A review of Afterlives of the Saints: Stories from the Ends of Faith, by Colin Dickey (Unbridled Books, 2012.)
By Ed Simon
An appropriate epigram for Colin Dickey’s Afterlives of the Saints could be Oscar Wilde’s dictum that other religions may be for the respectable, but Catholicism is for “saints and sinners alone.” Though he is mentioned only once (in a chapter on Sebastian where Wilde refers to him as that “many penetrated saint”), his oft-quoted contention that it is only in the gutters where one is able to gaze at the stars permeates Dickey’s book. In focusing on several of the more extreme in both action and thought among the ranks of the canonized, Dickey provides us with a means to meditate upon excess in human behavior. This is no catechism book with their dull-colored pictures of sanitized martyrdoms, nor is it an attempt at an exhaustive academic resource, some dutiful listing of patron saints and their symbols. Rather Dickey engages a seemingly personal and idiosyncratic approach that uses these figures that are so disturbingly close to the divine while remaining painfully human, examining that borderland where saints and sinners alone exist, oftentimes within the same person.
Dickey’s method is the opposite of encyclopedic, rather he provides us with subjective portraits of saints both famous and obscure. He is wide-ranging and expansive in his interests, he is willing to engage and examine any fleeting curiosity, provided that it is both obscure and interesting. Intellectually he writes at the nexus of reliquary and curiosity cabinet, focusing his gaze on such rarely considered topics as anthropodermic bibliopegy (that would be the binding of books with human skin), the Japanese fascist author Yukio Mishima’s ritual sepeku, ecorches (depictions of figures holding their own flayed flesh, popular in Renaissance anatomy books), U.S. war trophies of the Second World War, castrati, and spontaneous human combustion among other assorted topics. That he is able to take these subjects and spin them out from reflections on saints like Bartholomew, Sebastian, Mary Magdalen, Barbara and the still-not-canonized-but-very-much-castrated Origen speaks to the variety of saintly lives and excess.
In his fascination with the physical, and with the relationships (both tortured and torturing) that saints had with their own flawed bodies, Dickey tries to catch some sort of indication of the divine, or at the very least why it is that some people do the extreme things that they do. For him the saints that merely do good things, who heal the sick and give sight to the blind are less interesting than the severe saints, the ones who challenge conceptions of what is normal, and yet are still endlessly appropriated by the very strictures of institutionalized religion that often condemned them.
Dickey is capable of turning that most economical of phrases, the aphorism, and the paradoxical lives of these holy sinners provide ample means to demonstrate that skill. An example of this is seen when he is discussing the lesser known St. Foy, a medieval French saint who seems like a character from Indian trickster tales more than like one from medieval Christendom; Dickey writes ” Of all the saints, the only one I truly fear is this young girl from southwestern France, the virgin martyr who restores your eyes even as she demands your blindness.” He tells us that the saints are not consistent, and they are not safe. In many ways this style – endlessly interested, delighted with questions, and obsessed with the material indications of death – is reminiscent of that first essayist, Montaigne. Like his predecessor, Dickey takes a seemingly ecumenical interest in extremes and the antinomian violation of good taste and morals, but always overlaid with sympathy for what it means to be human.
It’s a tone that suits Dickey’s aims well. When reading about figures like St. Simon of the Desert, who tradition holds lived on top of a pillar in the harsh Judean sun for just shy of four decades, the author does not judge or pathologize, nor does he excuse. He never engages in any anachronistic arm-chair psychoanalyzing of the figures he writes about, even if potential modern saints risk “being labeled with all manner of clinical diagnoses: Masochism, anorexia, schizophrenia.” He makes clear that to read them through only one modern critical eye is to be in danger of precluding other perspectives. If when we look at Bernini’s statue of Theresa in ecstasy and we only see orgasm, we are just as mistaken as previous audiences who refused to see the same. That structures of belief change is a given, what seems to fascinate Dickey are the ways in which people who make their home in such liminal places are able to reflect something about humanity in general.
Across five sections he assembles a bricolage of personal and heterodox hagiographies. Dickey moves from saints guilty of a certain textual excess like Jerome, to those like Lawrence whose marked significance is of having been tortured (patron saint of both comedians and barbecue, because he told a group of Roman centurions who were immolating him on a spitfire to turn him over since one side was done), to those whose depicted pain sometimes looks more like erotic pleasure as is the case with Sebastian and Agatha. It’s in the next section that he examines the intricacies of sin and belief, finally ending with a rumination on the loneliness of those who suffered only to find themselves precluded from the saintly chorus, like the ever tearful Margery Kemp.
If the book has a clear argument, an indication of what it might be seems evident in that last section, and its exploration of the saints who never made it. Part of what Dickey is getting at are the possibilities of saintly anonymity running through the gutters of our modern cities. In Margery Kemp we have a saint seemingly in line with our own situation. Is it because Kemp’s cause is even more lost than St. Jude’s? At least the later gets to call himself a saint, Kemp’s tears are still just like the rest of ours (if more frequent). Anyone who has ever read Kemp’s middle English narrative has marveled, maybe even laughed, at the fourteenth century brewer-woman’s continual histrionic tears, her sometimes obnoxious and confused personality, and the frustrated reactions of seemingly everyone who she encounters. But the narrative also provides moments of profound connection with a woman who has been dead for the better part of a millennium, in her care for her sick husband, or her embarrassment at being spurned by a cruel lover, in her losses and her fears. Kemp – in what is possibly the oldest autobiographical writing by a woman in English – is much more complete, more human, more like us than so many other saints whose lives are just apocrypha, or as is often the case simply symbol with no story. But it’s precisely her humanity that makes it possible to love Margery. Dickey writes, “A community of believers, the wasted and the hopeful, the freaks and the dreamers, gradually grows around her. Perhaps sainthood will find her yet.”
Kemp speaks to us because maybe sainthood will find her, as it may find us. For Dickey the saints are precisely so important because they are not angels. It can seem cynical to point out that there has been a bit of an entropy in the quality of miraculous occurrences over the past few centuries. The territory that divides St. Denis picking up his still-preaching severed head while walking the hills of Montmarte is substantially more dramatic than the supposed intercession of Josemaria Escriva who supporters claimed cured a man of abnormal fat deposits in his hands. And indeed the feats of astounding excess which are Dickey’s material have also shifted; there are no more St. Simons in the desert sitting on their pillars, now there is just David Blaine doing the same magic trick over and over again on basic cable.
Yet Dickey implies that the march of the saints has not ceased all together, but that it has simply gone in a different direction. The profoundly damaged men and women who are the subject of his book are after all an occasion to reflect on all of us, his saints are the masters of the extreme, they are the junkies, and drunks, and sadomasochists, and prostitutes; they are the saints of madness, extremism, and love. In this sense, that many of the saints seem so dangerous, we have a radical core of the Christian message. The saints may be legend, they may be ridiculous superstition, but they are not incidental to the faith, they are the center of Christianity.
In many ways faith is a lived fiction, that is to say an embrace of the impossible on its own terms, where it doesn’t matter if the saints are “real” or not. Dickey reminds us that to read them with a clinician’s eye is to miss their purpose. The miracles of hagiography are not medical case studies, but rather as Picasso said of art, they are lies that reveal the truth. Returning to that other Irish saint of excess, the death-bed convert Wilde, there is a story that despite his interest in the aesthetics of the Church, when pressed by his friend Robert Ross on the veracity of Catholicism’s tenets, the writer responded with “No, Robbie, it isn’t true.” In Dickey’s meditations, the author suggests to us that what is important isn’t whether faith is “true” or not, but what it would mean to live as if it were.
Ed Simon is a Ph.D. Candidate in English at Lehigh University. His research focuses on religion and literature in seventeenth century Britain and America.