"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Monday, January 26, 2015

Gay Bathhouses on Mt. Athos?

Live long enough in the academy and you'll see the most improbable pairings and the most unlikely couplings. But even by that semi-cynical standard, I confess that I did not expect to see a new work coming out this spring from Eerdmans: Sergey S. Jorujy, Practices of the Self and Spiritual Practices: Michel Foucault and the Eastern Christian Discourse, ed. Kristina Stoeckl, trans. Boris Jakim (Eerdmans, 2015), 232pp.

About this book we are told:
In this book Sergey Horujy undertakes a novel comparative analysis of Foucault’s theory of practices of the self and the Eastern Orthodox ascetical tradition of Hesychasm, revealing great affinity between these two radical “subject-less” approaches to anthropology. As he facilitates the dialogue between the two, he offers both an original treatment of ascetical and mystical practices and an up-to-date interpretation of Foucault that goes against the grain of mainstream scholarship.

In the second half of the book Horujy transitions from the dialogue with Foucault to his own work of Christian philosophy, rooted in -- but not limited to -- the Eastern Christian philosophical and theological tradition. Horujy’s thinking exemplifies the postsecular nature of our contemporary period and serves as a powerful invitation to think beyond religious-secular divides in philosophy and Eastern-Western divides in intellectual history.
My surprise at this volume comes from knowing something of the rather scabrous life and having read some of the works of Michel Foucault, who died in 1984 at the age of 57 after having contracted AIDS at a sadomasochistic gay bathhouse in San Francisco. When I was an undergraduate in the 1990s, Foucault was all the rage in my English and psychology courses, inter alia, and so we heard all about him along with the other "post-structuralists" and their colleagues, especially Lacan and Derrida. Some of Foucault's works actually had valuable insights (e.g., Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison or parts of The History of Sexuality) but reading any of this unholy trinity and their too-frequent propensity for leaden, jargon-beggared, neologism-ridden prose put me in mind of Clive James' acid aphorism about another ghastly French philosopher we were also forced to read, viz., Sartre: "In Sartre’s style of argument, German metaphysics met French sophistry in a kind of European Coal and Steel Community producing nothing but rhetorical gas."

Such is not the kind of commendation you would expect for someone brought into dialogue with one of the central spiritual practices of Eastern Christianity, viz., hesychasm. But as I've noted repeatedly on here over the years, hesychasm today seems to be a topic coming in for more frequent academic analysis, and to the extent such a development may encourage new audiences to take up prayer, that cannot necessarily be a bad thing. The distance, then, between a monastery on Mt. Athos committed to hesychastic prayer, and a gay bathhouse in San Francisco (which the late Fr. Richard John Neuhaus once memorably called "that sceptered isle of swinging silliness") committed to sexual practices no orthodox Christian could countenance, is not so great, and increasingly traverses the quad in front of your local college. If this isn't a case of "despoiling the Egyptians" or "baptizing the pagans," then I don't know what is.

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