The Mystical Androgyne and the Scientific Hermaphrodite in Russian Symbolist Imagination

Evgenii Bershtein, Reed College

The divide between the sexes was a major philosophical concern for the ideology of Russian Symbolism. Vladimir Solov'ev proclaimed it to be one of the most fundamental obstacles on the path to all-unity (vseedinstvo), the ultimate goal of human history, and pointed out the primordial image of the androgyne as the ideal of restored human wholeness. In 1906–1910, when "the sexual question" (polovoi vopros) gained prominence in Russian public discourse, the image of the androgyne emerged at the center of philosophical and cultural debates. Viacheslav Ivanov, Zinaida Gippius, Dmitrij Merezhkovskij, Vasilij Rozanov, Pavel Florenskij and Nikolaj Berdjaev shared Solov'ev's mystical intuitions about the androgynous form of transfigured humanity. However, they were also acquainted with the growing body of medical and scientific evidence which testified that "intermediate sexual forms" (sexuelle Zwischenstufen) were already omnipresent in society. In their works (which were widely read and discussed in Russia), Richard von Krafft-Ebing, Magnus Hirschfeld and particularly Otto Weininger treated biological and psychological hermaphroditism as either a medical condition or one of nature's mysteries. They also used it to explain modern sexuality in general and homosexuality in particular. Seen as a threat to masculinity and often as a symptom of degeneration, the scientifically described "bisexual" (dvupolyi) human being formed a disrespectable double to the lofty mystical androgyne. The parallel notions of androgyne and hermaphrodite were produced by two parallel discourses&mdash:the prophetic discourse of rapture and the normalizing discourse of medical investigation. While semantically these notions were closely related, they were in deep conflict philosophically. In my paper, I am exploring how Russian Symbolists dealt with this conflict.

Prominent among the Symbolists' strategies for dealing with it was a tradition of the philosophical critique of medical and scientific views of sexuality. Initiated by Vladimir Solov'ev's ridicule of Krafft-Ebing's monumental Psychopathia sexualis, this tradition was carried over by Rozanov, Ivanov, and Florenskij. Their critique pointed out the insufficient or naïve metaphysical foundations of positivist science. Whether or not rejecting the normalizing pathos of the emerging field of sexual pathology, the aforementioned authors presented the rationalism of medical science as metaphysical blindness. This strategy bordered on and could overlap with another, the one that accepted the elements of both mystical and scientific paradigms as the evidence of the tragic gap between the ideal and the material (Berdjaev, Florenskij). In this line of thinking, the hermaphrodite is interpreted as a grotesquely distorted earthly reflection of the divine androgyne. Repugnant and dangerous, he offers a false metaphysical lead, reducing the mystical potential of dvupolost' to an offence to public decency. This strategy corresponded to a conservative patriarchal approach to the social aspects of sexuality. The most radical strategy, practiced most prominently by Viacheslav Ivanov and Zinaida Gippius, was based in the incorporation of the androgynous ideal in one's personal life-creation (zhiznetvorchestvo). Within this strategy, androgyny was to be implemented even at the risk of accusations of hermaphroditism and a possible loss of respectability. Ivanov and Gippius saw androgyny as a metaphysical imperative. Its very offensiveness to the accepted social decorum proved for them that the sexual norms of the day were in need of urgent radical change.