On Sorb-Apples, Wolves and Sex (The Androgyne)
by M. C. Csáky
"Let me say first how I ought to speak, and then speak", said Agathon, and I am even more obliged to do the same.
First of all, I have to make it clear that I do not wish to talk about art, and even less about my own sculpture. I would like to believe that sculptures need no explanation - or if they do, then words will never be able to cover the distance that generated the need for explanation. Despite this, I would not discourage anyone to express their thoughts inspired by the works. This form has always been fertile ground for the discussion of things deemed important by people, even if the work itself in its sensory reality is only one, and not necessarily the most important element of this discourse. Anyone who creates something has to be aware of the fact that she will not really be able to influence what others might think of her work from then on. However, this liberating "parasitism" with which people continually attempt to take possession of their past and present, can at times produce enjoyable results. I also have to admit that counter to my own conviction according to which the explanations surrounding works of art - no matter how enjoyable or dull they may be - will make these works neither more lovable nor more despicable, will make them neither "better" nor "worse", thus in spite of this, most people are decidedly pleased by such explanations and connect them inextricably to their own experiences. And if such is the case, then there is so much more reason for these explanations to be born.
I am going to speak about the androgyne as I have come to know it.
The halved sorb-apple
When I was seventeen I heard a story in company which fascinated me and which made a lasting impression. And even though that was the first time I had heard it I somehow had the feeling that "I already know about this". I didn't much care where the story came from but I soon found out anyway. In Plato's Feast Aristophanes tells it to his friends who are drinking and talking about love.
A long time ago, though later than the beginning of time, the number of sexes was not two but three. Besides men and women there was another sex which by now has retained only its name, the androgynes, who were women and men simultaneously. Human beings were great and fearless, their power almost rivaling that of the gods, for in each of them - as seen from our perspective - there were two inherent beings, and according to this old story it is we who are halved. They had two faces, four arms and four legs, and their spherical form modeled the perfection of their parents, the Sun, the Earth and the Moon. They feared no one and nothing, and the gods worried that human beings would envy their power and in their immodesty would siege the skies. Thus Zeus decided to punish them, and in order to divest them of their great power he cut each of them in two as it is done with sorb-apples before desiccation. Thence has the desire in people's soul taken root which urges them to keep searching for their other half throughout their lives and to unite with it in love, thus attempting to regain their original power and perfection. The women cut in two by Zeus became the lesbian lovers who are not attracted to men. The descendants of men cut in two became those male lovers who seek only each other's company. And the descendants of the halved androgynes are those women who wish to unite in love with men and those men who wish to unite with women. The human race would be happy only -- says Aristophanes at the end of the story -- if every man and woman were to find their other half and would thus return to their ancient nature.
Although its Hindu counterpart is also known and it could possibly originate from one of the Eastern cultures, Aristophanes' story was not strange to Greek thinking. A number of Greek gods retain the concept of androgynous unity and perfection. Aphrodite comes first to mind who sometimes appears as the bearded Aphroditos, and according to the stories about her she once used to unite in herself the nature of both man and woman. Or Hermaphroditos who is Aphrodite's child by her twin brother Hermes, and who became truly Hermaphroditos after his union with the nymph Salmakis, who fell in love with him. This late story -- also mentioned by Ovid in his Metamorphoses -- once again formulates the ambisexuality of the great goddess of love. According to the evidence of ancient narratives Rhea or Agdistis by her Phrygian name, along with Pallas Athene and Artemis were also androgynous gods. And I could continue with the stories about Narcissus, Attis or Priapus.
It is perhaps not going too far to say that Plato's inclusion in Feast of the androgyne myth about the common origin of the male and female sex was not fortuitous. This story reflected Plato's own philosophical tenets on love which he had elaborated in several of his works, Phaedrus being one of them. It also reflected his concept of the human race, according to which men and women were identical by "nature", which thought formed one of the bases of his theory of the state. Thus, according to his Timaeus which relates the genesis of mankind in the context of the cosmological and mathematical relations of the world, the soul is divided. Its divine part resides in the head "imitating the
spherical shape of the universe". In turn, the bodily soul, supposedly placed in the human thorax by the gods, is constituted of male and female soul parts: the male soul part was placed above the diaphragm, while the female soul part was placed below it. This placement guaranteed that the male part always longing for victory would be able to keep in check the lower, female part which was governed by desires - thus, both can be found in every human being.
All of this is consonant with what Socrates says in the State, that male and female beings are in essence identical, only the male nature is stronger in one, while the female stronger in the other. From this statement Socrates infers the role of men and women in the ideal state. According to this women will have to receive the same education as men, that is they will have to study philosophy and music, and like men they will have to keep their bodies fit in the gymnasiums, and they will have to do the same kind of work, while also taking their weaker physical capabilities into consideration. This concept, sounding so familiar to contemporary ears, was very far from how Athenian women actually lived in those times. However, Plato's aim was not to end the injustices suffered by women, but merely to ensure a practical functioning of the state which would, in turn, offer people the most amount of good. For his belief was that true and good things could only be brought about by the encounter of things of identical nature; thus men and women, whom the gods have unquestionably created for each other, should be regarded as having an essentially identical nature. In the desired harmony elements could no longer be opposed, but they might retain the memory of their opposing origin.
In a similar manner, Plato justifies his conviction - elaborated by Socrates and Aristophanes in the Feast - concerning "heavenly love" as suggested by Aphrodite Urania, by stating that it can develop primarily between men attracted to each other because they it is the similar they love in each other, and in their nature there is not even that slight difference existing between men and women - not to speak of the huge difference in status existing between women and men in those times. (Julia Kristeva offers an insightful remark in Tales of Love on how Plato's description of male love in the Feast is a presentation of "Western Eros" under the veil of homosexuality, which is, we might add, also the ideal of love in modern times: the sensual, emotional and intellectual attraction of two free and independent persons who are bound to each other only by their emotions -- at times excessively and fatally -- and not because of the power, social status or wealth they might possess, or because of further differences caused by these. In Plato's Athens the love between a man and a woman can in no way fulfill this ideal.)
At the feast which was dedicated to talking about love and where Aristophanes told his story, Eros did in fact appear in a number of forms, like "heavenly" and "common", or "temperate" and "wanton" but first of all as "omnipotent". Towards dawn, when everyone had already told their story, when Alchibiades had related his injuries suffered in love and Socrates his conversation with Diotima, and when a great quantity of wine had been consumed, the great, ubiquitous unifier, the divine substance that rules the universe, Eros was gradually outlined, which in this form is closer to Empedocles' notion of Love, that is, one of the two prime movers of the world: Love and Hate.
Who's afraid of the big bad wolf... (Who's afraid of Virginia Woolf?)
I relate all of this - if only deficiently - in order to make the story of another meeting more understandable, the meeting with an author for whom the texture of such metaphors was quite natural. Upon my first encounter with Virginia Woolf's books, primarily Orlando and A Room of One's Own, I was overcome by the same feeling of familiarity which I have already mentioned earlier. When thinking about men and women, in order to give her thoughts some form Virginia Woolf resorted to the same old story which had fascinated me in the past. Her Orlando, after having lived the first thirty years of his life and having experienced his first great love as a man, wakes up one day only to realize that he has become a woman, although intellectually he is more of an androgyne, since he does not forget his male identity, and he spends the next three hundred years with trying to understand, as a woman, her experiences acquired as a man.
The metaphor of the androgyne also has a key role in Woolf's essay titled A Room of One's Own which she wrote as a result of her being asked to give a lecture on the literary topic of "Woman and the Novel". Here at the end of her reflections on the differences between the male and female soul she closes her remarks - quoting Coleridge - by stating that "the great mind is androgynous", and she cites as primary examples the figures of Shakespeare and Proust. According to Woolf, what Coleridge meant was not that these great minds were more inclined to deal with women or women's problems, but on the contrary, that they were capable of experiencing the world with an undivided mind that united both male and female sensitivities. Similarly to love, where the union of a man and a woman can produce the most complete pleasure, in the field of the intellect it is the union of the male and female mind that can really produce results - writes Woolf. The feminist movement, which was gathering momentum at the time, later voiced the accusation many times that women are usually incapable of identifying with the majority of literary heroes, with which I can more or less agree. However, the literature that - as a mirror image of the previous one - sprung from the soil of female injuries and dealt exclusively with women's problems was just as unenjoyable for Virginia Woolf. In the course of history, she writes, women and men have never been forced to so extremely express their own femininity and masculinity - in opposition to each other. She continues her argumentation by admitting that the shrillness and aggressiveness of the suffragette movement is responsible for this. To make it clear: Virginia Woolf did not retract any of the things women in those times were fighting for. The above mentioned remark on the androgynous mind can be read on page 138, but the previous 137 pages relate the story of this conflict and those obstacles with which she personally or women in general had to cope if they wanted to live their lives according to their own ideas. From this aspect, feminists and women writers rightfully looked upon her as their predecessor. However, what makes Woolf's approach so attractive - as opposed to that of some of her descendants -- is that there is not a trace of hate in her and she is very far from being one-sidedly biased. According to the evidence of her writing this probably springs from the understanding that the order which had caused women so much suffering during the course of history was not based on men's bad character, but several other circumstances and drives - such as economic, social, political, powermongering and perhaps others - made it seem that this was how the course of life could be sustained. We could add that this order did no more make it possible for men to step out of it either. What could happen if one of them did try to break out of this order can be learned from Edward II, the work of another great Elizabethan writer much admired by Woolf: without a bit of luck he could perish just like any woman. (It is no coincidence that Marlowe's drama was adapted to film by Derek Jarman for whom homosexual culture offered itself as a refuge from the constraints of the survived remnants of Victorian England.) But it is also true that some do have luck from time to time, and thanks to this the general conformity to rules which deprive people from their freedom of action can at times be broken.
However, I hasten to add that I would not have liked to be born even a year earlier than I actually was, because it is since Woolf's time that the world has gone through the changes - for which thanks is due in no small part to the "offended", "aggressive" and "hateful" feminists' movement - which allow me to live my life as I do. Most probably, Virginia Woolf herself was aware of the fact that a movement - and not just the suffragettes' - cannot function in any other way (on the contrary!). But at the same time she also knew - and hence her worries - that there is a high price to be paid for all of this. For during the course of this fight the androgyne ensconced in peoples' soul can, if only temporarily, be wasted, whereas it is what allows men and women to understand each other the most fully and to live in harmony with each other. And for her this was obviously the desired end of this fight.
In Woolf's argumentation her thoughts concerning the relation of men and women are inseparably bound to the issue of women's literature - as it is today. However, this is what she writes in 1928:
“...it is fatal for anyone who writes to think of their sex. It is fatal to be a man or woman pure and simple; one must be woman–manly or man–womanly. It is fatal for a woman to lay the least stress on any grievance; to plead even with justice any cause; in any way to speak consciously as a woman. And fatal is no figure of speech; for anything written with that conscious bias is doomed to death.” And although she stresses that this is similarly true for male writers who also write
"only with the male side of their brains", and she makes it clear that she is not referring to fights in the public sphere but to literature, in the eyes of the contemporary PC movement Woolf is obviously voicing thoughts that are considered politically rather incorrect. However, I did not quote this passage at such length in order to dive into the ongoing debate on PC. These few sentences clearly illustrate how different the notion of art and culture was for Woolf from what it meant to left-wing, liberal academics sixty-seventy years later. Virginia Woolf's conception was still quite close to the universal notion of art and culture, and thus for her the thought of a split, men's and women's literature with separate sets of values was unthinkable. Since then other kinds of splits have also been legitimized: not only women's art but popular art and the art of numerous minorities have surged as unmistakable, individual entities. True enough, nowadays it seems quite illusory to attempt to gauge and rank things presenting themselves as being of radically different nature with the measuring rod of the notion of universal art and culture. But I have to admit that - perhaps thanks to my sentimentality - I prefer to look at men and women and all they have created with the eyes of the slender-legged Orlando.
"Ars Erotica versus scientia sexualis"
What prompted me to relate the next meeting was that there were some people who tended to identify the androgyne with the pathography of Freud's hermaphrodite. This made me think.
As fate would have it - perhaps I could also call it luck -, I first encountered Freud's works while immersed in the reading of Plato. Why this circumstance is so fortunate needs no explanation. As it is well known, Freud was extremely well-versed in the intellectual tradition of ancient Greece, and he was especially fond of Plato's works regarding them as the crystallized forms of the observations of long centuries, and using them as basic documentation in his theory. In any case, for a young mind it meant the start of an extremely enjoyable game during the course of which I made an attempt to chart the ways in which Freud had made use of my beloved Greek authors' thoughts and the stories of Greek mythology. For instance that Aristophanes' androgyne myth was Freud's only "proof" that the desire for the restitution of the original condition, that is the repetition compulsion was essential not only in Thanatos, the functioning of the death instinct but also in the instinct for life which Freud called Eros; that when writing about the male and female soul he seemingly repeats almost the same things that Timaeus says, and Socrates in the State; that he evokes the figure of Hermaphroditos when describing the pathography of spiritual and bodily ambisexuality.
However, if Freud has anything to do with mythology, as some of his contemporaries have suggested - to which Freud's ironic reply in his letter to Einstein is: "does not every science end in such mythology? Is it any different in your field, in physics?" -, then this is supported not by the above parallels but by the fact that in his theory of psychoanalysis Freud created his own "myth of origin" concerning culture. In Freud's oeuvre what makes man a tragic hero is the irresolvable conflict that his nature incorporates both the desire for the complete satisfaction of instincts and the compulsion to restrict the satisfaction of his desires and to thus create his own culture from whose repression he immensely suffers. It looks as if a parallel could be drawn between Freud's concept of the split soul (unconscious - preconscious - conscious) and Plato's concept, but in Freud's model - as Rorty has also pointed out - there is no highlighted noble part (as the divine part of the soul in Plato) which during the process of self-knowledge and spiritual development gains the upper hand and is thus able to exclude from a person's soul the ambiguities and contradictions that cause so much pain, just like every religion promises to do. What Freud's psychoanalysis promises is that if you chart the different worlds of your split soul you will be able to bear these contradictions and conflicts.
Love - spoken of by the feasting men - and art - written of by Woolf -, and the many subtle ripples of emotions, of the "soul" all come into being, according to the Freudian - that is biological and anthropological - interpretation of the psyche, as the sublimation of desires restrained from fulfillment. Sexuality as studied by Freud is basically different from these emotions - and we could add: from all those concepts with which I have filled the previous pages in relation to the split sorb-apple and the slender-legged Orlando -, and is thus a "medically" interpreted notion created by 19th century medicine. Accordingly, the notion of androgyny or as Freud puts it "the hermaphroditism manifested in spiritual sexuality" is for him a phenomenon that can be described only medically, and which is brought about by the disturbances in the individual's sexual development.
However, it is worthwhile to compare Freud's theory of sexuality with the picture drawn by the works of his great predecessor, the Marquis de Sade, all the more because what de Sade writes about is already very close to the notion of sexuality. For de Sade, human freedom and power were extremely central issues, but according to his solution sexuality may be judged from an emphatically moral point of view. For if virtue were not virtue, all those great efforts to defame it would be worthless. De Sade, instead of stepping out of the context of moral judgment, proposes an alternative morality which offers the brave few the possibility of putting up a revolutionary fight with the institution of morality. Freud, in turn, offers a much more reassuring solution precisely by wanting to step out of this context. He does not wish to free people from the inner conflicts of the soul and from the suffering caused by the "oppression" of the outside world by offering a renewed foundation for public morals. Instead, he relocates the battlefield to the "inside", and he deals with our different relations to the world -- one of which can be moral - as equal parts of our divided soul. Probably no age existed in which the desire for sexual fulfillment was not in some way regulated by the laws of the community, as it also happened in Socrates' and Plato's age. However, Plato's conception of the soul and of love had a moral foundation. For Plato the primary question concerning love - the notion of sexuality did not exist for him - was in what way love changes the person who is in love: whether it makes him better, worse, or more wise. This road towards wisdom is love itself which - as we know from Socrates' and Alchibiades' love story - fills people with the inseparable unity of sensual and emotional desires, only to eventually flow into pure divine love.
With the exclusion - or more precisely: the separation - of a number of things, which in the past as well as nowadays have been interpreted as belonging to the terrain of the soul from the notion of sexuality, precisely what has always served as the dwelling-place of eroticism in human beings is excluded, my conviction being that eroticism springs from the whole of the soul. To put it another way, this is the loss which we have gained with this "liberation". For Freud, instead of restoring - to use Foucault's distinction - the rights of ars erotica, created a new form of scientia sexualis.
And although it is very difficult to draw the line between the different foms of these notions, it is argued by many that pornography is basically not erotic. I, however, do not see any formal features that would distinguish from each other the phenomena considered generally to belong to the terrain of one or the other of these two notions. I can ony view these phenomena together as the variable and ever changing mosaics of the desire for wholeness and feeling of want, and I could not really attach to them any judgement of moral or value.
With this we return to our point of departure. If anyone wishes to understand all those issues related to the attraction between women and men, love, understanding or the spiritual ambisexuality of which I have spoken in relation to Plato and Woolf, and which have been absorbed for centuries by the myth of the androgyne, thus, if anyone should want to understand all of these with the guidance of Freud (and not necessarily with the aim of understanding the Freudian system of thought), this could only lead to some kind of anthropological result which may also have its own merits. However, if our aim is to "understand" art, then we risk having more slip through our fingers than what we are able to grasp. For I am afraid this is not more than if someone wishing to understand La dame aux camélias should turn to medical works on the clinical history of tuberculosis - even though the beautiful Marguerite Gautier did in fact die from that disease.
Finally, I must confess something which also throws light on the motives of this piece of writing: due to my atavistic instincts and anachronistic feelings manifested in things related to love and spirit, I am unable to destroy in myself the miserable, tortured androgyne. But perhaps I cannot really reproach myself for this: in the past it took a divine trick, Dionysos' ruse to enable Zeus to turn Agdistis into a respectful and submissive unisexual god.
In: Captions/Images with text. Artist on Art. Budapest, MAOE, 2004, p. 40. Balkon 1995/9, p. 39.