Wednesday, 10 February 2010

Ascetics Ancient and Modern

I recently found this article on Roger Ebert's blog (you know, that film critic fellow), and was fascinated by it. My fascination exists on several levels, and I thought I might try to articulate exactly what it is that fascinates me about the event the article describes.

Chris Burden, of course, is not the only man who does these kinds of bizarre things. There's also David Blaine, whom the article mentions in passing; probably the more famous for such stunts. What motivates these men to do such things? Arguably, in Blaine's case, there is a large element of vanity and desire for fame. Although, come to think of it, there must surely be easier ways to achieve fame; I can't imagine the anticipation of rousing applause and a welcoming crowd would be enough to sustain one through a 44-day long fast. Or perhaps I have underestimated the lengths some individuals will go to become famous.

With Burden, though, there is clearly something else at work. Something far more interesting. And it reminds me of nothing so much as some of the more extreme of the early monks. Not so much the Egyptian fathers, who were for the most part rigorously commonsensical and seem to have generally eschewed the more showy forms of asceticism (though they were plenty ascetical in their own way). But some of the Syrian monks, for example, did crazy things. Fasting for dangerous periods, standing for days on end, etc. The most memorable of these, of course, is St Simon Stylites, who sat up on a pillar for 39 years. To what end did these men inflict such things upon themselves? The easiest thing to do with them is dismiss them as wackos, extremists, individuals who are so far from the mainstream of their religion that it is better to ignore them and act as if they hadn't existed. But they are not so easily dismissed. People clearly looked up to them at the time. In addition to the legends of the miraculous that surround them (which the modern is also inclined to dismiss or downplay), people came from great distances to seek spiritual advice from them and they were even consulted on occasion with respect to doctrinal controversies. By all accounts, both their spiritual and doctrinal advice was impeccable- when reading about St Simon Stylites, he seems decidedly sane and, indeed, wise- except of course for the whole living-on-top-of-a-pillar thing. Likewise with Chris Burden, there's something fascinating and yet tantalisingly indefinable about him and what he does that draws people. Like with the monks, it goes beyond the mere morbid curiosity that inspired nineteenth century circus and freak shows. There is mystery in his actions. What do they mean? Because, as Ebert says, they must mean something.

As regards the monks, Simon Tugwell, the Oxford Dominican, has an intriguing answer. In writing of the monks in his book Ways of Imperfection, he suggests that they took seriously the idea that with Christ all things were made new. By taking on human nature, Christ had opened up innumerable possibilities for the human person. The severe asceticism of some of these monks, Tugwell suggests, was an almost scientific desire to see where, in this age of grace, the limits of the human person now lay.

"What [the monks] all had in common was a quest for a definition of human life independent of any definitions contained in the ordinary structures of life....The coming of Christ had reopened the fundamental question, what it means for us to be human beings. It is no longer sufficient to accept from our social milieu the values, aspirations and so on which structure our concept of ourselves; the question has to be pushed to a much further limit: 'What is a human being as such, as envisaged by the Creator?'

"It is difficult to avoid the feeling that at least some of the curious practices adopted by some ascetics were intended to be a kind of experiment, designed to extract further evidence of just what it is to be human. It is almost as if they were saying, 'Let us fast for a week and see what happens,' or 'Let us fasten ourselves to rocks and see what happens.' It is by pushing human nature to the limits of its endurance that you discover what human nature really is."

So what is Chris Burden up to? Is he tapping into something similar? Perhaps; though I suspect that he would be able to articulate what he's trying to demonstrate less well than the monks could. Of course, the theological rationale that the monks had (assuming Fr Tugwell is correct) is absent from what Burden is up to, but, given that at least in his case there appears to be no particular vanity or desire for fame in what he does, it seems reasonable to suppose that his various conceptual-art pieces are driving at similar questions. And, in this age of self-indulgence, any act of asceticism, whatever it's goal or purpose, is countercultural and, thus, impressive in a way.

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