The Kintsugi Body
"Ride the Cyclone" and whether gender theory is stored in the homunculus
Creatures, repent! In this edition, a quick note about a musical, and then some thoughts about a book review. Will the deftly dancing Dragon evade the trap of the “Controversial Book” cartoon? Find out below! But first…
Time Eats All His Children in the End
This isn’t a review of Arena Stage’s production of “Ride the Cyclone,” just a note that if you get a chance to see the show, you should. A group of high-schoolers from a small town in Saskatchewan go to the fair, ride the titular roller coaster, and, when it jumps its track at the height of the loop-de-loop, spin off into the afterlife—where a Zoltan-like fortune-telling novelty machine offers them a chance to return to life if they win a song contest. It’s very Something Wicked This Way Cats. There is a touch too much moralizing by the end, even though the show practically pinky-swears that it won’t do that, but some of it was earned: Every human life, no matter how brief, is a world entire.
The kids’ songs range from good to great. All my readers will instantly clock my personal favorite. A friend said something a long time ago, which I’m sure I’m misremembering but which went something like, “Maturity means caring less about your identity and more about your life.” A lot of these songs are about that—about the adolescent stage of seeing only your identity, your fantasy of selfhood. But then one incredibly touching song is about how your life’s responsibilities and possibilities are only intelligible in the matrix of your identity.
The Kintsugi Body
I haven’t yet read Abigail Favale’s book The Genesis of Gender: A Christian Theory. And in fact, I’d been low-key avoiding it, even though Abigail is someone I both respect and like; she’s gone out of her way to support gay people in conservative Christian spaces, and nobody’s ever going to make you do that. I’ve seen her show real humility to people whose convictions differ sharply from hers, even when she had authority in the situation and could have chosen to wield that authority thoughtlessly.
Chris Damian did read her book, and although his review includes strong criticism, it starts off like this:
As an undergraduate, I was taught that writings about love should be lovely. A philosophy of beauty should itself be beautiful. Writing about truth, goodness, and beauty should involve not only exposition, but also the invocation of that which is written about. A philosophy of the human person should not just be descriptive of, but an invitation to, the human person.
This is what Abigail Favale provides in The Genesis of Gender: the presentation of a philosophical theory that is not just theory, an intellectual history that is not just history, and a Christian commentary that is not just commentary. She invites the reader into her very self.
He pushed the book back onto my to-read list.
That’s even though I mostly agreed with the criticism. (Some of it I think was a bit too brisk to be responsible, e.g. the Saint Lucy comparison.) So I want to point you to the review, especially if a) you’ve already read the book, b) you’ve been putting it off, or c) you are interested in whether and how Christian theology can illuminate trans people’s experiences.
I do also want to riff a bit on a few things Chris’s writing made me think of.
He writes, “[H]er view is based in the biological fact that the human species is a species in which bodies are classified into those which produce either large gametes (ova) or small gametes (sperm).” This difference in gametes is “the one universally distinguishing factor she is able to locate,” and therefore (hmm) the only characteristic which must be allowed to determine our sex. If you go on to “disagree with transgender anthropology, namely its denial of the sacramental principle that the body reveals the person” (quoting Favale), you’ve gotta pick one thing to be The Only Criterion, because if people with complex or ambiguous sexed bodies can accurately discern their own sex, then sex can be complex, ambiguous, and open to discernment. And we might wonder whether some trans people are responding to physical differences, ambiguities, which we can’t yet investigate scientifically, as once we couldn’t see XXY chromosomes or sex hormones. Perhaps their bodies do reveal their sex: to themselves, and to God, but not to mere contemporary science.
Whereas if you can pin sex difference to one thing that we know can never (hmm!) be ambiguous, you get to draw a clear line between men and women. A commenter notes that treating gametes as determinative leads some places basically nobody wants to go (more). And I have a bigger, theological problem, which I’ll talk about below. But what struck me was why gametes are so plausible and attractive as the sole criterion for sex difference.
Gametes tie our sexual identity to our identity-as-such, to the origin of our existence: the moment of contact, the collision that created each one of us. There’s a poetry in that. Lol specifically, there’s Galway Kinnell’s funny, beautiful poem “After Making Love We Hear Footsteps,” about what it means that we all began with a man’s flesh encountering a woman’s flesh. You can think it’s weird that what defines us in the eyes of God as male or female includes something we could only discover with the advance of technology (“Ye Mannes Bodie beareth the Homunculus, yet from ye Womannes Bodie the Homunculus absenteth Himselfe” —St Abigayl of Favell, 1580). But there’s something deeply resonant about the fact that whether we’re conceived in a petri dish or in the back seat of a Chevrolet, we each begin from this encounter of sperm and egg. I assume, actually, that this is the double meaning in Favale’s title: sex difference, the only difference present at the Creation of human beings depicted in Genesis, is tightly linked to our own genesis.
There are reasons I might be predisposed to accept Favale’s theory. The idea that the physical world bears meaning was close to the heart of my own conversion. Our physical bodies are vessels not solely of feelings but of meanings beyond what we can feel. Or not even vessels—our bodies are inextricable from the image of God that we bear. “Nature is a language, can’t you read?”, as I think maybe John Paul II or somebody once said.
And, like virtually every woman I have ever met, I had experiences which appear in many trans people’s autobiographies. Mine was that I usually imagined myself as a boy when I played alone. (With other girls I was happy enough in the usual Gen X lesbian childhood activities, e.g. being Cat-Ra.) These are kind of sweetly sad memories—this is the little plastic exiled soldier I wrote about in Gay and Catholic. But other women report much more painful experiences: hating their bodies, hating their breasts, hating the ways their bodies revealed them as women. Facing all those unfriendly or overfriendly eyes.
If you wanted an image of Crucifixion within the human body, you could do worse than menarche. Puberty for both sexes involves catastrophic loss of control of your body; when you add blood and repeated, sometimes debilitating (and often treated as shameful) pain, it is no wonder that so many women had a long and hard journey to accepting their bodies, accepting themselves as women. One of my personal top five movies ever made, The Fits, is about puberty as a girl’s discovery of her own helplessness—and it ends with her ecstatic embrace of that helplessness.
Okay but so I told a priest about this movie, and later I found out that he’d told a lesbian friend to watch it because he thought it might make her more gender-conforming. A way you can respond, as a cisgender woman, to trans men’s accounts of their own experience, is: “I felt that way too, because of misogyny [or abuse, or just menarche], and thank God I didn’t let anybody convince me I was trans, because I had no idea how amazing it would be to breastfeed my child.” Another person’s life becomes solely a mirror. Any wisdom carried in the trans person’s experience is interpreted exclusively in terms of the (real! important!) wisdom in the cis person’s.
Maybe that wouldn’t matter if we had definitive Catholic teaching on trans identities and hard-and-fast guidance for trans Catholics’ choices. (Nah, it would still matter, but I guess it would matter differently.) We don’t actually have that certainty. It hasn’t been given us. Maybe because we don’t need it yet. Maybe because it isn’t a kind of certainty that can exist.
If the way you know who’s a man is the gametes (and the gametes are never ambiguous), that means there’s always, infallibly a “way you know.” And so “Male and female He created them” means that we can always know which one we are.
Were we promised that?
There is no Catholic account of the human person without our bodies and our sex. But we already know that our bodily sex can be complex and confusing. A word spoken by God, but hard to interpret! A body which, if it is to be made whole, may need help—Jay Prosser’s Second Skins describes surgical transition as “reconstructive surgery.” A body whose wounds may not be healed, as Chris notes, but rather glorified. The vast majority of trans people describe gender discordance as confusing, a problem, a kind of lack. (Although I note that Venerable Juana de la Cruz Vázquez Gutiérrez proclaimed that when she was “in her mother's womb beginning to become a man, [God] turned her into a woman (which he could do and can do because he is almighty). His Divine Majesty did not choose to undo her Adam’s apple because it was a testimony of this miracle: when he turned her into a woman.” Maybe we need to seek out ways to understand discordance within one’s sex identity in terms of witness, as the stigmata witness.) Many people have found that although their bodies remain complex and imperfect after surgical transition, the woundedness they experience after the transition is more light-filled, more resonant with the meaning their bodies bear, than the woundedness they experienced before. They are grateful for their kintsugi bodies.
The project of reconstructing our sexed body isn’t to be undertaken lightly. Chris writes well about that, so I’ll skimp on it; but I’ve known trans people who decided not to transition medically for religious reasons, trans people who decided that medical (inc hormones) or surgical transition isn’t right for them, and people who went through a period of ambivalence and exploration before returning to a cis identity. Cisgendered Catholic intellectual types like me are not the only people who need support in living with unresolved ambiguities! Chris gives some recommendations there.
Look: it is easy to think about things. If we are to receive clearer guidance from the Church, I can only hope that it will come when and because we have created churches and communities where people experiencing gender discordance are safe. I expect Abigail knows and says this in her book, and does her best to live it out in her own communities—although Chris gives very plainspoken cautions about how far good intentions can go here.
We can’t act well if we act on the basis of a false certainty. We can’t guide people by a light we haven’t actually been given.
I initially planned to write this on Monday, but it got delayed ’til Ash Wednesday. In the readings for today, we are reminded of our physicality: the importance of our bodies, and the importance of our bodies’ vulnerability. We are reminded that we are mortals. And that we’re creatures: we are little. There is so much about others’ lives that is hidden from us, and seen only by our Father in Heaven, who sees what is hidden.
Allegri’s Miserere (performed by the Tallis Scholars)
Kintsugi jug by “Guggger,” via Wikimedia Commons, and used under a Creative Commons license.