Academic journal article Magistra

Living Relics. on Constructing Mystic Inwardness through Bodily Suffering1

Academic journal article Magistra

Living Relics. on Constructing Mystic Inwardness through Bodily Suffering1

Article excerpt

Heroic fights, as they appear in heroic legends and epics of chivalry, continue to enjoy great esteem in the modern age. Contemporary fictional literature could not do without artfully devised plots of adventure where the life - or at least the health - of the protagonist is exposed to risk. The bleeding bodies of the daring heroes do not just inspire admiration on the part of the readers; at times they even arouse the desire for imitation.

From the Middle Ages until the 17th and 18th centuries, Christians tried to imitate their beloved hero Jesus Christ, although it was not Christ the triumphant whom they admired, but the suffering and tormented Jesus. Pain and even self-inflicted wounds were thought to be valuable contributions to the salvation of Christianity. To present-day members of consumer societies, the desire to seek suffering without adventure or triumphs is hard to understand. In fact, one tends to view someone who inflicts wounds on him/herself as pathological.

When deciding to imitate the sufferings of Christ or a saint, people in most cases followed examples found in devotional literature rather than behaviors they had directly witnessed, because the objects of their veneration were already dead or far away. The medium of writing allowed a transfer between various contexts, but created temporal and spatial gaps in the process: every new act of decoding brought forth new interpretations of the holy models, rather than perfect copies. Life does not repeat itself. Imitations are always new creations.

This paper will first look at the conditions under which Christians began to give a positive meaning to the experience of pain, drawing on medical, psychoanalytical and anthropological studies on pain. A second step will be to view the painful performances2 of the imitators of Christ in Western and Central Europe3 in the light of the transformation of oral into literal societies.4 Both anthropological studies concerning the symbolic meanings of the body, and the literature about the role of empathy in oral communication seem to suggest that the imitatio Christi also had profane social functions. This will attempt to develop an understanding of passion mystic as a bodily technique which, from the Late Middle Ages up until early modern centuries, was capable of facilitating the adjustment of laypersons to the new social order.

However, bringing together these two different perspectives, the religious and the socio-economic one, should not be expected to provide more than a rough outline of a research perspective, or to embark on a further attempt of a discursive cross-section through the "flesh of history,"5 where premodernity or modernity do not exist as different "bodies."6

Pain as the Experience of Borderlines

"Intense pain erases the world," writes Elaine Scarry7 in her study about the relationship between pain and culture. The world is cleared from consciousness, but the pain persists. While death represents the absolute threat of a negation of the self that still promises liberation from the torments of life, pain anticipates death in various ways while still letting one feel the disintegration of the self. The intensity of pain determines if one feels pain or is in pain. On the one hand, pain can come from outside and break into the body. On the other hand it can also dwell inside the body, generating an awareness of a new differentiation between zones that hurt and zones that do not, and facilitating a process of differentiation and hierarchy construction.

For the conscious mind the hurting organ seems to dominate all the others.8 A suffering individual therefore has to defend his or her integrity, identified with the borders of the body, and his/her selfhood against the attacks of pain. The other possibility is to constitute a self without any corporeal substance by detaching consciousness from the body.9 As long as pain can still be endured, it provokes the detachment of the conscious self from bodily experiences. …

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