01 January 2017

A realist approach to the pelvic issues, part 1.2: whither romance?

I confess, one part of our exchange in the comments on the previous blog post that made me laugh aloud was this one. Not with scorn, mind you, but only with amusement, because it got me quite dead to rights. Mr P— accuses me of ‘want[ing] to rebuild a bawdy medieval court, the mythical Merry Ol’ England peasantry, and a Neo-Platonic Medieval Monastery’.

To a certain extent: guilty as charged! I am an avowed fan (to greater and lesser degrees) of all three of mediæval courtly and knightly culture (including even that attenuated form that held under the early Romanovs), peasant ribaldry and monasticism. To a certain extent, being an ex-Anglican Orthodox with all of the High Church preferences that obtain thereto, that’s unavoidable. But I genuinely believe – and here I’m actually being guided by the honest-to-God realist-left thinking of Christopher Lasch, and not merely by High Church Anglican Tory pieties – that all three of these tendencies reflected a much healthier attitude to sex than the sterile, technically-minded clinicalism and flight from feeling to which we subject eroticism today. To Mr P—’s further doubt that ‘any of these things actually existed except in romanticism and as justification for a destructive social order’, though, I must demur.

There is a good case to make that mediæval court culture existed only as an ideal type (the efforts of the Church, East and West, to tame the violence and lust of Europe’s feudal and tribal élites never having been fully realised). But the ideas of chivalry and courtly love themselves, actually are contemporary inventions which flourished (and had literary and cultural as well as more prosaic material and social effects) in the late middle ages, with Chaucer being the most notable English-language proponent. They are not, as some schools of social history might have us believe, early-modern romantic faerie-tales, fabricated whole-cloth and existing only in song and fable. In fact, if we are to believe psychologically-informed historians like Lasch, the chivalric tradition provided both an outlet for the male id as well as real and needed boundaries of conscience and civility on the comportment of powerful and wealthy men in relation to the women around them.

The same goes for peasant ribaldry, the existence and health of which is actually far better-attested than chivalry (and well outside England and the poetry of Chaucer!). It was something which actually underlay the early 20th-century agrarian thinking of Stamboliyski, Švehla and especially Chayanov (with full-figured, lusty Russian damsels figuring prominently in his alter-Soviet utopia), whose preferences and speculations actually had some real basis in peasant culture, as hinted by the sociological work of August von Haxthausen. Haxthausen’s work connected the fecundity that he observed in contemporary rural Russian culture with an older peasant tradition attested in Robert Crummey’s history of Kievan and Muscovite Russia. This tradition, Crummey notes, included carnal carousing festivities – especially Midsummer – which were only barely-tolerated to be Christianised by the Russian Orthodox clergy and hierarchs. As to whether the rooted, communal, sobornyi social order which inhabited this tradition, or the intellectual streams of Slavophilia and populism which sprang from it, are ‘destructive’, however? That’s something which does remain firmly within the realm of speculation, though it’s quite hard to imagine a more destructive order than the techno-fetishist, totalitarian fascist and communist ones which violently uprooted the aspirations of the interwar Eastern European peasantry.

In a further post in this series somewhere down the line, though, I intend to front a robust defence of cœnobitic monasticism and hesychasm, based on the Apophthegmata and the grand Basilian and Benedictine traditions followed by the Orthodox East as well as the Latin West – and I intend to make the case that the monastic life with its ascetic rigours and disciplines is not actually an unhealthy inversion or suppression of the erotic dimension of life, but instead a sublime, sophic and self-emptying expression of that dimension. In fact, I intend to demonstrate that the monastic expression is one that best allows for a broader and more humane attitude toward sex in the secular culture; and that this is demonstrable from history as well as from a philosophical standpoint. But that is a topic for another post.

One glaring weakness of my ‘realist’ approach set out thus far, is the lack of a clear-cut normative guideline, that gets me straight from my Platonic philosophical preferences to my ethical-political ones, and Mr P— has certainly not been remiss in pointing that out. Thus far, though, that has been deliberate. I’ve established merely that a realist ought to approach sex as a powerful and potentially-dangerous force within human nature, one which can overpower reason and resemble madness – but one which can also bring out great feats of nobility as well as cultural accomplishment.

But even describing where eroticism and fleshly pleasure can destroy and degrade people, and also where it can elevate them to heroic stature, is already to set forth some sort of normative framework for it. I can point backward to semi-idealised aristocratic forms of civility, or to more accessible working-class forms of sensual exuberance and playfulness, or else to the sublime erotic desire for the divine that allows a celibate monk to ‘become all fire’, as rich and colourful expressions of the erotic life that should be preserved and transmitted, if that is even possible in our modern age, characterised by our flight from feeling.


  1. I wasn't exactly clear, let me rephrase my critique of your vision.

    I wasn't clear in what I was talking about in terms of chivalry, and was kind of fuzzy. Victorian era romances did contribute to the mythology, but also the 13th century added to this. The concept of the knight had existed for close to a century up to this point, originating with the armed supporters that were gathered up by German lesser-warrior nobility, kings and bishops. The later Medieval period saw a romanticization that coincided with its religious baptism. The merc now became a crusader, able to redeem his sins through fighting the infidel in Jerusalem and elsewhere. This view of the knight existed mostly in poetry. More knights, were like a certain Teutonic Knight, who said, "The sword is my pope" as he carved out a kingdom for his order in Lithuania. They were semi-contemperaneous, but also retroactively projecting an image on Western European order. I don't think the East had this as much. I don't know of any high poetry, except hundreds of years later, celebrating Orthodox warriors (I'm thinking of Alexander Nevsky or Constantine XIV Paliologus and the fall in 1453).

    I am not denying the bawdy peasants, I am denying this somehow meant peasants were in a good place. Serfdom was a hard and crushing reality. My reference to Merry Ol' England is the idea that somehow the Peasants were happy in their social order of subordination to the lords. The real Russian Revolution, before the Bolsheviks consolidated it, was that the serfs were totally free. I am fine with peasant ideas and peasant sociality, that's not what I'm disputing or fighting, but against the idea that a subordinated reality is somehow the just and happy one for them. Petr Chelcicky is exactly right in his Net of Faith.

    I am not disputing the reality of the Neo-Platonic monastery, even if it is more proper to talk about neo-Platonic monks within a monastery that may or may not be rather bloated on wealth. I think there's a world of difference between monasticisms, and some are bad and some are good. The Reformation was not off the mark, not completely, in its critique.


  2. Thank you again for the feedback, Cal!

    You are absolutely right in that the full-bodied tradition of chivalric knight-errantry took root more strongly in Western Europe than it did in the East. But it is worthy of note that among the Slavic nations, the tale of the Battle of Kosovo is held up as a late-mediaeval example of chivalry in Serbian culture.

    As for the Russians... there is a warrior-code and a tradition of love-poetry that found itself partially (but only partially) Christianised in the Tale of the Armament of Igor. If you want to talk about Russian high poetry in mediaeval times, that's where you have to start!

    As for the peasantry, that's where my allowance for class-based dither in sexual tastes comes in, which I thought you would appreciate. Peasant sexuality did not change even as the peasants were organising themselves in the Romantic-inspired movements led by Stamboliyski, Mihalache and Švehla and fighting for their political and economic rights. This undercurrent is strong enough, in fact, that some of the Western critics of the Green Rising (such as George Jackson) called it the political resurgence of 'the fertility cults of the past'.

    As for monasticism, we may be closer in view than you think - depending on which forms of monasticism you consider 'bad'. You'll notice I didn't mention the Cistercian or the Cluniac orders, and there's a reason for that. I hope to explicate this further in another post.

    Cheers again -

    1. Per Chivalry: I mistyped. I didn't mean "century", but "millennium". The knight, conceptually, had been around for a long time, and it was only in the high/late Middle Ages that it was reified as a figure of romance and religiosity.

      I'm going to guess the division of monks has to do with cenobitic vs. anchorite? I can't tell.

      Anyway, I suppose what this comes down to are certain positions. While at times I sympathize with a Tory position, it is really only because it is an unease for this current, deeply evil, world-order. But I would have no desire to live in such a world either. I'd rather be numbered among Jacobins than Jacobites. So, I'm coming from a different place, and it's not merely because of aesthetic tastes (but there is that!).

      Anyway, I'll conclude with that.