Religion and sex, body and soul, sacred and profane: In Closet Devotions, Richard Rambuss traces the relays between these cultural formations by examining the issue of “sacred eroticism,” the literary or artistic expression of devotional feelings in erotic terms that has repeatedly occurred over the centuries. Rather than dismissing such expression as mere convention, Rambuss takes it seriously as a form of erotic discourse, one that gives voice to desires that, outside the sphere of sacred rapture, would otherwise be deemed taboo.
Through startling rereadings of works ranging from the devotional verse of the metaphysical poets (Donne, Herbert, Crashaw, and Traherne) to photographer Andres Serrano’s controversial “Piss Christ,” from Renaissance religious iconography to contemporary gay porn, Rambuss uncovers the highly charged erotic imagery that suffuses religious devotional art and literature. And he explores one of Christian culture’s most guarded (and literal) closets—the prayer closet itself, a privileged space where the vectors of same-sex desire can travel privately between the worshiper and his or her God.
Elegantly written and theoretically astute, Closet Devotions illuminates the ways in which sacred Christian devotion is homoeroticized, a phenomenon that until now has gone unexplored in current scholarship on religion, the body, and its passions. This book will attract readers across a wide array of disciplines, including gay and lesbian studies, literary theory and criticism, Renaissance studies, and religion.
About the Author
Richard Rambuss is Associate Professor of English at Emory University. He is the author of Spenser’s Secret Career.
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By Richard Rambuss
Duke University PressCopyright © 1998 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
The King of the gods once loved a Trojan boy named Ganymede. - Ovid, Metamorphoses
Both highly lauded within its own West Hollywood industry and seized during a St. Valentine's Day police raid on a Chicago adult theater, the gay porn videotape More of a Man opens, as these things go, with its leading man Vito on his knees. Before him is a naked male form. Vito, still kneeling, hoarsely to the same: "You name it, I'll do it." The setting for this alluring scene of solicitation happens to be an empty chapel, and the unclothed male form Vito so addresses is an effigy of Jesus on the cross, dangling from the rosary beads bound up in his clasped hands-the video thereby offering Christ's as the first of the uncovered male bodies to be exhibited across its erotic field of vision. Commencing a sexual narrative in church, against a backdrop of votive candles and church bells, is in this case more than simply a gay male recasting of the devotional chic of Madonna's "Like a Prayer" music video, the "sacrilegious" sensation of the year before. Nor, more important, is this staging, however scandalous it might appear to some, proffered as a profanation. Indeed, More of a Man's allotment of a representation of Christ in his "Passion" its own place within gay pornography's carnival of desired and desiring male bodies is a provocation arguably more than a little overdetermined by Christianity's own contradictory, closeted libidinalities.
For here is an institution whose culturally venerable assessment of same-sex desire is (perhaps now more than ever) predominantly censorious, yet one which has also sought to stimulate devotion by the display made of a male body iconicized in extremis-a nearly naked man offered up to our gazes ("Ecce homo") for worship, desire, and various kinds of identification. What, then, is to be said of the place of Christ in the affective schemes of Christian devotion? In Epistemology of the Closet Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick remarks that while "Christianity may be near-ubiquitous in modern European culture as a figure of phobic prohibition, ... it makes a strange figure for that indeed." "Catholicism in particular," she continues,
is famous for giving countless gay and proto-gay children the shock of the possibility of adults who don't marry, of men in dresses, of passionate theatre, of introspective investment, of lives filled with what could, ideally without diminution, be called the work of the fetish.... And presiding over all are the images of Jesus. These have, indeed, a unique position in modern culture as images of the unclothed or unclothable male body, often in extremis and/or ecstasy, prescriptively meant to be gazed at and adored. The scandal of such a figure within a homophobic economy of the male gaze doesn't seem to abate: efforts to disembody this body, for instance by attenuating, Europeanizing, or feminizing it, only entangle it the more compromisingly among various modern figurations of the homosexual.
More of a Man offers graphic-hard-core pornographic-testimonial to this usually scrupulously closeted "entanglement," climactically emblematized by the video's final shot: a bedside freeze-frame of Vito's rosary beside a spent condom. Narrativized as the coming-out story of this deeply conflicted, aggressively virile, Italian, Catholic construction worker, the video undertakes a reconciliation of Vito's devotion to Christ, his correspondingly fervent (though he feels illicit) sexual desire for the male body, and his emphatically maintained identity as a "man's man." Thus Vito's opening solicitation ("You name it, I'll do it") is embedded in an anxious supplication that Christ rid him of what he terms "all these crazy thoughts ... okay, okay, these impure thoughts." But from this point on, coming as though it were the divine answer to his prayer (if hardly the one he expects), Vito is guided through a series of escalating homosexual encounters. In the tape's next scene he thus heads from the "prayer closet" of the empty chapel to another kind of closet, one that's a more familiar set piece of gay porn: the water closet, or the public restroom. There he reciprocally penetrates and is penetrated by another man, sexual acts that are athletically performed through an orifice in the water closet door, the slang term for which is, incidentally, a "glory hole"-a naming that itself accords the scene something of a sacred nimbus. To this encounter, like all those that follow, Vito carries with him the rosary beads of the opening scene: a token, I take it, of Christ's sanctioning accompaniment. The conclusion of the tape finds Vito now "out" enough to ride shirtless atop a float in a gay pride parade. Then he heads right inside the float itself. Accompanying him is Duffy, a comparably butch L.A. Dodgers fan, but also, as it happens, a dedicated AIDS activist. Vito and Duffy's coupling inside the gay pride float not only brings off their tape-long flirtation as the climactic sexual (and romantic) "number" of the pornographic narrative; this scene also consummates, as Mandy Merck suggests in her provocative discussion of More of a Man, a redemptive conjoining of religion, sex, and political activism. Salvation is thus wrought for the symbolically, as well as ethnically, named Vito, but not at all in the terms of his original prayer, terms that would have maintained a phobic opposition between his religious devotion and his homosexuality, as well as between his virility and his desire for men. Redemption, the answer to prayer, instead arrives in the form of a coming out of the closet into pleasure and devotion.
Apropos of Sedgwick's intimations, as well as the homodevotional allurements of More of a Man, this chapter traces some of the circuits of male desire, vectored to and through Christ's body, that continue to magnetize the Christian prayer closet with a homoerotic penumbra. In doing so, however, I want now to turn back from the contemporary televisual medium of video pornography to another, in this case early modern, technology for processing (and producing) identity, desire, and affect. The representational mode I have in mind here is the seventeenth-century devotional lyric poem, an expressive achievement, I noted in the introduction, widely regarded as a high point of religious writing in English. Here we find voicings of devotion to Jesus that (in the reverse of Sedgwick's formulation) seldom look "to disembody this body." Here, particularly in the verse of those male poets loosely grouped together as "the metaphysicals," we find figurations of devotion, desire, and redemption that are indeed hardly less corporeally spectacularized than those that comprise the conversion-minded porn with which I began. And here, in the prayer closet of private devotion, we find John Donne, George Herbert, Richard Crashaw, and Thomas Traherne, among other religious writers of the period, more or less self-consciously reassigning in same-sex configurations (male God, male devotee) the erotic postures and blandishing conceits of the Renaissance love lyric. All this in the endeavor, as more than one of these authors frames it, of "courting" a profoundly desirable Christ, a beautiful Lord and Savior:
Thou art my loveliness, my life, my light,
Beauty alone to me:
Thy bloody death and undeserved, makes thee
Pure red and white.
In this stanza from Herbert's poem "Dullness" (lines 9-12), Christ's Passion is aestheticized and made amorous in terms of the conventional white-and-red color scheme of the erotic blazon. Jesus' wounded body likewise blooms white and red in one of Crashaw's several epigrams on the wounding of the Circumcision as a highly chromatic prefigurement of the Crucifixion: "Ah cruel knife! which first commanded such fair lilies / to change into such cruel roses" ("In circumcisionem," lines 1-2). From the religious application of such amorous conceits issues a mode of devotional expression that turns on a deeply affective, often unblushingly erotic, desire for Jesus and his body-"This beauteous form," as one of Donne's Holy Sonnets envisions it ("What if this present were the world's last night?"), "This sweeter body," as a Crashaw hymn adoringly echoes ("Office of the Holy Cross," "Compline"). "For beauty hee hath no match among men," the English divine Samuel Rutherford likewise asseverates in Christ Dying and Drawing Sinners to Himself (1647). "Christ hath a most goodly face," continues Rutherford: an estimation of physical beauty and desirability that is reflected in any number of Renaissance portraits of Jesus, such as the markedly handsome Christ Carrying the Cross (Circle of Giovanni Bellini) (fig. 2).
Christ's physical attributes are also the subject of Leo Steinberg's The Sexuality of Christ. Steinberg's bold exposé of the denuded and phallically endowed images of Christ that abound in Renaissance visual art graphically illustrates the extent to which Christianity is an incarnational religion, one that can turn ostentatious in its desire to render the Savior as fully human and, what is more, as expressly, as functionally male. The poets with whom I am concerned here similarly show themselves to be deeply attuned-sometimes rapturously, sometimes bathetically-to what it means that the Word became flesh, that Jesus (in Pope Leo the Great's canonic formulation) was "born true God in the entire and perfect nature of true man, complete in his own properties, complete in ours"; that he was (as the Council of Chalcedon declares) "of one substance with the Father as regards his Godhead, ... of one substance with us as regards his manhood; like us in all respects, apart from sin." Or again, as an anonymous 1614 English sermon on "The Mysterie of Christs Nativitie" insists: "Undoubtedly he was a true man, and had a true, naturall, and not a celestiall and phantasticall body."
Seventeenth-century religious verse is densely nuanced psychologically, yet arguably many of its most profound subjectivity effects are incited, in accordance with the incarnational theology I have here been calling to the fore, by this poetry's reflection upon Christ's body in its extreme vulnerability as a body, as a truly human form, not a "phantasticall" one. Hence, the excruciating psychic and physical contortions of Donne's "Good Friday, 1613. Riding Westward." Here the poet pathically envisages the image of Christ crucified as "That spectacle of too much weight for me" (line 16), and he literally turns his back upon the Passion to ride away in the opposite direction. Despite Donne's renunciatory efforts, however, the poem remains an unnerving confrontation with just such a shattering sight:
Could I behold those hands which span the poles,
And tune all spheres at once, pierced with those holes?
Could I behold that endless height which is
Zenith to us, and to'our antipodes,
Humbled below us? or that blood which is
The seat of all our souls, if not of his,
Made dirt of dust, or that flesh which was worn
By God, for his apparel, ragged, and torn?
Consider also the eerie internalized monologue Herbert assigns to the physically brutalized Christ in "The Sacrifice," as his sacred body undergoes, step by step, the ritual desecration of crucifixion, all of which leaves the Savior wondering, in the poem's echoing, nearly hysterical refrain, "Was ever grief like mine?":
Shame tears my soul, my body many a wound:
Sharp nails pierce this, but sharper that confound;
Reproaches, which are free, while I am bound.
Was ever grief like mine?
(lines 2, 17-20)
Coincident with their devotion to Christ's spectacularly exposed and traumatically violated physical body, these poets rarely show much inclination utterly to transume their own. Rather, as Donne (citing the church father Tertullian) puts it so encompassingly in a 1623 Easter sermon, "All that the soul does, it does in, and with, and by the body." Donne's writing, like so much seventeenth-century devotional expression, espouses a devotion that is cathected onto the corporeal: a spirituality that, paradoxically, keeps returning us to the physical body and its operations, even-or all the more so-in any pietistic endeavor to discipline or rein them in. Caroline Walker Bynum makes a similar case in Holy Feast and Holy Fast concerning the hyperbolic penitential practices of late medieval female saints and mystics. The prodigious fasts and unnerving eating habits of these extraordinary women, their deliberate courting of physical illness, even their sallies into self-mutilation-all this, Bynum argues compellingly, is less a simple abnegation of the body than an ecstatic, devotional manipulation of the conditions of corporeality. Such feats should thus be seen, she writes, "more as elaborate changes rung upon possibilities provided by fleshiness than as flights from physicality" (6), as "the experiencing of body more than the controlling of it" (245). For these devotees, even denigrated flesh can be made to instantiate the faith of the soul it encases, the body being redemptively reappropriated as an implement of heightened devotional expressivity rather than repudiated as always no more than a gross weight or hindrance to it. To be sure, the forms of piety we find in the religious cultures of early modern England tend to be quite different from the medieval Catholic extravaganzas that light up Bynum's account. Nonetheless, I will be arguing throughout this book that numerous seventeenth-century Protestant devotional authors-those within the Church of England as well as those without-continue to employ the body and its metaphors as means to stimulate and to enhance devotional expression. Like Donne, these poets and divines activate the corporeal as an expressive mechanism of devotion, one that is coenesthetic of "all that the soul does."
Following Bynum, then, I suggest that these religious texts offer an early modern discourse of the body and its passions no less than they provide a discourse of the soul. Yet I want also to reconsider and to interrogate some of the terms under which the bodily has been thus far recovered into view in prevailing accounts (including those of Bynum and Steinberg) of pre- and early modern Christianity. For, despite the talk here of foregrounding and extending corporeal meanings and operations within the sphere of devotion, this scholarship displays a recurring impulse to rein in or curtail the more manifold libidinalities of the very "fleshiness" (to use Bynum's term) it has itself insisted upon. Moreover, this policing of the flesh tends, we shall see, to be enforced most stridently (if often only implicitly) over questions of religion and the erotic, particularly the homoerotic.
The metaphysicals, with their characteristic mise-en-scène of the spiritual bordering the carnal, the sacred abutting the profane, supply what are perhaps the most provocative grounds for interrogating the orthodoxies of current scholarship on devotion, desire, and the body; indeed, the volatile heterodoxies of these poets make such reconsideration a requisite. Achieving their effects with a rhetoric of the extreme and often deliberately courting the perverse, Donne, Herbert, Crashaw, and their fellows have accrued from their own time down into ours more charges of excess, indecorousness, and queerness than one finds imputed to any other early modern literary practice. In fact, the ascription of gross impropriety and a hyperbolism bordering on unnaturalness are among the formative features of Samuel Johnson's construction (following Dryden) of a metaphysical "school" of poetry:
Their thoughts are often new but seldom natural; they are not obvious, but neither are they just; and the reader, far from wondering that he missed them, wonders more frequently by what perverseness of industry they were ever found.... The most heterogeneous ideas are yoked by violence together; nature and art are ransacked for illustrations, comparisons and allusions; their learning instructs and their subtlety surprises, but the reader commonly thinks his improvement dearly bought, and though he sometimes admires, is seldom pleased.... Their wish was only to say what they hoped had been never said before.... What they wanted however of the sublime they endeavored to supply by hyperbole.
"Their amplification," he concludes with displeasure, "had no limits."
Following Johnson (though leaving behind his censure), I am interested in what could be termed the experimental habitus of the metaphysicals: their desire, as he puts it, "to say what they hoped had been never said before." I am also interested in metaphysical transgressivity and the prevalence in these poets of exclamations of devotional affect so intensified that they encroach upon the taboo. This inclination to press the terms of the sacred to their limit-to an interface with the profane-is powerfully exemplified in Donne's Holy Sonnet "Batter my heart, three-personed God," one of the most anthologized religious poems from the period and one that will be a touchstone text for my discussion as well. In this astonishing sonnet, Donne's extreme agitations for spiritual satisfaction from his God take shape as a divine abduction and rape fantasy-one that is framed, as I will consider later, in metaphoric terms that cut back and forth across gender positions and forms of eroticism. At this point in the discussion, I want simply to suggest that the hyperbole, the downright violence of religious desire in a text like Donne's "Batter my heart," if not wholly recoverable, may perhaps best be appreciated by us now, not in terms of the canons of Bynum's social orthodoxies or Steinberg's theologism, but rather in something more like what I have been here offering as my own perverse metaphysical conceit in the juxtaposition of metaphysical religious devotion and contemporary pornography. However disparate in cultural status and representational history these forms may be, both are strikingly exhibitionist in their drive to bring into view the body and its most extreme performances and paroxysms, whether of pleasure or devotion-and often both at once. To put it another way: like pornography, metaphysical poetry is great in its excesses.
Excerpted from Closet Devotions by Richard Rambuss. Copyright © 1998 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
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Table of Contents
Note on Texts,
Introduction: Sacred Eroticisms,
1 Christ's Ganymede,
2 Devotion and Desire,
3 The Prayer Closet,
What People are Saying About This
“[Closet Devotions] is vividly and clearly written, it is original in its insistence on seeing the ‘sacred eroticism’ of the lyric it studies as eroticism, and it is interestingly provocative in its juxtapositions of that lyric to present-day queer representations.”
“Closet Devotions is a bold and original work. Rambuss asks us to take seriously the relation between sexual and religious affect in the Renaissance devotional lyric, without reducing one to the other. In a series of virtuoso readings, he brings together two previously distant fields of scholarly inquiry, enriching our sense of the affective intensity of religious lyric at the same time that he demonstrates the astonishing scope of human sexuality.”