Samesex, Not Queer: How the Brahmans Do It

Screenshot at 2011-11-05 07-31-24

Our women are not adorned to please us. Indeed, they reckon adornment a burden since they wish to be beautiful not for their ornaments but for their innate nature alone. For who can improve on nature’s work? If anyone does wish to improve it, that is a crime which cannot be permitted. (History of Alexander’s Battles 92)

Neither they nor their womenfolk strive to make themselves more beautiful than the way they were born; they realise that no-one can improve on the work of nature. Hence they think that the use of ornaments is more of a burden than a decoration. There is no fornication, incest or adultery, nor do they sleep together except for the sake of having children. (Robert Grosseteste, On the Six Days of Creation 23)

Oure paramours vs to plese, ne pride þaim beweues,

Nouthire furrers, filetts, ne frengs, ne frettis of perle.

Is þam na surcote of silke ne serkis of Raynes,

Ne kirtils of camlyn, bot as þam kynd lenes.

Ne ne3e we neuire þaim on ni3t to naite for na luste,

Bot for to sustayne oure sede & syn ay to voide. (Wars of Alexander 4465-71)

I’ve talked here already (this and this) about the medieval tradition of Alexander and the Brahmans, focusing on the text’s peculiar ecological thinking. Something odd struck me the other day, though, about the women Brahmans. I’m glad it did, finally. With these texts, as with my work on humans and animals more generally, I haven’t done much on gender, much to my annoyance (though I think I might be fair in saying that most critical animal theory doesn’t do much with gender, for what it’s worth: but see here).

Here goes something.

The Brahman women are basically men. Though the women make barely any appearance in the most popular of the medieval Brahman traditions, I can safely say from what little we see of them that there’s no real sexual difference. They’re no disunity among the Brahmans. They’re all philosophers, all contemptuous of cultural excess and perhaps of culture as a whole, all contemptuous in particular of cosmetics and fancy clothes, the features in any number of textual traditions (an early one: 1 Corinthians 11:6-15) of women and dandies.

Brahman sexuality, in other words, is, structurally speaking, samesex sexuality, but antiqueer samesex sexuality. It attempts to imagine a sexuality without the disintegrations of desire (see for example this guy). It’s not quite Augustine’s Eden, but it’s close enough.

Women tend to be put on the side of Nature, there to be conquered and dominated. Though this may be true, say, for the Albina legend, it may not be the case for classical and medieval texts more generally, where women, along with cosmetics and nonreproductive sex, belong to culture and its human errors (linked to aspirationally as a book I’m looking forward to reading). It’s not the case, either, for moden masculinist nature writing (as condemned, e.g., by Morton), where men go out into the wilderness to commune with a masculine sublime nature, free of all inauthenticity (read: cosmetics, decorations, etc.).

In the medieval Brahman tradition, though, these philosophical women and men are on the side of nature and reason, categories indistinguishable from one another. On the one side Nature/Reason and on the other (where we find Alexander, and his silk shirts and nice food) culture. As usual, the queer’s on the side of culture, against nature. Except this time, it’s what the kids used to call “opposite sexuality” that’s queer. Odd? Worth playing around with some more?

Something else to play around with for the persistently interested: Dindimus speaks on behalf of the Brahmans, but especially on behalf of the men. “Oure paramours vs to plese” divides us, the male philosophers, from our women, even as the presentation of the women immediately subsumes them into masculinity. Here, then, is the first obstacle to my reading. Find more obstacles with my blessing!