Descent into the Desert

April 22, 2014   •   By Cynthia Cruz

TO NOT EAT, or to eat very little, is one way to control what one takes in from the world. To go hungry is the ascetic desert retreat in miniature. One leaves the world and descends into the desert in order to avoid the cacophony and the things of the world. Hungering, fasting, like the desert, are also metaphors: by controlling what one puts into one’s body, one is doing what the desert saints did, carefully curating the consumption of the world. And yet, this is a tricky endeavor: to not eat at all is deadly; eating one morsel too many is dipping into sin. It is, in the end, an impossible feat — one that necessitates constant vigilance. Peter Sloterdijk writes in his essay “Last Hunger Art” that “Countless people were trained as acrobats of the world above in this era, practiced in the art of crossing the abyss of the ‘sensual world’ [Sinnenwelt] with the balancing pole of asceticism.” Hunger does the job: it is the pole that sturdies one’s appetite for the world.

The Journey of the Magi, a painting by Sassetta (Stefano di Giovanni), the Sienese painter, at New York’s Met, appears to the eye a fragment of a lost dream. The painting is a mere half of the original; it is the smaller hinge from a vertical diptych. The other panel, Adoration of the Magi, is in Siena. The hinge is the bleed of a star in the lower right of the painting. When the two pieces were connected, the gold star sat directly above the infant Jesus, an anchor, a nail, a means to keep the miracle in place.

In the painting, some of the travelers are swaddled in milky pink cotton as though they’re inside a warm spell or magic. Beyond the hills stand the fortresses of Jerusalem, also in the same filmy pink. Is this strange cloudy color a semblance of the divine? As is the case in works made by painters in the Sienese school, The Journey of the Magi is poetic, it infers. Painters of this school were most interested in conveying the mystical, the inexplicable. Sassetta, in particular, was interested in exploring and translating the mystery of the spirit, of the Otherworld. In his paintings The Vision of Saint Thomas Aquinas and Saint Thomas Aquinas in Prayer, for example, it is this, the unsayable-ness of Aquinas’s encounter with the divine that Sassetta conveys. The extreme black of the robe, the gold cage-like halo above his countenance, and the use of a pale green hue create a sense of the hallucinatory, the uncanny. It evokes the encounter with the invisible.

Down the soft blond hillside of Journey, along the white sand of the desert, the parade of horses, men, and children, move. Sassetta captures this blur, this stream of movement, by merely showing the back of a horse’s leg on the far left side of the canvas. Blink, and you’ll miss the procession, as if the painting were an open window, and the viewer watching the travelers as they move through. They are on their way to Bethlehem, to sweet Mary in the manger and the miracle of her child, Jesus.

Among the crowd in the procession are the three Magi. The word Magi is plural for magus (Latin) and magos (Greek), meaning “skilled magician” or “astrologer.” The three men, also called the Three Wise Men or the Three Kings, are traveling into the desert bearing gifts: myrrh, incense, and frankincense. They are following the incandescent star of Bethlehem, which will lead them to the manger within which the new prophet has appeared. The Magi could see the magic star of Bethlehem in the sky and follow it.

In the painting the star is on their left, a gold orb with what appear to be barbs coming out of it. The symbol drips down the side of the painting. It is the focal point for both panels of the diptych and forms the painting’s perspective. Nearby are what appear to be two peregrine falcons: one is stopped in the white sand, the other is in flight. Again, the divide. The word peregrine comes from the Latin peregrinus, meaning “coming to from foreign parts.” The two birds represent the pilgrims, as well as the origin of their descent.

Saint Anthony was the first of the Desert Fathers, the first to take literally the instruction of Jesus to “Go sell all that you have […] and come and follow me” (Luke 18:22). Here, the desert is Egypt, the land of Moses, of Saint Catherine, and of the burning bush. The desert is the cathedral of fire, the place where all things come to life, where all things come to die. It is the place of pilgrimage, but it is also metaphor: for the silence within, the searing white light of one’s spirit. Those who can, descend into the desert. Those who cannot or choose not to, descend into the silence within themselves. This retreat takes many forms. But the most powerful, and perhaps the most direct route, is through hunger.

Sloterdijk explains that Kafka was, himself, a hunger artist. In his notebooks, Kafka wrote,  “The true path is along a rope, not a rope suspended way up in the air, but, rather only just over the ground.” This is the more difficult path: the minutiae of the everyday. How to stay humble, quiet, simple. How to imitate the saints, or even Jesus? The rope high above is a show rope, the rope of spectacle, the roaring crowds, and the ego. The lower rope, Kafka’s rope, is quiet, obedient — the one most closely resembling the path of the saints.

It is to die. To kill off one’s self, the ego, and everything it grabs at with its dark clammy cilia. In this way, descending is a form of suicide. Not of one’s true self, only of the self, sick with the lifelong illness of desire and passion. Pierre Hadot, in Philosophy as a Way of Life, writes:

In the view of all philosophical schools, mankind’s principal cause of suffering, disorder, and unconsciousness were the passions: that is, unregulated desires and exaggerated fears. People are prevented from truly living, it was taught, because they are dominated by worries. Philosophy thus appears, in the first place, as a therapeutic of the passions.

There are many spiritual exercises, all intended to help the seeker clear away the vine of the world. And yet none enact the descent into the desert as well as the act of fasting does.

To fast is to rid one’s self of the cloak of the world: starving away the excess, killing off the very root of the passions: desire. Again, Hadot writes, “Plotinus’ writings are full of passages describing such spiritual exercises, the goal of which was not merely to know the Good, but to become identical with it, in a complete annihilation of individuality.” This is the death, necessary to be free: the death of one self in order that the other (better) self can live. It is a bit of a game of Russian roulette, this process of killing one self to save the other. What happens if you accidentally kill the wrong self?

The hope is to kill off the self rooted in desire. It is only through the death of one self that the other self can be born. Furthermore, to limit what one puts into the body is to make one’s self an invalid, is to be one with the suffering. It is not easy. Simone Weil struggled her whole life between the two poles of wishing to be emptied completely of herself and aligning herself with the oppressed, then sliding back into the warm ooze of her self. There is no perfect there. Weil used hunger as a means to bring herself nearer to God, but she miscalculated, eating far too little. Instead of being free from her self, she died surrounded by doctors and nurses, in a sanitarium, speaking in a kind of childlike glossolalia. In a stupor, she died, repeating a litany of the foods her mother made for her during her girlhood: French bread and butter soup, mashed potatoes, roast lamb, thick cream, and fruit tarts with milk.

The closest we can come to experiencing the suffering of others is to physically enact their suffering. It isn’t the same, of course. But to limit what one puts into one’s body, to choose the worst, the poorest, of foods, feels like aligning one’s self with the poor. It is a move toward the light and away from the self. When I am listening to someone else’s words, I am, for this one pure moment, free of my self. To practice this act, the act of listening to others, to the suffering of others, is to revisit the prelapsarian, before we were made self-conscious. It is to be made whole, again. And yet, if we are filled with self, we will never be able to hear the other, radios packed with the static of our own small minds. Hadot writes, “We must first undergo moral purification, in order to become capable of understanding.” Without the work of spiritual exercises, we will remain self-centered and, though filled with self, in actuality, emptied of meaning. Hunger, like the desert, is a tricky, dangerous technology for the journey.


Cynthia Cruz is a poet, essayist, artist, and critic living in Brooklyn, New York.