We’ve been talking about genre lately, and today we’re going to take a look at how some of Br. Monday’s adventures are a type of genre. Most of them are taken from the Sayings of the Desert Fathers, a collection of wisdom stories from the early monastic movement in 5th century Egypt.
In The Dialogical Imagination, Mikhail Bakhtin writes about a form of genre called crisis hagiographies that were influenced by metamorphoses in Greek romances like Apuleius’s The Golden Ass. Let’s have a closer look at what Bakhtin has to say:
Metamorphosis serves as the basis for a method of portraying the whole of an individual’s life in its more important moments of crisis: for showing how an individual becomes other than what he was. We are offered various sharply differing images of one and the same individual, images that are united in him as various epochs and stages in the course of his life. There is no evolution in the strict sense of the word; what we get, rather, is crisis and rebirth.
Rather than the slow progression of a bildungsroman where the character grows before our eyes through the plot of a novel, these crisis narratives show only a before and after image or focus on the moment of metamorphosis itself.
But how does that relate to the Sayings of the Desert Fathers? Aren’t they actually dialogues where an outsider or novice goes into the desert to ask an Amma or an Abba for a word that will help them live their lives in a practical way? Shouldn’t they be related to folk sayings and wisdom literature instead of this specific Greek genre?
Yes, many of them should, but there’s a specific genre that fits this mold within the sayings. Bakhtin talks about it a little further down the same page:
In early Christian crisis hagiographies belonging to this type, we also have as a rule only two images of an individual, images that are separated and reunited through crisis and rebirth: the image of the sinner (before rebirth) and the image of the holy man or saint (after crisis and rebirth).
Since desert father literature is a collection of sayings from multiple different subject positions, these images could be spread across multiple stories. Arsenius goes from a Roman intellectual to a desert father. Consider also this story where Abba John moves from isolating pride to communal humility.
Since the desert fathers and mothers lived an ascetic life of self-abnegation, Bakhtin’s expanded, “three-image sequences” might better describe the genre.
Three-image sequences are sometimes met with, especially where there is a particular emphasis and development of that portion of the saint’s life devoted to askesis, or to purification through suffering, to a struggle with oneself…
My favorite desert father, Abba Moses, is a great example of this three-part development. He begins as a bandit who then becomes a monk and ends his life as a holy desert father. In between his ascetic struggle is symbolized by the image of dawn slowly pushing back the night on either side of him.
All of this makes sense for the real desert fathers, but what about Br. Monday. Sure there was a point when he stylized himself as an “abba,” but that didn’t really stick.
In the end, the story of Br. Monday may be more of an anti-genre. He does change but not for the better. Instead, the narrative arch of Br. Monday is from a lazy young monk who at least pretends to listen to the Abbas to a self-installed hermit accepting donations for pizza and beer. And I still haven’t figured out why that makes him more lovable…