Fantasies of Biological Transcendence

ARCSMV 09.jpg Santa Maria d. Vittoria 7

ARCSMV 09.jpg Santa Maria d. Vittoria 7

Fantasies of Biological Transcendence: I wondered whether the current fact of our fleshiness was a necessity of being human? I contemplated ideas articulated by many western thinkers about the aspects of human beings which distinguish us from all other beings; these are, of course, the non-material parts of ourselves. Bodies, like pumpkins and pomegranates, die. I also spent hours reading texts written by mystics and martyrs talking about their longing for a love that would exist forever, one which would last long beyond the biological body had dissolved and disappeared, and became fascinated with these articulations of faith and desire.

Angela 4

Angela 4

Given the paradox that the Christian must die in order to live, the paradigmatic image of Christian art is not the beautiful god or hero of Greek sculpture, nor the powerful Roman emperor, but the martyr who gladly yields up his or her body to violent death.

MDI 15A

MDI 15A

St Ignatius’ martyrdom: “I am writing to all the churches, and I give injunction to everyone, that I am dying willingly for God’s sake, if you do not prevent it. I plead with you not to be an unseasonable kindness to me. Allow me to be eaten by the beasts, through whom I can attain to God. I am God’s wheat, and I am ground by the teeth of wild beasts, so that I may become pure bread of Christ . . . Do me this favour . . . Let there come upon me fire, and the cross, and struggle with wild beasts, cutting and tearing apart, racking of bones, mangling of limbs, crushing of my whole body . . . may I but attain to Jesus Christ”.

MDI 32A (cropped) (1)

MDI 32A (cropped) (1)

For both Early Christians and later Christian mystics, preparation for a life beyond the biological body involved a life-long ascetical program, which might include the mortification of the flesh and the redirection of libido from the human world to the divine. For some Christians, the hatred of the body suggested by much orthodox theology took extreme and pathological forms. Certain ascetics starved themselves and refused to wash until their bodies were a mass of putrefying sores.

For the Flesh of all Women is Fire

For the Flesh of all Women is Fire

Others such as Origen of Alexandria (185-254 ad), believing that sexuality was the primary source of sin and evil, castrated themselves for the greater glory of God. Similarly, flagellants beat themselves almost to death in their efforts to attain a state of spiritual ecstasy in preparation for the afterlife.

MDI 16

MDI 16

The human body was for St. Jerome (342-420 CE) a “darkened forest, filled with the roaring of wild beasts”, that can be controlled only by rigid codes of diet and by the strict avoidance of occasions for sexual attraction.

“My face was pale with fasting; but though my limbs were cold as ice, my mind was burning with desire, and the fires of lust kept bubbling up before me while my flesh was as good as dead”.

“Torture your senses, for without torture there is no martyrdom”

My face was pale

My face was pale

Historically these fantasies of biological transcendence have taken varied forms. For mystics such as Angela di Foligno (1248-1309), Teresa of Avila (1515-1582) and Beatrijs of Nazareth (1200-1268) the final destination in the mystic odyssey was the falling away of the biological body and the union with God in a spiritual marriage.

For Renaissance humanist thinkers such as Marsilio Ficino, Pico della Mirandola, and Cornelius Agrippa the earthly body was a tool to be manipulated in the service of a transcendent end in which it would become dematerialized pure spirit.

Let the stars blind you

Let the stars blind you

In the occult magical doctrine propounded by Ficino, Agrippa and Giordano Bruno the human individual could through magic literally become God through the exercise of intellect and creative power. As in the beliefs of the Christian mystics, here too this result is imagined as post-biological, with the effacement or dissolution of the mortal flesh.

MDI 28

MDI 28

I have wondered about the following questions: How are these spiritual ideals articulated visually and textually? How are the mystics’ and martyrs’ bodies represented in visual art? In what do these ascetic programs consist? What are the expressed goals of the various ascetic programs? Do these spiritual ideals vary according to gender? In what terms is the union with God or ascension to immortality conceptualized?

In what ways is this discourse of biological transcendence similar to that of contemporary cyber- and robotics-prophets? To what extent are these spiritual views an articulation of body hatred? Given that historically femininity and bodiliness have been linked, are these views connected in an attitude towards women and the feminine that is negative?