In my story, 'The Splinter', my main character states her reason for her practice of 'mortification of the flesh'. Initially, at a young age, she tells her priest:
"I'm atoning for my sins, Father. I'm paying for them with pain. Just like Jesus."
Later, when confronted on what the priest considers her aberrant behaviour, she tells him:
"Oh, it's not just my sins I'm atoning for, Father. I'm atoning for other people's sins too. Since they won't confess or do penance, it's my obligation, my privilege even, to do it for them."
As the story goes on, the reasons she gives for inflicting pain upon herself change, but the desire that drives it remains constant and abstract. Is this eros or agape?
As you might notice, if you jump to my other reflective journal, for LPW 700, I've been reading Plato's Symposium (Plato, 360 B.C.E) The Symposium is, in a way, an inquiry into erotic love. However, it would be foolish to interpret the term "erotic" as meaning only sexual. It's clear from the rhetorical speeches in the Symposium, that what the men around the couches are speaking of is something much closer to the idea of desire (Levy, 1979).
Diotima, Socrates' teacher, tells him that inherent in the concept of love (in the sense they are discussing it) is lack. Love wants something. Furthermore, she tells him that there is only one 'desire' - that it shows itself differently at different stages in its upwards journey towards perfect desire: the contemplation of beauty - perfect, formless and incapable of loving in return (Diotima's Speech, 360 B.C.E.).
How does this, even by the Greek definitions, differ from agape? In my opinion, this sort of desire not only mirrors but is an alternate definition of Christian concepts of a desire to be one with God. I realize that in order to back up this statement, I'd have to do a lot more research into early Christian doctrine, and I'm glad that this is a piece of fiction and not an academic paper, or I could spend years looking at this!
Another take on desire is that of Georges Bataille, author of "The Accursed Share", describes a theory of economics based on fulfilling need and excess. The use of excess, he tells us, is that of sacrifice. He goes on to explain that excess must be used as sacrifice in order that a) it not be simply abused in a quotidian way and that b) it be consumed so that the cycle of need can reoccur, and life continue with normality, pursuing its needs. The excess of human energy is what Bataille defines as erotic desire. And, it must be 'sacrificed' in order to maintain balance (Bataille, 1988).
Serge Carfantan, writing on Nietzche's interpretation of desire, reminds us that very often:
"The true object of desire is not necessarily what it appears at first glance to be pursuing. This is why we do not always know what we want. Were we able to view our desires in the full light of consciousness, we would begin to perceive that the process of desiring is never without the projection of the representation of a want: want of another person, want of recognition, want of affection, want of self" (Carfantan, 2003)
But Bataille disagrees: "The object of sensual desire is by nature another desire. The desire of the senses is the desire, if not to destroy oneself, at least to be consumed and to lose oneself without reservation" (Bataille, "The Object of Desire and the Totality of the Real")
This, for me, and for my story, is where Moira's desire - the excess of her needs - turn to the pursuit of divine ecstasy:
"If only she could keep her mind on how every stroke of the flail on her back was slicing a little more of that awful filth away from her soul... She yearned for the relief that came when her heart shone like pure polished gold, free from all stain, from any taint of evil. She would get up on her knees and arch her back, pushing out her chest to show God how clean she had made herself. In those moments her whole body vibrated with an invisible, divine energy. It streaked from her toes all the way to her head and back down again. Every muscle quivered with the joy of knowing that she was just that much closer to an Imitation of Christ" (The Splinter).
Eric Gans, in "The Erotic", says that:
"As Bernini's famous statue of Saint Theresa reminds us, religious ecstasy and erotic ecstasy can take much the same form. How then shall we distinguish between eroticism and religion, eros and agape? Erotic desire, as we have seen, is based on the reduction of the triangle of mediated desire to a relationship between desiring Self and desired Other in which the latter serves as both object and mediator. God as the originary mediator of all desire is surely the mediator of my desire for his Being" (Gans, 1998).
I don't find that Gans' distinction is ultimately convincing. It's based on the concept that the "desired Other" and "God" are different things. I would argue that, as most people can't conceive of God without personifying him/her/it, then God is as much a "desired Other" as anyone else.
Certainly, in Moira's case, inherent in her desire to be one with God, is the promise to be rid of her existential loneliness:
"Please. I can't do it by myself. I've tried, but I get tired and dizzy. You have to help me, Simon, please. I want to see the Virgin. I want to feel her grace pouring down on me, cleansing me of sin, and taking me into the divine light
She reached her arm over him, pulling herself up, until her face was next to his. "Please, Simon. I feel so alone. I need to be with Her" (The Splinter)
In The Splinter, all three main characters struggle with a sense of existential angst. All three have tried to purge it: Jacob, the ex-junkie, has sought the numbing stillness of heroine; Brother Simon, through sex, pain and then through the self-sacrifice of work; and Moira, through pain and ecstatic prayer. And society approves of none of them.
Moira has read and is devoted to the writings of Saint Teresa of Avila, who describes her relationship with God and pain thus:
"In the beginning I was afraid--it happens to me to be almost always so when our Lord leads me by a new way, until His Majesty reassures me as I proceed--and so our Lord bade me not to fear, but to esteem this grace more than all the others He had given me; for the soul was purified by this pain--burnished, or refined as gold in the crucible, so that it might be the better enamelled with His gifts, and the dross burnt away in this life, which would have to be burnt away in purgatory" (The Life of St. Teresa of Jesus).
John Blevins discusses the schism in the church between eros and agape. In his opinion, the Christian traditional interpretation of Jesus taking on human form is an act of erotic, not agapic love. He is made 'flesh' in order to 'know' humanity better. Inherent in this, says Blevins, is the acceptance of erotic love as a vehicle to achieve divine transcendence (Blevins, 2007)
So why does my Moira look to the ancient past for her models of how to achieve this?
In "A Preface to Transgression", Foucault puts it very nicely: "The proof is its whole tradition of mysticism and spirituality which was incapable of dividing the continuous forms of desire, of rapture, of penetration, of ecstasy, of that outpouring which leaves us spent: all of these experiences seemed to lead, without interruption or limit, right to the heart of a divine love" (Foucault, 1977)
Or, if you are feeling a little lazier, you can listen to Foucault on this issue at YouTube.
Bataille, Georges. The Accursed Share. New York: Zone Books, 1988.
Bataille, Georges. "The Object of Desire and the Totality of the Real." Generation Online. Unknown. 19 April 2008 http://www.generation-online.org/p/fpbataille2.htm.
Blevins, John. "Uncovering the Eros of God." Theology and Sexuality 13. 3. (2007) 289-299. 19 April, 2008 http://tse.sagepub.com/cgi/content/abstract/13/3/289.
Cartanfan, Serge. "Lesson 4. The obscure Object of Desire." Philosophy and Spirituality Website. Unknown. 19 April 2008 http://pagesperso-orange.fr/philospir/Lesson4.htm.
Gans, Eric. "The Erotic." Chronicles of Love and Resentment. 1998. UCLA. 19 April 2008 http://www.anthropoetics.ucla.edu/views/vw128.htm.
Foucault, Michel. "A Preface to Transgression." Language, Counter-memory, Practice. 1977. Google Books. 19 April 2008 http://books.google.com/books?id=OMRWM0-gSnMC&pg=PA29&source=gbs_toc_r&cad=
Levy, Donald. "The Definition of Love in Plato's Symposium." Journal of the History of Ideas 40.2. (Jun. 1979) 285-291. 19 April, 2008 http://www.jstor.org/stable/2709153.
Plato, "The Symposium." Internet Classics Archive. 360 B.C.E.. MIT. 19 April, 2008 http://classics.mit.edu/Plato/symposium.html.
Teresa of Avila, "The Life of Saint Teresa of Jesus." Gutenberg Project Website. 1904. 9 May 2008 http://www.gutenberg.org/dirs/etext05/8trsa10h.htm.
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