Exit Menu

Professor Anne Cranny-Francis: Welcome and lunchtime talk

‘… a god dances within me’:  Purgatory as an enactment of embodied being

In Thus Spake Zarathustra Nietzsche used the bodily experience of dance to signify embodiment as an engaged and bodily-aware experience of being.  Nietzsche repudiated the mental detachment of Western rationalism, which he believed alienated human beings from their own bodies and from the earth. In the digital world of the early 21st century this detached notion of being is still evident, particularly in the aspiration to download individual consciousness into a computer, with the implicit assumption that bodily being has no significance. This is the ‘mind-in-a-vat’ of early science fiction, though the vat is now a digital interface. This paper challenges this dualistic understanding of being, which valorizes mind over body, through a study of the concept of purgatory and its persistence in the cultural imaginary of western societies (though it is not an exclusively Western construct). 

Purgatory is less a theological than a poetic or imaginative construct that demonstrates the fundamental interrelatedness of all aspects of embodied being – mind, body, soul. The paper explores the cultural history of purgatory, beginning not with the Bible (where it does not appear) but with the Catholic Church and the Classical Greek myths that are its precursors. The response encouraged by the Church was fear of pain and torment, not only to deter people from sinning but also to create a source of Church revenue from the selling of indulgences. Protestant reformers objected to this somatic regime constructed by the Catholic Church, which they characterised as a purely money-making exercise. Not all Catholic constructions were of this order, however. The work of St Catherine of Sienna situated purgatory in a different, highly eroticised somatic regime; St Catherine also burned, but with a kind of heavenly passion.

Both somatic regimes establish purgatory as a concept that is dependent on an understanding of being as embodied; there has to be flesh to burn and an embodied sinner to fear (or welcome) that burning.  This analysis supports Catherine Walker Bynum’s argument that medieval theologians did not see the body as the prison or enemy of the soul, as many contemporary theorists claim, but rather saw the person as a ‘psychosomatic unity, as body and soul together’.  (Bynum, p. 222)

This somatic unity is explored in contemporary uses of the notion of purgatory, in the television program CSI, in John Neumeier’s ballet Purgatorio (2000) and in Sergei Polunin’s performance to Hozier’s song, ‘Get Me to Church’ (2015). These uses are secular rather than religious but draw on the same understanding of psychosomatic unity or integrated embodied being.

Finally, the paper acknowledges the particular role of dance in deconstructions of the mind/body dualism.  From Nietzsche’s insistence on a God who can dance to the work of contemporary choreographers and dancers, dance combines bodily self-awareness and positioning in space/time along with an appeal to the audience that is described by dance theorists such as Susan Foster as ‘kinesthetic empathy’; we feel in our bodies the meanings the dancers construct with their movements.  Dance explicitly connects the physical, emotional and intellectual or spiritual aspects of being; consciousness is embodied: ‘Now I am nimble, now I fly; now I see myself under myself, now a god dances within me.’ (Nietzsche, p. 69) 


C.S.I. (2000) Series 1, Episode 4.  USA: Jerry Bruckheimer Television, CBS Productions, Alliance Atlantis Productions.

Foster, S. L. (2011) Choreographing Empathy: Kinesthesia in Performance.  London & NY: Routledge.

Nietzsche, F. (1961) Thus Spake Zarathustra: A Book for Everyone and No One. Trans. R.J. Hollingdale. London: Penguin.

Polunin, S. (2015) Sergei Polunin, "Take Me to Church" by Hozier, Directed by David LaChapelle. Viewed on YouTube.

Purgatorio: Ballet by John Neumeier, audience notes, Hamburg Ballett, viewed on 5 October 2016.

Saint Catherine of Genoa. (2013) A Treatise on Purgatory.  Potosi, WI: St Athanasius Press.

Walker Bynum, Carolyn. (1992) Fragmentation and Redemption: Essays on Gender and the Human Body in Medieval Religion. NY: Zone Books.

All welcome but please register attendance with Jo Lakey.