The Ascetic Imperative in Culture and Criticism
Geoffrey G. Harpham
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In this bold interdisciplinary work, Geoffrey Galt Harpham argues that asceticism has played a major role in shaping Western ideas of the body, writing, ethics, and aesthetics. He suggests that we consider the ascetic as "the 'cultural' element in culture," and presents a close analysis of works by Athanasius, Augustine, Matthias, Grünewald, Nietzsche, Foucault, and other thinkers as proof of the extent of asceticism's resources. Harpham demonstrates the usefulness of his findings by deriving from asceticism a "discourse of resistance," a code of interpretation ultimately more generous and humane than those currently available to us.
merely by leaving it but by existing at the extremities of human capacity ("Rise of the Holy Man" 91, 92). The life of the eremite was at once squalid and pretentious, beneath civilization and far beyond it, subhuman and semidivine. According to Jacques Lacarriere, the Byzantine painters who depicted eremites in frescoes of monasteries in Cappadocia or Greece sought to portray beings belonging to "a sort of humanity different from that of ordinary mortals and half-way to the other world."
is neither static nor unencumbered; it is directed movement. In its juridical sense, temptation is before, and motivates a sequence, an after. But in its biological sense, temptation is within, and negates sequence, supplementing the movement of progress with a principle of nonmovement. Here again, asceticism provides a paradoxical formulation of a normative situation, for the fullest expression of this aspect of man's life on earth is, as the next chapter will argue, nothing less than narrative
recounting. Athanasius stresses the fact that Anthony achieved fame "on account of religion alone" (93: 98), his religion being most clearly evident in his ability to resist temptation, the quintessentially narratable act. In resolving all of human life into temptation, asceticism "narrativizes" it, insisting that every moment of existence has a vertical dimension, both containing closure and resisting it. If it is true, as I suggested at the beginning of the last chapter, that narrative is the
strategic: how to discover the truly renunciatory element in language; how to deploy the ascetic functions of language against the nonascetic functions; how' to pit language against itself? Such considerations must motivate the jettison of narrative after Book 9. Between books 9 and 10 a caesura falls, and narrative as a dominant mode is through, succeeded by an atemporal discourse that concentrates not on the life of the man Augustine but on the subjects of textuality, memory, and temptation.
itself out in a certain order over time, and to try to discover and follow the directions of that intention rather than "lingering" on individual pictures or "wandering" from picture to picture in an unstructured and self-indulgent way. The form and setting of the work require us to view it as an engine of devotion, in the Thomistic sense: the conscious and willed turning of the mind to God whose special means was meditation and whose effect was mingled joy at God's goodness and sadness (the