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Praying by Numbers: An Essay on Medieval Aesthetics
1. “Your asceticism is sublime.” In 1965 Luis Buñuel directed the film Simón del desierto (Simon of the Desert), which portrays an ascetic who imitates the example of the fourth-century Saint Simeon Stylites. Standing for several years and months on a pillar in the desert, Simón practices a most austere form of self-fashioning, attempting to free himself from all natural, social, and historical bonds, and staging his existence as an ultimate state of exception within the world (fig. 1). At one point in this short movie, a visiting monk says to the protagonist: “Your asceticism is sublime.” Characterizing the acts of Simón as “sublime,” he speaks not only to the impressive spiritual effort of the one who resides on the pillar absorbed in prayer but also to the aesthetic quality of Simón’s performance and to its formal perfection. Asceticism, monastic practice, religious life is—as the monk knows—essentially the imitation of an example in and through the acts of prayer. It is the formal repetition and the aesthetic emulation of an exemplum, which transcends time and history within the very context of the historical world that Buñuel shows us in all its poverty, aridity, and cruelty. Prayer is the ascetic’s very act of emulation that evokes and realizes the example of sanctity, that makes its image present in the repetition, and that evokes an archive of images connected to it. Buñuel’s film is about this repetition of a form, the emulation of the “example of Simeon Stylites,” which, in turn, is nothing other than the repetition of the archetypal figure of Christ who exposes himself to the temptations by the devil in the desert—and thus evokes all the images of diabolic temptation the film plays with (fig. 2). What Buñuel’s film depicts—rather than narrates—is the mechanical structure of this production and reproduction of images of holiness that
A B S T R A C T In this essay I argue that the imitation of examples of sainthood in the practice of prayer is the formal basis of a medieval aesthetics that focuses on the animation and the phenomenology of sensation and emotion. Quoting from this tradition and drawing on the mechanical character of such techniques of animation, nineteenth- and twentieth-century authors and filmmakers—Flaubert, Huysmans, and Buñuel—explore the aesthetic possibilities of these religious practices. Thus, they recover and illustrate a history of the evocation of sensation and emotion through images and texts, which in the medieval context can be best described as a highly formal art of “praying by numbers.” / R E P R E S E N T A T I O N S 104. Fall 2008 © The Regents of the University of California. ISSN 0734–6018, electronic ISSN 1533–855X, pages 73–92. All rights reserved. Direct requests for permission to photocopy or reproduce article content to the University of California Press at http://www.ucpressjournals.com/reprintinfo.asp. DOI:10.1525/rep.2008.104.1.73.
Video still. Buñuel. Luis Buñuel. Simon of the Desert. 74 R E P R E S E N TAT I O N S . Simon of the Desert (Simón del desierto). Video still. FIGURE 2.FIGURE 1.
which in turn brings an archive of poetic images of the divine and the diabolic into the world. makes reference to this tradition when he portrays his modern ascetic in the form of the exemplary imitator. Simón represents the exemplary imitator in this tradition. naked women and men. Neither of these worlds exists prior to the acts of the saint. turning him into the lens that makes the historical nature of his surroundings—not unlike the world in Hieronymus Bosch’s famous painting the Temptation of Saint Anthony—emerge as the realm of abject pleasures. 2. I am speaking of the just-mentioned figure of Saint Anthony. In the case of Buñuel’s Simon of the Desert the underlying textual. but of another figure. that is. transgression. Buñuel. imaginary reference is the story not only of the desert father standing on his pillar. a specific framework. It is this legendary figure that provides us with a script exemplary not of how the natural world is full of temptation. and empty promises. Prayer. The acts of imitation he chooses. obviously beyond the invention of cinema itself. returning to the exemplary figures Praying by Numbers: An Essay on Medieval Aesthetics 75 . which challenge the everyday in similar ways. with the tradition of imitation and emulation of images of holiness to provide us with a model of image-making in a more general sense. His immersion in prayer. his isolation from the world in full view of it. a saint well known through innumerable representations of the legendary scene of his temptations while meditating in the desert. but of how the everyday world turns into a world of temptation and of how a formal exercise. temptation. and the imitation of a formal example. staging of the body and—in more general terms— the complicated relationship between control. a dramatic structure of control and transgression produce this very scene. who has always been fascinated by the story of Anthony. the exemplary form of the ascetic. lascivious creatures. both take shape only insofar as they are invoked in the saint’s imitation of a paradigmatic form that challenges the world and its seemingly natural face in multiple ways. images of all possible forms of disfiguration and sensuality (fig. evil seduction. 3). his absorption through prayer. It is the saint in his acts of prayer—the core of his practice while standing on the pillar— who produces the series of images that start to infect and occupy the world. Usually we encounter him as he sits and meditates in the middle of a scene that includes monsters of all kinds.relies on a tradition of exemplary images that goes far back. Many elements in Buñuel’s filmmaking testify to his fascination with this tradition. historical. who in his imitation produces at the same time the sensual excess of demonic and divine transgression. a figure much more potent in the history of image-making. engenders the form he embodies. evoke in turn a doubling of the world and the production of both images of temptation and holiness.
In the eyes of Jean Des Esseintes. Albrecht Dürer. to the fascination of the surrealist and decadent writers and artists with what we could call the abject forms of Christian sainthood and their ways of challenging “nature” itself by means of specific technologies of self-fashioning. mainly through his novel A rebours. in English translations with the titles Against the Grain or Against Nature. Vienna. as I mentioned before. the nauseating uniformity of her landscapes and heavens has exhausted the 76 R E P R E S E N TAT I O N S . nr. Beyond surrealism it points.2 In his Studien zur Kritik der Moderne. As he used to say: the time of nature has passed. 3143. repeats these images. and thus informs the perception and the face of the world. D 1161515. 1502/1515. Inv. enlivens them in the imagination. the artificial was the most remarkable quality of the human spirit. Temptation of Saint Anthony. Buñuel’s fascination with the desert saint and his evocation of excessive images of divine imploration and sensual temptation has its roots not just in the surrealist tradition and its use of dream language. Albertina Museum. of Anthony and Christ in the desert. the Viennese author Hermann Bahr quotes from this novel with an enthusiastic emphasis: “We have to be able to hallucinate ourselves and to put the dream in place of reality. 3.FIGURE 3.1 One of the most influential authors in this line of thought is Joris-Karl Huysmans. published in 1894.
without ever leaving his home. the organization of time. a deictic space that allows for an experience that removes itself from the world and cultivates an entirely new world of experiential intensity by means that Huysmans compares to the monk’s use of images. the world would decrease in this context. at the actual moment when it is taking place—this pleasure he could savor fully. this animation takes shape in very concrete forms. where the ancient desert fathers sought refuge in an alternative world structured and produced by ascetic practices and prayer. the production of “living images”.”3 With regard to Jean Des Esseintes. with the limited time spent on his meals. Praying by Numbers: An Essay on Medieval Aesthetics 77 . orderly. and the experience of. and scriptural quotes in the practice of prayer. and he makes this house the instrument of an entirely new world of self-fashioning that relies on the configuration of space. wellestablished room. indeed almost simultaneous. Taken together. this retreat from the world takes shape in a specific form. texts. at his ease. images that evoke the bridge of a ship. Jean moves into an isolated house in the countryside near Paris. chronographs. the pleasure of travel—existing as it largely does only in recollection and almost never in the present. without fatigue or worry. and specific artifacts. Huysmans himself compares this change of lifestyle to the monk who takes refuge in his cell. sensations of a long voyage. the desert of Thebais. The contrary proves to be true: the simulacre. whose transient character and as it were temporary furnishings corresponded almost exactly with his brief sojourns in it. sextants. compasses. the protagonist of Against Nature. but rather in a form that allows for ever-new animations of sensation by artificial means within specific frameworks. and which provided a complete contrast with his study. timetables and schedules of intercontinental shipping routes. these things form an indexical. . Huysmans writes: In this manner. fitted out for the solid sustainment of a domestic existence.patience of the refined spirits. and smell form a sphere of exploration and education of the senses and passions in a specific way. he was able to enjoy the rapidly succeeding.” thus referring to the very location. touch. . Bahr quotes Huysmans when he locates his hero in a “thébaide raffinée. however. texts. removing himself from the world and allowing for nothing else than an artificial production of states of mind and intensities of experience within a space that is clearly defined by architecture. This does not mean. In the case of Des Esseintes. a wealthy decadent of the nineteenth century. the choice of the furniture and art. a permanent. and the preparation of his meals. A way that specifies sensation as understood not in an everyday form where it is bound up with the naive empirical and utilitarian perception of things. Des Esseintes uses all kinds of tools to create his artificial world: aquariums with mechanical fish. that the intensity of exposure to. the clothes of the servants. un désert confortable. the artificial evocation of taste. . in this cabin whose contrived disorder. In Huysmans’s text.
but rather to a technology of the production of sensation. an approximate simulation of the object of those very desires. It is not the return to “nature. an ontology. What the invocation of sensation in this context of a “mechanical method” means is thus not a simple return to a so-called sensualist or materialist understanding. We have to surround ourselves with images—images we put between ourselves and the superfluous world and which have a strong impact. the techniques of a “composition of place” (compositio loci) and the “application of the senses” (applicatio sensuum) that can be found in the writings of the founder of the Jesuit order. As soon as we do this. we push our sensations and emotions from excess to excess. To create these circumstances. or better. In their textual references. In his view. a contemporary of Huysmans and another favorite of Hermann Bahr. In Un homme libre Barrès writes. of all naturalist literature.6 In his Spiritual Exercises he writes that these mental techniques are analogous to “walking. hydraulics. However. providing it ultimately with a new habitus of the perception of the world. by means of a trifling subterfuge. It makes use of the most innovative applications of electricity. they shape the body and the soul. believing that the imagination could easily compensate for the vulgar reality of actual experience. it was possible to fulfill those desires reputed to be the most difficult to satisfy in normal life. or a psychology of first experience.4 A little later in the text. In prayer and contemplation. a tradition of the use of technologies that is to be found in what the text itself hints at when the house of Jean Des Esseintes is compared to the cell of a monk and the desert where Simón stands on his pillar. namely. the modernist attitude covertly harbors a longue durée. we would be able to observe how our desires and our soul changes and takes shape. Jean Des Esseintes’s artificial world. hiking. Thus.” and that they are to be understood as forms of training along the same lines.” to an immediate presence.Besides. “If we knew how to produce the exact circumstances for the exercise of our faculties. seems at first to be a world of radical modernity.”5 4. the experience produced by the use of artifacts. With Maurice Barrès. both Huysmans and Barrès—and after them Hermann Bahr and Buñuel—point to a tradition of prayer and spiritual exercise they want to re-evoke. Ignatius of Loyola. we don’t have to use reason but a mechanical method. and photographic reproduction. and by way of this. we can follow the trace of this tradition and of its genuine antinaturalist potential that was then being rediscovered by the decadent authors. emphasizing in a decadent fashion the obsolete status of nature. he considered travel to be pointless. in 1889. they help 78 R E P R E S E N TAT I O N S . or running. this art of animation applies not only to taking a virtual cruise but also to travels by train and in general to all forms of experience.
inserts these images into the practice of prayer. the construction of a space (compositio loci) and the stimulation of the senses (applicatio sensuum).”8 This tradition fascinates the decadent writers. In order to do so. the souls within the bodies full of fire. The theological tradition I am referring to is centered primarily around the teaching that the experiential knowledge of God through the word of the scriptures is not only metaphorically described in terms taken from our external sense-experience but rather that it is actually based on “five spiritual senses. and the worm of conscience. The Fifth Point. By my sense of smell I will perceive the smoke. the Ignatian method relies on a practice that draws images from the Bible and other exemplary narratives. Let me quote just one passage to illustrate the practice. By my sense of touch. that have their origin not in nature but in the very practice of the spiritual exercise itself. Based on the construction of a mental space and of the just-mentioned “application of the senses. By my sense of taste I will experience the bitter flavors of hell: tears. of experience. the cries. breadth. of sensation. It concludes and systematizes a long tradition of practices that emphasize the engagement of the senses and emotional arousal in specific ways. I will feel how the flames touch the souls and burn them. we have to speak about these exercises in terms of training and production of images that allow for a creative alienation from everyday life and for the specific intensity of both sensation and passion. since it provides Praying by Numbers: An Essay on Medieval Aesthetics 79 .” the Ignatian model provides us with a systematic approach to prayer and meditation where the articulation of the word through artifacts. In my imagination I will hear the wailing. The discussion of the significance of sensation in the history of Christian spirituality focuses often on Ignatius of Loyola.” Then he proceeds to the application of the senses: The First Point will be to see with the eyes of the imagination the huge fires and. the sulphur. sensation in general. the sixteenth-century Ignatian model was not at all new. We misunderstand this technique if we are looking at it in terms of representation or allegorical figuration of an inner life. sadness. Joris Karl Huysmans’s novel inherits from this Ignatian method both aspects. However. we must dwell on the history of this practice for a moment. so to speak. and the blasphemies against our Lord and all his saints. The Second Point. and produces a state of sensual and affective absorption. the shrieking.to produce specific forms of spontaneity.7 5. and emotion play a key role. the founder of the Jesuit order. The Fourth Point. To understand it. as Ignatius understands it. and depth of hell. and his Spiritual Exercises alone. He begins with the composition of place: “Here it will be to see in imagination the length. the filth. and the rotting things. Rather. The Third Point.
the diabolic and the “unlikeness”). what is essentially a theory and practice of prayer and contemplation attempts to transcend. or. the invention and the rhetoric of the inner or spiritual senses allowed for the creation of a space of experience. inherently transcends the common and universally emphasized disjunction of “inner” and “outer” man in medieval spirituality. a return to the intensity of sensory and emotional experience of the world in the form of an aesthetic experience that is constructed with the help of a specific emphasis on practices of sensation in the acts of prayer. exploration. a technique of excitement—that is. and. one of the most influential Greek theologians. I want to suggest.9 This theory of the five spiritual senses is usually traced back to its origins in the exegetic practice and theory of Origen. However. I use these three terms because they refer to three aspects of this theory of an experience of the world in light of the scriptures: an experiential instead of a conceptual understanding of the excessive pleasures of the divine and its “likeness” in things (as well as its opposite. the dualist understanding of inner and outer is misleading since it essentializes two realms instead of focusing on the aspect of a transformative practice. Rather.them with a script for moving against and beyond nature by means of artificial stimulation of the senses and through the construction of theaters of affective arousal in the acts of prayer. of an amplification of the sensory and affective life through artificial means of the articulation of the word in prayer. hope and hopelessness as well as joy. to put it more precisely.10 we might indeed want to revise this judgment about the possibility of a medieval prehistory of Nietzsche’s statement about the aesthetic justification of the world. This amplification includes the production of feelings of intense desolation. but also of the overwhelming sense-experience of the sweetness of the divine or the bitterness of hell. since we often hear about the repression of the senses in medieval culture and theology. In my opinion. in light of monastic treatises that emphasize admiratio and stupor in the face of sensual experience of the world in their reading of the scriptures. Although the inner or spiritual senses correspond to the five outer senses (in fact they are named in analogous ways).11 80 R E P R E S E N TAT I O N S . they are not to be seen as simply analogous or metaphorical. I am well aware of the fact that my argument seems to imply an anachronism. The movement at stake can be characterized as a denaturalization of the senses—the transition from the literal and empirical to the spiritual and intentional— and a reconfiguration (renaturalization). and finally of intense desire and excessive love that is often seen in terms of an experience of touch. and amplification of the emotional as well as the sensory life of the soul in prayer and contemplation. finally. the discovery of new and unheard-of states of emotional arousal against the “aridity” of the soul. Ultimately.
and find the knowledge of God”) in a specific way. are no longer seen as things and objects of cognition. but we could refer to many other instances. images with an absorbing quality of arousal. for example the practice of Carthusian monks who use the Genesis narrative as a blueprint for a mental production of the aesthetic qualities of creation in the isolation of the cell. of radical negative theology. as we know. introducing the term aesthesis. the meditation of scriptural verses and scenes. citations. of a controlling repression of sensory and emotional arousal. I am speaking here of a phenomenology of Praying by Numbers: An Essay on Medieval Aesthetics 81 . They are the means that allow for the transgression of the everyday—a transgression that goes beyond the “state of nature” in moments of excessive sensation within the isolation of the cell. the singing of psalms. are key to the constitution of these ever-new moments of experience. including the Septuagint and the Vulgate. such as vision for the eyes. the quotes used in prayer and contemplation are drawn from the text and the dramatic scenario of the Song of Songs. where we encounter the attempt to define the relation between human and God in terms not only of an intellectual grasp or of stoic apatheia. texts. but also of a grasp that must be described as “sensory. In this context. Often. Origen emphasizes that practice and exercise (gymnasía). an intervention that denaturalizes and isolates the realm of sensation. for example. the first movement is seen in the gesture that withdraws from the everyday world and produces a state of exception. where other translations.5 (King James Version: “Then shalt thou understand the fear of the Lord.6. transforming it into a theater of experience. bread for the taste. the continuous return to the scriptures in prayer. Origen translates Proverbs 2. but as things that acquire their experiential qualities within events that have their essence in a phenomenology of multiple encounters with the scriptures and the world. an intervention that recreates it in terms of intensity by artificial means. the contemplation of images. Two elements are essential to this practice: first. In the monastic tradition.” Using the Greek term aesthesis. but also that the experience of the world in light of the scriptures acquires a new status. In fact.13 Thus Origen emphasizes not only that the scriptures are the object of each sense of the soul. that is.12 It is in the writings of early Greek theologians. Origen speaks about an experience that transcends the rational and discursive operations of the intellect. Ultimately. second. the theory of the inner or spiritual senses is a response to the desire for experience of the divine in light of the impossibility of understanding the divine. tactile sensation for the touch. that is. we might say. rhetorical means. Things. that is. the recitation of prayers. the tradition quoted by both Huysmans and Buñuel. especially Origen and Gregory of Nyssa. words for the ears. that is. use gnosis or scientia. the second movement consists in the introduction of artificial means that allow for the production of excessive sensuality.
The mechanical nature and artificiality of the text. images. published after many revisions in 1874. Flaubert’s text ended up being not much more than a collection of diverse moments and a collage. as a rhetorical production of excessive sensuality inspired by the saint’s lives and the practice of contemplative prayer. without providing. describing it in terms of a “physiology of temptation. it is toward the end of the nineteenth century that we find a broad range of texts and images fascinated with the temptations of the saint. through a lack of security. Rather. Valéry concludes. is certainly the most powerful and significant text. the “masquerades” do not have to be understood as a poetic failure. Among those. it is the only text by Flaubert worthy of survival. Finally.” Valéry writes: It is obvious that all temptation results from things we see or things we imagine and the effect they have on us when they evoke a sensation of lack. situating the register of temptations within an encyclopedic repertoire and not in the interiority of the saint itself. and temptation is the necessary.rhetorical effects. a glimpse into the depths of the figure of Saint Anthony. I am arguing for a different reading. and music are not only used to produce moments of sensation and emotion but also to explore the realm of possible sensual and emotional experience. quotes. . Gustave Flaubert’s La tentation de saint Antoine. Let me turn back at this point to the story of Saint Anthony. Barbey d’Aurevilly thought it “absolutely incomprehensible”. The devil . Flaubert’s friend Renan called it a “mascarade. though.15 Valéry’s remarks end with the observation that Flaubert’s attempt to do this failed. as he points out. . . . the most objectionable and despicable quality of Flaubert’s Tentation in the eyes of many of its critics. they present a very conscious attempt to base the temptations of Saint Anthony not in a sphere of interiority and in the natural depth of a historical character but in the superficiality and the formalism of an encyclopedic repertoire and its aesthetic application. the encyclopedic texture.”14 For Huysmans. However. can thus be seen as a strategy that avoids both the depth of interiority and the tendency toward a rationalist naturalization of temptation Valéry seems to 82 R E P R E S E N TAT I O N S . . is nature itself. evident. Paul Valéry seems to have discovered the significance of the text for a broader audience. Thus. because he was not radical enough. since the texts. What could therefore be more sublime and poetic than the attempt to put this irreducible constellation on stage. by the lack of security. and continuous condition of life itself. This provides us with the possibility of seeing the temptation as a practice of masking and shifting masks. 7. We live in a lack of security. The moments of collage. ultimately. . This is the realm of sensuality. Again. . it was not well received by readers when it appeared. .
Flaubert notes that he saw Pieter Bruegel’s painting of the temptation of Saint Anthony and that the impression it made overshadowed all other memories of his travels. it is never the natural body alone. but rather with a strategy that allows for an analysis of temptation in terms of a rhetoric of arousal. that is. and transformation. means. who turns away from the world in prayer. In order to understand this phenomenological procedure better we must remind ourselves that the inspiration for Flaubert’s Temptation of Saint Anthony came from a painting Flaubert had seen on a trip to Italy in 1845. but rather the body as a site of articulation. In other words. in terms of a superficial and artificial animation through a set of formal moments. However. Saint Anthony is the one who in prayer returns to the scriptures and to these narratives. and indeed.” we will have to keep this in mind.” that is. as Michel Foucault would like to have it in his short reading of La tentation de Saint Antoine. If we want to use the term “physiology. the site of effects is always the body of the saint and the surrounding world. insertion. a phenomenological exploration of possible sensations and emotional arousal by the means of a multiplication of the masks and images that can be found in the history of the hagiography of Saint Anthony since its elaboration in the Middle Ages. Although we might think of Flaubert’s experimental text in terms of “physiology”—as Valéry suggests—I would rather speak of “phenomenology. We are used to reading this type of painting as a form of allegorical representation. 8. The fact that—in Paul Valéry’s view— Flaubert gets lost in a “sea of scriptures. Flaubert takes prayer seriously as the basic ascetic practice of citation. In other words. we deal here not with a hermeneutics of innermost desires nor with a hermeneutics of nature. The painting shows Anthony surrounded by groups of surreal figures of temptation that can be seen as figurations of the seven deadly sins and seductive sensuality. in fact. and masks that originate not in nature but in the cultural archive and in the encyclopedic repertoire provided by early monastic exemplary narratives. and myths” is not only the specific modern character of this text. locates the very origin of the experience of the saint in the highly formalized practices of reading the scriptures. a form of interiority turned outward and made visible Praying by Numbers: An Essay on Medieval Aesthetics 83 . books. and deletion of texts and images that can be found in the hagiographic tradition itself—a tradition of exercises that. it makes sense to use it insofar as in many saints’ lives the phenomenological exploration of possible states of arousal is ultimately articulated in terms of a physiology. and who thus evokes a world of images drawn from prayer that infects the world that surrounds him. reconfiguration. In other words. In his travel diary. formation.16 Rather.invoke. we are dealing with a phenomenology of rhetorical effects.
Egidius. so that the self-fashioning toward the divine excess can take place. but on the active evocation of the disfiguring abyss as the only means that allows for a transformation of sensation and passion toward a divine excess in the imitation of the ultimate example. disarticulate bodies) that necessarily joins the aesthetics of the divine. which in turn take shape as the medium for both the world of diabolical temptation and the world of divine transformation. neither in terms of an allegorical representation nor in terms of a didactics of enlightenment about unbridled inner forces. we are able to see this in a different light. says that he expects his daily martyrdom when he goes back to his cell in the evening. can in itself never be “pure” and “positive. This intensity is produced by a rhetoric that in the act of prayer draws from the archive of images and texts.” It can only be purified time and again. through the disarticulation of nature and the evocation of all possibilities of temptation. This is the reason why Ignatius uses the experience of hell in his Spiritual Exercises. Both are antinaturalist. that is. it presents us with a site and space where sensuality and passions are configured in a way that necessarily evokes both the diabolical temptation and the divine transformation. sensation. the image of Christ. the use of citations from the cultural archive for the stimulation of excessive sensation.in and through images. naturalized). since they both depend on a rhetoric of excess that starts with a state of exception and the arousal through artifacts (although they can always be. Rather. Thus it must be dramatic. Both make reference to the dramatic plot drawn from the life of Saint Anthony when they discuss the structure of their life of prayer in the cell. the descent into hell (descensus ad inferos). the monastic gymnasía. based on my earlier discussion of the artificial stimulation of the senses. The exemplary nature of the Temptation of Saint Anthony is not at all to be understood as a reiteration of a stoic model of control of overwhelming sensuality and passions. However. and have often been. 84 R E P R E S E N TAT I O N S . transgressive. one of the early companions of Saint Francis.17 The basis of this script of dramatic evocation of sensuality and passion is to be found in the practices I mentioned earlier. It is the contrary of any stoic scenario of self-discipline insofar as it is based not on a repression of disorderly desire. and passion. it must go through the abject position of hell. in the arousal of an absorbing intensity of sensation. smell. and the ascent into heaven (ascensus ad Deum). of sound. sight. In other words. produces a formal aesthetics of evil (of the abject. taste. and it is the reason why. and touch. figuration as imitation and disfiguration of the world as the basis of the very imitation. for example. I am speaking of a dramatic script because it introduces a moment of irreducible tension into the model of sensual stimulation discussed earlier. training and practice. but in terms of an infinite mechanical production and reproduction of states of sensation and affect through the ascetic practice of prayer. The return to the scriptures in prayer.
in its radical dissimilitude. since this is the place he or she has to cross without ever being able to leave it behind. since he anyway already knows what we need before we ask him for it. we encounter practices of imitation that allow for the production of certain states of sensation and emotion. He rather means that we should knock. Thus. Consequently. with a mechanical art of engaging the imagination and the affects. At the same time. prayer is a practice that has— so to speak—no content. the emergence of dissimilitude. and anything that man believes or hopes for is not essential to it. The effort to produce a world of divine resemblance through the repetition of a formal and exemplary model evokes dissemblance. Relevant texts often speak of the “four invocations of god. with a formal practice of figuration and disfiguration. then.” the “five-fold praise Praying by Numbers: An Essay on Medieval Aesthetics 85 . 9. Through knocking we experience how sweet and good he is and thus we love him and join him in love and become one spirit with him. It is in and through prayer that each gives shape to his life.”18 In other words. Prayer is intimately connected with the production of exemplary images. making the act of imitation through prayer purely formal. the disfiguration that challenges any figuration that attempts to be one with the formal image of salvation. Instead. Buñuel refers not only to the historical significance of prayer in the lives of monks and ascetics but also to the importance of the poetics of prayer in a specific aesthetic tradition during the Middle Ages.In this training toward the self-fashioning as the other of God. The world emerges in its unredeemable historicity. and that the figure of Simón becomes the “sublime” aesthetic object it represents in the eyes of others. Instead. The lives of Buñuel’s Simón and Flaubert’s Anthony are lives of prayer modeled after the exemplary medieval manuals and ascetic lives. The excess toward the divine thus always bears the trace of the excess of temptation. that in many medieval mystical and ascetic treatises and texts the practice of prayer is guided by numbers and enumeration. the form of repetitive address that produces an experience through that very practice. in the medieval tradition this imitation is framed by the ultimate image. the image of the suffering Christ that guides this production. when the saint challenges it in his efforts of ideal figuration. however. It comes as no surprise. Obviously. this paradigmatic image and its projection into historical time throws the monk or the nun in his or her daily practice back into the imagery of sensual temptation time and again. God does not mean that we should tell him with our words what we wish. prayer is the very “knocking” on heaven’s doors (quoting the “knocking at the door” from Matthew 7:7 and Luke 11:9): “When he tells us to pray. As David of Augsburg puts it in his treatise The Seven Steps of Prayer. as long as we live in time. the world turns monstrous when Anthony imitates Christ. the essence of prayer lies in the act of knocking. there can no longer be absolute interiority or exteriority.
Simón and Anthony. This does not. Often the numbering.” The rhetorical procedures she relies upon in the manufacturing of her texts are partitio and enumeratio. which in classical rhetoric serve as a means of introducing a series of points that will be treated in the course of a discourse. the accumulation of prayers and acts of penitence.” and the return to God “in Six Ways. enumeration does not have an introductory or explanatory function. Speaking of and to God. In her book The Flowing Light of the Godhead.19 And indeed.” and similar orders of invocation. the numbering provides a frame. she writes under the heading “God Caresses the Soul in Six Ways”: You are my softest pillow.” God’s praise “in Ten Things” and “for Five Things. explain the character and importance of numbers. an imitation of the example through the seemingly endless reiteration of the same act of prayer. and other elements of her prayer. dialogues—contain numbers. this does indeed play a role in certain cases. and enumeration in texts of prayer during the Middle Ages.” God’s caress “in Six Ways. In Mechthild’s text. the endless “knocking” mentioned by David. they construct a formal pattern.of his power. and will. however. which is intimately connected with the emergence of images and the absorption through images presented by Buñuel’s and Flaubert’s examples of practicing saints. are absorbed in this formal act of repetition. Thus. In the first chapter of her book she speaks of “God’s Curse in Eight Things. which in turn serves to organize a series of scriptural quotes. the thought that through the accumulation of prayers and ascetic acts humans could acquire a trove of grace is one of the important aspects of this very practice. And again. who both imitate exemplary models of sanctity. However. such a symbolic meaning can be found even in cases that are not as obvious. numbering. Most of her short texts—prayers. Numbering and enumeration acquire a specific role. intellect. a schematic approach that guides the act of prayer and emphasizes a rhythmical element and a framework devoid of meaning. have been read and understood in terms of the desire to quantify ascetic efforts and produce the necessary capital for a personal and universal salvation. Often. My most lovely bed. an underlying formal structure. Mechthild of Magdeburg explores the function of numbering in prayer in significant and exemplary ways. and enumeration in prayer goes beyond both the symbolic and the accumulation of grace. numbering. addresses to God. for example. Instead. when the number three refers symbolically to both the trinity and the three highest faculties of the soul: memory. the function of numbers. 86 R E P R E S E N TAT I O N S .” the “seven-fold answer of the soul. however. images. Other explanations of the role of numbers and numbering in these texts usually refer to “medieval numerology” or to the “symbolism” of numbers.
the enumeration alone. Thus. The numbering. books by Praying by Numbers: An Essay on Medieval Aesthetics 87 . she deploys the rhetorical effects of these images and words.20 Many of the lines and expressions she uses in these and similar texts are drawn from the scriptures and from her readings of the lives of saints. The order—one. three.” which in turn allows for the iteration and reiteration of images and words drawn from the exemplary sources she uses. And. Thus. however. “The Soul Praises God in Return in Six Ways”: You are my resplendent mountain. In their return to models of ascetic exercise. however. David of Augsburg’s “knocking. rhetorical amplification. generating a series. to produce a metonymical structure that holds the metaphors together. It provides the mechanics. My deepest longing. four. Instead. is also at the basis of an important aspect of medieval aesthetic experience. permutation. and the transfiguration of the life of her soul into an imitation of exemplary scenes that informs her affects and her perception. she goes on. Jean Des Esseintes. to convey a mechanical order. binding these aesthetic effects through the abstract framework of praying by numbers and allowing for ever-new metonymical series of substitution and poetic variations on the ideal of absorption in prayer. A defeat and retreat of my power. The contiguity between the elements she uses. which. My surest protection. I am arguing here. A stream for my burning. allowing for semantic exploration. 10. it does not come as a surprise when Huysmans gives his protagonist. two. A feast for my eyes.My most intimate repose. is hers. five— undergirds the images with the formal structure. both Buñuel and Flaubert bring the mechanical nature of these practices to our attention. the use of the formal pattern of enumeration allows her to connect elements. their potential to arouse sensually and emotionally. and it is neither symbolic nor does it intend to accumulate a reservoir of grace through the numbers of prayers. the formal pattern. A thirst for my humanity. it lies with the numbering. My most sublime glory. A tempest in my heart. does not result from the semantic connection between these elements. A loss of myself. You are an allurement to my godhead. They point to the radical formalism of medieval ascetic practices and contemplative prayer. Instead.
Das Künstliche erschien dem des Esseintes als das eigentliche auszeichnende Merkmal des menschlichen Genies.-K. and an art of figuration that is meant to inform the workings of perception. Ida-Marie Frandon (Paris. M. Maurice Barrès.-C. Unless otherwise noted.”23 It is a formal exercise. but for a rediscovery of medieval practices of figuration and disfiguration that are inspired by a basic model of formal imitation. nous les interposerons entre nôtre âme et le monde extérieur si néfaste. 1990). ed. For the reception of Huysmans’s works in Spain see 118–20. a mimetic repetition. In the early 1960s. 4. Un homme libre. Sinnlichkeit.John Ruysbroeck and other medieval spiritual authors to read. 2007). For a more comprehensive treatment of some of the points I am discussing in this essay see Niklaus Largier. 1998). Against Nature. 23. Et pour nous créer ces milieux. Luis Buñuel.. nous nous envelopperons d’images appropriées. 105–6: “Si nous savions varier avec minutie les circonstances où nous plaçons nos facultés. 3. “Es kommt vor allem auf das Vermögen an.” Hermann Bahr. Carrière. basado en la novela homónima de J. nous verrions aussitôt nos désirs (qui ne sont que les besoins de nos facultés) changer au point que notre âme en paraîtra transformée. My Last Sigh. Joris-Karl Huysmans. returning to these texts stands not for a return to a “Platonic” aesthetics of beauty and ugliness. to alienate sensation and emotions from their everydayness. il ne s’agit pas d’user de raisonnements mais d’une méthode mécanique. as much the production of an aesthetics of evil and ugliness as it is the production of good and beauty. 2. Luis Buñuel. 88 R E P R E S E N TAT I O N S . den Geist auf einen einzigen Punkt zu sammeln. et d’un effet puissant. and to immerse them in artificial states that both negate and reveal the natural and historical face of the world. 2003). or a “real presence of the sacred. sich selber zu halluciniren und den Traum an die Stelle der Wirklichkeit zu setzen. Wie er zu sagen pflegte: die Zeit der Natur ist vorbei. Die Kunst des Begehrens: Dekadenz. Abigail Israel (Minneapolis. Buñuel also wrote a film script based on Joris-Karl Huysmans’s novel Là-bas. trans. trans. 8–18. Studien zur Kritik der Moderne (Frankfurt a. and Origen—as demonic as it is divine. Notes 1. die ekelhafte Einförmigkeit ihrere Landschaften und ihrer Himmel hat die aufmerksame Geduld der Raffinirten endlich erschöpft. and submission. Flaubert. 1988). 5. The “sublime” of Simón’s asceticism is thus—and I would guess that the monk who watches his example knows this as well as Buñuel. Askese (Munich. nor primarily to a “Christian” aesthetics of salvation. praise. Huysmans (Teruel. 1894). 18–19. Margaret Mauldon (New York.21 In this case. all translations are my own. Là-bas: Guión cinematográfico de Luis Buñuel y J. Cf.22 What we are dealing with in this model—the very practice of prayer—is thus much more than a gesture of devotion.
Borgnet (Paris. ed. Cf. Paul Valéry.” in Variété V (Paris.” Revue d’ascétique et de mystique 13 (1932): 113–45.” in Dictionnaire de spiritualité ascétique et mystique (Paris. Henri Crouzel. 14. 13: 598–617. Karl Rahner. “Le début d’une doctrine des cinq sens spirituels chez Origène. Commentarium in Canticum Canticorum II 9. ed. le vrai et le faux. and Marcel Borret (Paris. in Origène: Commentaire sur le Cantique des Cantiques. Spiritual Exercises and Selected Works. 1982). nous pousserons avec clairvoyance nos émotions d’excès en excès. “Inner Senses—Outer Senses: The Practice of Emotions in Medieval Mysticism. Baldwin of Canterbury. le silence et le bruit. ed. Stephanus C. 3–15. e. il a négligé la substance même de son thème: il n’a pas entendu l’appel à la profondeur. Cf. Stephen Jaeger and Ingrid Kasten (Berlin. 141. Hans Urs von Balthasar. 1991). in Opera omnia. 4. 11. 13. 1961). toute cette mécanique essentielle dans laquelle les couleurs. Mariette Canévet. 2003). 170. 13 a. sûrs de notre procédé. Jacques Suffel (Paris.” in Codierung von Emotionen im Mittelalter/Emotions and Sensibilities in the Middle Ages. Karl Rahner. 1967). cueillis ça et là dans des livres peu ou mal fréquentés: donc. Albertus Magnus. il a perdu son âme . 2008). Bientôt.” in The Oxford Handbook of Religion and Emotion. 7. Parmananda Divarkar and Edward J. Antoine lui-même (mais un Antoine qui succombe). Origenes.” in Das fremde Schöne: Dimensionen des Ästhetischen in der Literatur des Mittelalters. John Corrigan (Oxford. See the introduction by Jacques Suffel in Gustave Flaubert. Niklaus Largier. La tentation de Saint Antoine. “La tentation de (saint) Flaubert. See Niklaus Largier.” Revue d’ascétique et de mystique 14 (1933): 263–99. Marc Fumaroli (Paris. in Patrologia Latina. 1949). Eine theologische Ästhetik (Einsiedeln. e. See. 1991). . ed. Il est clair que toute “tentation” résulte de l’action de la vue ou de l’idée de quelque chose qui éveille en nous la sensation qu’elle nous manquait. Nouvelles études sur “La tentation de Saint Antoine” (Paris. Ignatius of Loyola. Commentarii in tertium librum Sententiarum III d. ed.g. William of Saint Thierry. A. Spiritual Exercises. et voici que nous sommes modifiés sur un point. Praying by Numbers: An Essay on Medieval Aesthetics 89 . See. “La doctrine des ‘sens spirituels’ au Moyen-Age. 364–79. En ne s’inquiétant pas sur toute chose d’animer puissamment son héros. 1855). les saveurs. A reconstruction of Flaubert’s sources is provided in Jean Seznec. des contrastes. 15. 43–60. 1989). 8. “Die Applikation der Sinne: Mittelalterliche Ästhetik als Phänomenologie rhetorischer Effekte. 394. 1894). le chaud et le froid. Tractatus de duplici resurrectione. 9. ed. en particulier chez Bonaventure. 28:240. Jean Déchanet (Paris.. 205–6: Flaubert a été comme enivré par l’accessoire aux dépens du principal. in Joris-Karl Huysmans. Luc Brésard. le bien et le mal jouent le rôle de forces et s’établissent en nous en forme d’antagonismes toujours imminents. 65–70. 10. Il a subi le divertissement des décors. Jean-Paul Migne (Paris.g. 204:429–42. 1: 352–67. Malatesta (New York. 1977). “Medieval Mysticism. 2004).6.” For a short comment on Huysmans’s references to Ignatius see the remarks by Marc Fumaroli. ed. Epistola ad fratres de Monte Dei. Elle crée un besoin qui n’était pas ou qui dormait. 2007). De quoi s’agissait-il? De rien de moins que de figurer ce qu’on pourrait nommer la physiologie de la tentation. Manuel Braun and Christopher Young (Berlin. 12.. Herrlichkeit. des précisions “amusantes” de détails. ed. ed. in Ignatius of Loyola. . À rebours. “Sens spirituels. ed. 442. also Niklaus Largier. 12.
1: 293–325: “Ce lieu nouveau des fantasmes.” Frühmittelalterliche Studien 29 (1995): 1–71. 16. Thomas Lentes. il faut lire. 124. et que peutil y avoir de plus “poétique” à mettre en oeuvre que cette puissance irréductible qui est tout pour chacun de nous. Jacques Hourlier (Paris. 1998). “Le ‘Septem gradus orationis’ de David d’Augsbourg. dégoût. Often Mechthild’s texts and enumerations challenge the 90 R E P R E S E N TAT I O N S . also Adam of Dryburgh. . 153:840. . qui coïncide exactement avec nous-mêmes. The Flowing Light of the Godhead. avec ses colonnes de livres. Michel Foucault. le zèle érudit. trans. 170: “Hoc enim modo cellarum incolae saepe descendunt ad infernum. dans l’instable: c’est toute l’affaire de la Sensibilité. le Diable. qui nous meut. 1994). See William of Saint Thierry. force ou faiblesse. et la tentation est la condition la plus évidente. David of Augsburg. 17. Pour rêver. Most medieval manuals of prayer could illustrate this. à ses infinies ressouces virtuelles. “Liber de quadripertito exercitio cellae. besoin. se trompe elle-même. tendre à se replacer dans l’etat de manquer de quelque chose. Thomas Braucks. . qui nous parle et se parle en nous. Il s’est donc égaré dans trop de livres et de mythes. hélas! est la nature même. nous rend anges ou bêtes. 20. William of Saint-Thierry. Quoi de plus extraordinaire à essayer de concevoir. le sommeil de la raison. mais on dirait qu’il a eu peur d’y plonger jusqu’à ce point où tout ce qui peut s’apprendre ne compte plus .sollicités dans une de nos facultés. il se déploie soigneusement dans la bibliothèque assourdie. in Jacques Heerinckx. On ne porte plus le fantastique dans son coeur. ut ardentius ea appetant. “Gezählte Frömmigkeit. multiplie ses formes de désir ou de refus. par les jeux desquels elle se divise contre elle-même. Hubertus Lutterbach. ses titres alignés et ses rayons qui la ferment de toutes parts. sic et dolores inferni. et tout le reste de notre être est eintraîné par cette partie surexcitée .” Revue d’ascétique et de mystique 14 (1933): 161. La vraie image est connaissance” (297). 48.” in Patrologia Latina. Meditativae orationes. je veux dire l’unité de sa composition qui ne pouvait résider que dans un Antoine dont Satan eût été l’une des âmes. ut horreant et refugiant. langage. à ses innombrables relais. par l’instable. L’imaginaire se loge entre le livre et la lampe. dispose des valeurs. il y a perdu la pensée stratégique. 18. Vivre est à chaque instant manquer de quelque chose—se modifier pour l’atteindre—et par là. Dits et écrits (Paris. Ce mécanisme est celui de toute nature vive. il ne faut pas fermer les yeux. qu’elle développe et combine pour en composer d’étranges mondes abstraits. aux intensités. on le puise à l’exactitude du savoir. mais bâillent de l’autre côté sur des mondes impossibles. 1985). l’attention inlassable. Frank Tobin (New York. . Le chimérique désormais naît de la surface noire et blanc des signes imprimés. le vide incertain ouvert devant le désir: c’est au contraire la veille. ce n’est plus la nuit. on ne l’attend pas non plus des incongruités de la nature. Epistola. Rolf Busch. symbolismes. se fait intelligence. la plus constante. espoir. à la versatilité de notre substance sensible. Nous vivons de l’instable. 19. douleur. du volume fermé et poussiéreux qui s’ouvre sur un envol de mots oubliés. l’attention aux aguets. Septem gradus orationis. la plus inéluctable de toute vie. ed. 136. Mechthild of Magdeburg.” Cf. Je ne doute pas que Flaubert ait eu conscience de la profondeur de son sujet. For a comprehensive study see: Arnold Angenendt. Sicut enim assidue contemplando revisere amant gaudia caelestia. qui est le ressort diabolique de la vie des êtres organisés. sa richesse est en attente dans le document. qui se fait plaisir. selon l’heure ou le jour? Je songe à la variété.
the Psychomachia of Prudentius. in Hans Robert Jauss. which forms one of the backgrounds of Mechthild’s texts. 21. is also part of Des Esseintes’s readings. 1990). thus creating another level of contemplative engagement with the text. 30. Zur Debatte um Hans Beltings ‘Bild und Kult’ und George Steiners ‘Von realer Gegenwart. Not surprisingly. See Huysmans. chap.’” Merkur 45 (1991): 934–46. 12. the discussion of Hans Belting. 115–33. “Über religiöse und ästhetische Erfahrung. Praying by Numbers: An Essay on Medieval Aesthetics 91 . where Ruysbroeck figures along with Charles Baudelaire. Bild und Kult: Eine Geschichte des Bildes vor dem Zeitalter der Kunst (Munich. See Huysmans. Cf. Against Nature. 23. 22. Against Nature.reader to ask what exactly the numbers are meant to refer to.
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