The Issue of Sin and Sexuality in Wings

In Mikhail Kuzmin’s Wings, homosexuality is celebrated and defended more explicitly than in any other Russian text of the time. The two arguments that Kuzmin most clearly addresses are the idea that homosexuality is “unnatural” and thus sinful, and the belief that the physical act of sex, when deprived of its productive function, is wrong and disgusting. In countering such beliefs, Kuzmin builds a worldview that is neither purely hedonistic or ascetic, and that rejects organized religion as it exists, but does not deny the possibility of religion or spirituality in general. This middle ground that Kuzmin appears to occupy in his beliefs explains Vanya’s final position on the problem of “base” physicality, that while the attitude toward an act is morally significant, the act itself is not.

An interesting feature of the novel is the overwhelming amount of dialogue, much of which has to do with the many different characters expressing their views directly or indirectly on the sinfulness of homosexuality. Throughout the novel, Daniil Ivanovich appears to take the voice of Kuzmin insofar as the beliefs that he voices are treated most favorably. At the beginning of the novel, Ivanovich, in conversation with the Russian language teacher, says that “military service, like a monastery, like almost any evolved dogma, has an immense attraction in the availability of ready and defined attitudes to all kinds of phenomena and concepts” (17). This is a clear call by Kuzmin to avoid dogma and to at least think carefully about one’s opinions and attitudes–a fitting start to Vanya’s coming-of-age story. Dogma based on ancient texts or traditions is particularly problematic because as Ivanovich explains to Vanya later when discussing different interpretations of the Greeks over time, “we see what we wish to see and understand just what we are seeking” in such texts (23).

This previews an argument in favor of homosexuality that Kuzmin uses, in which he writes that it is “as though it has been forgotten that it is according to Jewish legend that childbearing and toil are a punishment for sin, and not the aim of life” (29). Here Kuzmin rejects the notion that homosexuality is condemnable because homosesexuals cannot produce children, and he does so by using Jewish legend rather than rejecting it. He thus shows that the moral interpretations of ancient texts that are so often used to condemn homosexuality are in some ways arbitrary. Ascetism appears to be the prevailing view of the time, as Kuzmin expresses through the popularity of Wagner, and Kuzmin rejects this notion of excess vs. natural actions. As Kostya explains while relating Stroop’s views, “‘if you stick to the use of our bodies that’s considered natural, then with your hands you’ll have only to tear raw meat apart…et cetera” (36).

However, in the novel, Kuzmin does not fully argue for the satisfaction of all “natural” desires. He also rejects hedonism, as exemplified by the story of the artist who symbolically chooses pleasure over love, by choosing Chibo of Blonskaya. Instead, Kuzmin relies on an aesthetic view of love and beauty as the ultimate ideals. This distinction is made clear in a passage in which Maria discusses the issue with Vanya and says that “anyone who’s touched by the flaming spirit of love, whatever he’s done, it’s all forgiven him, because he’s no longer his own, in the spirit, in the rapture” (43).

The relationship of the physical act of sex to the ideals of love and beauty are finally made clear to Vanya during his trip to Italy. His realization at the end of the novel is that it is the attitude toward an action that matters, not the act itself. The distinction is made clear both to Vanya and the reader in one of the final scenes of the novel (though it has been mentioned many times before) by the Canon Mori, who references the sexual acts of Hadrian and Antinous as opposed to those of Tiberius. Vanya asks “but in essence, at any given moment, isn’t it one and the same thing?” to which the Canon Mori replies “You’re dreadfully deluded, my son. Important in every act is the attitude to it; the acts themselves are the mechanical movements of our bodies, incapable of offending anyone, still less the Lord God” (96). This final conclusion is perhaps the most powerful argument of Kuzmin’s, because unlike many of the arguments of the time which sometimes reject the notion of morality altogether, it fully reconciles homosexuality with religious and moral beliefs.

KS

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Filed under Week 5: Kuzmin, Radclyffe Hall

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