The Vulgarity of the Ascetic, Rewarded: Massenet’s Thais and Barlam and Iosaphat


From here.

Massenet’s Thaïs, perhaps better known, to some of you, from Hroswitha’s play “Paphnutius,” features our holy harlot staring into her mirror, feeling her beauty fade, and wishing it were otherwise:

Dis-moi que je suis belle
Et que je serai belle éternellement!
Que rien ne flétrira les roses de mes lèvres,
Que rien ne ternira l’or pur de mes cheveux!
Dis-le moi! Dis-le moi!

[Tell me that I am beautiful and that I will be beautiful eternally. That nothing of the rose of my lips will fade, that nothing of the pure gold of my hair will tarnish. Tell me! Tell me!]

Hope will find a way! Thaïs goes Christian (inadvertently corrupting her evangelist), and, as she dies, she sees the heavens open, and the angels and saints all smiling, with hands full of flowers: “Le son des harpes d’or m’enchante! – de suaves perfums me pénètrent! … Je sens—une exquise beatitude” [the sound of golden harps enchants me! Soft perfumes penetrate me. I sense an exquisite beatitude!]. Here she gets her eternal beauty, here, the luxury to which she, as Alexandria’s priciest harlot, had become accustomed, but now perfected, with no fear of loss. She has not abandoned her material desires, her delight in pleasures of the body, but has rather had them perfected by the greatest client of all.

So too in the Middle English Barlam and Iosaphat. This Christianized Life of the Buddha has recently been done for Penguin, from Gui de Cambrai’s version, by Peggy McCracken (whose In Search of the Christian Buddha joins my 2015 must-read list). Halfway through the Middle English, I’m bored and fascinated at once, as only a scholar of this stuff can be. What we have is usual medieval asceticism, with a run-through of standard Christian beliefs, notable, I think, only for omitting any reference (so far) to the Eucharist. Mostly, it calls on us to abandon “þe vanyte and þe vnstabylnes of þe world” [70; the vanity and the unstableness of the world] for the unchanging delights of the next life.

Éternellement ! Éternellement !

One exemplum teaches the lesson neatly. You won’t find it in many places: it shows up in Vincent of Beauvais’s Speculum Historiale, naturally enough in his version of Barlam and Iosaphat, and then, scrubbed of any hint of asceticism, as the story of King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid, mildly famous as a Shakespeare footnote, printed first in Richard Johnson’s 1612 Crown Garden of Goulden Roses, next by Richard Percy, flourishing thereafter as a weedy crop of nineteenth-century poetry and painting, and so on, at least, up to Pretty Woman or Maid in Manhattan.

In our medieval tale, a wise young man was wedded to a beautiful, rich woman, but when his father “tolde hym many þyngis þat longid to weddynge, and tolde hym how he sholde do” (70; told him the many things that were proper to being wed, and told him how he should do them), he fled, disgusted. He came upon the house of an old man, whose daughter sat in the doorway working away with her hands, praising god. To the wondering young man she explained that worldly goods cause worry, and that as a human having “knowynge and resoun before al oþer beestis” (71; knowing and reason above all other beasts), she knows she cannot thank God enough for his gifts, however small they may seem. The young man immediately declares his intention to wed her, which her father grants, on two conditions: that his daughter not be taken away from home, and that the young man join his new family in their poverty. He agrees and submits to the father’s last interrogation. Finding him sincere, the father lets him marry, and so they lived forever, in noble poverty, knowing that riches are the desire of the weak-hearted, the impious, the insincere, loved best by creeps and monsters like the Koch brothers or Jeffrey Epstein .

If only! Instead, finding him sincere, the father:

Arose vp and toke hym by þe honed, and ledde hym into a chamber, and þere he shewde hym grete riches and grete sommes of money, þat þe ʒonge man sawe neuer so moche before þat tyme, and seide to hym: ‘Sonne, all þis Y ʒeve þe, because þat þou hast chose my douʒtere, and þou shalt be myn eyre.’ And whan þe ʒonge man had þis he passed al þe ryche men þat were in þe londe. (72)

[got up and took him by the hand and led him to a chamber and there he showed him great riches and great sums of money, more than the young man had ever seen before, and he said to him, ‘Son, I give you all of this, because you have chosen my daughter, and you will be my heir.’ And when the young man had this, he surpassed all the rich men that were in the land [in Vincent of Beauvais’ compact Latin, ille omnes supergressus est gloriosos terra et divites]

The young man should have fled again, found another old man and another daughter, and fled again, until finally, one imagines, he would become the Grouchy Walter of Chaucer’s Clerk’s Tale, fed up with marriage and out for revenge on poor virtuous women everywhere (Hollywood, get on this origin tale right away!). Instead, we get the same vulgar reward we find in Massenet: give up on the cool things of this world, because God will give you the same cool things in the afterlife, but even better!

What I want from a great ascetic text like Barlaam and Iosaphat, and from the asceticism of medieval Christianity more generally, is what modern American Christianity mostly lacks: unending contempt for the rich and for their tastes and pleasures. I don’t want delayed gratification, but rather a transvaluation of all values, not for the sake of a Nietzschean vitality, but rather, if it could be imagined, for an asceticism lived for its own sake, with no hope or reward or repose, an asceticism worth something in itself, because the values of this world and its mighty really do suck.