THE WHEEL 13/14: FATHER PAVEL FLORENSKY AND THE SACRAMENT OF LOVE by Giacomo Sanfilippo

wheelThis article appears in the current issue of The Wheel (13/14 | Spring/Summer 2018). Citations are omitted below but provided in The Wheel

The double issue—with the theme of Being Human: Embodiment and Anthropology—features a Foreword by Metropolitan Kallistos (Ware), an Editorial by Father Andrew Louth, and articles by the following authors: Father John Behr; Marjorie Corbman, Steven Payne, and Gregory Tucker; Beth Dunlop; Brandon Gallaher; Father John Jillions; Katherine Kelaidis; Bradley Nassif; Aristotle Papanikolaou; Giacomo Sanfilippo; Father Vasileios Thermos; Father Alexis Vinogradov; and Christos Yannaras.

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This essay introduces my doctoral research on Father Pavel Florensky’s “Friendship.” It represents a partial response to the questions that emerged in the weeks following the appearance of my “Conjugal Friendship” in May 2017 on Public Orthodoxy.

01 first page

A facsimile of the 1914 original. Note the pre-Revolutionary orthography. As an æsthete Florensky selected the emblem and ornate typeface himself.

Father Pavel Florensky’s “Friendship,” structurally and thematically the culminating letter of the twelve which comprise The Pillar and Ground of the Truth, has proven a challenge to his readers from the time that he first wrote it as part of his master’s thesis to the present. A cursory reading in translation allows little room to imagine that it envisages “friends” in any conventional sense, of the sort that a man might have two or three or several, or that he could have such a friend in addition to a wife. In the Russian original it becomes even clearer that Florensky articulates an unmistakably conjugal form of friendship. He describes the relationship as two male bodies sharing a single soul in “the sacrament of love,” sanctified in the brother-making liturgy and the couple’s co-partaking of the Eucharist, and differing in no way from marriage in its premise of monogamy, bodily intimacy, cohabitation, common possessions, and mutual submission. The historical, cultural, and especially biographical context in which Florensky writes leaves little ambiguity concerning his personal interest in the recently discovered notion of “homosexuality” and in germinal ideas on the instability of binarial gender—long before the advent of postmodern queer theory.

 The following pages touch only briefly on these aspects, but in reverse order: the wider context of Florensky’s life and writings, his personal biography, and a few key considerations from his text. I conclude with some observations on his place—a full century later—in one of the most challenging anthropological questions demanding a thoughtful Orthodox response today. Constraints of space permit me to do no more than sketch the basic contours of the argument that I will make at length in my doctoral dissertation.

Florensky in Context

Russian society’s preoccupation with sex at the turn of the last century had its roots in social and political currents in Western Europe that had begun to surface earlier in the 19th century. The world stage onto which Florensky stepped in the opening years of the 20th century had recently seen the invention of “the homosexual” as “a species” [in Foucault’s famous telling] in 1860s Germany and the corollary rise of the first homosexual liberation movements. The era went on to produce such provocative personalities as Oscar Wilde and André Gide. When the definitive cultural history of fin de siècle Europe is written to include Russia, Florensky must take his uneasy place alongside these two to form a triad of literary giants who wrote self-consciously from their experience and acceptance of same-sex desire. The unease lies in a fundamental difference between them: namely, that Florensky, a devout Orthodox Christian, exhibits none of the sexual adventurism and marital infidelities for which Wilde and Gide will always be remembered. Yet, if Wilde remains forever associated with Lord Alfred Douglas in our cultural memory, and Gide with Marc Allégret, by the same token we can never separate Florensky from the tenderly beloved dedicatee and addressee of his theological magnum opus, the inspiration for his erotic poetry, and his intended life-companion, Sergei Troitsky.

The era sounds remarkably like our own. Its interest in all things sexual took the same widely divergent forms in Russia as elsewhere in Europe, running the gamut from pornography and erotic fiction to experiments in open marriage, a growing tolerance of homosexuality, and revisions in civil legislation pertaining to such matters as rape, prostitution, and consensual same-sex acts. To some extent Russia followed Europe’s lead in adopting changes through the latter 19th century to mitigate the penalization of same-sex acts. In the end, it stopped short of decriminalizing them, despite calls from more liberal voices in Russian jurisprudence.

In all of this fixation on sex, Russia came to play a unique role in the domain of theology and religious philosophy. Olivier Clément credits “Russian religious philosophers who were the first in the Christian world to have sensed the spiritual meaning of Eros and who began to surmount the deadly schism that had inserted itself between human love and Christianity.” These thinkers “carried within themselves this expectation of a love appropriately personal, free, and reciprocal, the expectation that characterizes modernity….” Yet, he neglects to mention, even parenthetically, Florensky’s exploration of the spiritual meaning of love between men. Richard Gustafson remedies this omission when he remarks that “Florensky’s notion of friendship has a decided homophilic, if not homoerotic, tinge. All dyadic friendships in his discussion are same-sex unions. […] To my knowledge, Florensky’s The Pillar and Ground of the Truth is the first Christian theology to place same-sex relationship at the center of its vision.”

During this period Vasily Rozanov stands out as one of the more controversial religious philosophers to grapple with the problem of sex. He further developed the idea of “universal bisexuality” put forth by such German authorities in the nascent field of sexuality studies as Richard Krafft-Ebing, Magnus Hirschfeld, and Otto Weininger. They applied the term not so much to sexual orientation as to the male and female aspects of which every person was presumed to be constituted. Without the advantage of the postmodern concept of a spectrum of sexual orientation and gender identity in their lexicon, these men felt that one’s relative degree of masculinity or femininity determined the gender to which one would be principally attracted.

Rozanov’s importance for this essay lies in the extent to which Florensky agreed with his ideas in an exchange of letters after his marriage, the birth of his first child, and his ordination to the priesthood. In a long missive of November 17-21, 1912 to Rozanov, Florensky considers it indisputable that gender exists in a fluid state and there can be no question of concrete gender. Three years earlier, in a conversation not long before his surprise marriage, Florensky posited the absence of an essential correlation between gender and biological sex to account for his own predilection for men and lack of interest in women. To this conversation we shall return shortly.

Rozanov, Florensky, and their German predecessors anticipate by nearly a century and more Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble and the ongoing development of gender theory in our own day.

Pavel Florensky

Pavel Florensky was born in Azerbaijan to a Russian father and an Armenian mother in January 1882 and raised in Tbilisi. Despite being baptized in infancy, he received the secular upbringing of so many of his generation in Russia’s educated classes. In memoirs written for his children, he describes without embarrassment his early childhood as a time of disillusionment that he had not been born a girl and would have to renounce his fascination with fabrics, perfumes, and jewelry, and his dream of one day owning a woman’s hat with a hummingbird. 

Continue reading here.
This excerpt is published on Orthodoxy in Dialogue in collaboration with The Wheel.
See here for Luis Salés’ comments on this article, and here for Giacomo Sanfilippo’s response to Salés.

Giacomo Sanfilippo is a PhD student in Theological Studies at Trinity College in the University of Toronto, the founding editor of Orthodoxy in Dialogue, and a former priest of the Orthodox Church in America. He holds a BA in Sexuality Studies from York University and an MA in Theology from Regis College, and is an alumnus of the Mark S. Bonham Centre for Sexual Diversity Studies at the University of Toronto. Earlier in life he completed the course requirements for the MDiv at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary.  

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2 thoughts on “THE WHEEL 13/14: FATHER PAVEL FLORENSKY AND THE SACRAMENT OF LOVE by Giacomo Sanfilippo

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