Tuesday, September 26, 2006

And Ginsberg Cringed

"Class merge" occurs when courses one is taking enjoy a serendipitous conflation. One of the best examples of it in my recent memory came this term, when after a Modern Art lecture on the 20th century's "Three Avant-Gardes" (Schapiro, Greenberg, and Bürger), I immediately picked up the reading for another course I'm taking on Byzantine Monasticism. The assignment was entitled, "The Desert a City: An Introduction to the Study of Egyptian and Palestinian Monasticism under the Christian Empire."

Early desert monks are the kind of radicals that would make Allen Ginsburg blush. Men who spent their wedding nights convincing their wives to not consummate the marriage that they might both become ascetics; who would confess to crimes they didn't commit for the sheer humiliation; who would happily counsel those who came to them spewing insults, but would turn away all who esteemed them as wise; who to repent for killing a mosquito in anger, went to a land where they could bore buffaloes, returning so swollen as to be unrecognizable. Such acrobatics (no doubt with added literary flair) were engaged in not due to poor self-esteem, but to avoid being compromised by the recently legalized, and hence potentially compromised, Christianity - for a socially accepted faith made it ever more possible to shirk the duty to "take up your cross and follow me."

Rather than demonizing the bourgeoisie, these monks demonized demons, and saw the real battle to be primarily not with the decadence of the leisure class, but with their own. It's a reminder that Paul Gauguin wasn't the only one who left tidy financial sector employment in search of higher things.