Thursday, July 20, 2006

The Destruction of the Sodomites


"'The day of the birth of Our Lord Jesus Christ was prefigured according to Saint Augustine and Saint Jerome by the fire of of Sodom, since all the sodomites in the world were annihilated on that night. The same Saint Jerome comments on Isaiah (VIII-X): "The light was so potent that it destroyed all those who engaged in that vice. It was the work of Christ. It carried out the extirpation of this filth from the face of the earth."' There is a mystery here. Modern research has found no source for the legend in the works of Jerome or Augustine, despite the specificity of the references, and has failed to trace it back beyond the early thirteenth century. But this fantastic and ugly fable, which turned the prince of peace and good will into a mass murderer, gained a powerful hold on the Iberian imagination. It was repeated in a theological thesis by a Cuban archbishop as late as 1860."
-Homosexuality and Civilization, by Louis Crompton, quoting from a 15th-century guide for inquisitors in Spain.


Fables and myth have the interesting advantage of embodying contradictions in symbolic form which, if they were stated rationally, in a form susceptible to logic, would be exposed as specious instead of appreciated as powerful images expressing ambivalences and conflicts. In the rhetoric of religion and politics, homosexuality is on the one hand completely unnatural and on the other so seductive that even the most confirmed heterosexuals have to be protected from it. The association of homosexuality with apocalyptic destruction is especially fascinating. Nobody knows exactly what fate it is that has to defended against by outlawing gay marriage, adoption by gay couples, a visible gay presence in the military--it seems incredibly bizarre that this hysterical movement has just given up entirely on preventing sodomy itself, which is all that really matters, just as they gave up earlier on preventing masturbation and birth control. The arguments are so confused I've never felt I could accept any analysis of them I've ever come across; I feel convinced that public defenses against homosexuality have to be rooted pretty deep in the unconscious, but theorists of "homophobia" usually seem to me to be conjuring up their own nightmare visions of the enemy--that is, homophobia and homophobiaphobia seem to come to the same thing (as do pedophilia and pedophiliaphobia). The most obvious relation between the dreaded sin of homosexuality (as in previous eras of witchcraft and various heresies) and the End of the World is simply that apocalyptic destruction stands in, in the unconscious mind, for "I don't know what": "If men get to fuck other men, then I don't know what." The thing is, that "I don't know what" has to be taken very literally: Why does one sin or another place the believer in the position, not just of expressing hatred or contempt, but of so entirely giving up any attempt at reasoning that they have to fall into the default position of "I don't know what," therefore: the future is blank or ceases to exist.

But this idea of the spontaneous destruction of all sodomites in a single night prefiguring the birth of Christ is something you can sink your teeth into. It of course invites a lot of the same kind of questions as any theological myth: If sin is that easy to eradicate, why not do it more often? If sodomites were eradicated in one night, why did they come back? And if they could, why bother eradicating them in the first place? But even more, I appreciate the idea of some kind of balance between the destruction of the sodomites and the birth of Christ; it makes one think about what Christ and the sodomites might have in common in the minds of believers. (Crompton also notes that in Italy as well as Spain, an interesting feature of the public martyrdom of sodomites is how much widespread sympathy it elicited, to the point where officials felt they had to intervene to soften the harshness of punishments.) It therefore suggests to me that the most dangerous aspect of a totalizing and comprehensive opposition to any sort of unreasoning prejudice, even at its most homicidal, is the failure to recognize the ambivalence at its root, and therefore the potential for altering apparently implacable conflicts. Why, after all, has religiously based anti-semitism all but disappeared in the Christian sects of the United States while it's become an even more dominant theme in Islam? It does no good to say it's "about" the Arab-Israeli conflict, in part because that just places the question at one remove instead of answering it. (I'm not denying the material sources of all important political conflicts; I'm just saying they don't explain away the accompanying ideologies and mass psychology of ideology.) It would be a mistake to put aside the question of how the most rabid anti-gay rhetoric satisfies homosexual impulses--especially in religious contexts.

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

bernard!
it's elizabeth van fleet. would you at all be interested in writing something like this for my SMP which is going to be an excellent magazine full of intelligent (and sometimes funny) things like this about contemporary culture/art/music/gender/sexuality issues? i love anything you write, so any scraps you throw my way are much appreciated!

Anonymous said...

oh right. ejvanfleet@smcm.edu

David E. Patton said...

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