Monasticism as Criticism

Monasticism criticized

During the 1970s and even centuries before that starting from the Protestant reformation, there has been plenty of anti-monastic criticism made by humanists and protestants who scorn the very notion of monasticism itself as something unbiblical or something that represses a certain urge (most specifically the sexual one) in the human being which in the course of their stay at the secluded monastery bursts to an unparallel desire for power or to some inextinguishable sexual urge parallel to that of a Sadeian dominator. Matthew Lewis’ The Monk and Denis Diderot’s The Nun demonstrate the enlightenment criticism of monasticism. While Lewis novel treats monasticism as the explosion of sexual urge of a virtuous monk and deals specifically with Gothic and Romantic images of the weakness of man to such urges (a very distinct line of thought can be seen in Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther, in a way reminiscent of Sturm und Drag literature but with a more English taste) which bursts into his own condemnation. Diderot’s masterpiece treats monasticism as the struggle of power in which how the Catholic monastic system has created a system of power susceptible to individual manoeuvres and careerism.[1]

Another form of criticism came from pamphlets which are more fictional than true. Pamphleteering is a common thing in Europe and in the early days of the United States to disseminate information or spread propaganda. Much of the work of Jean-Paul Marat is expressed on pamphlets given to the crowds before and during the French Revolution just before he was assassinated. Monasticism is not spared from this propagandistic style of writing. As Peter W. Williams notes in his book Popular Religion in America, American suspicion about Catholicism is widespread and with French speaking and Catholic Quebec just a few hundred miles from the border, monasticism is not spared from propagandistic attacks of protestant (mainly Baptist) sects.[2]

Both the 18th and 19th century criticism of monasticism is linked to its “supposedly” oppressive character. To Diderot, monasticism provides persons with the opportunity to oppress and exploit other people. He demonstrates this by the lesbian sexual encounter of the abbess with other sisters, exploiting them for favours and keeping her influence afloat. Liberation starts from abandoning this monastic idea for a more “free” society as espoused by enlightenment principles.

Towards the 20th century and the use of cinema, criticism of monasticism is also expressed but different from the principles used during the 18th and 19th centuries. While in the past centuries, criticism is aimed at its oppressive nature in light of liberation through enlightenment ideals. Cinematic criticism of monasticism only highlights the oppressive nature of monasticism’s excesses, expressed blatantly in different sexual activities done inside the monastery.

To demonstrate this point, let us look into the sub-genre of the Exploitation genre called nunsploitation which became popular during the 1970s. Basically, these films deal specifically with repressed sexuality and its outburst, expressed in lesbian sexual activity and ecstatic orgies. Ken Russell’s film The Devils (1971) is the paradigm example here although it is debatable whether this film is under the genre of nunsploitation. Nonetheless, the film depicts the thin line between the possession and madness. A lot of nunsploitation films would be patterned after the theme of possession and neurosis. (A good example would be Nigel Wingrove’s 2000 film Sacred Flesh which deals with inner thoughts or his first nunsploitation film Visions of Ecstasy which according to him is an interpretation of St. Theresa of Avila’s works.) The principal difference of this genre to the enlightenment treatment is the absence of the working of enlightenment ideals. These films explore the outburst of sexual urges and portray the absurdity of the monastic ideal because of its repressive character.

I situate this genre according to its decade i.e. the 70s, the decade of Deepthroat. I can say that the 70s is a decade of exploitation films caused by the burgeoning objection to American conservatism and the Vietnam War. They express the exploitation of different races, genders and others and place them is plotlines that follow the same pattern: from exploitation to a grand fin de siècle. If we situate nunsploitation films according to the legacy of Deepthroat, the criticism against monasticism is rooted in the pleasure-seeking decade and the rise of liberal ideology where the imperative is to seek pleasure and any form of suspending it or denying it is a form of absurdity. These films highlight the abuse of monastic institutions and their repressive mechanisms. They exhault the liberated woman who is in control of her life, sexuality and relationship; the monk and nun has no place in the liberal ideology of pleasure.

Au Contraire a Zizek

Slavoj Zizek’s analysis of Sound of Music[3]is exemplary in developing a more critical view of monasticism. Monasticism gives someone the permit of seeking pleasure by surrendering her desire towards the Big Other that in turn even in abandoning the pleasures of sex (expressed in his very sexual hence Freudian interpretation of the song Climb Every Mountain), in Catholic Monastic tradition the Big Other is solely responsible for you now you can enjoy. His suspicion concerning monasticism and Catholicism misses the point for many reasons. First, he clearly lacks the knowledge of the foundation and history of monasticism itself and how through the ages the very ground of monasticism itself lies in criticism of established religious ideals. Second, his criticism is solely centred on the abandonment of pleasure. Zizek’s position on pleasure is paradoxical since he is against the liberal imperative to pleasure but also against any form of naive abandonment of pleasure.

On the contrary, let us take a different course from Zizek’s line of thinking and take the religious route towards criticism. I claim that in today’s liberal ideology where to seek what is pleasurable is an imperative; monasticism is one of the significant criticisms of this very ideology which reverses all its past criticisms about it. Moreover, I can go so far as to claim that Monasticism in its Christian tradition stands as a significant stopgap to countering the imperative to pleasure since it goes straight to the root i.e. the subject as nothing. In the same way, it is differentiated from Oriental monasticism (like Buddhist monasticism) because it does not follow the imperative of “going with the flow” or affirming a pessimistic worldview. Christian theology affirms an optimistic world view but goes proceeds with militant attentiveness.

Monasticism as Criticism

Monasticism is not a form of “cheap moralization” or a form of surrender to the Big Other.

In its most fundamental level, monasticism can be divided into two. Anchorite monasticism is simply the monastic tradition set by St. Antony of Egypt where the aim is to isolate oneself from society live alone to radically follow the gospel. On the other hand, Coenobitic monasticism is communal patterned after St. Pachomius’ rule and community. These two traditions are radical expressions of the Christian ideal. In the Anchorite practice, to abandon society is a form of critique towards society itself and its artificiality. It stressed the value of ascetic ordeals and the pleasure to be derived from this practice is extra-sensual but not trans-sensual so as to be equal to the occult. The practice is simple, a form of return to fundamentals, and a re-enactment of Christ’s 40 day fast. Coenobitic monasticism is also a form of re-enactment but of his communal ministry and the first Christian ideal expressed in the Acts of the Apostle. Their existence has to be situated in the convergence of Christianity and the empire when Christianity ceased to be a transgression of Imperial rule and has become the status quo. These people chose to live again the original transgression inherent to Christianity and deviate from the banalization of Christianity as it converges with the Empire. Hence, from its beginning monasticism is already a criticism. To fast track a hundred more years towards the 13th century, monasticism suffered a certain decline in its credibility due to banalization when abbots where treated as nobles and thus lost their critical importance. The rise of the mendicant orders was seen as a reformation of the monastic ideal but soon fell to the same temptation of engaging in the activities that the original founders fought for. An example of this decline is the debate within the Franciscan whether they should study or hold property. The radical dispute was led towards the “use” of these property or education towards genuine service and so on.

Towards the 16th century, these orders were simply the ghosts of their past. They were educated, yes; but they lost their critical importance when they became susceptible to manipulations of noblemen and women. This banalization towards corruption is the subject of criticism from both contemporary and current commentators. The force of criticism and the voice of genuine radicalism were seen in the rise of the Society of Jesus which so far has not deviated from its original motive. They are not monastic per se but they embody what monasticism is i.e. its nature, their very essence is a form of critique, a form of transgression against established norms and the status quo.

Historically speaking, the significance of monasticism greatly outnumbers its criticism. Like the phoenix, it will die but live again in the midst of the ashes as a form of criticism against the established norm. In this way, a monk or a nun by his or her mere presence alone is the embodiment of transgression, a form of revolution against the established liberal imperative. This is the true aggiornamento of the monastic and mendicant traditions. To live again in the very radical root of the Christian faith is to return to its transgressive character.

[1] On a side note, Diderot’s knowledge of monasticism is by far better than Lewis. While Lewis speaks from a more Protestant angle, criticizing Catholic monasticism as a part greater protestant anti-Catholicism, Diderot speaks from a more closer perspective partly because he is French (and most probably aware of all things Catholic) and was aware of the events and stories which are commonplace in that period i.e. of careerist and royalist abbots and abbesses who took authority of monasteries as if they are estates. Furthermore, it is also common that women and men of royal blood to enter monastic life. Oftentimes, women who are incapable or incapable of paying for their dowries enter the monastery. On another occasion, nobles force their daughters to enter monastic life simply to get favors from the local bishop. The historical contexts surrounding the interconnection between monasticism and the royalty is a complex one and we will leave it to the historians to decide for that.

[2] Peter W. Williams, Popular Religion in America: Symbolic Change and the Modernization Process in Historical Perspective (Urbana, Illinois University Press, 1989), p. 156-157.

[3] Cf. Pervert’s Guide to Ideology

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Monasticism as Criticism

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