A BRIEF RESPONSE TO LUIS SALÉS by Giacomo Sanfilippo

This is the second article in our “The Wheel 13/14: Responses” series.

pavserg3

Pavel Florensky and Sergei Troitsky. 1906.

On June 18 Public Orthodoxy published Luis Salés’ review of The Wheel‘s long awaited issue 13/14—Being Human: Embodiment and Anthropology—in which my “Father Pavel Florensky and the Sacrament of Love” appears. The challenge of doing justice to articles by fifteen separate authors in a 1280-word essay would have proven daunting to anyone.   

Dr. Salés devotes most of his critique of my article to five short sentences of mine:

On the feast of the Meeting of the Lord two weeks later, [Florensky] composed the poem, “Two Knights.” It depicts a scene in which [he and his partner, Sergei Troitsky] have removed their armour and laid it under an aspen tree, where resin drips on it from a quivering leaf. The knights kiss on the mouth, embrace tightly “like brothers,” and “break their spears” with each other. Even the sun undresses as it sets amidst fiery clouds. Tears flow in almost every stanza.

In response to this, Salés raises the following objections:

Sanfilippo’s piece implicitly disagrees with [Yannaras, Thermos, and Nassif] but is nonetheless uncompelling. The author wishes to draw attention to the potentially homosexual expressions of Fr Florensky’s life—for which, to be sure, there is meaningful evidence—but his analysis of the texts is problematic. For example, his exposition of the poem Два рыцаря (Two Knights) as a homosexual encounter will likely strike those with firsthand knowledge of Slavic literature and culture as affected and unconvincing. He reads a jousting match as a penetrative homosexual encounter by claiming that the knights remove their armor (nowhere stated in the poem) and “‘break their spears’ with each other” (67). But the line in question depicts a different context: “I will break spears with you in honor of the Lady” (сломим копья с тобою в честь Дамы, stanza 1.4). It is unclear who the “Lady” is (Florensky’s sister Olga?), but surely, queering texts needs no female erasure to make a point.

I should like to address Dr. Salés’ comments in reverse order:

Florensky composed “Two Knights” in February 1906, almost a year and a half before Troitsky would have met Olga when he accompanied Florensky from Moscow to faraway Tbilisi, and a full three years before his impulsive decision to enter into an unconsummated marriage with her. Olga was painfully aware of the unhappiness that the marriage caused her husband and her brother: it was after their marriage that she made a sketch portraying the two men standing in an intimate posture in the middle of a flower-filled field, with a church in the background. Any speculation on the identity of “the Lady” should lead us more naturally to consider Sophia, of whom Florensky found the most perfect revelation “in the personal, sincere love of two, in friendship, when to the loving one is given…the power…to acquire his own I in the I of another, a Friend” (Pillar and Ground, 283). Thus the poem focuses entirely on Florensky and Troitsky, without introducing a third: no “female erasure” to see here, and no “queering of texts”—a category of “theology” in which I never engage anyway. The men’s kissing “on the mouth” reappears in Pillar and Ground‘s “Friendship.”

My brief summary of the poem does not say that “the knights remove their armour,” but that they “have removed” it. This is strongly suggested not only by the kisses on the mouth, the embraces, the undressing of the sun, but by resin dripping on their armour from a single, quivering leaf. Anyone who has parked a car under a tree knows that this takes several hours to happen from a whole tree. Does Dr. Salés wish us to suppose that our two knights spent an entire day kissing and caressing under an aspen tree while fully armoured?

Neither do I suggest that “penetration” takes place. This comes from Dr. Salés’ own imagination. Yet his portrayal of the encounter as no more than a jousting match ignores the kisses on the mouth, the caresses, his own acknowledgment of “meaningful evidence” for “the potentially homosexual expressions” of Florensky’s life, and perhaps most importantly, the fact that we are dealing with an erotically charged Symbolist poem. Symbolist poetry as well as prose—within which literary genre Pillar and Ground also falls—never describes so much as it suggests.  

Finally, it seems surprising that a young scholar living in the era of postmodernity should appeal to anything so monolithic or homogeneous as “Slavic literature and culture.” With that being said, I have consulted extensively—as I hope that any doctoral student would—with my betters in turn-of-the-century Russian scholarship at every step of the way: one of them is at the end of a long career teaching Soloviev, Florensky, and Bulgakov and publishing his translations of Bulgakov; another speaks Russian as his first language, and writes and teaches on Florensky’s era—it was he who singled out “Two Knights” for me as perhaps the most erotic of Florensky’s love poems to Troitsky; the third, a very young master’s student who also speaks Russian as his first language, blushed bright red over the homoeroticism of “Two Knights” when we read it together. Finally, Florensky’s English biographer has read some of my online writings on this subject. These four have encouraged me to continue in the path where my interpretations and conclusions have led me thus far. 

Of course, I am solely responsible for anything that I publish, and for whatever errors or omissions my work may contain.

In conclusion I thank Dr. Salés for this opportunity to offer some clarity on the questions raised in his review.

Giacomo Sanfilippo is a PhD student in Theological Studies at Trinity College in the University of Toronto and an editor at Orthodoxy in Dialogue. His doctoral research focuses on the text and historical, cultural, and biographical context of Father Pavel Florensky’s “Friendship.”

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