Mena, Peter Anthony. Borderlands/La Frontera of the Late Ancient Egyptian Desert: Space, Identity, and the Ascetic Imagination. PhD Dissertation, Drew University, 2014.
In Borderlands/La Frontera of the Late Ancient Egyptian Desert: Space, Identity, and the Ascetic Imagination, I consider the descriptions of desert space in Christian hagiography from Late Antiquity. My analysis focuses on three intertextually linked hagiographies: Athanasius’s Life of Antony, Jerome’s Life of Paul the Hermit, and Sophronius’s Life of Mary of Egypt. Building on the arguments made by scholars of Late Antiquity such as Virginia Burrus, Patricia Cox Miller, and Derek Kruger[i], as well as James Goehring and Robert Markus[ii], I demonstrate how hagiography, as a literary genre, has the potential to construct Christian identity for late-antique Christians, and how the desert functions as both a producer and a product of the desert saint.
The work of the self-professed “Chicana tejana feminist-dyke” from South Texas, Gloria Anzaldúa (especially from her foundational text, Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza[iii]) functions as a methodological resource for my reading of ancient hagiography. Mestizaje (mixed ancestry), as defined by Anzaldúa, destabilizes cultural norms and binaries and reveals the ambiguity of human life and subjectivity. In Borderlands, Anzaldúa weaves in and out of autobiography, theory, poetry, history, and mythology, in a genre she calls “autohistoria,” in order to demonstrate the historical, literary, social, and material constructions of race, sexuality, gender, identity, and space. Specifically for my work, her understanding of the mutually constitutive forces of space and identity provides a theoretical framework from which to consider the entangled productions of desert and saint. For Anzaldúa, frontier spaces produce frontier identities. I demonstrate the various facets of the late ancient desert which help to produce the desert saint.
In my chapter on the Life of Antony, I argue that desert communities play a foundational role in determining the subjectivity of the desert saint. The Vita relies on the descriptions of these other desert inhabitants in order to construct the life of a saint over against them. Like Anzaldúa’s borderland communities, these ascetics make up a queer family, even invoking familiar terms like son, or brother, for Antony. They support the saint. And although he is shown to be superior in his ascetic virtue, it is clear that without his ascetic family he would not survive in Athanasius’s desert. In chapter two, I show how Jerome depicts the nonhuman creaturely life in his Life of Paul the Hermit. Here the divide between humanity and animality is blurred, which suggests a certain relationship between all desert creatures—human, nonhuman, saint, satyr—alike. Similarly, in Borderlands, Anzaldúa describes knowing herself only through understanding and dissolving any boundary between humans and nonhuman creatures. She gains fuller knowledge of herself (and of others) as she embraces and acknowledges her own animality. Jerome’s Antony must do the same. Finally, I argue that in the Life of Mary of Egypt the saint in the desert demonstrates the potential to transfigure eroticism in complex and complicated ways. Mary, the mother of God, plays a prominent role in this hagiography. I triangulate these two figures with Anzaldúa and argue that the virgen/puta (virgin/whore) dichotomy is undermined in the desert. Instead of a repentant harlot who diminishes her desire for the saintly life, the saint in this text is shown to embrace her excessive eroticism and direct it toward her God. The two Marys are closer to mirror images than contrasting opposites. And the desert serves as the heterotopic borderland where this transfiguration becomes possible.
Hagiography, in each of the three narratives explored in my dissertation, is an apt literary genre for constructing saintly subjectivity. But this queer subject is only possible in the space of the desert and this particular desert only becomes possible with the presence of the saint. Like Anzaldúa’s borderland creatures, these desert mestizas destabilize normative identities.
I conclude my dissertation by arguing that the application of Anzaldúa’s thought to a reading of late ancient hagiography aids in understanding not only the descriptions of desert saints but also the descriptions of desert space. In doing so, I argue for an intricate connection between space and subjectivity that requires readers to consider each with equal emphasis.
Peter Anthony Mena is an Assistant Professor of History of Christianity at Philips Seminary. @PeterAMena
[i] Virginia Burrus, The Sex Lives of Saint: An Erotics of Ancient Hagiography. Patricia Cox Miller, “Is there a Harlot in this Text? Hagiography and the Grotesque,” Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies, AND “Jerome’s Centaur: A Hyper-Icon of the Desert,” Journal of Early Christian Studies. Derek Krueger, Writing and Holiness: The Practice of Authorship in the Early Christian East.
[ii] James Goehring, Ascetics, Society, and the Desert: Studies in Early Egyptian Monasticism. Robert Markus, The End of Ancient Christianity AND “How on Earth Could Places Become Holy?: Origins of the Christian Idea of Holy Places,” Journal of Early Christian Studies.
[iii] Gloria Anzaldúa, Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza.