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Title:Renouncing sex and the self: asceticism in early modern England
Author(s):McGrath, Patrick
Director of Research:Mohamed, Feisal G
Doctoral Committee Chair(s):Mohamed, Feisal G
Doctoral Committee Member(s):Perry, Curtis; Gray, Catharine; Newcomb, Lori H.; Markley, Robert
Department / Program:English
Degree Granting Institution:University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Subject(s):Church of England
Renaissance literature
Abstract:At first glance, it might seem that ascetic practices disappeared in England with the introduction of Protestantism. With the monasteries demolished, priests encouraged to marry, and the laity cautioned against superstitious practices of mortification, how can there be a cultural history of asceticism after the English Reformation? Asceticism is one attitude towards the relationship between body and soul. But that relationship conjures, and was read in the early modern period as implicating, other binaries: word and meaning; letter and spirit; form and content; material and immaterial; sign and signified. Since these binaries were in constant recalibration by early modern religion, poetry, aesthetics, and philosophy (to name but a few), asceticism remained not just current, but exigent. The ascetic privileging of soul over body, the ascetic refinement of the soul through bodily austerity, and the ascetic suspicion of carnality were invoked any time words were purged of fleshly connotations (the plain style), an elaborate formal process sought to perfect content (metaphysical poetry), materiality impeded the immaterial (Neoplatonism), and sign stood in uncertain relation to signified (scriptural exegesis). How asceticism negotiates body and soul has relevance to these other relationships, and they to it. Since, for instance, the dynamic tension between form and content, word and meaning, animates literature, the ascetic negotiation of body and soul directly impacts literary aesthetics. By recovering that impact, along with how ascetic attitudes inform other theological and philosophical discourses, I show the need for a cultural history of asceticism after the English Reformation. A central aim of this project is furthermore to expose a degree of incommensurability between pre- and modern eras by recovering an ascetic subjectivity in all its challenging antipathy for modernity. In its anticipation of contemporary ideas about subjectivity, the body, and sexuality, early modern England has at times been made to look like a viable precursor to modernity. In the pages of this study, however, self-respect was a Satanic impulse that had to be annihilated; the body was not celebrated, but beaten into subjection; and, feeling circumscribed by sexual desire, ascetics sought relief in pain, solitude, and deformity. More challenging still, this mental and physical deprivation was not just experienced but embraced, for asceticism also transvalues what defines beauty, pleasure, and the self. To study asceticism is, therefore, to reclaim a sense of the discrete historical particularity of early modernity.
Issue Date:2015-03-30
Rights Information:Copyright 2015 Patrick McGrath
Date Available in IDEALS:2015-07-22
Date Deposited:May 2015

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