Abjure the Flesh?

In this extraordinary oil on canvas by Egon Schiele (1890-1918) of a cardinal and nun praying together rather intimately, the nun returning our gaze makes abjuring the flesh an open question. Shall the p go in the v? This is a moment of decision; a ranking of values. The flesh will be denied or affirmed. The cardinal’s robe, spilling out like menstrual blood; the darkness the nun melds with; praying hands seeming to touch bodies; the unsandled feet; the facing of one another: these foreshadow a fall into materiality; an identification with and submission to Dionysus; a descent into the chthonian, not an ascent to God the Father.

File:Egon Schiele 033.jpg

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I wonder what Nietzsche would have said about this painting. On the one hand, Nietzsche read Christianity as a poisoning of healthy bodily instincts; on the other, he recognized that the precondition of civilization is the sublimation of instinct. Two German words are important here: kraft and macht. For Nietzsche, the highest human life is the transformation of kraft (force; diffuse Dionysian powers, such as instincts) into another form of power, macht. Macht for Nietzsche is kraft that has been gathered, sublimated, directed, and transfigured into a creative goal. It is concentrated power; potency; one’s force of will that marshals for use–and orders into a hierarchy–other forces.

And so this couple (can we call them a couple?) in Schiele’s painting can be seen as emblematic of the spiritual life generally. Whether naughty or nice, what is their goal here? And will they have the discipline, the will to power–the willpower–to sublimate and transform their instinctual energies into something new? Perhaps they’ll merely show themselves to be slaves to their animality–their instincts–alone.

Or perhaps they’ve been startled upon after having just kissed, and they are pretending (unconvincingly) to pray.

It’s also possible they may not be a team at all. Let’s not miss the imbalance of power here: a cardinal carries immense authority over a nun. Would she really be believed if she made an accusation of impropriety against him? Would she get a fair hearing? In unfavorable circumstances, she may be trying to figure out how to dodge the cardinal’s advances and arrange the situation to her advantage.

And notice that both have gone weak at the knees–have literally come to their knees. Does this imply an equality of desire; a new Abelard and Heloise? Or does the nun’s turn to us imply a manipulation?

And the cardinal implicitly faces a visual temptation: his eyes, darting up, must find heaven, but darting down, breasts. He seems positioned to readily look behind the neckline of her garment as if peering into a Mutoscope. But she may want this attention. She may want him. It appears she could be negotiating with herself, conflicted over the best way to manage powerful instincts.

The situation, in any event, is interesting. (Nietzsche called homo sapiens the interesting animal.)

And the nun is especially so. The look of irony on her face suggests someone who is inwardly complicated, infected perhaps by books she has read without permission. Religion does not come easy for her, and her ambivalence is unmistakable. She is Hamlet (“To do or not to do; to think or not to think”), and her expression recalls a passage in The Gay Science in which Nietzsche writes that the conflict between instinct and empirical reasoning represents:

[…] two lives, two powers, both in the same human being. A thinker is now that being in whom the impulse to truth and those life-preserving errors clash […] Compared to the significance of this fight, everything else is a matter of indifference […]

In the same book, Nietzsche calls this tension between our anciently evolved instincts and our recently evolved powers for disrupting our instincts (such as taking on a discipline for reaching some creative vision or acquiring knowledge) nature’s great experiment:

To what extent can truth endure incorporation [with instinctual drives]? That is the question; that is the experiment.

In the Genealogy of Morals, Nietzsche also writes this:

[M]an was bound to contract under the stress of the most fundamental change he ever experienced–that change which occurred when he found himself enclosed within the walls of society and peace. […] In this new world [men] no longer possessed their former guides, their regulating, unconscious and infallible drives: they were reduced to thinking, inferring, reckoning, co-ordinating cause and effect, these unfortunate creatures; they were reduced to their ‘consciousness,’ their weakest and most fallible organ!

The nun is one of Nietzsche’s “unfortunate creatures,” as are you and I. Nietzsche likens us to amphibians (again, quoting from the Genealogy of Morals):

The situation that faced sea animals when they were compelled to become land animals or perish was the same as that which faced these semi-animals [humans], well adapted to their wilderness, to war, to prowling, to adventure: suddenly all their instincts were disvalued and ‘suspended.” From now on they had to walk on their feet and ‘bear themselves’ whereas hitherto they had been borne by the water: a dreadful heaviness lay upon them.

To be “borne by the water” is to be borne by instinct; to carry the weight of being a complicated and conscious being in the ridiculous position of making existential choices with incomplete information is “heaviness” (what Kierkegaard called “dread”).

Nietzsche’s Übermensch (superman) does not shrink from this unhappy state of affairs. Instead, he embraces it, accepting his fate. He is self-controlled, responsible, and capable of synthesizing disorderly drives to his own creatively chosen direction. In Twilight of the Idols, Nietzsche writes:

[W]hat is freedom? That one has the will to assume responsibility for oneself. That one maintains the distance which separates us. That one becomes more indifferent to difficulties, hardships, privation, even to life itself. […]

Freedom, in other words, is not the freedom to simply go with the flow of your (often contradictory) instinctual drives. This would make you a slave to them. Instead, it is to sublimate them into a transfiguration of your own choosing. Not to kill the flow–we need the Dionysian–but to conduct it to something you want.

Can you do it? Can they?

File:Egon Schiele 033.jpg

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Below is a fourteenth century manuscript depiction of Abelard and Heloise. Schiele’s inspiration?

File:Abelard and Heloise.jpeg

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Image of a Mutoscope from 1899. Is the nun the cardinal’s Mutoscope?

File:Mutoscope, 1899 (bis).jpg

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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