It is high summer, the beginning of August — a fact with different meanings for different people.
I think back to Paris. By now Paris, while by no means a ghost town, will be showing marked signs of underpopulation. The French even have a word for it — aoutiens, Augusters, people who skip town in August. Thousands will have taken off for their country places — there still being a few that are not owned by Britons — and others are cramming the airports to catch their cheap flights for bargain vacations in Greece. It's an ill wind that blows no one good.
For me the calendar change brings a whiff of sadness, and also anxiety. The fun of summer is not over, but we have reached an important punctuation point. Already at both ends of the day the light is receding. I can still see perfectly clearly as I set off on foot for the gym in the morning, but daylight and sunlight are not the same. The sun does not make its appearance, presuming it deigns to do so at all, until I am on my way home.
The first visible signs of the waning of the year account for the whiff of sadness to which I alluded. The anxiety is, as usual, of my own making. I have not kept to the work schedule I set up for myself at the end of May. That this schedule was not particularly strenuous makes the failure to maintain it a bit of an embarrassment.
In the autumn (specifically at the end of October and beginning of November) I am scheduled to deliver the Conway Lectures in Medieval Studies at the University of Notre Dame. There are to be three of them spaced out over a week, during which I shall do some informal teaching as well. In theory each lecture will form the core of a chapter of a book on my general theme, Asceticism and Literature in the Middle Ages — though the book will have several additional chapters. My task for the summer was to finish off one of the lectures in each of the three summer months, the last of which we have now entered. But it hasn’t exactly happened that way so far.
The topic is a vast one to which I devoted much thought and a small lagoon of printer’s ink during my active career. Oversimplifying grossly — and gross oversimplification is the only sort worth indulging in — the vast bulk of European literature for 1,000 years is either directly or indirectly the product of ascetic institutions. Monks and a few brilliant nuns, men and women who officially “despised the world” and often went to elaborate lengths to withdraw from it, were the principal creators of the world’s literature.
This is a circumstance that from one point of view is easy to grasp yet impossible to understand from another. To begin with, it is very hard for a 20th-century mind — the only kind 20th-century people are supplied with — to gain access to a world so distant and so strange.
The first great monastic convert of the Christian literary tradition was an affluent Egyptian named Anthony (252-356) who, in his youth, heard the gospel reading from Matthew: “If you would be perfect go and sell everything you have and give it to the poor …” He did exactly that and then took up the life of a hermit (literary a desert-dweller), practicing a spiritual athleticism of extraordinary austerity. Thousands of young urban Christians tried to follow his example of retiring to the wilderness to macerate their flesh and do battle with the demons who inhabited the waste spaces. They were, perhaps, spiritual versions of today’s aoutiens, except they sought to reverse the process. They were not trying to empty the city. They wanted instead to urbanize the countryside. Their motto: “The desert a city!”
This episode had literary inspiration in the fantastic biography of Anthony written by the famous theologian Athanasius of Alexandria, which must be counted among the most influential books ever published. It has left its impress on geniuses like Augustine, who saw in it an important analogue to his own economy of conversion, and Hieronymus Bosch, who devoted about a dozen paintings to its subject matter. At least one modern literary genius must be counted among its fans: Gustave Flaubert, author of the “historical” novel "The Temptations of Saint Anthony."
It is easy enough to find the topic interesting for its strangeness alone, but modern enlightened thinkers have generally found it something else — offputting, repellent. Gibbon’s erudite chapter on early monasticism in "The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire" is a masterpiece of literary demolition.
Another writer whom I greatly admire and from whom I have learned much, the 19th-century Whig historian and political philosopher W.E.H. Lecky, encapsulates the enlightened view in a few trenchant sentences:
“There is, perhaps, no phase in the moral history of mankind, of a deeper or more painful interest than this ascetic epidemic. A hideous, sordid and emaciated maniac, without knowledge, without patriotism, without natural affection, passing his life in a long routine of useless and atrocious self-torture, and quailing before the ghastly phantoms of his delirious brain, had become the ideal of the nations which had known the writings of Plato and Cicero and the lives of Socrates and Cato. For about two centuries, the hideous maceration of the body was regarded as the highest proof of excellence."
Trying to navigate betwixt Augustine and Lecky in 55 minutes is proving a serious summer challenge — and that's only for starters.