Kim E. Power

title.none: Burrus, Begotten, Not Made (Power)

identifier.other: baj9928.0107.009 01.07.09

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Kim E. Power, Australian Catholic University,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2001

identifier.citation: Burrus, Virginia. Begotten, Not Made: Conceiving Manhood in Late Antiquity. Figurae: Reading Medieval Culture. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000. Pp. iv, 240. $19.95. ISBN: 0-804-73973-0.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 01.07.09

Burrus, Virginia. Begotten, Not Made: Conceiving Manhood in Late Antiquity. Figurae: Reading Medieval Culture. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000. Pp. iv, 240. $19.95. ISBN: 0-804-73973-0.

Reviewed by:

Kim E. Power
Australian Catholic University

Feminism has taken many paths in deconstructing the nature of 'Woman' and reconstructing 'herstory'. Virginia Burrus has taken the innovative step of turning her gaze to the normative, unmarked class of 'Man' to trace the construction of Christian masculinity. This is not only intriguing for the insights an erudite, feminist analysis harvests from the texts, but in addition, Burrus' analysis demonstrates how powerfully Nicene rhetoric reconstructed maleness in the image of God as "begotten, not made, in the image of the father". In the context of the Incarnation and the erasure of what Irigaray has termed "a divine horizon for women" qua women, this was a far more powerful alignment of maleness and divinity than earlier Greco-Roman constructs. Burrus' goal was discovering "'what it was like' when certain of the more vociferous members of 'a great traditional society' succeed in both raising the stakes and of gaining the upper hand in the ancient contest of men by adopting a radically transcendent ideal of manhood that commands more of the cultural authority of virility than the traditional roles of father or husband, soldier or statesman, orator or philosopher". (5) She also hints at self- revelation, yet simultaneously dons a mask. [1] She tells us that she "not only revolves around a transcendent masculine subjectivity" but also "turns upon herself" (12), but what it means for a brilliant woman to revolve around a male sun-Son is rarely explicit.

The book is structured as Prologue, Introduction, and three chapters on individual authors--Athanasius of Alexandria, Gregory of Nyssa and Ambrose of Milan--followed by a theological conclusion. Each man was a passionate defender of Nicene theology. Athanasius was a profound influence on Ambrose and Gregory, and Ambrose was a conduit of Cappadocian thought to the West. This structure works well as the Prologue establishes clearly her intent and her interdisciplinary methodology. Clearly, that is for the theoretically sophisticated. Burrus' interpretation of the Fathers is intertextual, reading them through both postmodern French feminists and major traditional historians. Those not familiar with the language and style of postmodern philosophy and literature may find the writing here opaque, even inaccessible. This is the shadow side of a playfully transgressive reading of the texts resolved on a "disciplined refusal" to choose between "the light and the serious, the faithless and the faithful, or the critical and the apologetic reading". (12)

This approach resonates with the poet Sydney Carter's definition of sanctity as "levity", a refusal to be ground into the ground by tradition and custom. [3] Burrus inserts the texts she uses as lenses not as marginalia, but centred within her own text, placing them not only in conversation with her analysis but with the patristic treatises under her microscope. Burrus adds to this a refusal to choose between over- generalising and over-particularising. (16) Hence rather than a synthesis of patristic texts, Burrus has focused on three authors: Athanasius of Alexandria, Gregory of Nyssa and Ambrose of Milan. All have distinct voices, yet there are commonalities. Although Burrus has restricted her engagement with other interpreters, her scholarship is substantial, her writing permeated with rhythms of contemporary discourses and her select bibliography includes all the usual suspects.

The Introduction canvasses the "Lineage of Late Antique Man" as the forerunner of late antique male Christian self- understanding. It also underlines the shift from the art of rhetoric to that of authorship as the foundation of auctoritas. That this shift was not without its continuities is well marked by Burrus. If I have understood her correctly, one of her key points is that secretarial recording of church councils limited the free flow of oral discourse and concretised the stenographic discussion as immutable law in a way that the winning of a debate did not. (23) This chapter examines three modes of masculinity found in early fourth century Christian writing: Eusebius' portrayals of Paul of Samosata and Origen of Alexandria and Lactantius' On the Workmanship of God. This section is the least successful part of the book, relative to the rest, due principally to space constraints. Although Eusebius offers the portraits of both Paul and Origen, he does preserve the distinctions between Paul's and Origen's deployment of the body and the freedom of second and third century men to choose between such options. When it comes to Lactantius, one is struck more by the consistencies between his depiction of the body in On the Workmanship of God, and Ambrose's Hexameron, than by differences. This is at least partly because both texts are concerned with interpreting God's creation of humanity and the Hexameron reflects as many continuities as discontinuities. Second century texts might have offered a more effective comparison to Nicene rhetoric than fourth century texts, though the latter help depict a paradigm on the point of change.

Athanasius is cast by Burrus as 'the Father' in terms of his construction of masculine roles, although the citation from Helene Cixous at the head of the chapter identifies him as a "son of the book" in contrast to the "daughter of the housewife". This is more than just playfulness. It is playfulness that artfully reveals how defence of the Nicene book constituted some men as true sons of God who become fathers of their episcopal heirs, and some as heretical daughters. Real women are banished from the text altogether, to enable Athanasius to posit an idealised Alexandria-in-exile, populated with monks characterised by transcendent masculinity. This is the true Alexandria of which Athanasius is true bishop. These, her spiritual children, are true sons of the true father (both episcopal and heavenly), brothers to each other and co- heirs of Christ. Burrus further argues that Athanasius played a "potent role in generating the 'assumed' universality of the masculine appropriation of both theory and subjectivity" (57), by means of the obsessive logocentric father-son discourse of his On the Incarnation. Hence women must be concealed, either in convents like Antony's sister or at the margins of Athanasius' texts. As Burrus underlines, Antony's sister and her community were present in the desert politeia's "outer mountain" when Anthony visited there. Nevertheless, Burrus points out, the whole desert is effectively the monastery, whilst textually, convents are located in the villages. (77) Burrus' depiction of the construction of male transcendence through the feminisation of evil is not unique of itself. Her contribution lies in her detailed, systematic analysis of Athanasian texts and the vivid, imaginative metaphors in which it is conveyed.

Gregory of Nyssa's construction of masculinity also begins and ends with father-son discourse. (82, 132) It proceeds, however, by way of the ascent of the feminised soul into virility first and then masculinity before returning to an androgynous state wherein Gregory is, simultaneously, the yearning Bride of Christ and the legitimate son and heir to his brother, Basil, and therefore to God ( 96-7, 130). This allows Gregory to embrace the Platonic discourse of homoerotic desire whilst maintaining a virile, even aggressive male face to the world, that of the "phallic physician". (104, 111, 132) His ethereal, otherworldly discourse on the soul nevertheless replays the metaphor of "damned whores and God's police" where Eunomius is depicted both as bestial heretic and the unredeemed feminine (98-112) [2], Macrina incarnates Lady Wisdom, the generative soul redeemed. (120) By incorporating the virtues of both Macrina and Basil, Gregory becomes the man that neither of them could be (83): a sexless androgyne in whom is restored the paradisal state of humanity. Nevertheless, Gregory is cast as son in this patristic trinity under examination.

The spirit is therefore Ambrose's part and in Burrus' view he plays it as the professional actor she understands him to be. Reading him though Judith Butler's notion of gender as performativity, he is the effortlessly graceful "polished performer" on the religio-political stage. (135, 156) The paradox is that the man proven "the most manly of all contenders for the honor of representing Romanitas (italics, p. 170) does so through "melodramatic antics" and employing "shrill and strident tones". (182) One could argue, with Valantasis, that all ascetic disciplines are performative, and that they thereby insert the practitioner into a new cosmos. [4] This is need not conflict with Burrus' interpretation, but I think it does in this case. Burrus' seems to read Ambrose as man who performs self-consciously as much to conceal as to reveal the self. (138-9) We see what he wants us to see and his true self is hidden. (177) A reading from Valantasis' perspective permits Ambrose the integrity of his performance in pursuit of his spiritual goals, without denying the performative aspect or the ambiguous honesty of the diplomat.

It is in his role as spouse of Milan that Ambrose is definitively spirit. Reading him through Luce Irigaray's "mysterious energy of the copula" (153), copulation emerges as Burrus' defining metaphor of the Holy Spirit that permits Father and Son to be distinct yet united and which engenders the Word, and indeed all words. (144, 154, 162, 165, 180, 183) The "Spirit is privileged as the marker of the divinity's absolute transcendence of materiality", yet paradoxically, it bridges all the chasms it defines. (160) This metaphor captures the tension between Ambrose's need to maintain his virginal boundaries at the same time as he must create unity from diversity and unite earth to heaven. However, the exuberant word play that Burrus intends to transgress traditional academic boundaries occasionally transgresses that of sensitivity. In particular, her description of Mary as the "promiscuous Virgin [who], by repeatedly coupling with the divine Man (but never in the same position!), miraculously gives birth to the triune God of Nicene faith" (sic p. 144).

Burrus' Ambrose is a man veiled with the aura of the virgin martyrs that nevertheless fails to conceal the often aggressive Roman masculinity that exists despite the language of humble modesty and the rhetoric of silence. (171-78) Strutting the public stage, he rewrites Roman masculinity as drag queen. Unlike Gregory, androgyny is not his goal. Rather a heightened sense of masculinity brought about by its close juxtaposition with narratives and images of nubile virginity. Thus Ambrose, like Athanasius, is ultimately the father also, begetting spiritual sons, who will follow in his episcopal footsteps. Yet, despite her often highly critical reading of Ambrose, Burrus also finds him seductive, revealing albeit inadvertently, the passionate desire and therefore agency of the Virgin. From this standpoint the "endless embrace of the copula that is not one but both Virgin and Spirit...may simultaneously protect and traverse a difference measured not merely vertically, between created nature and divine spirit, but across the spiritualized natures and embodied spirits of men and women". (183)

Burrus offers us fascinating reading. She has the ability to get under her subject's textual skin and her imagery subtly and sometimes uncannily echoes that of her authors' texts. The great value of this book is not that it examines constructions of masculinity per se. Scholarship that examines constructions of femininity have had to engage with masculinity also. What is exciting and original is her demonstration of the way that "the fourth century doctrine of a transcendent God who is a Father, Son and Holy Spirit was inextricably intertwined with the particular late-antique claims for masculinity" in the Nicene apologetics of three major figures. It is not for the faint hearted, though, as the writing presumes scholarly knowledge of the texts and at least a nodding acquaintanceship with American and French postmodern theorists. At its best, it is scintillating writing. Sometimes, however, the playful verbal pyrotechnics explode meaning so that it appears to be indefinitely deferred and clear communication suffers. Therefore, I do not recommend Begotten Not Made for undergraduate courses. It is ideal for scholars, and for post- graduates not only in patristic history and theology, but also for any research that interests itself in the nexus of gender, religion, and culture.

This review comes with a caveat. If scholarly authors were considered to be craftswomen, our books would come with a ticket that said, 'Flaws and inconsistencies in workmanship/fabric are typical of one-off artworks and they verify its originality and uniqueness'. Burrus has had the courage of her scholarly convictions. She has produced a text that bridges disciplinary boundaries and scholarly categories to indeed "weave yet another fabric of difference and joining" from "the shining sites of translucence, the evocatively shadowy folds, the smooth expanses, the wrinkles and snags" (193) of masculine subjectivity and her own revolutions.


[1] See, however, her self-description pp. 182-83.

[2] The title of Anne Summer's book on the history of Australian women, taken from the writing of Caroline Chisholm on the types of women in the young colony: Damned Whores and God's Police, rev. ed. (Ringwood: Penguin, [1975] 2000).

[3] Sydney Carter's poem, "To be continued," now out of print.

[4] Richard Valantasis, "A theory of the social function of asceticism," in Asceticism, eds. V. L. Wimbush and R. Valantasis (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), 544-552.