Desert Asceticism and “The Body from Nowhere” Patricia Cox Miller

Posted by on Mar 5, 2018 in Library | Comments Off on Desert Asceticism and “The Body from Nowhere” Patricia Cox Miller


This essay is an exploration of an apparent conundrum in reports about the desert ascetics of the fourth and fifth centuries, in which emaciated and mutilated bodies were seen as angelic bodies. Drawing on a theory of the construction of visual perception as well as on theories drawn from performative ritual in contemporary arts, the essay argues that the ascetic view of the human body oscillated between two modes of visual perception, one that marked its defects and one that marked its “angelic” qualities. Further, ascetic practices are viewed as performative ritual acts that induce the perceptual construction of ascetic bodies as bodies of plenitude. Ascetics’ performative uses of their bodies, in other words, changed the conditions within which they were perceived.

In the closing pages of his Lausiac History, Palladius exhorts his reader to “take the lives and labors” of the ascetics whose stories he has told as “a sufficient proof of the resurrection.”1 What can this possibly mean? How can a human life still being lived be proof of that drastic transformation from a physical body to a spiritual body so stunningly envisioned by Paul? What were the conditions of visual perception that made it possible for Palladius to see the “man of dust” as a “man of heaven” (1 Cor. 15.48)?

It may be that such conventional descriptions of ascetic persons as leading “heavenly” or “angelic” or “resurrected” lives were not mere metaphors of pious behavior but rather real indicators of a perceptual construct embedded within ascetic discourse. This perceptual construct enabled observers to “see” ascetic persons as performance artists, enacting the spiritual body in the here-and-now. This perceptual construct, moreover, was immensely satisfying—why else would a person like Palladius [End Page 137] have undertaken such arduous journeys in the heat and expanse of the desert to observe these ascetic spectacles?2 It may seem strange that the boringly repetitive and painfully self-mutilating practices of the desert ascetics provided a feast for the eyes; yet scopophilia—Freud’s term for visual pleasure—appears to have been an important feature of perceptions of ascetic activity. What I wish to investigate are the conditions of this visual organization of meaning.

We know that Palladius was a voyeur. He himself tells us that he had “looked into every cave and hut of the monks of the desert with accuracy and pious intent.”3 This insistence on looking, together with its interesting defense of the motive for looking, is characteristic of what might be called desert reportage. Actually, petitioning the gaze may have been one of the premises of ascetic activity itself. Peter Brown, Geoffrey Harpham, and Edith Wyschogrod have all, in their various ways, noted that ascetic activity and visibility form a pair.4Ascetic behavior was a performance that petitioned an audience. As Harpham has noted, the ascetic was, “in his very solitude, constantly on display”; further, “we owe to asceticism the notion that the exemplary self is observable.”5

I would like to add to this discussion a consideration of a curious feature of what Theodoret called “drawing benefit with the eyes.”6 This curious feature of the specular economy of desert reportage is that what those “eyes” claimed to “see” were practices that are frequently said in this literature to have been done in secret. For example, the author of the Historia monachorum in Aegypto notes about Ammon and the Tabbenisiots that “each one practices his own asceticism in secret”—and then goes on to relate those supposedly secret practices.7There are the stories of [End Page 138] the solitary vagabonds, living lives like birds or fish or animals and fed by no human hand but by angels.8 And there is the intriguing story of Theon, who “used to go out of his cell at night and keep company with wild animals”; according to the Historia monachorum, Theon had practiced silence for thirty years, communing with visitors by his gaze.9He did not tell the secret of his nocturnal socializing, being, as the text says, silent, and our author-observer doesn’t reveal the source of his information.

It seems to me, however, that to ask about the desert reporters, “How did they know?”, is to ask the wrong question. The kind of secret about which they were speaking was not the conventional kind of secret. The conventional kind of secret designates a thing not known or hidden from human apprehension; but desert reportage is filled with statements that affirm both the reliability of what has been seen and the “stereoscopic” quality of the observing gaze that penetrated the solitude of ascetic practices. I would rephrase this issue of the gaze as follows: ascetic practice enabled the observer to see something heretofore “secret,” where secrecy is a code-word for an “other” kind of seeing. The secret in this secrecy is not hiddenness but another condition of visibility and thus of perception. Further, the ascetics’ manipulation of their bodies was integral to this form of perception and cannot, I suggest, be understood apart from it.

It is obvious that ascetic practice was geared toward reshaping the body, but it is not so obvious how this reshaping could be viewed positively rather than negatively, for how, really, could desert reporters look at emaciated bodies, pustulated feet and torsos, bodies seared by red-hot irons, and say, “I saw many fathers living the angelic life”?10 In an attempt to see as the author of the Historia monachorum, and many others, saw, I suggest that such reshapings can be viewed positively, not as acts directed in hatred and disgust against the body per se, but rather as acts directed against a way of perceiving the body.

A recent essay by Jean-Pierre Vernant will help toward understanding the perceptual construct embedded in the specular economy of desert reportage that allowed for a positive viewing of ascetic practices of the body. In this essay, entitled “Dim Body, Dazzling Body,” Vernant argues that for Greeks of the archaic period the human body was conceptualized [End Page 139] as a “dim” version of the “dazzling” bodies of the gods.11 The human body was perceived by means of a comparative method in which the human was discerned by “deciphering all the signs that mark the human body with the seal of limitation, deficiency, incompleteness, and that make it a sub-body.” Further, “this sub-body cannot be understood except in reference to what it presupposes: corporeal plenitude, a super-body, the body of the gods.”12 Judged according to the standards of this divine super-body, the human body is perceived as “ephemeral,” “inconstant,” “vulnerable to the vicissitudes of time flowing without return,” with death as “a witness to its fragility.”13

This perception of the body as the sign of human misfortune does not, however, conform to the Platonic, and later Cartesian, dichotomous model of human composition that splits the person into a positive soul or mind housed in a negative body construed as a prison or as a mechanistic object in space. As Vernant says, “man’s misfortune is not that a divine and immortal soul finds itself imprisoned in the envelope of a material and perishable body, but that his body is not fully one”—that is, for the archaic Greeks, the problem is that the human body is not fully a body.14

It seems to me that this archaic employment of a comparative standard for perceiving human identity, as well as this model’s use of the image of a divine, “dazzling” body as the privileged signifying ground of that “dim” human identity, was characteristic of early Christian desert asceticism as well. I would like to entertain the idea that, in desert asceticism, the body was perceived to be problematic, not because it was a body, but because it was not a body of plenitude. Although Christian theologians contemporary with desert asceticism, for example Gregory of Nyssa, had embraced the dichotomous Platonic view of the composition of the human person, they could not devalue the body to the level of prison completely if they were to affirm the positive valuation of the created world in Genesis, whose story of the paradisal Adam continued to be a central text for anthropological speculation.15 By contrast, however, the insistent physicality of the phenomenon of desert asceticism, from the gangrenous leg of Symeon the Stylite to the blackened body of St. Mary of the desert, suggests that it was in the desert that the transformative implications of the Incarnation were put into practice. As Peter Brown has observed, [End Page 140] “Through the Incarnation of Christ, the Highest God had reached down to make even the body capable of transformation.”16

Thus when the body was viewed with despair and disgust, when it was altered by various practices of mutilation, this was not because of its sheer materiality as part of the physical world but rather because it functioned as a signifier of a lack that was not only spiritual but also corporeal. As Harpham has argued, the ascetic body was a disfigured body and, in his view, “the disfigured was figured as desirable” in opposition to classical canons of beauty now conceptualized by Christian ascetics as pagan demonism.17 I agree with Harpham, but in my view there is more to the positive valuation of disfiguration than opposition to a cultural aesthetic: more importantly, the disfigured was figured as desirable as an act of defiance against the muted speech of the “sub-body.” In this way asceticism can be understood as an attempt to manipulate the “dim” body so as to drive it as close as possible toward that corporeal vitality that is the mark of its exemplar. Asceticism, that is, attempts to control the play of the body as signifier; it attempts to reimagine how the body can be read, and what it can say.

The body of plenitude signified an existence that would defy the constraints of time and space. Hence desert reporters typically used metaphors of light to convey how this exemplary embodied self looked. According to the Apophthegmata Patrum, for example, the face of Abba Pambo shone like lightning, and Abba Sisoes’ face shone like the sun.18 The author of the Historia monachorum observed that Abba Or “looked just like an angel, and his face was so radiant that the sight of him alone filled one with awe.”19 Again in the Apophthegmata, the gazing eye saw the entire body of Abba Silvanus shining like an angel, while another old man appeared “entirely like a flame.”20 In the glare of such brilliance as that in the face of Abba Pambo, the observer saw “the image of the glory of Adam.”21Theologians like Gregory of Nyssa, too, constructed Adam as a dazzling plenitude: Adam, exemplar of an original humanity once lost but retrieved by the incarnate Christ as the sign of human destiny. Totally lacking in the shadows that give perceptual contour to the dim bodies of historical existence, Adam’s body “had been unimaginably different from our own,” as Brown has explained. “It had been a faithful mirror of a soul which, itself, [End Page 141] mirrored the utterly undivided, untouched simplicity of God.. . It was like the diaphanous radiance of a still midday sky.”22

Urging the dim body toward the flash of its corporeal plenitude, ascetics “lived perched between particularity and grandeur,” in Brown’s phrase.23 I would extend this statement concerning the perch between particularity and grandeur by suggesting that the ascetic view of the human body oscillated between two modes of visual perception that can be aligned with the two views of the body, one that marks its dimness or particularity and the other, its dazzle or grandeur. In her recent book Saints and Postmodernism, Edith Wyschogrod has described Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s analysis of the two ways in which objects are constructed in visual perception. In a book entitled Phenomenology of Perception, Merleau-Ponty “claims that two primary factors govern perceiving, first, the horizon factor, the idea that objects are not seen by themselves but are picked out against a background, and, second, the wholeness factor, the idea that each object is perceptually discriminated as a totality.24 Merleau-Ponty discussed these two modes of perceiving by using the example of looking at a house. From the perspective of the horizon factor, “‘I see the house next door from a certain angle, but it would be seen differently from the right bank of the Seine, or from the inside or from an airplane.’ The house is given against a backdrop which both stations and limits it, a visual horizon against which it comes forward or recedes and can be distinguished from other objects.”25 The second factor governing perception, the wholeness factor, is abstract in that it “suspends the actual spatial and temporal conditions of perception.”26In this way of perceiving, the focus is not on “the figure-and-ground character of the visual field” but on the object itself. The house is not given all at once, yet the observer claims to see the whole by an act of “visual inference.” This claim to see the whole by an act of visual inference is what Merleau-Ponty described as “the house seen from nowhere.”27

Wyschogrod concludes by observing that “the phenomenon of the horizon as well as the multifaceted character of entities is integral to perception because human beings are their bodies. The view from nowhere and the inference to wholeness reflect perception’s attempt to transcend the limitations [End Page 142] of embodiment.”28 The problem, however, is that the human body is not a visible object like a house: “the body is not an object like others because one cannot distance oneself from one’s own body so that it can give itself as a totality. I myself am that body.”29

Viewed from the perspective of Merleau-Ponty’s description of the two operations of visual perception, the ascetic imagination of the angelic super-body is precisely an attempt to view the body from nowhere, to give the body a totality by a paradoxical act of visual inference, paradoxical because the ascetic is the body that he is trying to see. When ascetics deride the body, they are viewing it from the perceptual perspective of the horizon; the dim body is the body seen in relation to its background or context—the context of historical time, the context of a body that seems fragmented into a congeries of its own needs and desires. Thus when a desert ascetic says about his body, “It kills me, I will kill it,”30 he is speaking not about the body per se but about the body perceived from the perspective of the horizon, whereas when a desert reporter looks at that same body and sees it shining like an angel, he is operating out of the perceptual perspective that infers wholeness, vision in the surround.

What I am suggesting is that asceticism constitutes an attempt to abandon the horizon and to “see from nowhere.” Metaphors of light as evocations of the “true” body were so useful because one cannot “see” light, just as one cannot “see” one’s own body whole. The lightning flash in the face of a desert ascetic marks the point of turning in what Brown described as the perch between particularity and grandeur, in which foreground and background are dissolved in a change to the perceptual mode that suspends space and time in an inference of wholeness.

The narrative enterprise of the desert reporters was actually a difficult one, for they were trying to show or describe something that is “inherently refractory to representation,”31 an Adamic body in the here-and-now, a living “man from heaven.” In part they accomplished the task of representing unrepresentability by their use of metaphors of light, and in part by their straightforward naming as angels those bodies that they perceived as the super-bodies of paradisal plenitude. But the formal structure of their texts was also touched by the perceptual construct out of which they worked. R. M. Price has observed about Theodoret’s Historia religiosa, a collection of stories about desert ascetics similar to the collections of Palladius [End Page 143] and the Historia monachorum, that it is “magnificent as a series of stories, but feeble as a series of portraits. Theodoret’s holy men are insufficiently differentiated, to the point where most of the stories, accidental details aside, would equally fit most of his holy men.”32 This observation is also characteristic of the other collections and, while the repetitive monotony that one experiences in reading such literature may well mar its standing as great literature, as Price feels, it is the so-to-speak “feebleness” of this literature in terms of historical portraiture that I think is more significant.

Anyone who has read these collections knows that the stories of individual desert ascetics are not presented as biographies that follow a linear line of narration from beginning to end, nor are the subjects of these stories situated in densely detailed or richly thickened socio-cultural contexts. Rather, these collections situate their subjects in an extended “middle” that subverts conventional biographical narrativity. Taking the form of snapshots endlessly repeated, these collections not only deprive their ascetic characters of history—that is, of the perceptual construct from the horizon that emphasizes the figure-and-ground character of the visual field—they also deprive the reader of the horizonal perspective. By their spareness of form in narrative historical terms, these stories invite the reader to share the visual pleasure of the inference to wholeness that structures the perceptual gaze of the reporters themselves. Thus the texts themselves are, as it were, bodies from nowhere that mimic the repetitive performative gestures of the subjects of their gaze. Textual monotony—or, put more positively, textual repetition—serves the ascetic cause by suspending constraints of space and time in order to induce another form of awareness.

I suggested earlier that the ascetics’ manipulation of their bodies was integral to the form of perception that produced “the body from nowhere,” and I will turn now to consider the role that ascetic practices themselves played in coaxing the body toward plenitude. In recent scholarship on desert asceticism, it has become conventional to view the body as a “map of social meaning” as well as “a site for religious self-formation.”33 This perspective attempts to avoid a dualistic construction of ascetic views of the body by noting that, far from being merely a repression of the body, ascetic practice involves an “interwovenness of spirituality and embodiedness.”34 [End Page 144]

While I agree that asceticism can fruitfully be conceptualized as a bodily practice that has self- or spiritual formation as its context, I am wary of treatments of asceticism which, by viewing the body as the ground for the spirit, court the danger of bypassing the body in the very act of trying to bring it forward for consideration. Consider the case of Symeon the Stylite. For his ancient biographers and contemporary interpreters as well, one of the most striking of Symeon’s ascetic actions was his constant standing with arms outstretched.35 Ancient interpreters were particularly taken with the performative aspect of Symeon’s standing as a spectacle that enticed the gaze of bystanders. These bystanders became themselves so involved in this activity that, as the Syriac Life reports, “his peers began watching him to see if he moved his feet or changed his position.”36

Many contemporary interpreters, by contrast, have tried to make theological sense of Symeon’s standing. For example, one theory proposes that Symeon’s standing with arms outstretched was cruciform—that is, that his action was an imitation of Christ on the cross.37 This theory depends on an assumption that later iconographic depictions of stylites that were theologically motivated in this way can be used to understand Symeon’s own motivation. Yet, as David Frankfurter has observed, “whether or not some later sculptors gave such theological reassessment to their local brand of holy man, there is no evidence that Symeon himself was inspired by Jesus’ crucifixion.”38In Frankfurter’s view, this interpretive position has associated “one of the least comprehensible forms of ascetic display with a most orthodox Christian theology of the cross.”39

Another example of contemporary theory is the association of Symeon with “the Platonic-Gnostic idea of the perfected being as ‘motionless’.”40 As Frankfurter, again, observes, this interpretive attempt does not theologize Symeon but philosophizes him on the basis of “the diverse interests [End Page 145] and ideals of the contemporary Academy.”41 I would add to Frankfurter’s critique that such perspectives both tame and domesticate Symeon’s action, and, by making this practice of the body a cipher for theological and philosophical ideas, the tangible physicality of the practice tends to recede in importance, if not to disappear altogether.

This is not to say that one should avoid interpretation when addressing issues pertaining to ascetic practices of the body, nor is it to say that ancient biographers of Symeon did not attempt to understand the meaning of his ascetic practices; indeed, as Susan Ashbrook Harvey has shown, each of the three extant biographies constructs its portrait of Symeon within a distinctive ideational framework.42 What I am pointing to is a question of emphasis. The ancient writers had their eyes fixed squarely on Symeon’s body as a valuable phenomenon in itself; even the Platonizing text of Theodoret is unflinchingly corporeal in its presentation of Symeon. As R. M. Price has aptly observed, bodily gestures like those of the stylite “were seen not merely to have psychological effects but to possess intrinsic meaning and value in their visible reality.”43

Performative visibility was so characteristic of Symeon’s ascetic practice, particularly his standing on a pillar, that Theodoret saw him as the successor of Biblical performers: Isaiah walking naked and barefoot for three years, Jeremiah wearing an iron yoke around his neck, Hosea marrying a prostitute.44 Ordinary onlookers, too, were struck by the performative quality of Symeon’s use of his body. One of Theodoret’s attendants tried counting the prostrations that Symeon did as part of his daily routine, and lost count after one thousand, two hundred and forty-four.45 Performing “the body from nowhere” was hard work, and it had devastating effects on Symeon’s body—ulcerated feet, a tumorous thigh infested with worms, a dislocated spine, and so on.46 Yet despite these gross physical deformations, or perhaps because of them, Theodoret could say, “He beautifies the world,” while another man, according to the report of the biographer Antonius, picked up one of the worms that had fallen from [End Page 146] Symeon’s thigh and saw it as a priceless pearl.47 These are both good examples of the way in which ascetic performance induced the perceptual perspective “from nowhere” that I suggest is operative here.

It is important to emphasize that the perception “from nowhere” did not function to dehumanize the body so perceived. Although I agree with Peter Brown’s construction of what he calls “histrionic feats of self-mortification” as “a long, drawn-out ritual of dissociation—of becoming the total stranger,” I would add that in ascetic practice, the strange was a ritual form of the familiar—of the familiarly human.48Again with regard to Symeon, Theodoret and Antonius both report occasions when Symeon’s performances provoked such questions from onlookers as, “Are you some kind of spirit?” “Are you human?”—in response to which Symeon invites the questioner to look at his foot oozing with pus and is forced to show the putrified flesh of his torso that had been wrapped with rope.49 He is woefully human, but that does not alter the ability of others to see in his humanity a body of plenitude.

Symeon presents a particularly striking case of the ascetic practice of representing unrepresentability by using the material at hand, the body. It is certainly true, as Wyschogrod remarks, that the dazzling body was refractory to representation—refractory, but not entirely resistant. As performance artists, ascetic practitioners constructed new conditions of visibility not by destroying all representative coherence but rather by engaging in ritual behaviors that enabled the body to be perceived in a different way. By conceptualizing ascetics like Symeon as performers, I am following certain contemporary theorists of ritual who have emphasized the performative dimensions of ritual activity. Such emphasis on performance aims to underscore the primacy of the body in ritual behavior as well as to guard against a perceived devaluation of action as compared with thought in some forms of ritual theory.50 Conceptualizing ascetic behavior as a performative [End Page 147] practice enables the interpreter to focus on the doing and acting which are creative of meaning in the ascetic context.

As performers, ascetics did not anticipate or petition audiences in the same way as an actor in a drama would, yet as we have seen, people did come to the desert to watch them, and their positive viewing of such “performances” drew on the perceptual capacity to infer wholeness discussed earlier. Now I would suggest further that ascetics themselves, in their various practices of manipulating their bodies, also drew on this inferential perceptual construct. Ascetic practices of the body defied the constraints of time and space—that is, the constraints of perception from the horizon—and they did so by emptying them of conventional meaning, thus creating a ritual time and a ritual space within which the body could be understood. As Catherine Bell has explained, such ritualizing of time and space involves a certain circularity: “space and time are redefined through the physical movements of bodies projecting organizing schemes on the space-time environment on the one hand while reabsorbing these schemes as the nature of reality on the other.”51 This ritual dynamic of projecting and reabsorbing is what produced the “angels” of desert asceticism.

The term “ritual” is understood here according to its definition by a contemporary director of drama, Richard Schechner: “Rituals are certain behavioral displacements, exaggerations, repetitions, and transformations that communicate and/or symbolize meanings not ordinarily associated with the behavior displayed.”52 In asceticism, time was ritualized by practices of repetition, like Symeon’s repeated prostrations, while space was ritualized by practices of exaggerated subtraction, like Symeon’s fastings and self-mutilations which altered the “space” of his body. The desert ascetics in Egypt also engaged in these practices of repetition and subtraction which manipulated the body so as to drive it as close as possible toward that vitality that was the mark of an “other,” paradisal plenitude.

Observers of the desert ascetics reported practices of repeated prayer, hymn-singing, and labor as well as the kind of knee-bending and standing engaged in by Symeon. According to Palladius, Moses the Egyptian filled the water jugs of his ascetic companions every night in a kind of ritual walkabout, and Paul, who knew three hundred prayers by heart, “would [End Page 148] collect that many pebbles, hold them in his lap, and at each prayer cast out a pebble.”53According to the Historia monachorum, Apollo offered prayers to God throughout the day, and bent his knees a hundred times in the night and as many times in the day, while John “stood under a rock for three years in uninterrupted prayer.”54 The case of John’s standing reveals the radical effect of ascetic repetitive practice, for if repetition is repeated often enough, the practitioner achieves a condition of stasis or stillness, a body from nowhere that is so abstract that it doesn’t even move.

Returning to Schechner’s definition of ritual, with its observation that behavioral repetitions and displacements convey meanings not usually associated with such behaviors, it is not immediately obvious how, for example, pebble-throwing might symbolize an angelic body. However, a recent essay by the dancer Susan Leigh Foster shows how this might be so. Writing about repetitive exercises in dancing, she observes that such “drilling is necessary because the aim is nothing less than creating the body. With repetition, the images used to describe the body and its actions become the body.”55 In dance, she argues, there is a perceived body—the body perceived from the horizon—and there is an ideal body—the body from nowhere which is the goal of training. Unfortunately, “the training regimen reveals the perceived body to be horribly deficient in the size and proportion of its parts.” Hence the need for constant repetition, which marks both the striving toward the ideal body and the recognition of lack.56 The dancer, like the ascetic, is constantly perched, as Brown said, between particularity and grandeur, and both sides of this perch are signified by the same set of bodily behaviors, which display the dim body and the dazzling body at once.

The other kind of ascetic practice that brought the body from nowhere to perceptual awareness was what I earlier called a practice of subtraction, which included the ascetics’ eating habits (or lack thereof) as well as acts that marked the body by literally removing flesh from it. Although acts of physical mutilation—burning the fingers in the flame of a candle, wrapping the body with chains or ropes which left disfiguring gaps when removed—are attested in ascetic literature, it was the practice of fasting [End Page 149] that most drew the gaze of reporters and led them to marvel at the “bodily contentment” of men whose only food was endives, or roots and herbs, or the Eucharist.57 In fact, and paradoxically so, it was the body produced by fasting that elicited perceptions of the corporeal plenitude of paradise. The Historia monachorum reports that Macarius the faster was given fruits of paradise in the deep desert, and there are numerous stories of ascetics who, like Abba Sourous, ate nothing earthly, for angels fed them each day with heavenly food.58

Such admiration of the kind of body produced by sustained fasting did not stem from a fashion-induced obsession with thinness. Rather, fasting was one of what Michel de Certeau has called “practices of the infinite or, if one prefers, the actual, a spatial bringing into play” of the Adamic body of plenitude that is made available to perception by such ritual practice.59 Fasting not only “transforms the natural and anticipated responses of the body to eating,” as Elizabeth Castelli has noted;60 it also produces a body that looks different from conventional bodies, that is, bodies marked by their ties to social and historical contexts. By ritualizing the space of the body, fasting offers to perception a body so different that it can be declared “angelic” and yet still retain its status as human. A short hymn attributed to Ephrem the Syrian speaks eloquently to this point: “Hunger that eats up your flesh, offers you the bliss of Eden; thirst that drinks your veins, supplies you the sources of life; fasting that dries up your person, illuminates your countenance.”61 Clearly, in the case of fasting, subtraction adds.62

The “shriveled up” face and “wasted” limbs of an ascetic like Eusebius of Asikha presented an enticing sight to an observer like Theodoret because his body figured in spatial terms that which eludes figuring: a living [End Page 150] “man from heaven.”63 Yet, like the repetitive practices that ritualized time, the practices that ritualized the space of the body had a double valence, oscillating between the perspective from the horizon and the perspective from nowhere. Negatively, fasting was premised on a recognition of the loss of the super-body of Edenic plenitude but, positively, fasting was an act of constructive defiance against that dim body. In this regard, asceticism can be seen as “a taking charge of the other by the body.”64 This performative “taking charge” by means of the ritual practices of the body just discussed was crucial to the engagement of the perceptual “view from nowhere” that I have argued was operative in asceticism.

At several points in the course of this discussion I have used the word “performance” to describe ascetic behavior. In terms of the ritualizing of time by means of repetitive performance, I used a contemporary example from the arts, dance, to suggest how ascetic practices of repetition might be understood. Now, in order to bring into clearer focus the spatial character of ascetic performance, I will use another example from modern arts, this time a painterly one.

In France in the 1950s, a spatial understanding of “the body from nowhere” was alive and well in the work of the artist Yves Klein. Klein did not place frames around his paintings. As Mark Taylor has explained, “frames interrupt the goal of art, which, according to Klein, is the experience of unification for both artist and viewer. Klein is best known for his monochromatic paintings, most of which are a brilliant blue that came to be known as International Klein blue.”65 Writing about his painting in an essay entitled “The Monochromatic Adventure,” Klein said: “As soon as there are two colors in a painting, combat begins.”66 To overcome this combat, as Taylor notes, Klein removed figuration from his paintings and painted a single color on a frameless canvas. For Klein, the experience of painting was religious: “My goal,” he claimed, “was to restore lost [End Page 151] Eden.”67 His goal might well be compared with the goal of those ancient ascetics whose project has been described as the restoration of “the frankly physical exuberance of Adam’s Paradise.”68

As Taylor has observed, Klein’s blue paintings “actually represent nothing. The nothingness of Klein’s blue is, however, a curious nothing. Rather than the mere absence or negation of being, this blue embodies the plenitude of being’s presence. . . . Klein paints the ineffable by removing every trace of figure and contrast of color.”69 As Klein himself, again, wrote: “By saturating myself with the eternal limitless sensitivity of space, I return to Eden; and this is why, in my art, I refuse more and more emphatically the illusion of personality and the transient psychology of the linear.”70

Like Klein in his return to Eden, the desert angels of asceticism had also refused what Klein calls “the illusion of personality and the transient psychology of the linear.” These two phrases describe well the view from the horizon, which perceives in terms of historical particulars of individual identity and temporal unfolding. Ritualizing the body causes such figure-and-ground concepts to give way to intimations of totality, or what Klein called “the eternal limitless sensitivity of space.”71

Klein wanted others to experience the oneness with totality which he thought was a common human desire. Similarly, whether consciously or unconsciously, ascetic performers drew their audiences into their performative rituals as participants, at least in terms of an altered perceptual perspective; and sometimes their spectators became part of the act itself, as we have seen in the case of those who watched Symeon’s feet and counted his prostrations. Klein, however, was conscious of his aim to include his audience in the work of his artistic religious vision. To accomplish this, as Taylor notes, “he frequently transformed his art into a public performance.”72

One of the most dramatic instances of Klein’s performative art was called the “Exhibition of the Void,” which took place on April 28, 1958 at the Galerie Iris Clert in Paris. I follow Taylor’s description of this event. “Klein emptied the gallery of everything and painted it entirely white. The only thing in the gallery that was not white was a blue drink offered to [End Page 152] guests as they entered. The exhibition created a considerable sensation. When more than two thousand people tried to squeeze into the small gallery, the police and fire department had to be called to avoid a riot. For Klein, the most important moment in the exhibition was the drinking of the blue cocktail, which he explicitly interpreted as an act of communion. ‘The blood of the body of sensibility,’ Klein declared, ‘is blue’. What he did not tell the communicants was that the mixture of gin, cointreau, and methylene blue would make them urinate blue for a week—the precise length of time for which the “Exhibition of the Void” was scheduled.”73 In Klein’s view, blue—the color of Eden—had infused them all, making them all performers of a lost plenitude now literally present in the space of their bodies.

While Klein may seem a bit Svengalian in comparison with ascetics fasting in the desert, still his attempt to realize “the body from nowhere” in the here-and-now by a performative use of the body-in-space is strikingly similar to ascetic ritual performances of the Edenic body. In both cases, art and religion coalesce in a performative gesture that elicits an “other” way of perceiving the body. And, while we might prefer the lightning flash in the face of Abba Pambo to the blue urine of Klein’s guests, it is the case for both that performative uses of the body both induce and draw upon the perceptual ability to infer wholeness. Particularly in the less obvious instance of asceticism, what emerges is the importance of the gaze in the construction and execution of its practices. As Abba Bessarion, at the point of death, said: “The monk ought to be as the cherubim and the seraphim: all eye.”74 [End Page 153]

Patricia Cox Miller

Patricia Cox Miller is Associate Professor in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University


1. Palladius, Historia Lausiaca 71 (hereafter HL), in Cuthbert Butler, ed., Palladius: Historia Lausiaca, 2 vols. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1898, 1904), 2:169.

2. For a brief history of Palladius’ various visits to desert ascetics between the approximate dates of 388-412 C.E., see Butler, Palladius: Historia Lausiaca, 1:2-3.

3. Palladius, HL, foreword (Butler ed., 2:4).

4. Peter Brown, The Body and Society: Men, Women, and Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity (New York: Columbia University Press, 1988), 327; Geoffrey Galt Harpham, The Ascetic Imperative in Culture and Criticism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987), 24, 27; Edith Wyschogrod, Saints and Postmodernism: Revisioning Moral Philosophy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990), 13.

5. Harpham, Ascetic Imperative, 24, 27.

6. Theodoret, Historia religiosa (hereafter HR), prologue 1; ed. Pierre Canivet and Alice Leroy-Molinghen, 2 vols. (Sources Chrétiennes 234, 257 [1977, 1979], 1:124; trans. R. M. Price, Theodoret of Cyrrhus: A History of the Monks of Syria (Kalamazoo: Cistercian Publications, 1985), 3.

7. Historia monachorum in Aegypto (hereafter HM) 3.1; ed. A.-J. Festugière, Subsidia Hagiographica 34 (Brussels: Société des Bollandistes, 1961), 39; trans. Norman Russell, The Lives of the Desert Fathers (Kalamazoo: Cistercian Publications, 1981), 65.

8. Apophthegmata patrum (hereafter AP), Bessarion 12 (PG 65.141D); trans. Benedicta Ward, The Sayings of the Desert Fathers (Kalamazoo: Cistercian Publications, 1975), 42.

9. HM 6.1 (Festugière ed., 43-44; Russell trans., 68).

10. HM, prologue 5 (Festugière ed., 7; Russell trans., 49).

11. Jean-Pierre Vernant, “Dim Body, Dazzling Body,” in Fragments for a History of the Human Body, Part One (Zone 3), ed. Michel Feher (New York: Urzone, Inc., 1989), 18-47.

12. Ibid., 23.

13. Ibid., 24-25.

14. Ibid., 25.

15. On Gregory of Nyssa’s view of the body, see Brown, Body and Society, 291-304.

16. Brown, Body and Society, 31.

17. Harpham, Ascetic Imperative, 27.

18. AP, Pambo 12; Sisoes 14 (PG 65.372A, 395B).

19. HM 2.1 (Festugière ed., 35; Russell trans., 63).

20. AP, Silvanus 12; Arsenius 27 (PG 65.411C; 80D).

21. AP, Pambo 12 (PG 65.372A).

22. Brown, Body and Society, 294. Note especially Brown’s discussion of Gregory of Nyssa’s De hom. op. 12.9 and De virg. 13.1.

23. Peter Brown, “The Saint as Exemplar in Late Antiquity,” in Saints and Virtues, ed. John Stratton Hawley (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987), 14.

24. Wyschogrod, Saints and Postmodernism, 16.

25. Ibid.

26. Ibid., 18.

27. Ibid., 16.

28. Ibid.

29. Ibid., 17.

30. Palladius, HL 2 (Butler ed., 2:17).

31. Wyschogrod, Saints and Postmodernism, 13.

32. Price, Theodoret of Cyrrhus, xv.

33. Elizabeth A. Castelli, “Mortifying the Body, Curing the Soul: Beyond Ascetic Dualism in The Life of Saint Syncletica,” differences 4.2 (1992):134, 136; cf. Brown, Body and Society, 222-23.

34. Castelli, “Mortifying the Body,” 142.

35. See the many references to Symeon’s standing in the collection of biographies of Symeon by Robert Doran, trans., The Lives of Simeon Stylites (Kalamazoo: Cistercian Publications, 1992).

36. The Syriac Life of Saint Simeon Stylites 8 (Doran trans., 109); see also Theodoret, HR 26.12-13, 22 (Canivet—Leroy-Molinghen ed., 2:184-90).

37. H. J. W. Drijvers, “Spätantike Parallelen zur altchristlichen Heiligenverehrung unter besonderer Bercksichtigung des syrischen Styliten kultes,” in Oikonomia: Quellen und Studien zur orthodoxen Theologie, vol. 6, ed. Fairy v. Lilienfeld, Erich Bryner, Karl Christian Felmy, and Werner Weismann (Erlangen, 1977), 54-76, esp. 67-75.

38. David T. M. Frankfurter, “Stylites and Phallobates: Pillar Religions in Late Antique Syria,” VC 44 (1990):173-74.

39. Ibid., 174.

40. Ibid., 174, summarizing the argument of Doran, The Lives of Simeon Stylites, 33-35.

41. Frankfurter, “Stylites and Phallobates,” 174.

42. Susan Ashbrook Harvey, “The Sense of a Stylite: Perspectives on Simeon the Elder,” VC 42 (1988):376-94.

43. Price, trans., Theodoret of Cyrrhus, xxxiv.

44. Theodoret, HR 26.12 (Canivet—Leroy-Molinghen ed., 2:186-88).

45. Ibid., 26.22 (Canivet—Leroy-Molinghen ed., 2:204-6).

46. Ibid., 26.23 (Canivet—Leroy-Milinghen ed., 2:206): ulcers; Antonius, The Life and Daily Mode of Living of the Blessed Simeon the Stylite 17 (Doran trans., 94): infested thigh; The Syriac Life of Saint Simeon Stylites 46 (Doran trans., 130): dislocated spine.

47. Theodoret, HR 26.28 (Canivet—Leroy-Molinghen ed., 2:212; Price trans., 83); Antonius, The Life and Daily Mode of Living of the Blessed Simeon 18 (Doran trans., 95).

48. Peter Brown, “The Rise and Function of the Holy Man in Late Antiquity,” in his Society and the Holy in Late Antiquity (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982), 131.

49. Theodoret, HR 26.23 (Canivet—Leroy-Molinghen ed., 2:206-8); Antonius, The Life and Daily Mode of Living of the Blessed Simeon the Stylite 7 (Doran trans., 89).

50. For a discussion of performance theory, see Catherine Bell, Ritual Theory, Ritual Practice (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), 37-46; see especially her discussion of the ritual theory of Stanley Tambiah and Roy Rappaport on pp. 41-43.

51. Bell, Ritual Theory, 99, extrapolating on the ritual theory of Jonathan Z. Smith in To Take Place: Toward Theory in Ritual (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987), 74-96.

52. Richard Schechner, “Magnitudes of Performance,” in By Means of Performance: Intercultural Studies of Theatre and Ritual, ed. Richard Schechner and Willa Appel (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), 24.

53. Palladius, HL 19 (Butler ed., 2:62): Moses; HL 20 (Butler ed., 2:62-63; trans. Robert T. Meyer, ACW, vol. 34 [Westminster, Maryland: The Newman Press, 1965], 71): Paul.

54. HM 8.5 (Festugière ed., 48; Russell trans., 70): Apollo; HM 13.4 (Festugière ed., 99; Russell trans., 93): John.

55. Susan Leigh Foster, “Dancing Bodies,” in Incorporations (Zone 6), ed. Jonathan Crary and Sanford Kwinter (New York: Urzone, Inc., 1992), 484.

56. Ibid.

57. HM 8.51-52; 2.4; 13.4; 20.17 (Festugière ed., 67, 36, 99, 123).

58. HM 21.5-8; 2.9; 8.6; 11.5 (Festugière ed., 125, 38, 48-49, 91).

59. Michel de Certeau, The Mystic Fable, trans. Michael B. Smith (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992), 45.

60. Castelli, “Mortifying the Body, Curing the Soul,” 143.

61. Ephrem, Hymni et Sermones 4, col. 153, trans. Arthur Vööbus, History of Asceticism in the Syrian Orient, vol. 2: Early Monasticism in Mesopotamia and Syria, CSCO 197 (Louvain: Secretariat du Corpus SCO, 1960), 30.

62. I owe the idea of the “subtraction that adds” to Mark Taylor’s discussion of works of art in which “art is nothing other than a complex process of disfiguring. . . . Subtraction adds and erasure inscribes. Rending creates the space in which forms become articulate.” See his Disfiguring: Art, Architecture, Religion (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992), 278. See also the comments on self-mortification in Brown, Body and Society, 330-31.

63. For Theodoret’s comments on Eusebius of Asikha, see HR 18.1 (Canivet—Leroy-Molinghen ed., 54).

64. De Certeau, The Mystic Fable, 45.

65. Mark C. Taylor, “Nothing Ending Nothing,” in Theology at the End of the Century: A Dialogue on the Postmodern, ed. Robert P. Scharlemann (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1990), 44-47 on Klein.

66. Yves Klein, “The Monochromatic Adventure,” in Yves Klein, 1928-1962: A Retrospective (Houston: Institute for the Arts, Rice University), 220, quoted in Taylor, “Nothing Ending Nothing,” 44.

67. Klein, “The Monochromatic Adventure,” 224, quoted in Taylor, “Nothing Ending Nothing,” 44.

68. Brown, Body and Society, 221.

69. Taylor, “Nothing Ending Nothing,” 44.

70. Klein, “The Monochromatic Adventure,” 224, quoted in Taylor, “Nothing Ending Nothing,” 44.

71. Ibid.

72. Taylor, “Nothing Ending Nothing,” 46.

73. Ibid..

74. AP, Bessarion 11 (PG 65.141D; Ward trans., 42): “all eye” = ophthalmos.

Desert Asceticism

and “The Body from Nowhere”

Patricia Cox Miller