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The Gilded Maggot: the disgusting beauty of Christian ascetic bodies

Tom Hawkins

The most precious maggot of all time was the worm that fell from the putrid body of Simeon the Stylite and, when scooped up by a visiting king, became a sacred gem. The authority of the holy man overwhelms the maggot’s disgusting acknowledgment of mortal decay. In Saving Shame, Burrus has interpreted Christian asceticism as empowered by embracing shame, but I suggest that disgust provides an even more relevant heuristic lens. I maintain that many Christian ascetics, especially in Syria, used bodily training to invite reflection on social norms through their paradoxical performance of disgusting beauty. Following Foucault’s work on Cynicism, I see the ascetic body as an instrument of critiquing power relations (une vie autre pour un monde autre), but as Shea has shown, Foucault’s Cynics do not claim to have answers – they aim at destabilizing the present order. It is for this reason that the ascetic body, a holy wonder that overrides our sense of disgust, does not provide answers so much as it opens an intellectual space for thinking the world anew.

My understanding of disgust relies on Kelly’s ‘entanglement theory’, which posits a uniquely human coordination of two autonomic reactions: a mechanism for avoiding poisons (e.g. the contorted face and immediate expulsion of rotten food from one’s mouth) and another for limiting contact with parasites (esp. associated with corpses and feces). In humans, these systems became ‘entangled’ and eventually came to patrol the social norms that articulate tribal boundaries and preserve knowledge about the local environment. This expansion of the two affect systems into ‘socio-moral disgust’ harnessed the cross-cultural and reflexive power of ‘core disgust’ to the highly variable social norms of a given group. This evolutionary slide between the reflexive power of disgust to protect our health and its adaptability to social codes raises the possibility of seeing ascetic bodily practices as activating a dialogue about the values and priorities of a culture.

We can see the productive transgression of parameters of disgust in many ascetic hagiographies (e.g. Vit. Dan. Sty.), but they are best-known from the vitae of Simeon. The ascetic trains his body so that it twists away from the Greco-Roman ideals of youthful athletic beauty, as when Simeon wears a coarse rope around his body resulting in festering and stinking lacerations that offend the noses of his monastic companions (Ant. Vit. Sim. Sty. 3). But once Simeon exchanges his cynobitic life for that of an anchorite, his harsh bodily training becomes the touch-stone of his sacred authority and charismatic appeal.

The extreme configuration of the ascetic body has typically been read as a sign of disregard for corporeal concerns and proof of the spiritual focus of the practitioner. Yet I see the ascetic’s body (emaciated to the point of skeletal frailty, opened in ways that reveal the fluids that move beneath our skin, and reeking from a persistent eschewal of hygiene and medical treatment) as a reminder and a reiteration of human corporeality. Aristotle claims that no one can look inside the human body without feeling disgust (δυσχερεία, 645a28-30), yet the consistent reaction of those who see the ascetic’s body is an effusive wonder that aesthetically transforms the stinking, ugly body of the ascetic into that of a sweet-smelling, beautiful athlete.

The ascetic elicits no disgust, because, although he may smell like a corpse and ooze puss, his sanctity allays fears of contagion; because, although his body violates every normative stricture of corporeal care, he lives in world that challenges normativity; and although his body seems to be on the verge of death, his pursued askesis inspires no fear of mortality. His triumph over disgust contests social norms, but the question of how to respond to the beautiful abjection of the ascetic body lies with us.

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The Body in Question

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