Gods Bottom

Readers of Gregory's Life of Moses find their view of the biographical subject screened not only by the original biblical text of which Moses is both subject and (presumed) author but also by the added layers of Gregory's narrative simplifications and theoretical expansion. Inscribed, reduced, sublimated - in the end, Moses is made as fine and light "as the thread of a spider web," enveloped in a tunic the color of air (Life of Moses 2.191; Gregory of Nyssa 1978: 103).14 One begins to suspect that it is not only Moses' request to see God but also Gregory's request to see this man that "has been both granted and denied" (Ferguson 1976: 310): following in the footsteps of Moses, he finds himself suddenly staring straight into the cleft of the unrepresentable. The scholarly tendency to categorize this subtle text as the fruit of old age and a contemplative - even "mystical" - lifestyle is not hard to understand.15 On the one hand, there is something consummative about the work; on the other hand, unfurling seamlessly, it moves beyond even consummation's finality For the author of the Life of Moses, there are multiple climaxes on the never-ending ascent of the ever-receding peak, where satisfaction always opens out into the desire for something even better. Slipping into the hole in the rock is not a regress to the smug stasis of the maternal womb but rather a conversion of the womb's abysmal potentiality into the expansive site of a man's absolute transformability:16 pursuing Moses, Gregory surges forward toward perfection, his only goal to make the chase last forever.

The work opens to the accompaniment of the pounding hooves of racehorses. Acquiescing to a friend's request that he offer some advice on the "perfect life," Gregory represents himself playfully as one of the spectators who shout encouragement "even though the horses are eager to run." Introducing a treatise that will argue for the importance of theoria, or visual contemplation, as well as mimesis, or the imitation of divine perfection, he here gently mocks those who rivet their gaze on the charioteers and mime their gestures, "leaning forward and flailing the air with their outstretched hands instead of with a whip," as if they might help speed the teams along. The joke is perhaps on his own initially misplaced Platonic identification with the charioteer of the soul rather than the horse of passion.17 Moreover, agreeing merely to exhort a younger man who is already "lightfootedly leaping and straining constantly for the 'prize of the heavenly calling,'" he may appear to be taking himself out of the race (Life of Moses 1.1; Gregory of Nyssa 1978: 29). In reality he is setting the pace, a "father" who models obedience for the son (Life of Moses 1.2; Gregory of Nyssa 1978: 29). Galloping smoothly by now, he warns his disciple that this course has no end: "The one limit of virtue is the absence of a limit. How then would one arrive at the sought-for boundary when he can find no boundary?" (Life of Moses 1.8; Gregory of Nyssa 1978: 31). The joy is in the running itself. Gregory's concern in this Life is "not with logical connection but with progress, not with chronology but with sequence," as Everett Ferguson notes (1976: 314); the main thing is that the text, like the quest for virtue, must be prolonged. Or, to borrow Ronald Heine's words, "each [event] represents another upward step, and in this sense all are of equal importance in showing that Moses never stopped on the course of virtue" (Heine 1975: 102).

Moses' birth is the birth not of a male but rather of the principle of maleness, marked by "austerity and intensity of virtue" and shaped by ongoing resistance to the "tyrant" who favors "the female form of life" (Life of Moses 2.2; Gregory of Nyssa 1978: 55). As mutable creatures, human beings are constantly giving birth to themselves, remarks Gregory, and gender is a matter of choice: "we are in some manner our own parents, giving birth to ourselves by our own free choice in accordance with whatever we wish to be, whether male or female, molding ourselves to the teaching of virtue or vice" (Life of Moses 2.3; Gregory of Nyssa 1978: 55-6). Free will assists in the begetting and delivery of virtuous male selves, protected by the ark of education from "the stream made turbulent by the successive waves of passion" in which the less well-endowed children drown (Life of Moses 2.5-7; Gregory of Nyssa 1978: 56). Fruitful Christianity is the "natural" mother to whom the male child must return for milky nurturance, while a secular education, "which is always in labor but never gives birth," may serve as an adequate, if temporary, foster mother (Life of Moses 2.10-12; Gregory of Nyssa 1978: 57).

To the one who has given birth to himself as male, the truth which is God comes, illumining his soul with its flame. If Christ is the flaming truth, the Virgin is the thorny bush that is miraculously not consumed by the fire. (As elsewhere, Gregory's Mariology engulfs his incarnational Christology.) In order to get close enough to see the light shining through the womblike container within the bush, the man Moses removes the coverings of skins -materiality itself - from the feet of his soul. Stripped naked, he finally perceives the difference between being and non-being, between the "transcendent essence and cause of the universe" and the created order that exists only by participation in true being (Life of Moses 2.19-26; Gregory of Nyssa 1978: 59-61).

One of the first miracles to occur following this theophany, continues Gregory, is "the rod's changing into a snake" (Life of Moses 2.26; Gregory of Nyssa 1978: 61). However, Gregory assures his readers that "the change from a rod (PaKT^pia) into a snake should not trouble the lovers of Christ" (Life of Moses 2.31; Gregory of Nyssa 1978: 61). "For our sakes [the Lord] became a serpent that he might devour and consume the Egyptian serpents produced by the sorcerers"; "this done, the serpent changed into a rod" (Life of Moses 2.33-4; Gregory of Nyssa 1978: 62). Seeming to associate philosophy with the serpent of sorcery, he adds that circumcision is necessary to "cut off everything that is hurtful and impure" as is the case with "philosophy's generative faculty (yovf|)" (Life of Moses 2.38-9; Gregory of Nyssa 1978: 63). Its fleshly excesses sheered away, the snake is once again refashioned as a sleek rod. Although admitting that "we have probably already sufficiently interpreted the rod (papSoQ" (Life of Moses 2.63; Gregory of Nyssa 1978: 68), Gregory cannot resist elaborating his account of the marvels of "that invincible rod of virtue which consumes the rods of magic" (Life of Moses 2.64; Gregory of Nyssa 1978: 68). Vanquishing the serpentine forces of a hyper-masculinity, the rod also purifies the man of the swampy mire of a "froglike life" (Life of Moses 2.77; Gregory of Nyssa 1978: 72). However, when struck against the dry rock that is Christ, the rod "dissolves hardness into the softness of water," so that the rock "flows into those who receive him" (Life of Moses 136; Gregory of Nyssa 1978: 87).

Heine's insistence that all of the events "are of equal importance" in this ongoing narrative disrupts a scholarly obsession with its theophanic moments, which have, following the influential work of Jean Danielou (1954), been invoked to support a reductive and anachronistic reading of Gregory's Life as descriptive of a tidy, three-stage "mystical" ascent.18 Heine urges us to attend, instead, to the continuous flow of the text - to listen (as it were) for the relentless pounding of the hooves of horses that never stop in the race for perfection. Heine's interpretation is compelling, yet it might be admitted that Gregory himself does suggest that the three theophanies are privileged purveyors of the message of eternal progress,19 even if they are not ends - or indeed quite climaxes - in themselves. Discussing what Moses saw on Sinai, Gregory explicitly relates this vision to his hero's earlier glimpse into the virginal bush: "What is now recounted seems somehow to be contradictory to the first theophany, for then the Divine was beheld in light but now he is seen in darkness" (Life of Moses 2.162; Gregory of Nyssa 1978: 94-5). Having passed through a period of spiritual adolescence - all that preoccupation with the contests of rods! - Moses reaches a higher level of erotic knowledge. True sight now turns out to be partly a matter of blind touch, as the mind pushes ever deeper into the "luminous darkness," yearning to understand that which exceeds understanding (Life of Moses 2.163; Gregory of Nyssa 1978: 95). Within this account of penetration, the movement of Moses' ascent keeps repeating itself: it is "as though he were passing from one peak to another." Ascending beyond the base of the mountain, he hears the trumpetlike cry of a God who is at this point apparently beyond words; next, "he slips into the inner sanctuary" where divinity is to be found; finally he reaches "the tabernacle not made with hands" (Life of Moses 2.167; Gregory of Nyssa 1978:

96) - a "limit" that itself quickly expands into the capaciousness of the all-encompassing (Life of Moses 2.177; Gregory of Nyssa 1978: 99). If the clarity of light has been converted to the mystery of a womblike darkness, the ascent of the peak has been transformed into a dive into the bottomless deep. In the process, Moses himself has also been entered and changed: "It was not marriage which produced for him his 'God-receiving' flesh, but he became the stonecutter of his own flesh, which was carved by the divine finger, for 'the Holy Spirit came upon the virgin and the power of the Most High overshadowed her'"(Life of Moses 2.216; Gregory of Nyssa 1978: 110-1). God's own finger having written on his body, impregnating him with its word, Moses is still a virgin after Sinai.

But there is (always) more. Seemingly not satisfied with the limits of his own historical retelling, Gregory thickens his interpretation with a supplemental theophany not mentioned in the initial recounting of events. Pulled out of sequence from an earlier chapter in the biblical text, the episode is refashioned into a divine encore whose structural excessiveness merely underlines the point that even expansion into the all-encompassing "tabernacle" is not the end of knowing God. "He still thirsts for that with which he constantly filled himself to capacity, and he asks to attain as if he had never partaken" (Life of Moses 2.230; Gregory of Nyssa 1978: 114). If Moses has now asked to see God "face to face, as a man speaks with his friend" (Life of Moses 2.219; Gregory of Nyssa 1978: 111), God both satisfied his desire and leaves him in an eternal state of frustrated excitement. What he wants exceeds his human capacity, he is told. "Still," reports Gregory, "God says there is 'a place with himself' where there is a 'rock with a hole in it' into which he commands Moses to enter." Entering, Moses cannot see, for God has placed his hand over the mouth of the hole, but Moses hears God call out to him. Coming out of the hole, he sees "the back of the One who called him" (Life of Moses 2.220; Gregory of Nyssa 1978: 112). The reader, it would seem, is, like Moses, invited both to see and not to see what is being described in such charged passages. "These sentences raise mystery to sublimity, so that my understanding rests in a state of quiet apprehension of something beyond my powers to decipher. I am confused, I do not understand . . . unless - I do. But if I do, I perform a rapid, even instantaneous gesture of cancellation," writes Geoffrey Harpham.20 Gregory, for his part, admonishes the reader to perform just such a "cancellation," explaining, "If these things are looked at literally, their concept of [God] will be inappropriate" (Life of Moses 2.221; Gregory of Nyssa 1978: 112). Continuing nonetheless to peek behind the veil of his own reluctance, Harpham observes: "the conjunction between the mysteries of faith and the groaning, heaving processes of homosexual fornication is so grotesque, impossible, ridiculous that it could not be admitted." Indeed, it is as Gregory has predicted: "If therefore one should think of the back of God in a literal fashion, he will necessarily be carried to such an absurd conclusion" (Life of Moses 2.222; Gregory of Nyssa 1978: 112). "Thus the homoerotic serves as an explanatory model in the material world of desire for faith," theorizes Harpham, "one that illuminates without defiling because it is so altogether defiled that its function is never actually admitted" (Harpham 1995: 366).21 Gregory seems to offer elusive agreement: "All of this would more fittingly be contemplated in its spiritual sense" (Life of Moses 2.223; Gregory of Nyssa 1978: 113).

Perhaps because his confidence in theory's sublimating power is so strong, Gregory does not attempt to cancel the impulse of desire itself but only to reorient it - indeed, there is no other horse for the race! If bodies have a "downward thrust," he admits readily that the soul is not so different but simply "moves in the opposite direction." "Once it is released from its earthly attachment, it becomes light and swift for its movement upward, soaring from below up to the heights" (Life of Moses 2.224; Gregory of Nyssa 1978: 113). It does not just soar, it expands: "Activity directed toward virtue causes its capacity to grow through exertion; this kind of activity alone does not slacken its intensity by the effort, but increases it" (Life of Moses 2.226; Gregory of Nyssa 1978: 113). No longer bound to a fleshly cycle of filling and emptying (Life of Moses 2.61; Gregory of Nyssa 1978: 68), the soul's longing for God's swells ever larger. Engorged with an endlessly expansive desire, it can only rise -paradoxically, "by means of the standing." "I mean by this," clarifies Gregory, "that the firmer and more immovable one remains in the Good, the more he progresses in the course of virtue" (Life of Moses 2.243; Gregory of Nyssa 1978: 117). The place of stasis is the rock, repeats Gregory, and the hole in the rock where God directs him to take his stand turns out to be the heavenly tabernacle (Life of Moses 2.245; Gregory of Nyssa 1978: 118). It is also the place where the race is run (Life of Moses 2.246; Gregory of Nyssa 1978: 118). And so goes the progression of conversions: through the virginal bush into the all-encompassing tabernacle of darkness, thence via the naturalized topography of the cave to the masculinized backside of the Supernatural himself (see Harpham 1995: 363-4). Face-to-face is not after all the best position for love: "for good does not look good in the face, but follows it" and Moses is "the man who has learned to follow behind God" (Life of Moses 2.253-5; Gregory of Nyssa 1978: 119-20).

And still (as Heine points out) the story is not finished, however much we may be tempted to rest with the satisfying finality of a seemingly climactic moment. "Let us proceed," Gregory urges briskly (Life of Moses 2.264; Gregory of Nyssa 1978: 122). The last episode before Gregory's tumbling recapitulation of the route of continuous perfectibility (Life of Moses 2.305-18; Gregory of Nyssa 1978: 133-6) centers on the figure of Phineas. Here, at the beginning of the Life, Gregory underlines both the gendered structure of erotic sublimation and the violence inherent in the renunciations demanded. Captured by lust for foreign women, the Israelites "were themselves wounded by feminine darts of pleasure," as Gregory tells it in his most sternly moralizing voice; "as soon as the women appeared to them, showing off comeliness instead of weapons, they forgot their manly strength and dissipated their vigor in pleasure" (Life of Moses 2.298; Gregory of Nyssa 1978: 131). It was Phineas who re-established the order of virility. Piercing a mixed and mingling couple with a single thrust of his spear, "he did the work of a priest by purging the sin with blood" (Life of Moses 2.300; Gregory of Nyssa 1978: 131). Thus did Phineas defeat Pleasure herself, "who makes men beasts." Gregory amplified his own disgust at manhood's disgrace through this contamination with the female and the foreign: "they did not hide their excess but adorned themselves with the dishonour of passion and beautified themselves with the stain of shame as they wallowed, like pigs [or frogs!], in the slimy mire of uncleanness, openly for everyone to see" (Life of Moses 2.302; Gregory of Nyssa 1978: 132).

"Alter all these things," Gregory continues (Life of Moses 2.313; Gregory of Nyssa 1978: 134), Moses - forgoing the finality of arrival in the promised land - did not so much stop in his race toward perfection as pass beyond our sight. His is a "living death, which is not followed by the grave, or fills the tomb, or brings dimness to the eyes and aging to the person" (Life of Moses 2.314; Gregory of Nyssa 1978: 135). Imitating him, his followers will prolong the tale of true perfection, which emplots the unfolding desire of ageless, bright-eyed men "To be known by God and to become his friend" (Life of Moses 2.320; Gregory of Nyssa 1978: 137).

Reading this as a "late" work, it is tempting to conclude that Gregory has at last grown into his manhood - indeed, how he has grown! If dry Miriam was the star of On Virginity, in this text she makes only a brief appearance as a degraded symbol of "female" envy (Life of

Moses 1.62, 2.260; Gregory of Nyssa 1978: 47, 121), while Moses controls the ground of dryness (Life of Moses 1.31, 2.311; Gregory of Nyssa 1978: 38, 134). No longer content with the desire either to "have" or to "be" the woman, Gregory, standing tall with Moses on the rock of Christ, seems to have achieved the pinnacle of an active virility in and through his imitative desire for God. Perfectly self-disciplined, the horse of his hypermasculine passion no longer even requires a driver.

And, yet, to reach my conclusion, in relation to this work in particular, would perhaps be a mistake. Master of style, and never at rest, this fluid author is always giving birth to himself anew. In another work generally assigned to Gregory's last years (May 1971: 64), "he" is the bride of the Song of Songs, "constantly making progress and never stopping at any stage of perfection." The bride's lover is compared to an "apple tree" whose shadowy house she enters. Wounded by the lover's dart, "then she herself becomes the arrow in the hands of the archer, who with right hand draws the arrow near and with left directs its head toward the heavenly goal." Called to leave the shadow, the bride rests "in the cleft of the rock." Finally coming to bed, thinking to achieve "that more perfect participation" in her union with the divine Spouse, she finds herself, "just as Moses" did, suddenly enveloped in the inner space of a secret, sacred darkness. In the encounter with her ambiguously feminized divine partner who is all fruit and shadow and cleft, the bride transforms the potential emptiness of mutual receptivity into a swollen plenitude of eros that knows no end: "far from attaining perfection, she has not even begun to approach it" on her wedding night (Homily 6 on the Song of Songs 888C-893C; Gregory of Nyssa 1961: 201).22 'Are we unsatisfied?" she might (he might), with Irigaray, query rhetorically "Yes, if that means we are never finished. If our pleasure consists in moving, being moved, endlessly" (Irigaray 1985b: 210).

Pregnancy And Childbirth

Pregnancy And Childbirth

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