The Memory of the Eyes: Pilgrims to Living Saints in Christian Late Antiquity. (Book Reviews And Notes).
Pilgrims in the fourth and fifth century were just as interested in traveling to see people, to gaze upon faces of desert ascetics that they thought connected them to a biblical past, as they were interested in traveling to places, to see or to touch sacred things. So argues Georgia Frank in her recent book, The Memory of the Eyes: Pilgrims to Living Saints in Christian Late Antiquity. Moreover, writes Frank, how authors composed these pilgrimages, especially the History of the Monks of Egypt (HME) and the Lausiac History (LH), reveals the visual piety that lay at the heart of their experiences: gazes linger to perceive the divine. Thus those authors constructed a Christian practice that includes understandings of the Incarnation, the Eucharist, relics, and icons, all of which involve a link between vision, the "eye of faith," and a real presence of God.
One of the most important contributions of Frank's work is the methodology she employs, which can be described as a variety of literary historicism; she examines a range of texts connected with pilgrimage in order to reconstruct the religious experience of the pilgrims. She highlights three recurring themes--exoticism, biblical realism, and sensory engagement, especially sight--to examine how the authors portrayed the spirituality of the travelers, rather than that of the ascetics who were the object of their travels. Since recent scholarship on late antiquity has shown, time and again, the difficulty of asking historical questions of the literary works that have been passed down to us, Frank's approach is therefore all the more important. It is a complex and insightful attempt to explain the motivations and experiences of the people in late antiquity who were trying to understand the relatively new phenomenon of asceticism in the desert.
In her introductory first chapter, Frank explains the two objects of her study: to expand the understanding of pilgrimage to include travel to people, and to explain the "religious sensibilities" of the pilgrims (2). Her approach centers on exploring two interrelated aspects of pilgrimage: travel, and how it was understood on different levels in antiquity; and visuality, not just seeing but what was seen--especially the faces of the holy people. These topics serve as the organizational basis of her book, with the second and third chapters investigating travel as a literary genre and the fourth and fifth examining vision in the narratives of pilgrims' travels. Chapter 6 concludes by applying her main arguments to two aspects of late antique religiosity not examined in the rest of the book: relics and the cult of icons.
Frank begins chapter 2 by arguing that the HME and LH are travel writing, and that this genre allowed the authors to "grapple with the otherness of Egyptian culture" (36). From this perspective she shows that the monastic person became the "monument," the object of pilgrimage. She concludes with an artful question, "If travel writing was the solution, what was the problem?" (76). Her answer is that, in late antiquity, ascetics looked strange and their new appearance needed explanation. The HME and LH, Frank argues, "carefully directed the gaze" of urban skeptics to see how the "world of the monks and the world of the Bible were one and the same" (77). In chapter 3 Frank departs from accounts of pilgrimages to living holy people to examine in addition literary accounts of "imagined journeys" to places that were represented as people: God, paradise, and the saint. She argues that these texts, while technically not narratives of pilgrimages, can nevertheless illuminate "pilgrims' fears, hopes, and expectations" (80). She classifies these works as ones that "enticed pilgrims to visit the desert" and devotes the rest of the chapter to showing how the idea of travel, or quest--especially the quest to see a face--was important to the religiosity of late antiquity.
Chapter 4 marks Frank's turn from travel to visuality, which she links to her earlier theme by noting that travel writing depended on re-creating the sensory experience of pilgrimage (102). She explores how pilgrims used their senses, especially their "eye of faith," to experience holy places as filled with the divine and linked to the biblical past and concludes that "Scripture, to these pilgrims was a lived, visual experience" (133). Thus pilgrimage both created and depended on a visual piety. Chapter 5 continues this investigation of visuality by focusing on the role of the face in the descriptions of what pilgrims saw. Frank uses ancient physiognomic thought to investigate the descriptions of the ascetics' faces. But she also shows how, in pilgrimage narratives, time collapsed for the pilgrims, who saw the biblical past come alive in the faces of the ascetics so that, as with holy places, visits to the living ascetics created a biblical realism.
Frank's contribution here is, then, not limited to her methodology. By demonstrating how the genre of travel-writing shaped these pilgrimage accounts, especially for the HME and LH, and the import of the recurring trope of visuality within them, Frank creates an understanding of pilgrimage as much from visitor's point of view as from the monks themselves. She thus gains access to the experience of a vast majority--the pilgrims themselves--rather than the minority, the ascetics they visited.
The only weakness of the book occurs at points where it is becoming, paradoxically, a stronger book. There are moments when Frank seems either unnecessarily defensive, as when she explains the inclusion of the accounts of "imagined journey" (80-81), or when her explanations of the book's organization become almost misleading. For example, her introduction leaves the reader with the impression that the book as a whole will be, in essence, a close reading of two main primary works, the HME and LH. Yet that structure disappears after the second chapter. As a reader, though, I was glad that Frank moved beyond that structure, since her book as a whole benefits from the more wide-ranging study that allows her to explore pilgrimage within the larger context of late antique culture, literary expression, piety, and theology. The first chapter could have stated the overall presentation of the book more effectively, however--as, for example, Frank's concluding chapter does (see especially 171).
This criticism, however, is a quibble in comparison to the overall contribution of Frank's work. Anyone with interests not just in late antiquity but in the phenomenon of pilgrimage, or in the development of visual aspects of piety, or in a methodological approach that uses literary analysis to understand the perspective of audience as well as author, would do well to read this book.
Rebecca Krawiec University of Buffalo
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|Date:||Dec 1, 2001|
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