The figure of the Hermaphrodite in esoteric symbolism is perhaps one of the strangest and most alien to the ordinary consciousness of man. It has probably always been this way. The primitive shaman — part priest, part mystic, part sorcerer, a figure of fear and reverence — is known to have feminized his appearance, and to have presented himself as above or beyond male and female. In medieval and early modern alchemy, we find the figure of Rebis, half male, half female, with wings. Yet, curiously, androgyny has continued to exist, sometimes emerging in popular culture.
In regard to clothing, “androgyny seeks to unite male and female, masculine and feminine in one body,” says Rebecca Arnold in Fashion, Desire and Anxiety, “The resulting Hermaphrodite vision represents a return to a ‘sense of primordial cosmic unity’, a point of union which would assuage gender confusion and anxiety, by evoking a mythical pure state of being before the Fall.”
While noting the exception above, until recently, male androgyny has been largely confined to the fringes of the avant-garde, with more popular figures being those entertainers who have played up their androgyny, making themselves into a virtually comedic show. It put viewers at ease. But the primordial, the Platonic, and even the occult, occasionally peaked through the facade of glitz and glamour.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the rock musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch. The musical was written by John Cameron Mitchell and features music and lyrics by Stephen Trask. They had experimented with it, rewriting it even as they opened it in small New York venues. The final version opened in early 1998, to critical acclaim. In 2001 a movie version was shown at the Sundance Film Festival, winning the “Directing Award Dramatic,” and helping it to launch across the US.
This play and movie, which follows the adventures of Hedwig, a homosexual singer, seems on first glance to be the least likely vehicle for expressing metaphysical ideas. But, in this case, looks are deceiving. To escape communist East Berlin, the singer undergoes a sex change operation and marries an American G.I. The operation is botched, leaving Hedwig deformed, but in the US, and abandoned by her husband, Hedwig fronts a band as a female singer, and travels around, eking out a living as an entertainer.
That the movie is a modern, campy, but brilliant retelling of Creation myth of Plato’s Symposium is soon revealed as Hedwig sings the song the Origin of Love. Referencing the Norse god Thor, the ancient Egyptian Osiris, and an unnamed “Indian god,” as well as Zeus, the song draws several polytheistic religions together into a single narrative about why we desire to love. Drawing from Plato’s Symposium, Hedwig tells us that the original creatures had two sets of arms and legs and two faces. Those from the sun were all male. Those that came from the earth were entirely female. And the creatures from the moon were half male and half female, or androgynous. The creatures scaled heaven in an attempt to attack the gods, but Zeus repelled them and cut them in half to punish them. According to Plato, as their descendents, man is indentured and compelled, by his nature, to look “for his other half.” Those men who are descended from the all-male creatures will inevitably seek their “other half” in other men. Women from the all-female creatures will look to women, and “Men who are a section of that double nature which was once called Androgynous are lovers of women.”
Hedwig appears to find his “other half” in the form of the young, sexually inexperienced and confused aspiring rock star Tommy Speck, whom he grooms for stardom, giving him the stage name “Tommy Gnosis.” Gnosis, meaning “knowledge” in Greek, hints at Gnosticism, and the direct, intuitive or mystical knowledge, associated with the ancient religious movement. This knowledge is, in the Platonic sense, of between the two halves of the primordial being. Hedwig pursues Gnosis – a Ziggy Stardust-esque character – as he tours the US, suddenly famous, and singing Hedwig’s material, though without acknowledging his indebtedness to the former East Berliner. Hedwig, meanwhile, is forced to perform in sleazy, largely empty diners. Near the end of the movie, however, Hedwig breaks down, tears off her wig and clothing, and collapses on the floor. Strongly suggesting that the two characters are one and the same, the figure that emerges from the crumpled wreck is not Hedwig, but Gnosis (see Elizabeth Lara Wollman, The Theater Will Rock: A History of the Rock Musical, from Hair to Hedwig, University of Michigan Press, 2006).
Perhaps the most extreme expression of mystical androgyny emerged in the form of Genesis P-Orridge’s “Pandrogyny” project. P-Orridge is the longtime lead singer of the post-punk band, Psychic TV, and founder of the avant-garde British occult organization The Temple ov Psychic Youth, which was active during the 1980s and early 1990s. Psychic TV was founded in 1981, and played its first gig in 1983. The next year the band began to achieve some commercial success, and in 1986 it reached the number one slot in the independent music chart, with Godstar, a single record about the late Rolling Stones member Brian Jones. Psychic TV also infiltrated the nascent “rave” music scene, which was inspired in part by the Sixties’ Hippy movement. P-Orridge is even frequently accredited with inventing the term “acid house,” the name of the type of music played at “raves.”
P-Orridge did not regard music, art, occultism, and ordinary life as mutually exclusive, however. All of these could, and would, intertwine in one big experiment in how to live. Although an occult movement, the ToPY itself was often seen, by other occultists, as more of an art project.
The ToPY was especially interested in the practices of early twentieth century artist and occultist Austin Osman Spare, and adopted his occult practice of creating “sigils” from letters of the Roman alphabet. In the ToPY the fluids, “semen from thee male and lubrication from thee female,” were to be dropped onto the sigil to empower it, psychickally. The organization also absorbed the sexual Magick of Aleister Crowley, the “sexual deconditioning of [German psychologist] Wilhelm Reich,” who believed that sexual repression had been responsible for the rise of Nazism, and method of literary figures Wiliam S. Burroughs and Brion Gysin. P-Orridge’s occultism was designed in and for the disaffected of post-industrial Britain, the “abyss-dwelling youth of the late Twentieth Century – like the punk kids in Derek Jarman’s [movie] Jubilee.”
Esoteric androgyny is important P-Orridge’s writings and occult practices. The “ov” in The Temple ov Psychick Youth, is itself a formula that relies on the symbolism of male and female. Specifically “OV” is the “Temple name for […] semen from the male and lubrication from the female,” The Psychick Bible informs its readers. One of the practices of the ToPY was to create an esoteric sigil, representing the wishes of the practitioner, which would be anointed by the OV, as well as with spittle and a drop of blood.
P-Orridge dedicates the 2010 Feral House edition of The Psychick Bible “to my ‘other half’ thee angelic being,” Lady Jane Breyer P-Orridge, who died in 2007 of stomach cancer, “s/he is (still) her/e.” P-Orridge and Lady Jane had consciously embarked on reshaping their outer appearances, so that they would resemble each other, becoming as one person in two bodies. This was not androgyny, as the couple conceived of it, but what they called “pandrogyny.” “She told me she saw me as a mirror image of her, and that we were meant to be two halves of one,” P-Orridge is reported as telling the Los Angeles Times. A decade into their fourteen-year marriage, the couple began dressing alike, styling their hair in the same way, and wearing the same cosmetics. The pandrogynous couple even went as far as using cosmetic surgery to alter their appearances, and on Valentine’s Day 2003, the P-Orridges got matching breast implants. Genesis remembered his wife as saying, “All I want to be remembered for is being part of a great love affair.” A movie about the couple, called The Ballad of Genesis and Lady Jaye, opened in 2012.
Gender bending remains largely confined to the arts, and, even here, rarely involves surgery. Nevertheless, Mary Gonzalez, the then newly-elected Texas State Representative, described herself as “pansexual” to the Dallas Voice newspaper in 2012, which said that Gonzalez did not “believe in a gender binary.” Prior to the election, Gonzalez had been described in the media as gay and lesbian, because she was reportedly not comfortable using the relatively obscure term, pansexuality, which indicates sexual attraction to “all gender identities.”
Gonzalez’s pansexuality provoked only very brief attention by the national media. As if a diluted and purely aesthetic form of the esoteric androgyny that we have been discussing, long-haired, Bosnian, male supermodel Andrej Pejic burst on to the fashion scene in 2011 precisely because of his feminine looks. Pejic has even gained fame and some notoriety for modeling women’s fashion. And, in 2011, the male supermodel modeled push-up bras in an ad campaign for Dutch department store Hema. The point of the campaign was to show that the push-ups bras were so effective that even a man would have a woman’s figure through wearing them. However, we might think of this as the exoteric explanation. Esoterically, it would seem to suggest that the perfect man has embraced his “female side” and is androgynous or a hermaphrodite.
Whatever one might make of this phenomenon, it is nonetheless a fact that gender ambiguity, coupled sometimes with occult and esoteric ideas, has persisted into the modern era, where it has been both hidden from view and yet openly flaunted in movies and pop music. It, if nothing else, must remind us that things cannot always be grasped according to the surface, exoteric appearance, and sometimes must be understood in an esoteric sense. And, moreover, that the superficial can sometimes unveil the archetypal.