Sergej Bulgakov on Pol and Sexuality

Evgenii Bershtein, Reed College

The task of my paper is to examine Sergej Bulgakov’s contribution to the metaphysics of sexuality. I argue that the main tenet of Bulgakov’s approach to sexuality was a conceptual differentiation between pol and seksual’nost’, introduced in his letter to Vasilij Rozanov (1913) and developed in Svet nevečernij (1917). This differentiation refined the notion of pol, confusingly polysemous in Russian philosophic and scientific discourses in the early twentieth century. Bulgakov delineated sharply between  pol as a God-given core of the human being and seksual’nost’ as a “morbid mask” (boleznennaja maska) of pol. For Bulgakov, seksual’nost’  as physical desire is both a manifestation of pol and a force, antagonistic to it; therefore “the struggle for pol is necessarily a struggle against sexuality”. Borrowing from the Romantic and Symbolist traditions, Bulgakov preserved and elevated notion of the Eternal Feminine. Yet he noticed the presence of profane sexual desire in the most celebrated Russian cases of interaction with the Eternal Feminine – Vladimir Solov’ev’s meetings with Sophia (Bulgakov ironically called them roman [affair]) and Blok’s and Belyj’s worship of the Beautiful Lady. In Bulgakov’s view, these experiences were tainted by lust; a want of spiritual purity diminished their mystical value. As his diaries make clear, Bulgakov’s own vision of Sophia was subjectively related to the Symbolists’ worship of Her. However, Bulgakov considered his journey to Sophiology as a transcendence of the sexual component in the Symbolist cult of Sophia.

In his confessional writing of the early 1920s, Bulgakov searched for causes of the recent “spiritual catastrophe” – the Russian revolution. At his most paradoxical, he saw one of the roots of Bolshevism in the mystical eroticism of Vladimir Solov’ev, Blok,  Belyj, and – to a certain extent – that of his own past. Bulgakov’s idea that “the mysticism of the Beautiful Lady has led straight to Bolshevism” (privela prjamexon’ko k bol’ševizmu) may appear fanciful, yet it was rooted in his philosophical understanding of sexuality, developed over the course of many years. Many of the key motifs of Bulgakov’s thinking on this subject came together in his essay “Dve vstreči (1898-1924) (Iz zapisnoj knižki)” (1924), in which he applied the notion of sexuality to the analysis of the whole range of disparate spiritual, historical and cultural material: Rafael’s “Sistine Madonna” and the Russian icon; Western and Eastern Christianity; Russian Symbolism and his own life journey from positivism (and social democracy) to philosophical idealism and Orthodox priesthood. In “Dve vstreči,” Bulgakov pointed out the artistic traces of Rafael’s prurient gaze in his “Sistine Madonna.” He likened Rafael’s attitude toward the Mother of God to the examples of Russian mystical eroticism;  to him, they all represented the “artistic Arianism” – a heretical overestimation of the human element in Divine Incarnation. Bulgakov condemned as sinful the introduction of the carnal and material into the spiritual sphere. In his view, the artistic Arianism reflected the oplotjanenie (turning into flesh) of the humankind, which had led to the “religious decline of the modern era.” Bulgakov implied that this decline culminated in Bolsheviks’ godless ideology and practice.