Widgets Magazine


An askesis askew

Lately my dreams have been haunted by the ascetics: that peculiar class of people who lived their lives meditating atop pillars, fasting into nonexistence and flogging themselves in their cells. The world was not enough for these souls that shone all too bright; each aspired to something that their fleshy cages would not permit. In their nightly visitations they suggest to me the universal human impulse toward askesis — that harsh spiritual regime of self-discipline, self-deprivation and (in its purest form) self-destruction. Every culture that has known pleasure has also known the austere art of abstaining from it.

But where are they today? The Gautamas, the flagellants? Have they gone the way of Simeon the Stylite, up unto their pillars and never to return?

No — askesis is alive and well at Stanford. You can spot the devout if you know the signs. See how they pause for a delicate moment before they confess how many units they’re taking. See how they really can’t come hang out, now or in the foreseeable future, as much as they’d love to. See how they pray fervently for the sweet release of the break, or how they’ve given up on maintaining the duck-syndrome masquerade. The ascetics have not ascended to the heavens, like the pillar-saints of old. They have descended — into the sickly, windowless suffocation of the Library of Government Documents or, heaven forbid, the bleak fluorescent suffering of the 24-hour study room.

Askesis is a quarter-by-quarter affair. Some ascetics are born saints, but far more choose this lifestyle out of dissatisfaction with their previous lives. Too much partying, too much time wasted! For 10 weeks, ascetics sacrifice their old and sinful ways at the twenty-unit altar of something greater. Christian askesis goes back to the Epistle to the Romans: “For if you live according to the flesh, you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.”

Paul put his sinful nature to death to sanctify his soul; I put my social life to death to sanctify my studies. Through hours upon hours of missed sleep, through the saturation of my veins with caffeine, through the woeful postponement of exercise, I mortify my flesh, stripping away all that is unnecessary. The Book of Proverbs: “Blows that wound cleanse away evil; beatings make clean the innermost parts.” In the blows and beatings of problem sets, essays and readings, a reaffirmation: This is my innermost self. This is why I’m here.

This modern askesis, like those that precede it, requires faith. It takes a certain trust in the destination to embark on a dangerous journey to the edge of sanity and back. Every hour I spend studying CS (rather than sleeping or having fun) is an hour I must spend studying. Without the must to buttress my work, with only a should propping it up, it would collapse under such enormous amounts of stress. Whether I want friends or summer internships or untold riches, I believe with all of my heart — and cannot afford to believe otherwise, banish the thought! — that this work is not only sufficient but necessary. In time, the suffering itself cements my determination. Said Saint Simeon in Week 8: Well, I can’t just come down from the pillar now.

But there is also something seductive about the ascetic ideal. Literary theorist Roland Barthes places the word in the context of romance: “Askesis (the impulse toward askesis) is addressed to the other: Turn back, look at me, see what you have made of me … I raise before the other the figure of my own disappearance, as it will surely occur, if the other does not yield (to what?)” For Barthes’s protagonist, suffering is a strategy. He retreats to advance, harms himself to avenge himself. His self-immolation gives him an enormous power over his lover: the power of guilt.

What if our own experience is exactly this? What if we overbook our schedules as an ultimatum to the universe: Give me what I want or I’ll cease to exist (in the same way I’ve already ceased to exist socially)? What if we just want someone (or something) out there to notice how much we’ve abused ourselves, how thin we’ve spread ourselves, and recompense us for the effort?

Perhaps I’m over-thinking it. Nietzsche writes: “That the ascetic ideal has meant so much to man reveals a basic fact of human will, its horror vacui, it needs an aim, and it prefers to will nothingness rather than not will.”

Is it simply better, then, to suffer in Green than to have nothing to do? The bleary-eyed ascetic responds: probably not.


Contact Eric Wang at ejwang ‘at’ stanford.edu.