Mary, Gregory once again bemoans the "agonies of grief" brought in with marriage, while acknowledging its attractions. Marriage, he here suggests, is like a sword. It's hilt "is smooth and handy, and polished and glittering outside; it seems to grow to the outline (tonog) of the hand"; "it offers for the grasp of the senses a smooth surface of delights." Gregory will, however, allow our thoughts to linger only so long on the smooth surface and sensual pleasures associated with that swellingly swordlike member that molds itself so delightfully to the contours of the grasping hand. A sword is, after all, more than a friendly hilt: "the other part is steel and the instrument of death, formidable to look at, more formidable still to come across"; it becomes, for man, "the worker of mourning and of loss." The instrument of pleasure is thus the organ of birth and therefore tainted with the violence of death, the cause - on this reading - of all pain accompanying the loss of children, parents, spouses. For one who would avoid the sword wounds of grief, God is the gentlest bridegroom, and the virginal soul who becomes his spouse, conceiving with the divine spirit, "brings forth wisdom and righteousness, and sanctification and redemption too," children who will never die. To live thus virginally is to anticipate the angelic nature that will belong to humanity once again in Paradise. "In fact, the life of virginity seems to be an actual representation (eiKtov xig) of the blessedness in the world to come," as Gregory remarks (On Virginity 13: Gregory of Nyssa 1994: 360b).

By this point Gregory has made it abundantly clear that virginity is not a matter of mere abstention from sexual relations: as a psychic condition, it is certainly much more; remembering Isaac (and also Plato),11 we might ponder again whether it is not also somewhat less. Gregory's particular poetic art resists the sharp distinction between literal and figurative language, which is part of what makes his treatise On Virginity so difficult to interpret tidily12 "Virginity" as the sign of the fecundity of desire always means more than it did before; no reader can get to the bottom of it; and yet it does not simply mean something else, as if the trick of reading lay straightforwardly in the cracking of a code.

Gregory's biblical exemplars, like his aqueous metaphors, complicate the relation between sign and sense, literal and figurative virginity, physical and sublimated desire. Gregory takes Miriam to be "a type of Mary the mother of God," whereas her thoroughly dry "timbrel" (Tu|navov) "may mean to imply virginity" Having been separated from all sources of moisture, as Gregory describes it, the membrane stretched over the vessel of the virginal womb of this first Mary has become as resonant as a drum. "Thus, Miriam's timbrel being a dead thing, and virginity being a deadening of the bodily passions, it is perhaps not very far removed from the bounds of probability that Miriam was a virgin," he concludes. Adding that "we can but guess and surmise, we cannot clearly prove that this was so," he proceeds to discuss the strengths and weaknesses of various arguments from silence that this woman identified as her brother's sister might have been no man's wife. By now, however, Gregory seems a bit deflated by his own act of Marian desiccation, with its withering threat of infertility. Proceeding quickly to cite the examples of Isaiah and Paul, whose self-descriptions privilege a juicier but still spiritualized fecundity, he returns finally to Mary the Godbearer, in whose female body virginity and motherhood coincide despite seeming contradiction. Paul's teaching that each human being is in some sense "doubled," consisting in both an inner and an outer man, leads Gregory to the notion of a doubled marital status, in which the ruling of fidelity dictates that one "self's" virginity must correspond to the "self's" marriage. "Maybe," he concludes coyly, "if one was to assert boldly that the body's virginity was the co-operator and the agent of the inward marriage, this assertion would not be much beside the probable fact." Thus, for Gregory, the virginal mother becomes not so much a paradoxical conjunction of opposites as an icon of consistency, easily harmonized with a version of the Platonic myth of ascent in which the soul's desire for union with the beautiful moves it ever upward, as virginity gives birth continually to a higher fecundity in the progressive displacements of erotic sublimation (On Virginity 19; Gregory of Nyssa 1994: 364b-365b).13

Virginity is, then, the bottomless womb of the self-transcending infinitude of Gregory's desire. Isaac models the measured progress of the soul's upward climb, in which each stage prepares the way for the next, youth's passionate rush giving way to a sedate marriage in manhood's full maturity (resulting in a single act of birth), marriage itself giving way to a more divine love and more lasting progeny. Isaac himself is superseded, in Gregory's text, not by Christ but by Mary. What Isaac pursues sequentially, with a fragmented grace, she accomplishes with thrilling integrity, at once virgin and parent, at one in flesh and spirit, salvation's end looping back to creation's beginning. Sometimes inclined to gush, sensitive to the pleasurable touch of a sword's hilt, Gregory reaches for the timbrel's saving aridity: dry now, he leads the dance of the virgins, all the more man in that he is more woman. Icon of "a teleology of reabsorption of fluid in a solidified form," Gregory's text models the congealing of an idealized masculine subjectivity that transcends the "mechanics" of fluids, in Irigaray's phrasing (Irigaray 1985b: 110). And yet, startlingly, On Virginity does not repress the sticky "reality" of the male body's ebb and flow but rather projects the desire for the reassuring constancy of solid matter onto female form.

Was Gregory married? Have we not here a married Father? Well, Gregory does - near the end - try to make an honest man of himself. Establishing an elaborate comparison between bodily and spiritual marriages, which correspond to Paul's "inner" and "outer" men, he represents the inward or spiritual self as a man who courts a bride who is Wisdom herself, in the guise of the good wife of Solomon's Proverbs. Gregory is seemingly not, however, altogether happy to remain with this "straight" version of the divine union. It is clear, he notes hastily, that the marital metaphor applies to male and female subjects alike; he cites the assurance of Galatians 3.28 that in Christ "there is not male and female," adding the explanatory gloss that "Christ is all things and in all." If Christ can be all things to all people, any gendering of the object of desire will also do: the beloved is equally divine whether figured as the queenly Sophia or the incorruptible Bridegroom, concludes Gregory (On Virginity 20; Gregory of Nyssa 1994: 365a-366b). Indeed, most of the time Gregory's "inner man" seems happy to play the woman in relation to the "Good Husband" for whom he bears deathless children, protects his chastity (On Virginity 15; Gregory of Nyssa 1994: 361a-b), and even keeps house (On Virginity 18; Gregory of Nyssa 1994: 363a-364b).

Was Gregory married? Was he a virgin? What counts as marriage, what counts as virginity? If this text insists on putting marriage in question without offering virginity as an easy answer, then it seems to me that one of its perhaps unintended but not accidental jokes is to have been taken almost universally as conclusive evidence that Gregory was married. Regarding Gregory's protest that his engagement in the "common life" now separates him irrevocably "from glorious virginity" (On Virginity 3; Gregory of Nyssa 1994: 345a), Michel Aubineau notes, "One cannot reasonably discount such a categorical disclosure" (Aubineau 1966: 66). We have seen, however, that the disclosive logos of this treatise consistently eludes the particular clarities of the categorical. Isaac did, after all, beget in a single act not one but two sons: perhaps Gregory is not the married Father but the trickster Jacob who rides in on the heel of his brother. Wrapped in a deceptively hairy skin, underneath he is actually beardless and smooth - like the hilt of a sword - like a sister or a virginal mother - like Mary Maybe he was, maybe he wasn't: a "marriage" that stretches desire across the gulf of sexual difference is truly beside the point, from Gregory's perspective. Mobilizing androgyny's fluidity on behalf of a different love, Gregory's vertically oriented "philosophic logos" does not flow in channels of gendered plurality but begets a singular - and singularly graceful -masculine subjectivity that derives its position of transcendent dominance "from its power to eradicate the difference between the sexes" (Irigaray 1985b: 74).

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