Thursday, July 23, 2009

The Allure of St. Sebastian

I’ve always been intrigued by the appeal of St. Sebastian to some gay men. I mean, I get the whole young, good-looking, male bit, but . . . the guy is being pierced by arrows!

And, yes, I also get the idea that the arrows are metaphors for the penis, but the type of sex that their penetration of poor Sebastian implies is rather brutish and far from mutual. The guy’s basically being raped - gang raped.

Regardless, in his book Sanctity and Male Desire: A Gay Reading of Saints, Donald L. Boisvert claims that aspects of St. Sebastian’s iconography make him a “compelling . . . homoerotic ideal.” To be honest I have issues with aspects of Boisvert’s “reading” of Sebastian - one which by his own admission stems from his “decidedly fetishistic gaze” on the saint.

Boisvert writes, for instance, that:

It is Sebastian’s physicality, above all, that captures one’s attention. Here is the male body at its most beautiful and erotic ravaged by arrows - unambiguous symbols of phallic power and dominance - but still translucent and desirable in its grace and elegance. Here are stark death and sadism, but ennobled to the point of sexual hunger. Here is the martyred military saint who feeds (and affirms) our fantasies about swarthy Roman legionnaires. Here is male desire in its simplest and most eloquent manifestation, at once victimized and glorified. The image of St. Sebastian carries a complex symbolism having to do with hunger of men for men and its necessary corollary of power and pain.

So much of this just causes me to roll my eyes. But hang on a minute . . . power and pain are
necessarily the consequences of gay male sexual desire and experience?

It seems to me that it’s this type of presupposition that undergirds that self-oppressive tendency of many gay men to rigidly separate and define themselves as either a “top” or a “bottom.” Accordingly, it’s also a presupposition that reminds me of the four statements that Carl Wittman, in his 1970 gay manifesto, identified as “anti-gay perversions”:

- I like to make it with straight guys.
- I’m not gay but I like to be “done.”
- I like to fuck but I don’t want to be fucked.
- I don’t like to be touched above the neck.

According to Wittman, these types of statements and the attitudes and presupposition that underlie them collectively comprise “role playing at its worst.” He is adamant that as gay men we must transcend these roles and strive for “democratic, mutual, reciprocal sex.” Such sex, of course, undermines the contention that power and pain are the natural consequences of gay male sexual desire. (A point I attempt to explore in Part 4 of The Journals of James Curtis.)

I’m also troubled when people unquestioningly equate (explicitly or implicitly) the male penis with a phallic symbol of power and dominance. I recall Susan Bordo’s insightful comments on this issue in her fascinating book, The Male Body: A New Look at Men in Public and in Private:

The erect penis is often endowed with a tumescent consciousness that is bold, unafraid, at the ready. Gay art and literature and both straight and gay pornography are throbbing with such descriptions . . .

[A] lot of our ideas about the penis clearly come not from anatomical fact but from our cultural imagination . . . Most of our metaphors for the penis . . . turn it into some species of dildo: stiff torpedoes, wands, and rods that never get soft, always perform. These metaphors . . . may be a defense against fears of being too soft, physically and emotionally. But at the same time as these metaphors “defend” men as they joke with each other in bars or – more hatefully – act as a misogynist salve for past or imaginary humiliations, they also set men up for failure.

For men don’t really have torpedoes or rods or heroic avengers between their legs. They have penises. And penises, like the rest of the human body and unlike dildoes, feel things. . . .

And, of course, once we become aware of the feeling potential of the whole person (penis included), we’re navigating our lives and relationships into that wonderful territory wherein we’re invited to recognize and integrate both our feminine and masculine energies. The “power and dominance” of the phallus has no place in such an integrated life - a life Lao Tzu described beautifully when he said: “Knowing the masculine and nurturing the feminine you become the river of all beneath heaven.”

Okay, I’m a little bit off track from my focus on St. Sebastian. Accordingly, to conclude, I’ll share an interesting excerpt from Vittorio Lingiardi’s 2002 book, Men in Love: Male Homosexualities from Ganymede to Batman. As you’ll see, Lingiardi offers a somewhat more sophisticated reading of St. Sebastian and his connection and/or appeal to gay men than does Boisvert.


. . . [The] “mystical slaughter of Christ” – an image Pier Paolo Pasolini would have most certainly appreciated – makes its appearance in the homosexual imagination by way of the martyrdom of St. Sebastian, a Christian figure with distinctly pagan aspects. . . .

“Because he waits for them at the doors to Paradise and intercedes for them, gay men depend upon St. Sebastian,” says Dominique Fernandez matter-of-factly of the centuries of homosexual iconography that grew up surrounding this third-century Roman officer. A native of Narbonne who converted to Christianity during Diocletian’s persecution of Christians, Sebastian was sentenced to be killed by the arrows of his fellow soldiers.

In the oldest extant monuments of him, his image resembles Senex, as in the seventh-century mosaic in St. Peter in Chains in Rome, where he appears as a bearded, older looking man wearing a tunic, palatine chlamys, and a bejeweled crown. From the Renaissance on, however, Sebastian would take quite a different appearance, becoming instead a handsome, naked young man, tied to a column or a tree, pieced through with arrows.

The true story behind Sebastian’s legend is, naturally, more complicated, for it seems that he died, not from the wounds of the arrows but rather from a subsequent stoning. One popular image for the plague that struck Rome during the seventh century was that of God unleashing the epidemic upon the world as an archer unleashes a volley of arrows, and so, in this connection, Sebastian, who survived his arrows, came to be used in altarpieces as a sort of talisman against the plague. Whether portrayed as a fragile adolescent, as by Memling and Botticelli or as an homage to a more athletic type of male beauty, as by Mantegna and Titian, Sebastian became an emblem of physical perfection and the redemptive aspect of suffering.

For a depiction of the male form as sacred, the Sebastian of Antonello da Messina [left], Guido Reni, Sodoma, and Perugino are without peer. Transformed thus from robust Pretorian into a guard against pestilence, Sebastian’s physical representation progressively softens throughout the Renaissance until he eventually comes to represent that inevitable, masochistic* connection between beauty, pain, and ecstasy so appreciated by a gay sensibility.

After being released from prison, Oscar Wilde adopted the name Sebastian Melmoth. In Death in Venice, St. Sebastian symbolized “an intellectual and virginal manliness, which clenches its teeth and stands in modest defiance of the swords and spears that piece its side” (Mann 1958, p.11). Throughout Remembrance of Things Past, a number of passages are explicitly inspired by Sebastian, such as the description of Legrandin, “his mouth, set in a bitter grimace, was the first to recover, and smiled, while his eyes, remained full of pain, like the eyes of a handsome martyr whose body bristles with arrows” (Proust 1981, Swann’s Way, vol. 1, pp. 138-39).

In the motif of St. Sebastian, one can perceive an exasperated, “hedonistic pessimism,” an awareness of the precariousness of existence and the fragility of things, all of which are precursors to that mournful, voluptuous abandonment of oneself to ecstasy. In this, Sebastian is the spiritual brother of St. Teresa of the flagellated Christ. . . .

As a means for spiritual elevation, the arrow is an important symbol in many shamic initiation rites. Near the Patwin River in North America, the initiate’s navel had to be pierced by an arrow. In Chile, the initiator pierces the neophyte with a rod that “entering at his stomach, emerged by his spine without drawing blood or causing pain. The Toba shamans receive full in the chest a rod which pierces them like a rifle ball” (Eliade 1964, p. 54). Nor is this motif unknown to Christian mystics. St. Teresa, in her passion for the fiery spear brandished by the Angel, called for her Divine Love with the words, “Kill me, let me die.” . . .

A”homosexual” impulse of sorts runs through all mystics who invoke Christ as lover – Origen and John of the Cross, as well as Genet and Pasolini. Whether in the form of Cupid’s darts, Sebastian’s arrow, the flaming spear that penetrates Teresa, the sharp talons of the eagle who clutches Ganymede, the nail that pieces the hands and feet of Christ, or the torment of the Platonic soul sprouting wings, one insight is clear: blinding pain is unavoidable when God is revealed to us in love.

* Writes Lingiardi: “In the Judeo-Christian tradition, masochism and homosexuality, individually or together, have tended to be the Trojan horses of a sort and have managed to sneak sexuality past the gates of the institutional church. It is not hard to perceive manifestations of what Jung called the ‘religious instinct’ in such literally enacted masochistic behaviors as kneeling, praying, kissing feet, carrying the cross, receiving the stigmata, choosing martyrdom, and dying on the cross.”

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
Sometimes I Wonder
Officially Homophobic, Intensely Homoerotic
The Inherent Sensuality of Roman Catholicism
The Archangel Michael as Gay Icon
The Holy Pleasure of Intimacy
Gay People and the Spiritual Life
What Is It That Ails You?

Recommended Off-site Links:
The Gay Male Quest for Democratic, Mutual, and Reciprocal Sex (Part 1) - The Leveret, August 7, 2008.
The Gay Male Quest for Democratic, Mutual, and Reciprocal Sex (Part 2) - The Leveret, August 17, 2008.

Image 1: Rick Herold.
Image 2: A still from Derek Jarman’s 1976 film Sebastiane.
Image 3: Giovanni Bazzi Sodoma.
Image 4: Antonello Da Messina.
Image 5: Guido Reni.
Image 6: Vahan Bego.
Image 7: Oscar Magnan.
Image 8: Another still from Sebastiane.

1 comment:

Mareczku said...

I read this but didn't really know what to say. It was different and the pictures were interesting. But I did take notice.

Peace - Mark