Eileen A. Joy, Assoc. Professor
Department of English
Southern Illinois Univ. Edwardsville

Australian Research Council Symposium: International Medievalism and Popular Culture
4-5 December 2011
University of Western Australia

An Improbable Manner of Being: Medieval Hagiography, Queer Studies, and Lars von Trier’s Breaking the Waves

By spirituality, I understand -- but I am sure that it is a definition which we cannot hold for very long -- that which precisely refers to a subject acceding to a certain mode of being and to the transformations which the subject must make of himself in order to accede to this mode of being. I believe that, in ancient spirituality there was identity, or almost so, between spirituality and philosophy.
—Michel Foucault, Interview, 20 January 1984

Asceticism as the renunciation of pleasure has bad connotations. But the ascesis is something else: it’s the work that one performs on oneself in order to transform oneself or make the self appear that happily one never attains. Can that be our problem today? We’ve rid ourselves of asceticism? Yet it’s up to us to advance into a homosexual ascesis that would make us work on ourselves and invent -- I do not say discover -- a manner of being that is still improbable.
—Michel Foucault, ‘Friendship As A Way of Life’

The subject of ascesis preoccupied much of Foucault’s final writings. Part of Foucault’s project in volume 3 of The History of Sexuality was to demonstrate the ways in which a certain aesthetics of sexual pleasure, developed in Greek antiquity, eventually gave way, in Roman moral philosophy and in an emerging scientia sexualis, to a techne of ascetic self-regulation in which the sexual becomes ‘dangerous.’[1] A fourth volume, never finished, was to take up the ways in which early Christian confessional modes intensified this self-regulation and also helped to ‘produce’ sexualities as ‘truths’ about selves that could then be disciplined and governed. At the same time, Foucault also saw something more positive in some of the discourses of early Christianity—namely, that there was ‘no truth about the self without a sacrifice of the self’—a ‘sacrifice,’ moreover that ‘was the condition for the opening of the self as a field of indefinite interpretation.’[2] In some of the texts of the early Church, Foucault saw a way out of the regime of disciplined sexuality and a way in to ‘a manner of being that is still improbable’[3]—a manner of being, moreover, that would open onto new forms of self-knowledge, new relational modes, and new forms of love. Homosexuality, especially, would offer a strategic position for developing queer selves and pleasures as yet unthought.

Foucault’s thinking on ascesis has caused much misunderstanding and even disagreement, and I cannot do justice to that here today; suffice to say that, from my own reading of Foucault and from those whom I consider to be his most sensitive readers — especially David Halperin and Jeremy Carrette — I see several, related things happening at once in Foucault’s thinking on ascesis:

To provide just one example of Foucault’s thinking on ascesis in early Christian culture and what he also saw as its valuable connection to techniques of the self in ancient Greek and Roman culture, here is Foucault on Gregory of Nyssa’s fourth-century treatise On Virginity:

Eight centuries [after Socrates’s injunction to care for oneself, which is also a from of caring for the city, and which is always subordinate to knowing oneself] . . . one finds the same notion . . . in Gregory of Nyssa's treatise, On Virginity, but with an entirely different meaning. Gregory did not mean the movement by which one takes care of oneself and the city; he meant the movement by which one renounces the world and marriage and detaches oneself from the flesh and with virginity of heart and body, recovers the immortality of which one has been deprived. In commenting on the parable of the drachma (Luke 15:8-10), Gregory exhorts one to light the lamp and turn the house over and search, until gleaming in the shadow one sees the drachma within. In order to recover the efficacy which God has printed on one's soul and which the body has tarnished, one must take care of oneself and search every corner of the soul (De Virg. 12). We can see that Christian asceticism, like ancient philosophy, places itself under the same sign of concern with oneself. The obligation to know oneself is one of the elements of its central preoccupation. Between these two extremes — Socrates and Gregory of Nyssa — taking care of oneself constituted not only a principle but also a constant practice.[8]

It is important to note here as well that, in early Christian monastic writings on obedience and contemplation, Foucault also detected what he believed was something new in the technology of the self: ‘a sacrifice of the self, of the subject’s own will,’ and this mattered to Foucault because it meant that one could never entirely ‘self-disclose’ (either to oneself or to a ‘master’) without a concomitant renunciation of the self.[9]

The matter of Foucault’s thinking on ascesis was raised for me with a certain urgency a couple of years ago as I was reading through some scholarship on the ‘exuberant erotics’ (Virginia Burrus’s words) of ancient and medieval hagiography—hagiography, moreover, which dwells upon a severe asceticism that gives rise to sadomasochistic ‘counterpleasures,’ ‘divine sexual orientation[s],’ and the pleasurably ‘violent seduction of sacrifice.’[10] In Burrus’s The Sex Lives of Saints: An Erotics of Ancient Hagiography, Robert Mills’s Suspended Animation: Pain, Pleasure, and Punishment in Medieval Culture, and Karmen Mackendrick’s Counterpleasures, just to name a few studies, we find that the repression of the body that is assumed to be operative in Christian asceticism is, in fact, not the state of affairs at all. Rather, the Lives of desert hermits, militant martyrs, and self-mutilating mystics are models of sexualized forms of ascesis that are extravagantly transgressive, demonstrating what Bataille once said, that ‘[t]he saint is not after efficiency. He is prompted by desire and desire alone and in this resembles the erotic man.[11] Indeed, for Bataille, as Mackendrick has written, ‘the erotic and the sacred are the same at base, wildly sacrificial and incomprehensibly joyous.’[12] For Mills, ‘the tortured body of the saint is the point at which doctrine, violence, and the imagination coalesce,’ such that the saintly body-in-pain is ‘recoded’ as a sublime ‘site of agency and sexual liberation.[13]

Most important for my own concerns here is a common theme that runs primarily throughout Burrus’s and Mackendrick’s studies — that the asceticism and self-mutilations dramatized in premodern hagiography open the self to a radical form of ‘unwise’ (because heedless) love that literally cuts across all of our ‘schemes of comprehension,’ ‘break[ing] the surface of consciousness, and abandoning us to the joy of a divine abandonment: to the unknown, the impossible, the sublime, the Outside, the beyond, death, and God (entities which are ‘at once infinitely generous and infinitely withdrawn’).[14] This is a ‘subject-breaking joy’ which calls to mind Seneca’s definition of voluptuosity (voluptas) as ‘a pleasure whose origin is to be placed outside us and in objects whose presence we cannot be sure of: a pleasure, therefore, which is precarious in itself, undermined by the fear of loss, and to which we are drawn by the force of a desire that may or may not find satisfaction.’[15] To be open to this ‘Outside’ (this ‘death’) in Mackendrick’s view, is ‘to merge neither with “it” nor with one another,’ for ‘we are fully discontinuous,’ but what we can do is ‘face the vertigo of death together.[16]

It might be argued, as Burrus does, that late antique and early medieval sacred narratives formulated an ars erotica that ‘does not so much predate as effectively resist and evade the scientia sexualis that likewise emerges (derivatively) in late antiquity and eventually culminates in the production of a modern, western regime of “sexuality”,’ and which worried Foucault so much.[17] The troubling questions for me are:

This is partly Elizabeth Freeman’s ‘erotohistoriographic’ argument when she writes, for example, that sadomasochism, whether in art or real life, ‘is not merely drag: it reorganizes the senses and, when it uses icons and equipment from traumatic pasts, reorganizes the relationships among emotion, sensation, and historical understanding. Its clash of temporalities ignites historical possibilities other than the ones frozen into the “fate” of official histories.’[19] Let's therefore bookmark Freeman's erotohistoriography as one possible avenue out of what I really believe is an uneasy alliance between premodern forms of spiritual ascesis and contemporary queer thought and queer sexuality. I will return to this in further work upon this project.

Alongside this work on the (possibly emancipatory and politically subversive) erotics of asceticism, pain, and self-renuniciation in the hagiography of late antiquity and the Middle Ages, I am also interested in some recent work in queer theory that valorizes (if even unconsciously) certain forms of Christian and ‘saintly’ abjections, such as Leo Bersani’s comparison in Intimacies between barebacking (unprotected anal sex between HIV-infected men) and the ‘perfect passivity toward God’s will’ of Le pur amour (or ‘pure love’) practiced by 17th-century Catholic mystics who believed in what they called the ‘impossible supposition’: ‘if God were to annihilate the souls of the just at the moment of death, or if He were to banish their souls to hell for all eternity, those whose love for God were pure would continue to serve Him with an absolute disinterested love.[20] I am also thinking of David Halperin’s proposal in his book What Do Gay Men Want? for a queerly ‘upbeat and sentimental’ abjection that helps to ‘capture and make sense of the antisocial, transgressive’ behavior of gay men without recourse to the language of psychoanalytic pathology or the death drive, and which relies for some of its inspiration on medieval Christianity’s rhetoric of humiliation and martyrdom.[21] Drawing, especially, on the work of Genet, Halperin puts forward a model of queer solidarity built upon an embrace of one’s own social humiliation and abjection as an ‘inverted sainthood’—a ‘sainthood,’ moreover, that becomes an ‘existential survival strategy.’[22] Most importantly, Halperin reminds us that Genet’s abjection was ‘an “ascesis,” a spiritual labor, which blazes the path to sainthood. And, like sainthood, abjection is both martyrdom and triumph at once: it elevates even as it humiliates.’[23] It is only fair to point out here that, for Halperin, this saintly abjection, traced in the work of Genet, is not to be equated with masochism, but is, rather, a ‘work of freedom’ and ‘solidarity,’ one which ‘achieves a spiritual release from [domination] . . . by depriving domination of its ability to demean the subject and, thus, robbing it of a portion of its reality.’ Suffering is not enjoyed, and humiliation is ‘resignified’ as a radical form of love.[24]

With the desires of the 17th-century mystics cited by Bersani, who actually desired to be sent to Hell so they could suffer even more exquisitely and selflessly on God’s behalf (after all, once in Hell, everything really has been lost), and Genet’s embrace of his own social humiliation as triumphant saintly abjection, we come, finally, to Bess McNeill in Lars von Trier’s Breaking the Waves, a film that, while it may be described as a sort of ‘moral pornography’ and tale of ‘inverted sainthood,’ is impossible to ‘enjoy’ or take pleasure in (one has to watch the film to really understand this), nor does Bess herself ‘enjoy’ or ‘resignify’ (a la Genet) her own humiliation, although she certainly goes ‘all the way’ with it, even to the Hell the Calvinist elders of her small Scottish village consign her to at the end, although thanks to von Trier’s ridiculous ending, she does end up in Heaven, after all. Part sentimental romance, part gruesome faux-snuff flick, this is a very difficult film to either watch or critique.

As has been well-documented, von Trier’s film is part of a trilogy of films (including The Idiots and Dancer in the Dark) in which von Trier sought to pay homage to the role of the female martyr ‘in its most extreme form’ and to women who ‘take the ideal all the way.’[25] The three films are often referred to as the ‘Gold-Heart’ trilogy because they are partly based on a ‘lost’ Danish fairy-tale book (Guld Hjerte) from von Trier’s childhood about a little girl of the same name who embarks on a journey through the woods with pieces of bread and other things in her pockets. Along the way, she gives away everything she has, including her clothing, and whenever the animals of the forest question her risky behavior and impending destitution, at every bleak turn of the narrative, including one moment when she stands naked at the edge of the woods, she proclaims, ‘I’ll be fine, anyway,’ or, in another translation, ‘But at least I’m okay.’

von Trier has shared that, other than this fairy tale, the primary sources for Breaking the Waves were Sade’s Justine (1791) and Carl Dreyer’s film La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc (1928), and Emily Watson, who plays Bess McNeill, studied Renee Falconetti’s Jeanne D’Arc for her numerous close-ups in von Trier’s film.[26] Bess is referred to as ‘stupid’ and ‘not right in the head’ on more than one occasion, even by herself, and Watson clearly employed the child-like affects of open wonder, innocent naiveté, eager curiosity, unbridled joy, and belligerent willfulness in many of her scenes. Bess also conducts secret conversations with God, much as a child might, in which she both beseeches and argues with ‘Him’ over various ‘favors.’ In the initial sex scene between Bess and her older husband Jann (played by Stellan Skarsgård) on their wedding day, these childlike affects are particularly discomfiting as we feel we are witnessing a scene of sanctioned pederasty in which the ‘child’ is fully enjoying herself. The scene is almost impossible to watch and serves as the prelude to various scenes of sexual and other hysteria on the part of Bess when Jann leaves to go back and work at the oil rig. Although Bess belongs to a severely strict Calvinist church in which she also works as a sort of janitor and plays the ‘holy fool,’ her burgeoning sexuality, after consummating her marriage with Jann, is presented as wholly joyous, non-guilt-ridden, and non-repressive. This makes it particularly difficult as well to watch the later scenes when she stubbornly initiates a series of sexual degradations to which she responds, not with pleasure, but with self-revulsion, physical discomfort, and even spiritual despair.

When Jann becomes paralyzed from the neck down after an accident on the oil rig, he asks Bess to make love with other men and then tell him about her encounters in order to keep him alive. God repeats the injunction, telling Bess, ‘Prove to me that you love him, and then I’ll let him live.’ Believing that Jann will get better if she ‘makes love’ with other men, Bess embarks upon a compulsive and self-destructive journey of illicit (yet sanctified) anonymous and not-so-anonymous sexual encounters in order to ‘satisfy’ both Jann’s and God’s commands, but also because she really believes in her encounters that she is making love with Jann and also saving him from dying. For Bess, this is a ‘spiritual’ endeavor, and when asked by Jann’s doctor why she is engaging in this dangerous behavior, Bess replies, ‘Jann and me, we have a spiritual contact. God gives everyone something to be good at. I’ve always been stupid, but I’m good at this,’ by which she means: believing, even when that ‘belief’ leads to her own death after being savagely beaten while prostituting herself on a ship that the other town’s prostitutes refuse to go to for good reasons. To the church elders who ex-communicate her, she insists, ‘You cannot love words. . . . You can love another human being. That’s perfection.’ For Bess, then, ‘belief,’ whatever that might mean, has to be grounded in one’s material life, and in the world, in cupiditas, although that material life is also always being referred to an invisible God with whom Bess has secret conversations. There is still, in other words, a sovereign power that is operative here, and it appears to demand the self-willing torture and death of its most faithful and pure subjects.

In the structural intersections of the fairy tale, Sadean narrative (with its interest in ‘moral’ pornography), and hagiography (Joan of Arc), we see the (un)holy alliance of childlike innocence and persistence, poverty, sadomasochism, belief, abjection, self-sacrifice, and supposedly ‘saintly’ virtues (purity, goodness, self-abjection, blind faith). What we seem to be dealing with here is an inhuman moral economy and all of the ways in which sadism, masochism, suffering, self-negation, violence, and death are ineluctably enmeshed with what it supposedly means to love, and more importantly, to be ‘good,’ or as Mark Miller once put it in a reading of Chaucer’s ‘Clerk’s Tale,’ ‘there is something genuinely fearful, even terrible, about what love requires of us.’[27]

von Trier’s film has entailed much discomfort among critics, especially those who find it impossible to appropriate or recuperate from a feminist perspective since the ‘goodness’ of the heroine requires her sexual degradation, mutilation, and murder.[28] Having thrown herself into the sexual adventure her husband requests from her, Bess finds herself cast out by the elders of her church, her own mother locks her out of the house, and the town’s children stone her while the village priest looks on. Only a sister-in-law, Dodo, and one of Jann’s doctors at the hospital, Dr. Richardson, take an interest in her welfare, but neither can stop her self-destructive trajectory. ‘I’m sorry I could not be good’ are Bess’s last words to her mother and at the inquest after her death, Dr. Richardson describes Bess as having been an ‘immature, unstable person’ who gave in to an ‘exaggerated, perverse form of sexuality.’ When asked if he has any emendations he might want to make in his report, the doctor visibly falters, and says that, instead of labeling her ‘neurotic’ or ‘psychotic,’ his diagnosis would be that she was ‘good.’ The response of the coroner, ‘You wish the records to state that . . . the deceased was suffering from being “good”? That this is the psychological defect that led to her death?’ would seem to indicate that goodness is deadly. von Trier’s film highlights the monstrousness or impossibility or deadliness of goodness, while also sanctifying and praising his somewhat terrifying, but also tragically pitiable, heroine, who is also given a perversely ‘happy’ ending. Bess’s ‘sacrifice,’ which is really her murder at the hands of the sadistic ‘customers’ she offers her body to, produces the result she has been wanting all along: Jann’s full recovery. And just to make sure that his viewers understand that this is, indeed, a miracle, the sound of church-like bells peal from the clouds above Jann’s ship after he and his comrades have consigned Bess in her coffin to the northern seas.

There are ways one can rescue, or repair, or perhaps simply make more explicit such a perversely ‘happy’ ending, and critics have tried, but they typically do so by positing a certain ‘totality-alterity’ to the supposed abyssal self-enclosure of Bess’s motivations and actions and then arguing for the radical forms of feminine sublimity or the Real or Levinasian holiness or Christian love’s extreme unconditionality as exemplified in this self-enclosure, in ways that I really think should not ‘settle’ the story for us, but rather productively trouble our commonly held assumptions about (or stakes in) the feminine, religion, sacrifice, faith, love, goodness, violence, the law, and the symbolic order (and any combination thereof).

But perhaps we might also remind ourselves that Bess McNeill is not really human — that literary characters are not, in fact, human, even when played on screen by human actors, that they are more like compressions of the human, abstractions, figural lines and arcs, but not flesh and blood, not alive. Bess may be caught in a particular hybrid genre (folktale + hagiography) that tends in a certain direction (her sacrifice), and this certainly gives to the story’s structure a certain mechanicity, a certain propulsion, but it is also precisely because of this propulsive mechanicity that we can also be on the lookout for small ‘mechanical failures’ in the ‘system’ of the story, which is like a little machine, cunningly constructed, yet still prone to error, to errancy, and therefore also allows us to look more closely at its ‘units’ of operation, thereby opening up what Ian Bogost would call a ‘world of unit operations.’ These unit operations would not spell the end of narrative systems, but these systems would no longer be seen as ‘singular and absolute holisms.’[29] Stories can never be, we might remind ourselves, fully coherent, any more than authors are ever in full command of their writing. Incoherency, I would argue, is an inherent property of human mentality (perhaps of all of life, human and nonhuman) — there is always something we can’t know, especially about ourselves, and ‘not knowing’ is thus operative in all actions and products of human persons, including narratives. Something always gets away from us, but what, exactly, and how can we pay better attention to the crucial mechanical failures (or perhaps the alternative and somewhat independent propulsions) of any narrative, which is always more and less than the intentions of its maker(s)? Is there a way to re-watch von Trier’s film with an eye toward such moments when ‘the material,’ as it were, turns against itself or breaks down?

Here is one such moment: Before being cast out of the church, Bess cries out, ‘How can you love a word? You cannot love words . . . you can love another human being. That’s perfection.’ It is here that the film performs a surprising function, in spite of its own ending—it asks for a turn away from the text, which is also to say, away from the celluloid, even away from narrative itself, in order to face the world, not as an abstraction, but as a tangible something, a place, a person, that can actually be lived in and lived with. Death is not required. Exit the Church.


1. Michel Foucault, The Care of the Self, trans. Robert Hurley, The History of Sexuality, Vol. 3 (New York: Vintage Books, 1988), 6.

2. Michel Foucault, “About the Beginning of the Hermeneutics of the Self,” Political Theory 21 (May 1993): 198–227; quoted in Foucault, Religion and Culture, ed. Jeremy R. Carrette (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1999), 180.

3. Michel Foucault, “Friendship as a Way of Life,” in Foucault Live: Collected Interviews, 1961-1984, ed. Sylvère Lotringer, trans. Lysa Hochroth and John Johnson (New York: Semiotext(e): 1996), 310.

4. David Halperin, Saint Foucault: Towards a Gay Hagiography (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), 75.

5. Michel Foucault, The Use of Pleasure, trans. Robert Hurley, The History of Sexuality, vol. 2 (New York: Vintage Books, 1990), 9.

6. See Michel Foucault, Security, Territory, Population: Lectures at the College de France, 1977-1978, trans. Graham Burchell (New York: Macmillan, 2009), 204–8.

7. Foucault, “Friendship as a Way of Life,” 309.

5. Michel Foucault, ‘Technologies of the Self,’ in Technologies of the Self: A Seminar with Michel Foucault, ed. Luther H. Martin, Huck Gutman, and Patrick H. Hutton (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1988), 20–21.

6. Foucault, ‘Technologies of the Self,’ 44, 47.

7. Karmen Mackendrick, Counterpleasures (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1999), 65–86;Virginia Burrus, The Sex Lives of Saints: An Erotics of Ancient Hagiography (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004), 1, 17; Jean Baudrillard, Seduction, trans. Brian Singer (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1990), 177.

8. Georges Bataille, Erotism: Death and Sensuality, trans. Mary Dalwood (San Francisco: City Light Books, 1986), 256.

9. Mackendrick, Counterpleasures, 4.

10. Robert Mills, Suspended Animation: Pain, Pleasure, and Punishment in Medieval Culture (London: Reaktion Books, 2005), 120, 171.

11. Mackendrick, Counterpleasures, 147, 157; Burrus, The Sex Lives of Saints, 127.

12. Seneca, Letters to Lucilius; quoted in Foucault, The Care of the Self, 66, 67.

13. Mackendrick, Counterpleasures, 158, 159.

14. Burrus, Sex Lives of Saints, 1, 3.

15. Leo Bersani, The Freudian Body: Psychoanalysis and Art (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986), 39, 89.

16. Elizabeth Freeman, “Turn the Beat Around: Sadomasochism, Temporality, History,” differences: a journal of feminist studies 19.1 (2008): 63 [32–70].

17. Leo Bersani, “Shame on You,” in Leo Bersani and Adam Phillips, Intimacies (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008), 51–52.

18. David Halperin, What Do Gay Men Want? An Essay on Sex, Risk, and Subjectivity (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2007), 106, 64.

19. Halperin, What Do Gay Men Want? pp. 73, 72.

20. Halperin, What Do Gay Men Want? 73.

21. Halperin, What Do Gay Men Want? 77, 78.

22. See S. Björkman, “Naked Miracles” [interview with Lars von Trier], trans. Alexander Keiller, Sight & Sound 6.10 (1996): 10–14.

23. See Linda Badley, Lars von Trier (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2010), 73, 74–75.

24. Mark Miller, ‘Love’s Promise: The Clerk’s Tale and the Scandal of the Unconditional,’ in Mark Miller, Philosophical Chaucer: Love, Sex and Agency in the Canterbury Tales (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press), 238 [216–248].

25. See Badley, Lars von Trier, 75–78, 82–83.

29. See Ian Bogost, Unit Operations: An Approach to Videogame Criticism (Cambridge: M.I.T. Press, 2006).