A Smart Man’s Silly Project

Roland Betancourt’s “Byzantine Intersectionality”: A Review

In the interests of a new shame economy (Wokeism), Roland Betancourt mulls over the “intersections” of the old one (Christianity) in Byzantine society. Will his intellectual descendants be so kind to cultural conservatives who creep in the intersections of mainstream culture today? Probably not considering he deems those who stand in the way of his “truer, more ethical past” to be “complicit with oppression.”

While Betancourt’s stigmatising tactics are crisp and transparent in the epilogue, he is subtle enough to encode them elsewhere. In each chapter the author mines over a millennium of history (digging up its most salacious texts and artworks) in order to prove the bleeding obvious, in other words, that nymphomaniacs, homosexual monastics, transsexuals and abortions, existed 330-1453 and that this Christian society accommodated these peoples and events even while disapproving of them.

This might strike many as a rather banal angle but Betancourt paints himself shocked that late antiquity contained “slut-shaming.” Furthermore, the fact that Mary of Egypt a lady who admitted to raping men  was “placed beyond excuse for her actions and forced to say that her deeds were justified by neither calamity nor poverty” leaves the UCI professor professionally outraged. The don claims she was, as a consequence, framed as “beyond redemption or compassion.” An odd statement considering she was embraced by monastic communities, canonised and celebrated as the patron saint of penitents.

This historical Thunderbird, however, will not let facts obstruct his would-be-benighted mission, which like an overenthusiastic child he cannot help scribbling every so often:

“It falls upon us to call out these male authors for their rhetorical violence against women.”

Not that he is always so plain. There are defter sleights of hand such as when he tries to conflate the fact the Byzantines had a practice that trimmed oversized clitorides with FGM. Rather conveniently he fails to observe that the former was a procedure that stopped both female embarrassment and further medical complications and the latter was an Egyptian habit scorned as irredeemably foreign and wrong by Byzantines.

The book is not without merits. The first chapter, dealing with Byzantine theology’s slow realisation that Mary’s consent to the incarnation mattered more than God’s omnipotence displays a mind arrayed in its finest peacock feathers. He is guilty, however, of framing suspicions about Mary’s conception as the patriarchy on steroids rather than the fact being impregnated by God is a once-in-an-eternity event and might therefore lead quite fairly to qualms and misgivings. 

Indeed, the stale joke that Byzantines would argue about how many angels danced on a pinhead as the world fell to ruin is inadvertently revitalised by Betancourt whose gist can be reduced to asking how many types of sexual consent can be manufactured in ancient texts that attempt to communicate the mysteries of the incarnation. Furthermore, his references to Mary being “raped” by God will irk many. Christians for the most part, but Muslims too, considering the Qur’an categorises her as “one of the four spiritually perfected women of the world.” And his habit of occasionally dropping “fuck” like an insecure teenager also grates.

Moreover, at various points, Betancourt’s analysis becomes tendentious in the extreme. When he claims the illustrations of the “Annunciation” in the Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana’s Homilies of James Kokkinobaphos resemble those of Tamar’s “Rape by Amnon” in Bibliotheque Nationale de France’s Sacra Parallela, for instance, he occupies a position where genius segues into comedy. It would be as if future scholars were to insist that the gestures of a whisk manual were so akin to the visual rhetoric of an average porn-site experience that the former was clearly a sexual implement. 

There are a few theological slip-ups too. Betancourt’s claim that Gabriel approaches the throne of God, which is “empty because the Holy Spirit has entered Mary’s womb” in the same Homilies’ “Ascent of Gabriel” appears oblivious of the fact the viewer is confronted by a very popular Christian symbol: the Hetoimasia, the prepared throne. It is not empty because God has popped out for a bit of incarnation, it is the ultimate symbol of divine sovereignty (that handily avoids breaking the second commandment). 

Rather amusingly, Betancourt’s mission to protect the “intersection” means he is forced to defend some pretty awful characters simply because the Byzantine mainstream didn’t like them. The fact remains, however, that the vanilla folk could often be right: Theodora can’t easily be rehabilitated (and Prokopios reciprocally denigrated) quite simply because the empress was guilty of heinous crimes, not least filicide and mass murder.

Sometimes the script is flipped, however, and he is forced into positions where he praises (the otherwise oppressive) Christianity as the progenitor of (the intellectual or psychological gymnastics of) his own shame economics. He adores Virginia Burrus’ secular dissection of martyrdom as an ideology that:

“Converted shame into defiant shamelessness, giving rise to a performatively queered identity that retrieves dignity without aspiring to honour.”

Though there can be no defiant shamelessness for the poor sods that meet Betancourt’s disapproval. Into this category falls heterosexual men whose “scopophilic” imagination remakes the female body into a “playground.” Perhaps I have led a uniquely charmed life in meeting women who are fully equipped with this gift, or perhaps this excitable professor has not encountered very exciting women.

Some works of this ilk are fun. Thrilling and scurrilous often go together in polemic. Betancourt, however, writes academese larded with woke buzzwords (“cisgender”, etc.). A congested style that is contorted further by the frustrating habit of bestowing upon transsexuals the pronouns of their choice rather than their “birth-assigned gender.” That’s fine when communicating attributes often associated with their chosen gender but it gets very confusing when they’re not. 

The opportunism that lurks behind sourcing potential misgenderings is also hilariously transparent. There’s a very funny passage, for instance, in which Psellos’ scribblings about having feminine elements to his personality-cum-soul means he immediately gets burdened the pronouns “their” and “they.” Perhaps language will one day catch up with the professor’s views. Until then, he is destined to write in a manner that’s indigestible to all but a few fellow-travellers. 

Even these fellow-travellers, however, might become embittered by his petty point-scoring. One example of an academic lined in his crosshairs is Kathryn Ringrose, whose assessment of eunuchs as a “third gender” has been accepted as part of the bread-and-butter discourse since 1994, but instead here gets patronisingly patted down as somehow insufficient compared to Betancourt’s sophistical revelation that eunuchs were “genderqueer.”

Indeed, it seems language games are his delight. Anna Komnene, for instance, is rendered a wannabe man because she gave a speech like Queen Elizabeth I’s at Tilbury. Instead of seeing intelligent women manipulating gendered caricatures for their own ends, the professor sees evidence of “gender fluidity.” Other games include pretending Byzantine cultural habits (that pertained to realism i.e. lowest common denominator behaviours towards women) were elaborations on disgusting prejudices that made “valid targets” of women who didn’t behave as they liked. At this point my anachronism Geiger counter blew up.  

Perhaps the most bizarre section, however, is Chapter IV: Queer Sensations, which contains passages in which Thomas Didymus’ prodding of Christ in the side is interpreted as a homoerotic drama. Intriguingly, Betancourt claims his excerpts demonstrate that “the senses are sexualised in a manner that often structures a queer desire toward Christ, whose image is similarly revealed and validated through the notion of a same-gender union in flesh and spirit.” 

In one episode, Betancourt has Christ display a “gaping opening,” and “fear the groping” he’ll receive. The “hand of Thomas… reperforms the violence of the lance” and “wishes to tear open the wound.” Another piece of art apparently shows the apostle holding a scroll which the professor converts into a “phallic” object. Absurdity aside, this Freudian performance is the perfect cipher for Betancourt given the Austrian psychoanalyst is notoriously the point (in the western history of philosophy) at which the intellect vanished up its own anus.

Eventually the laughter subsides and it dawns that Betancourt is serious about sexualising innocent spirituality. His strategy mainly involves conflating ancient eros (with its sense of wonder at how connected everything is) with its modern counterpart (and its sense of sexually possessing things). Instead of recognising that almost all Christian literature indulges in the former (Ps. Dionysios is the perfect example of someone who places the Trinity at the ontological centre of gravity for all creation) he casts this gravity or telos as sexual desire, and remoulds our longing for a divine home as some sort of lust. 

To conclude, it is a shame that instead of seeing the Christian kultur of the Byzantines on its own terms, Betancourt insists on reducing it to an evil stepmother who is not allowed honest views only blinkered prejudices; abbreviating the faith to rather doleful chords in a postmodern melody. The professor, who bleats about white privilege before absent-mindedly recounting his blissful days writing the book at UCI, is clearly a cultural gatekeeper. Yes, Betancourt is one of those chaps who’s most happy treating the past as a gold-mine of resentment, an attitude and a resource that fortifies his position as a member of the clerisy.

Book reviewed: Roland Betancourt’s “Byzantine Intersectionality: Sexuality, Gender, and Race in the Middle Ages”

Henry Hopwood-Phillips is a Byzantine historian from London. He writes at byzantineambassador.com.

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