xbn .
Stringed Figure by Henry Moore CC BY-NC 2.0
The Brink

Ethics, Life, and Medieval Texts

All three texts concern lives: the formed life, the deformed life, and a life without a why – a useless life freed from subjection to transcendence.

What can one hope to find when one returns anew to medieval theological texts? The three texts that are at the heart of this symposium—Rachel J.D. Smith’s Excessive Saints: Gender, Narrative, and Theological Invention in Thomas of Cantimpré’s Mystical Hagiographies (Columbia, 2018), Niki Kasumi Clements’s Sites of the Ascetic Self: John of Cassian and Christian Ethical Formation (Notre Dame, 2020), and my own The Self-Emptying Subject: Kenosis and Immanence, Medieval to Modern (Fordham, 2018)—offer different answers to this question.

In part, the difference stems from the variety of textual sites that the books investigate: the 13th-century mystical lives of Thomas of Cantimpré (in Smith), John Cassian’s writings that act as the mediating link between Eastern and Western Monastic traditions (in Clements), and Meister Eckhart’s corpus that puts into question our expectations of what medieval mystical theology can do (in my own work). The differences in concerns, inclinations, and arguments stem in part from the specificity of the texts in question, but they also arise from the fact that these books do not inhabit quite the same disciplinary perspectives. They stretch between theology, religious studies, and modes of interdisciplinary engagements arising out of continental philosophy and critical theory. Taken collectively, however, the books exhibit and explore the attraction of medieval texts understood as mystical and spiritual.

What follows traces one trajectory through the divergences and convergences between the books in question. It does so primarily through taking ethics as a common field in which some of the texts’ distinctions come into view.

The ethical lens may seem a surprising way to attempt to map the relation between the books. This perspective is dictated in part by one of the frames that guided me in The Self-Emptying Subject. There, by traversing textual sites not only medieval but also modern, and not only mystical and theological but also philosophical, I sought to articulate a singular logic of self-emptying as a form of desubjectivation that discloses a life without a why—a life untethered from the demands of labor, salvation, and justification, which are repeatedly imposed on it in its interaction with transcendence. I explored how Meister Eckhart, GWF Hegel, and Georges Bataille all elaborate, in different ways, the operation of self-emptying as disclosing an immanence that precedes and exceeds the division of life into self and Other.

This logic of self-emptying was formulated in contrast to two dominant paradigms in continental ethics, Foucault’s care of the self and Levinas’s ethics of the Other. In the former, ethics is centered around the subject’s power of molding, transforming, and crafting the self – of cultivating the self as a form of self-subjectivation. In the latter, the subject is negated or undone, but in relation to the transcendence of the Other. Rather than cultivating the self or affirming the Other, the Meister Eckhart I uncover insists that it is necessary to displace the entire conceptual correlation between the subject and transcendence. Such a move stands in contrast to logics of self-cultivation and the cultivation of openness and receptivity that has been emphasized in various ways across the history of Christianity.

From this perspective, the different forms that transcendence takes—for example, in theologies of divine ineffability, in ethics of alterity, in temporalities of futurity and salvation—allow a variety of illusory battles to be staged in which one form of transcendence is opposed to another. Their result is the repeated rendering invisible of dispossessed life without a why, a common life detached from the matrices of subjection imposed upon it by these transcendences.

In a way, it is possible to redraw this triangle, at least in part, in relation to the other two books under discussion in this symposium. Clements quite explicitly takes up the Foucauldian paradigm of self-cultivation, in which the subject forms itself through practices, as a frame for understanding Cassian’s monastic writings. By contrast, Smith’s book can be seen as exploring texts dealing with the cultivation of receptivity in relation to transcendence (though, it should be added, it cannot be reduced to this perspective alone). Let me draw out this mapping by addressing the texts sequentially.

Sites of the Ascetic Self takes up the discussion of the late Foucault to understand ascesis not as renunciatory, but as productive and transformative. Central for the subject’s cultivation of dispositions and ethical agency are ascetic practices, “daily practices of formation” (29), which Clements explores via rubrics of the bodily, the affective, and the communal. Through practices such as prayer, fasting, recitation, and friendship, Cassian’s ascetic subject molds the self and learns how to ethically inhabit a form of life. Cassian’s texts offer “an experience of forging an ascetic way of life” (4), the capacity of inhabiting the professio of the monk, bringing the eastern desert experience into the history of Western Christianity. This entails not only molding oneself in imitative ways in relation to an embodied ideal (and, ideally, becoming oneself such an ideal), but submitting one’s life to a form (a form of life) rather than merely obeying a rule.

Although methodologically indebted to and building on the work of Foucault, Clements separates herself in relation to Foucault’s texts precisely around the question of how to interpret Cassian. Foucault opposed the ethics of self-cultivation, which he explored on such occasions as the 1981-82 Collège de France lectures The Hermeneutics of the Subject, to the logic of Christian asceticism and monasticism, which for him stress questions of humility and obedience (something he explores, for example, in his earlier elaboration of pastoral power). By contrast, Clements’s argument is that Cassian’s asceticism must be engaged “beyond Foucault’s reading of him as obsessed with interiority and renunciation” in order to become “attentive to transformative arts of living” that it elaborates (29).

Sites of the Ascetic Self offers a detailed account of how Cassian, pace Foucault, instantiates the kind of concern with positive ascetic cultivation that Foucault found only elsewhere in non-Christian antiquity. Indeed, for Clements, this makes Cassian useful “for reimagining ethics as self-cultivation and transformation today.” (39) One question that remains open to this reader is whether through this reinterpretation of Cassian, a broader reinterpretation of Christianity, or at least Western Christian monasticism and modality of power, is implied. To put the question differently: Foucault’s genealogical connection of governmentality to Christian pastoral power was an attempt to think about the afterlives of monasticism in the present, beyond the context of its original formulation. And, even as he diagnosed a primacy of obedience, hierarchy, submission, and humility in the monastic matrix of pastoral power, he understood these as partaking in a positive and productive power (rather than the negative or prohibiting power of the law, which he had always juxtaposed to his investigations). In other words, even if the asceticism that is most compelling as a theoretical paradigm is one focused on self-transformation, it remains important that Foucault, prior to such a formulation, repeatedly traced the strange and unexpected monastic afterlives persisting into modernity. Are those material lives and afterlives of monasticism in modernity (found differently in disciplinary power and pastoral power) negated if we understand Cassian differently as Clements asks us to do, or does Cassian, despite being one of the progenitors of monasticism, remain at odds with these legacies of monasticism?

Smith’s Excessive Saints shows Thomas of Cantimpré’s mystical hagiographies as highly sophisticated, constructed, and reflexive literary and theological sites for the interrogation of the nature and significance of miracles, theories of the sign, modes of reading, and the status of gender and authority in the Christian mystical and hagiographical traditions. Thomas’s lives, in Smith’s hands, do theological work, offering their saints as objects of emulation and imitation, but also of excess and deformation. Smith’s intricate analyses of operations and theologies of signs (including that of Augustine) reveal Thomas as a skillful semiotician. What is at stake in Thomas’s lives are complex operations not only of cultivation but also of the opening up of the reader to the divine other in the context of new forms of medieval lay spirituality flowering in the 12th and 13th centuries. Throughout, what is particularly striking about Excessive Saints is the rigorous and lucid attention to detail that dilates the texts themselves into the direction of the unexpected and the astonishing.

At the center of the analysis stands the life of Christina the Astonishing. Exhibiting “an aesthetic of excess” (49), it poses difficulties in the way it borders on the demoniac and enacts deformation on multiple levels at once, on the level of the body, of experience, and of genre conventions. In this way, the mystical hagiography of Christina exceeds received moves of hagiographies (hagiographies of the desert that Cassian brought over to the West), its purpose being not only to attain God, but also “to teach and intercede” (63). Moreover, the question is not only of emulation, but precisely of an irreducible excess: “the primary means of her pedagogy is not language but her marvelous body and the horror it inspires in onlookers” (29). Especially in the life of Christina, emulation and imitation are rendered problematic by the specter of the demonic, the quality of excessiveness, and the incredulity that the life generates­—and Smith traces the maneuvers and strategies that Thomas deploys to overcome these difficulties. The result is a focus on the complex and self-reflexive relations that are constructed between the saint, the writer, and the reading community. One of the unexpected maneuvers is visible in the way that apophasis inhabits the body and life of the saint, rendering them “a bearer of hyperbolic unlikeness” (69). Smith proposes reading such deformation “by exaggeration, monstrosity, and unlikeness” (79) as producing the saint as sign that, in its dissimilar similarity (Pseudo-Dionysius), points efficaciously to the divine.

Here an aspect linking Smith’s and Clements’s texts become visible. While sharing concerns with the significance of ascetic formation, of molding and self-molding, Excessive Saints repeatedly crosses the boundaries between formation and deformation. While both books concern themselves with the way lived narratives are central for the formulation of ethics and devotion, Clements’s book insists on the daily practices of ascesis that form the monk in his professio, whereas Smith’s book traces not only the formation but, centrally, also the novel ways that deformation and its horrors come to play decisive roles in the mystical hagiographies. Indeed, considering my own book, as well, all three texts concern lives: the formed life, the deformed life, and a life without a why – a useless life freed from subjection to transcendence.

To conclude, a note on heresy and orthodoxy. Excessive Saints shows how radical excess and deformity in the lives of saints function quite explicitly in the fight against heresy and in defense of orthodoxy: Thomas’s lives serve as counter-examples to Cathar perfecti. The question of orthodoxy and heresy likewise comes up in Clements when she explores Cassian as a figure whose emphasis on the capacity of cultivation comes under suspicion from the dominant Augustinian position.

Yet, when dealing with the desert saints, another concern remains: the kernel of radical refusal lodged in the drive of anachoresis, of disappearing into the desert. For sensible conceptual and historical reasons, Clements rejects Foucault’s analytic distinction between asceticism and monasticism—a distinction that cannot be maintained from within coenobitic forms of communal monasticism. But what Foucault’s distinction (made in March 1st 1978 lecture of Security, Territory, Population) tried to preserve is precisely the radicality and excess of the original desert drive and its withdrawal from and refusal of the world—from its incorporated and delimited deployment within a regulated, institutionalized, and hierarchized monasticism. The hagiographies textually fold this drive back into the general economy of Christianity, for the benefit of community and orthodoxy. Yet even in these texts something of this original drive remains, captured in those scenes (such as the one concerning Abba Pinufius that opens Clements’s book) in which respected saints attempt to escape from their established authority in order to become anonymous, under erasure, to dissipate and not be found. Now in Cassian, as in other stories used for the edification of institutionalized monasticism, the Abba is rediscovered and brought back to once more be exalted as spiritual authority, once more capturing an ascetic and anchoretic drive for the purposes of community and orthodoxy. But in such incorporations is not the originary flight, its anchoretic excesses and refusals, diffused by being put to use within a matrix of power concerned not only with ethical cultivation, but also with forms of control, discipline, and orthodoxy? Or at least this is so in the texts that survive, for one can imagine the anonymous freedoms of all those who disappeared fully into the desert or into anonymity, those whom the communities, orthodoxies, and textual inscriptions did not succeed in tracking down, those who disappeared into life freed from imposition, breaking with the interpellations and subjections of the world – never to be recognized again.

Between Excess and Emptying

Whereas Smith’s work on excess refuses metaphysical or conceptual capture, Alex Dubilet expands the philosophical logic of excess as undergirding a critical praxis.

Ethics, Life, and Medieval Texts

All three texts concern lives: the formed life, the deformed life, and a life without a why – a useless life freed from subjection to transcendence.

Ascetic Idealizations

Is it possible to consider an askesis of otherwise imaginaries without falling prey to the ascetic ideal?

Like what you're reading?

You have Successfully Subscribed!

Share This

Share this post with your friends!