Thursday, November 11, 2010

Review of Ann W. Astell's Eating Beauty: The Eucharist and the Spiritual Arts of the Middle Ages

Ann W. Astell's Eating Beauty is, as one might guess, not accidentally titled. It is a play on words that works in multiple directions. First, it is jarring in light of the fact that food was never a subject in Medieval aesthetics. It made no sense to speak of the beauty of food (despite Augustine's famous ode to the taste of a stolen apple). Beauty may reside in the eye of the beholder, but not in the beholder's taste buds. So, in a work that deals with Medieval aesthetics, there's something delightfully jarring about the phrase “eating beauty,” which in asserting that beauty can be eaten challenges the absence of the culinary arts in the Middle Ages.

But, as both a title and a phrase meant both to jar and to play with readers, “eating beauty” is much more significant than that. Because, when you eat beauty, you consume it. Destroy it. Exhaust its capacity for beauty. The beauty is spent. But, not just spent. It is also transformed. Not just ground between your teeth, but digested in your bowels. And, as it is digested, it becomes a part of you. When, in other words, beauty is eaten, not only is the beauty itself transformed, but the eater is, in taking beauty into their body and making that beauty a part of themselves, transformed as well.

This play on words serves, then, as the starting point for a Eucharistic theology. In laying out that theology, Astell pits two foods against each other: the apple, the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in the Garden of Eden, and the Eucharistic host, the bread which is also the body of Christ, eaten in holy communion. Just as sin came – at least in a mythic sense – into the world through an act of eating, the ugliness of that sin is transformed in the very body of those who eat the Eucharistic host. Eating beauty is thus a Eucharistic act, taking the beauty of Christ into the body through the eating of the bread. This is a magnificent metaphor, and it alone – even if there were no other virtues in this work – is sufficient to reward the reading of Astell's book.

From here, however, she takes the reader on a whirlwind tour through Medieval aesthetics. And on that tour, I must confess, she lost me. She strikes me as a more than competent Medievalist, deftly narrating the thoughts of Bernard of Clairvaux, Gertrude of Helfta, St. Bonaventure, St. Ignatius of Loyola, and even, in an unexpect twist given her subject matter, Simone Weil. But, as a theologian and not a historian, it was what she offered to Eucharistic theology at the beginning of her work, that powerful metaphor of eating beauty in the Eucharistic host, that most struck me. I kept wanting her to draw that metaphor forward, unpack its significance for those who, whether consciously or not, eat beauty as they draw the Eucharistic host into their bodies at the table of Christ. But, by and large, she didn't do that.

That Astell – who at the time of publication was a Professor of English at Purdue University, and is now a Professor of Theology at Notre Dame – did not do this, is, perhaps, unsurprising. She is, after all, a Medievalist, and all of her previous works narrate Europe's Middle Ages. But still, I couldn't help but wonder if Astell wasn't hiding her own voice too much behind the great voices of the past, whose thought she rightly points us to. In that sense, though Eating Beauty is, on its own terms, a success – even if a success that, as a theologian and not a historian, I'm not entirely equipped to judge – I can't help but view it as a missed opportunity. Or, perhaps, an opportunity that has not yet been missed. After all, one great metaphor can serve as the foundation of an entire work. Dr. Astell should know that; that's what she just did. And if she can, perhaps someone else can, too. So, who wants to explore what it means to “eat beauty” in the Eucharistic host today?


Jonathan Powers said...

I really need to get this book and read it. If nothing else, maybe it will urge me to research/write about some of the holes she leaves considering the idea of "eating beauty."

Sandalstraps said...

Jonathan, I would say she leaves holes - she mines history very deftly, as far as I can say - as much as that she doesn't push her own ideas forward. They always hide behind voices from the past.

I'd love to see you, however, take what she mines from the past, and weave it into a Eucharistic theology that, while informed by Medieval aesthetics (and other sources!) move from the past into the present and future.

My frustration with this book is, perhaps, an unfair one. It is exactly what it says it is, and, as far as I can tell, does exactly what it sets out to do. I just wish it would have set out to do something else, not because what it did was bad, but because when it touched on theology it did so with such power that I wish it would have stayed there longer.