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The Sacred Body: Asceticism in Religion, Literature, Art and Culture

David Jasper
Published by Baylor University Press in 2009

The title of David Jasper ’s new book, The Sacred Body: Asceticism in Religion, Literature, Art and Culture, promises a survey of the topic of asceticism in art and literature. More enticingly, it promises the reader that she will embark on a historical pattern-finding mission with the author. (What is this “sacred body”? What is its meaning? Where does it appear and under what guise?) Indeed, to a certain extent this is the case; much of Jasper ’s book reads as a series of essays treating ascetic manifestations in visual and verbal texts both old and new. Moreover, several of these manifestations fit the same pattern. Narratives about Saints Antony and Mary of Egypt, for example, are joyous, sensuous and life-affirming, and an analysis of Jean-Luc Marion’s The Erotic Phenomenon links solitary contemplation with childbearing and sex. “Asceticism,” it turns out, is not about deprivation but about a paradoxical fullness; Jasper turns every bloodless, pharisaical notion of the practice on its head. The secret within The Sacred Body, however, is that Jasper does not aim to merely reinvent a concept. Instead, as we learn through reading the book, he strives to become that concept—to embody it—and to embody it, moreover, in the very act of writing. Ultimately, The Sacred Body itself is an ascetic manifestation. Furthermore, in reading it the right way (and here is the final twist), we become ascetics ourselves.

So what is the nature of this symphonic asceticism that is present simultaneously in the lives of the desert saints, in the author’s writing, and in the reader’s reading? What is fundamental to all of these acts and why do they harmonize? According to Jasper, this re-imagined asceticism (which is not something new, but rather something very old and elemental) consists in a sort of self-emptying that, in its very inside-outness, creates a space for an invading Plenitude. The desert saints, by clearing a space around and within themselves, made themselves open and attentive to a fullness of Life. This is why St. Antony, who starved himself, appeared in glittering health after a long confinement. And this is why the desert wanderer Mary could intoxicate the priest Zossimus with her luxuriant beauty—despite the ravages of wind, years, and sun.

And how do we share in this asceticism, as we sit warm in our offices or our livingrooms, reading Jasper’s book? The answer is simple: we share it through our embrace of a correct epistemology. A post-postmodernist determined to push beyond theories about the “constructedness” and arbitrariness of sign systems, Jasper links the self-emptying of the desert saint to the true task of both the reader and also the writer-as-reader. (For all writers are also, first, readers—readers of other texts, or of life.) To understand anything—whether a written text or a life-as-text—a reader must engage in the same self-emptying as the saint. She must use the text as a desert clearing and lay herself open to whatever Presence may come from beneath or behind the words. A text, in its very existence, bears witness to otherness (the otherness of the Other who made it). When we encounter it, we encounter physical evidence of an Other in whose faint presence (echo-presence or trace-presence) we now stand. Our proper attitude toward the text, therefore, ought not to be a sort of blinkered, crabbed, forensic, scholarly attention. Rather, we ought to use the text as a crumbling step into the utterly separate mystery (the life-space, the person-space) from which it came.

We could say, then, that Jasper proclaims the death of the “Death of the Author.” Far from “dead,” the Author is living and present, and in emptying ourselves we as readers can face him head-on. Accordingly, as an author, Jasper is not ashamed to bare his own life before the reader’s eyes. His method is refreshingly frank in its idiosyncrasy: personal anecdotes are common, the personal pronoun is abundant, and the book as a whole has an artful, syncopated quality. This is all entirely apropos, for postmodernism has shown us that our utterances, no matter how antiseptic or rule-bound we make them, come from a personal place; there is no “objectivity,” strictly speaking. Indeed, to speak simultaneously Christianly and postmodernly, we might say that God Himself fails to be “objective”—for God, above all things, Loves, and His every action is inflected by that Love. (Thus the “objective” disappears and only a universe of discrete Persons is left, each with his own point of view, each linked in mysterious dependency and pervasive subordinacy to every other: “The last shall be first and the first shall be last.”) What Jasper as a post-postmodernist does is to suggest (obliquely) that this personal place is also an organically real place, rooted in our God-created selfness and not in the fashionable play of signs.

Jasper, therefore, does not profess to tell us what is “out there” in the culture or literature, as if such an account could be given. Instead he shows us what he himself has found, coming from where he has come. This is a model of “scholarship” that is simultaneously humble and aggressive—humble in its professed limitations, but aggressive in its faint air of self-assertion. Why, after all, should we care what David Jasper has found? We should not, perhaps by any “objective” measure. But as we happen upon his book we may discover that we recognize something there, and we can rejoice that someone else—whose selfness is somehow adjacent to our selfness—has written things that we also felt and hoped but did not know how to locate (in history) or express (in words). The Sacred Body is, in short, a conflation of scholarship with poetry, where poetry is understood not as some arcane and precious thing that occasionally rhymes yet usually does not, but instead as an artful expression of the writer ’s experience-in-time. Postmodernism shows, perhaps, that every human expression, insofar as it has grappled with the simple nature of things, has been poetry—though there has been plenty of bad poetry along with the good.

And is The Sacred Body a good poem or a bad one? Given the nature of his own experiences-in-time, Jasper’s poetic tools are the weapons of the literary critic. And like most works of contemporary literary criticism, Jasper ’s work has a tortured quality. This painfulness comes from the fundamental disproportion of the critic’s tools to the issues he addresses; textual pattern-finding, when exercised without deep attention to material causes, can often result in specious, implausible, or just plain incredible arguments. Thus Jasper’s new book is distinctively “poetic” in a double sense—first, in its rhetorical procession from the “I” of the author, and second, in its tendency to adapt the external world to personal narratives. In a discussion of “the resurrection body,” for example, Jasper seems to suggest that Marcel Duchamp’s notorious Fountain, a work of conceptual art that consists of a urinal set on a podium, is a sort of sculpture-poem of “resurrection.” A self-identified “anti-artist” and absurdist, Duchamp submitted Fountain to the 1917 exhibition of New York’s Society of Independent Artists and later reproduced and exhibited the piece worldwide (tt has recently been voted the most influential artwork of the twentieth century). Fountain’s message, however, is nothing if not iconoclastic: Are artists really prophet-geniuses, Duchamp asks, or does the gallery context (white walls, pedestals) merely prime us for reverence? When Jasper contends that Duchamp has “resurrected” a urinal as something profound, he seems to have fallen for the anti-artist’s trick.

Here, then, is the chief shortcoming of the sacred hall of mirrors that is The Sacred Body: in the end, openness alone is not enough to penetrate to a text’s originary Ground. Epistemological “asceticism” is a starting point, but it must be followed by an active “going out” or “gathering” that reenacts (in a sanctified way) the data-collection associated with the Enlightenment, with modernism, with science, and with factual discovery. The anatomization of this operation has yet to take place, but it must be the next step in our progress out of the subjectivist din characterizing both contemporary journalism and contemporary humanities scholarship. How can we know something on its own terms and acknowledge our “selfness” at the same time?

David Jasper’s The Sacred Body, meanwhile, is a Möbius strip of a book: it begins and ends in the same interior “desert,” and in between it explores both an outside (meaning) and an inside (process) that are fundamentally one and the same. The book swallows itself. In presenting itself, its intention is to empty itself. As a fissured, lurching, personal text, The Sacred Body points inevitably back to Jasper ’s own “sacred body” as its living author. And in emptying himself through the offering-up of the text that is in him, Jasper clears for himself an interior space where he can meet the “sacred body” of his own Author, Christ. Finally we as readers, confronted with the word-emanations of Another ’s lived experience, must empty ourselves of our own “texts” (our assumptions and formula-thoughts), in order to encounter the vortex-like Actuality beneath the text we are reading. All of these are acts of asceticism, yet all involve a kind of wanton nakedness.

Cite this article
Katie Kresser, “The Sacred Body: Asceticism in Religion, Literature, Art and Culture”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 39:3 , 323-325

Katie Kresser

Seattle Pacific University
Katie Kresser is Professor of Art History at Seattle Pacific University.