Wednesday, 6 May 2015

Niki Clements: Cassian’s Conlationes and an Affective Ethics of Reading

John Cassian (c.360-c.435), developing the architecture for Latin monasticism, brings to life the experiential practices of Egyptian desert asceticism for his readers in Gaul. While scholars have addressed the centrality of reading practices to Cassian’s askēsis, such practices’ relation to his project of ethical formation has gone relatively unaddressed. Cassian’s Conlationes Patrum in Scithico Eremo prescribes scriptural recitation and reflection that draw on venerable Egyptian traditions; in an analysis of the Conlationes’ narrative framing techniques, I argue that Cassian also shows his readers what, in practice, to do. On the prescriptive level within Cassian’s texts, the abbas directly exhort the recitation and imitation of the Psalms and meditation on scripture. On the literary level of Cassian’s texts themselves, the young Cassian and his companion Germanus—as well as their wise abba interlocutors—enact this narrative/ethical formation through imitation of everyday activities.

This ethical reconsideration of Cassian critiques Michel Foucault’s influential understanding of Cassian as extolling “interiority” at the expense of “exteriority,” affirming instead the integrating work of affectus. Affectus, within Cassian’s ascetic program, entails emotion, state of mind, disposition, as well as the English cognate “affect.” Cassian’s affectively aware reader integrates the bodily and intellective activities of the person, which in turn, enables the cultivation of ethical dispositions that shape the religious self. Far from the self-renunciatory subject of interior reflection that characterizes Foucault’s reading, we see the Conlationes demanding of its readers an embodied, deliberative, and inter-social affective engagement, all as necessary for progress in the ascetic life.

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