Some might perhaps think that these are the words of one in pain, not those of one in joy, especially when she says: "They struck me: they wounded me: they took away my veil." But if you consider the meaning of the words carefully, you will see they are the expressions of one who glories most in what she enjoys. . . . The soul that looks up towards God, and conceives that good desire for His eternal beauty, constantly experiences an ever new yearning for that which lies ahead, and her desire is never given its full satisfaction. ... In this way she is, in a certain sense, wounded and beaten because of the frustration of what she desires. . . . But the veil of her grief is removed when she learns that the true satisfaction of her desire consists in constantly going on with her quest and never ceasing in her ascent, seeing that every fulfilment of her desire continually generates a further desire for the Transcendent. (Homily 12 on the Song of Songs 1029A-1037C; Gregory of Nyssa 1961: 263-71)
The soul is now a distillation of sense such that one conceives its life ... as an orgasmic experience in which wanting only comes with fulfilment and fulfilment does not cancel wanting. In other words, an entirely active and in no sense passive or lacking desire; but just for that reason, all the more erotic. (Milbank 1998: 106)
Of course one can never really say what she wants to say - that is why we keep writing. That is also why we keep having sex. Roxanne . . . never has that one great orgasm that would put desire for all other orgasms to rest. But she keeps on trying, even though she knows it is impossible, indeed because she knows it's impossible. . . . Masochists are particularly adept at turning delayed gratification into pleasure, and even when "consummation" occurs, the dynamic is not to arrive at an endpoint but to reproduce the conditions that guarantee the necessity for endless returns. (L. Hart 1998)
Fantasizing a human nature healed of the perversity of sexual difference, Gregory of Nyssa reconstructs the lost paradise of sex before marriage. He posits a non-reproductive sexuality that is crucially not quite Platonic. By destabilizing the ontological hierarchy inscribed by active and passive sexual roles, Gregory also queers the mimetic economy of pederasty, in which a beloved "son" is erotically reproduced as the perfect image of a mature, paternal-ized lover. Feminized as a soul "wounded by the arrow of love," Gregory is an ardent Divinity's receptive beloved, playing the "Bottom" almost (but not quite) as a Platonist would expect - because playing it too well.23 His rhetoric not only names but furthermore exuberantly performs a masochistic deferral of satisfaction that effectively exceeds the limits of temporality itself, unfurling into eternity's bliss of boundless love.24 Gregory can also, however, survey the suspenseful scene of desire from the perspective of the "top." As he rides the horse of his passion for Christ right up to the abysmal edge of knowledge's consummation (where he glimpses the divine bottom!), he appears to be the active lover in pursuit of the infinitely desired Son, or (to underline the paradox) the Son in pursuit of the Father. Following behind is thus, as Gregory performs it, a complex positionality, oscillating between discipleship and domination. Seemingly, a man can have it both ways, where divine plenitude is matched by the limitlessness of human desire. But perhaps the two "ways" are not really so different. In a context in which the ostensibly active top is said to "surrender" and the passive bottom to "control" the act, even the extreme power- and role-differentiations ritualized within contemporary sadomasochism produce, as Lynda Hart puts it, "a 'queer' act, based on a relationship that privileges the sharing of similarities" (1998: 68).25
For Gregory, "there can be no grasp of essences, since the essence of the world is a mirroring of divine incomprehensibility," notes John Milbank; instead, there is "infinite bestowing and bestowing back again" (Milbank 1998: 101). Milbank's insightful reading allows us to place Gregory's erotic theory - in which "it is possible ... to be in the same instance both receptive and donating" (Milbank 1998: 95) - in the context of neoplatonism's break with the irreducibly hierarchical logic of the mediated ontology of Middle Platonism - in which it was possible to be both receptive and donating but precisely not in the same instance. Under an earlier model of subjectivity as self-mastery, cosmological and political hierarchies were internalized and mimetically reproduced as mind acting on passive/passionate matter. In later antiquity, however, the subject's speculative interiority is understood as the product of an unmediated reflection of externalized being - an image, but not a reproduction. Thus desire does not any longer lodge with the "passions" that must be controlled but is identified with the act of reflection, "the infinite bestowing and bestowing back again." Desire, reason, and will are essentially one. "There is still hierarchy, of course, of source over mirror, but formally speaking there is no limit to the receptiveness of the mirror, and nor does the hierarchy require to be repeated within the space of the mirror; government is now by the external, transcendent other, and is no longer in principle a matter of self-government of the cosmos over itself which is microcosmically reflected in the individual soul composed of heterogeneous and hierarchically ordered aspects." Gregory, on Milbank's reading, takes neoplatonic theories of subjectivity to their logical extremes, rejecting the notion of "any receptacle other to what is received, and which is thereby passionate over against the rays of actuality," so that "the mirror is truly nothing but the apparent surface of light itself in its rebound" (Milbank 1998: 108). "Gregory discovers the body and society as a site of pure activity," Milbank concludes, protesting that "there is little that could be construed as a cult of weakness in Gregory," in marked contrast to "a certain sickly version of Christian Hegelianism, exalting pathos and dialectical negativity, which has persisted from the nineteenth century into the late twentieth" (Milbank 1998: 109).
This closing polemic gives me pause. Has Milbank uncovered in this Father something that he finds a bit too queer? I wonder.26 The thematized paradox of "active receptivity" troubles his text and must be resolved rhetorically into "pure activity" (thereby banishing the specter of passivity): "weakness" is actively repudiated, lest it spread like a sickness. Hegel, seemingly brought in as a whipping boy, serves rather to whip the weakness out of Gregory. The philosopher's master/slave dialectic is, after all, notoriously in danger of discovering itself muscle-bound: to the extent that the figure of the slave is thoroughly negated (sublated) as object - via incorporation into the identity of the sovereign subject - he becomes, problematically, "unworthy" to perform his necessary duty of "recognizing" the lord.271 would argue that if Gregory may be seen both to anticipate and to finesse the dilemma that haunts modern theories of subjectivity - as Milbank persuasively argues that he does - it is in large part because, like the masochist (and Hegel?), he is acutely aware of the limits of mastery and the weakness of identity, attuned to "how the subject is formed in submission" (Butler 1997a: 2) and to how the erotic submission may performatively "shatter" the shackles of subjectivity itself.28 Beaten, wounded, stripped - there is no limit to what can be suffered in love, the Cappadocian suggests. Gregory of Nyssa is a queer Father not because he is purified of passion but rather because he is purely passionate, nothing more (or less) than the abysmal creature of divine desire.
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