Virginia Burrus

What might it mean to perform a "queer" reading of Gregory of Nyssa? (And what would be the point?) Oddly enough, it might mean to read Gregory for his asceticism. For asceticism and queerness are, arguably, heavily overlapped terms: both designate practices that center on resistance to normative discourses of sex and sexuality Thus, David Halperin's paradoxical definition of queerness as an "identity without an essence" might also be applied to asceticism. Like queerness, asceticism can be said to demarcate "not a positivity but a positionality vis-à-vis the normative - a positionality that is not restricted to" monks and nuns, even as queerness is not restricted to "lesbians and gay men" (Halperin 1995: 62).1

Both Gregory's reputation as a married man and his appropriation of Platonic concepts of desire complicate the interpretation of his asceticism. Gregory, then, is a queer ascetic not only because asceticism and queerness may sometimes amount to much the same thing, but also (or all the more so) because his asceticism fails to conform to expectations. First, his anti-marital doctrine of "virginity" stubbornly resists literalization as a specifiable "lifestyle," thereby leaving the referent of "marriage" equally in question - like "an identity without an essence." Second, his concept of sexual sublimation evades a strict dualism of flesh and spirit at the same time that it unmoors active and passive erotic positionalities from stable hierarchies. Christian "love" (agape), according to Gregory, is the result not of the repression or control of desire but rather desire's disciplined intensification; a mere man is able not only to receive God's penetrating Word and Spirit but also to desire the divine bridegroom actively; and even a Father and his Son are to be conceived (however improbably) as equals in transgenerational love. Gregory's erotic theory, intricately woven into his soterio-logical scheme, is also implicated in his relational doctrine of God: indeed, it is in the context of the masculinist formulation of Trinitarian theology that the homoeroticism of his revi-sionary Platonism most clearly surfaces.2

At first glance, the least "queer" (the most painfully conventional) aspect of Gregory's theory of sexuality would seem to be his conviction that the only proper object of desire is God - who turns out, however, to be no proper object at all. Indeed, Gregory stresses that divinity - being both infinite and incomprehensible - absolutely eludes objectification. Thus the sublimity of desire lies in its (theoretically) limitless extension, in the repetitions by which it is prolonged and through which not only the object but also the subject are held in (eternal) suspense. It is, however, at this point of seeming greatest difference - the radical transcendentalizing of eros - that Gregory's ascetic theory of desire also proves queerly resonant with the positions of some radically "pro-sex" gay and lesbian theorists, as I shall discuss briefly in closing.

Meanwhile, I have left another question in suspense: what is the point of a queer reading of Gregory? The point, for me, is surely not to defend patristic orthodoxy by arguing that it is more politically or intellectually "correct" than formerly thought (or for that matter, that is "naughtier").3 The point is, in the words of Judith Butler, to perform "a repetition in language that forces change," by taking up an interpellative of theological hate speech -"hey, queer!" - and reproducing it as the site of an insurrectionary "counterspeech" lodged within the texts of the Church Fathers themselves (Butler 1997a: 163, 15). My motivations in reading Gregory as queerly as I can are thus primarily therapeutic, in relation to theology itself. To be sure, the "healing" of theological "sin" does not occur all at once or once for all; and yet by the same token the ongoing effectiveness of injurious address should not be taken for granted. The forceful momentum of repetition - intrinsic to a theological orthodoxy's constitution as a self-perpetuating "tradition" - ensures, for better and for worse, that no word is final. Or, as Gregory himself might put it: this present attempt to queer the Father's logos is just a drop in the rhetorical bucket.4

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