“Afterlives of the Saints”

A new book looks at “Saints who murder ... saints who minister to the petty and the bizarre and the maligned”

Topics: LA Review of Books, Religion, Books, Catholicism, Writers,

"Afterlives of the Saints"

JEROME, PATRON SAINT OF ASCETIC LIBRARIANS. Paula, patron saint of widows, the voiceless, and the codependent. Lawrence, patron saint of students and barbecues. Anthony, patron saint of masturbators, epileptics, and tortured French realists.

Los  Angeles Review of BooksColin Dickey’s Afterlives of Saints: Stories from the Ends of Faith offers what to most of us will be an unfamiliar (and thus seductive) litany. These are not the standard, well-behaved saints, the Johns, Jameses, and Josephs. They are instead, as Dickey notes, the miscreants: “saints who murder, saints who [gouge] out their own eyes and hold them out for inspection, saints who minister to the petty and the bizarre and the maligned.” Dickey’s saints are petulant in their pursuit of spiritual perfection. They steal away, sequester themselves, or expose their suffering for all to see. They are excessive, indecorous, mad, and mostly unable to live in the world. They are, for better or worse, a lot like us.

Or maybe something altogether different. Dickey places the question of the saints’ humanity at the core of his meditation on these extreme figures, tortured souls marginalized in their lifetimes yet enjoying raucous afterlives in literature, film, and painting. Such are the narratives — the fictions we build of and around the saints — that consume Dickey, who wisely tables the miraculous in favor of the weird and the unwonted. Lawrence, who made light of his own execution-by-fire; Lucy, who repelled an ardent suitor by self-mutilation; Barbara, who exacted justice (allegedly) by spontaneous combustion. Dickey’s saints do not amaze so much as they unsettle, confounding fixed boundaries of the human, bridging the gap between faith and fecklessness, pathos and pathology. Like tears in public, the saints are unruly; they overflow propriety, or whatever categories we use to contain them.

As in his last book, Cranioklepty: Grave Robbing and the Search for Genius, Dickey is preoccupied with remains and remainders, with examining the cultural afterlives of singular individuals and the bodies they uneasily inhabited. In moving from the purloined skulls of Haydn and Swedenborg to the preserved relics (literary and otherwise) of the saints, Dickey digs even deeper. To invoke an afterlife is to suggest a haunting surplus: something disturbingly unassimilable, a ghost that resists our best efforts to lay it to rest. This is at least part of how Dickey approaches the afterlives of the saints: as symptomatic of those lingering excesses of faith which haunt the dreams of a supposedly secular age. But an afterlife can also indicate a recycled use — value, a new “ends” of faith that Afterlives implicitly works to recover. As Dickey notes, the temptation is always to glean something useful from the lives of the saints, even if the lesson is that “the lesson always gets away from us.”

Perhaps it is the saints’ ability to embody this tension — between productive pedagogical value and the very resistance to being productive — that has made them so endlessly compelling. Nowhere is this dynamic more striking than in Dickey’s account of the third-century saint Anthony and the nineteenth-century realist who tried to tell his story. Gustave Flaubert spent nearly three decades obsessively writing (and rewriting, and not writing) The Temptation of Saint Anthony, a work of excess by almost any measure. His friends deemed it a waste of energies: a “perverse, solitary” indulgence, not unlike Saint Anthony’s wrestling with demons, alone in a cave in the desert. And not unlike the realist novel itself, where “all that is produced, is in the mind of the reader — a closed loop that takes you out of the world of production and into the dangerous desert of solitary imaginings.” For Flaubert, that closed loop was literary, sexual, and spiritual. Masturbating when he could not write, and wracked by epilepsy (which he believed to be the result of masturbating), he took Saint Anthony’s isolated torments as inspiration, and took hold of himself. In Dickey’s telling, what Saint Anthony’s fire, Flaubert’s writer’s block, and the realist novel have in common is a masturbatory economy: a resistance to productive labor that is at once pleasurable and agonizing.

If there is a lesson in Flaubert’s Onanism, it can only be that the dark night of the soul is very dark indeed, and lonely to boot. Still, the saints give us endless company, cropping up in modernity where we least expect them: in Borges’s infinite library, in Lifemagazine photographs, in Van Gogh’s ear-ache, in Yukio Mishima’s suicide, in Dickens’s Bleak House (the drunkard Krook should have looked out for Saint Barbara). The saints, we learn, are infinitely appropriable; they are meant to be citations, repetitions, at once exemplary and inherently imitable. Dickey treads this line carefully, filling out the singularity of the saints while insisting on their ability to bring human foibles into relief. If Dickey’s antic analogies occasionally resemble closed loops — I’m not convinced that the saints are precisely like Ridley Scott’s replicants, even if they are “more human than human” — they also open up unpredictable and often striking revelations. In reading the weird, often wacky stories of the saints, Dickey acknowledges: “Sometimes what remains is not the fact but the belief in the fact,” a description of our own credulous, credit-soaked moment if there ever was one.

Dickey opts for agnostic wandering over pedagogical pilgrimage, and rightfully so. Digression and detour are the norm in Afterlives; Dickey speaks not for, but with, the saints. This is an especially welcome revision when it comes to the female saints, whose voices have so often been subsumed by church authorities and hagiographers. Like Chaucer, Dickey tries to do justice to the long, circuitous route of the saint’s spiritual journey. Like Chaucer’s Wife of Bath (perhaps a rewrite of the muffled Saint Paula), Dickey’s text meanders, resisting the journey’s conclusion. Indeed we might describe Dickey’s method exactly as he describes hers:

Her style is endlessly digressive — she opens up the discussions, moves further outward, interrupts others, and contradicts herself. She seems to exist to deny any kind of closure, to push the end of the text ever further away. […] She wanders, and in wandering overtakes the text, unshorn, undomesticated, untamed, and very much alive.

Dickey’s saints are distinctly undomesticated, and if they are mostly long dead, they are likewise still very much alive (they are “zombies in their faith,” in another unruly analogy). Meandering back and forth across the centuries, Dickey argues that the saints are always untimely, “always anachronistic — an occupation from another time that has no real corollary in contemporary life.” And yet they also help us measure time, with each saint traditionally assigned to a day of the liturgical year. Dickey highlights this practice by supplementing his text with a “daily saint” tumblr, a form that fits the saint’s intermediary function, her standing in for the presence of the divine within the (now technological) day to day. The untamed saints overflow Dickey’s text, moving outward to occupy the internet: another desert of temptations, another kind of liturgy.

If the saints are prone to excess, those who write about them are perhaps equally so. In the preface to his 1951 Lives of the Saints, Omer Englebert conceded that hagiographies are “generally uninteresting, for they are either prepared in dictionary style or the little information that they contain is drowned in floods of eloquence and words of edification.” But Dickey’s floods and overflows harbor a crucial recognition: lives do not add up to saints, however we tally them. Or as Charles Wright put it in his 1995 poem, “Lives of the Saints”: “The plain geometry of the dead does not equate / Infinite numbers, untidy sums: / We believe in belief but don’t believe, / for which we shall be judged.” Afterlives doesn’t often go in for judgment; rather, it suggests that the imperfect lives of the saints, and the untidy stories we tell of them, might be more than enough to get us through the day (if not into the kingdom). The saints are dead, not defunct. They may exist on the margin of modernity, but they constitute (in Julia Kristeva’s terms) “a margin revelatory of its heart.”

Consider Margery Kempe, patron saint of those who cry in public, social consequences be damned: Margery the wanderer, the troublemaker, the woman whose ecstatic weeping was all kinds of inconvenient. She “wept more copiously, more spectacularly, than anyone before her or since”— her excess of tears strained the limits of human expression. Even the priests couldn’t abide her spiritual sobbing; they ejected her from Canterbury in the fifteenth century. Margery’s autobiography — rediscovered in 1934 — is saturated with tears. Crying becomes a language of its own, a way of registering the body’s stubborn inability to hold the spirit as it overflows. Margery has not been canonized, but she serves as patron saint for, as Dickey has it, “the wasted and the hopeful, the freaks and the dreamers”: those of us who refuse to dry our eyes, get busy, and get with the program. Did we ever need her more than now?

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