There is a painting from the early sixteenth century at the galleries of the University of Bologna that depicts the gruesome death of Saint Cassian of Imola at the hands of his own students. The story goes that Cassian was a fleeing Christian in the Roman Empire who found a teaching position in the town of Imola, until he was discovered and exposed. In the saints’ hagiographies, it is emphasized his passion concerning reading and writing for his students. This would confirm the high price of Cassian’s punishment: torture and death at the hands of young students (some allegedly even brought their sharpened styli). The Bologna painting is, in fact, a miniature of about five by seven inches, and it depicts eight young students striking at a naked and tied up Cassian. The anonymous painter has chosen carefully to have all of the figures turn away from the spectator, except for a student in the far right corner of the painting who seems to be holding a sort of bowl in the air. He seems disengaged from the frenzied mob. And yet, there are no wounds or bruises in Cassian’s body, which could be an allegorical statement by the painter about the martyrdom condition, or, more literally, the plain fact that the cruel feast has just begun. Cassian’s face is monotone, and one of disbelief, but not yet of someone consumed by the ecstasy of bodily suffering. He is definitely humiliated amidst such violent and naked act. This is highlighted by the stage-like setting of the assault, which does not seem to be taking place somewhere outside, but rather in a strange room whose only way out is a dark and ominous black counter to the left side of the painting.
This black square immediately recalls martyrdom. And yes, in modernity this means David’s Death of Marat (1793) floating figure who stands as the secularized martyr at the year zero of modern representation. In the early modern bolognese painting we are far from there, but the resources at the painter’s disposal (myth, depth, and figure) speak to a postreligiousity at the threshold of a new historical time. Strangely, the figure of Saint Cassian as represented here by the anonymous bolognese painter throws a shadow to our present, given that the teacher or professor has been sacrificed, not so much the literal violence of his students, but by the an even greater disposition towards a shameless nakedness driven by value and a complicit abandonment of its mission. In the United States at least, the long dispensation of the “closing of the American mind” – driven by competition, ranking, placement, mentorship, cultural wars, and identity politics – entails the uttermost collapse of the teacher into the administrator and facilitator of a rather unknown enterprise.
Even in 1983 Carl Schmitt could identify the martyrdom of Saint Cassian as an emblem of the professor betrayed by his former students: “I have also been stabbed by my students”, he will confess to Lanchester . So, just four decades ago the teacher could still stand as an object of fidelity and betrayal. It would be hard to make the case for this hypothesis today, since the pain of the teacher is no longer of betrayal, but of indifference insofar as he can be disposed of. In this sense, only something that possesses a certain aura can be said to be betrayed; while something that can be discarded altogether is something that has seen better days and no longer has value. And if universities and schools today have become larger centers of monotony and alienation of the most basic activities (such as discussion, reading and writing), this is because both students and professors have been, for the most part, replaced by “mentors” and consumers” under the holy contract of hypocrisy, the true and last ethics of the enlightened metropolitan class.
Anyone that has ever had the good fortune to encounter a good teacher or professor will know that his example springs not from what he knows or professes to know, but rather from what he can transpire unto others: to search of a form of one’s own path. The ethos of a teacher has little do with specialization or success, and everything to the incarnation of a gestalt that is not accidental or transient, but perpetually springing from its myth, as Carchia suggested for the work of art . And myth is the sensorial mediation that resista to be instrumentalized into the endless amassing of value by the powerful administrative subjects. This amounts to saying that the teacher finds self-legitimization in its capacity to inspire the shared sense of wonder of the inaccessible.
Or, at least, this has been the teacher at its most groundbreaking moments. The eradication of teaching – which like mostly every other area foreclosed by the crisis of the human experience was unveiled during the years of the pandemic – and its complete abdication to models of “leadership” and “training” (under the fictitious rubric of the syllabus as an economic contract) is the bleakest of the futures that Cassiano could have taken. A nihilist future that, it goes without saying, will be void of martyrs and myths.
1. Carl Schmitt. “Un jurista frente a sí mismo: entrevista de Fulco Lanchester a Carl Schmitt”, CSS, 1, 2017, 220.
2. Gianni Carchia. Il mito in pittura: la tradizione come critica (Celuc Libri, 1987), 155.