- The Sex Lives of Saints: An Erotics of Ancient Hagiography
This energetically written and erudite book is a welcome addition to the series Divinations: Re-reading Late Ancient Religion. It aims to explore familiar vitae of saints in the late antique world of the Mediterranean and Middle East in the context provided by thinkers such as Derrida and Foucault. As Burrus puts it: "I want to map the larger historical trajectory of my argument by offering a fresh reading of Foucault's own emplotment of Christianity in the history of desire." She thereby seeks to interpret the past through the eyes of modern theorists, taking, as she herself states, a historical approach "betraying my own disciplinary orientation." This phrase is telling, loaded as it is with sexual connotations: one striking feature of the study is its use of language, to which I shall return.
Burrus's method is to categorize each vita within a chapter heading suggesting an overall theme. Four different foci are thus expounded; the "queer" relationships of the earliest (male) desert hermits with their mentors and author; the dominant women of this period—seen as sister, friend, or mother—and how they "get a life"; the sadomasochism and colonialism of certain hagiographical situations; and lastly (and in my book most fascinatingly) the paradoxical perpetual harlotry of Syrian and Egyptian women whose penitent involvement with sex mirrors that of the "sinful woman" in Luke's gospel. Having explored the context and narrative thread of each saint's life, Burrus then at the end of each chapter makes some observations that pull the threads together with panache, for the most part.
The intended audience is not stated overtly, but the degree of detail in copious footnotes would satisfy the historical or theological scholar seeking [End Page 202] fresh enlightenment on a perennial problem—how to decode and integrate the sexual nuances of an asceticism that normatively seeks to reject the body and privileges absence of or abstinence from physical and emotional intimacy. On the other hand, the refreshingly lucid, at times colloquial, written style renders this book accessible to a curious layperson who might approach the book from an anthropological point of view or with a desire better to understand a period of history whose remoteness does not withhold "relevance" for a modern reader. Lovers of theorists such as Foucault, Bataille, Halperin, and Harpham will engage readily with Burrus's discussion of their constructs; feminists will rejoice that she does not shy away from the knotty problem of the woman's voice being given tongue by a male author. She enlists eminent scholars such as Patricia Miller Cox, Susan Ashbrook Harvey, Elizabeth Clark, and Susanna Elm to support her discussion of this significant dynamic. A considerable degree of familiarity with the modern works she cites in her bibliography (which lists sources entirely in English translation) would certainly enhance the reader's understanding of detailed points within her argument, but there is plenty here for a less informed reader as well.
The book might therefore be used by academics, students of the history of sexuality, hagiography, or the early Christian church in general, and even literary theorists. Although described from a historical perspective, the texts she discusses are accessible as literature too, and the interest she displays in genre is worth attention.
Virginia Burrus's writing style is vigorous and lucid though at times complex, with some fairly convoluted sentences. It is as if she is so excited by the ideas that she finds it hard to contain her enthusiasm. The text is peppered with rhetorical questions, and occasional asides ("ho-hum") add some leaven to an already yeasty mix. A noticeable feature of her mode of discourse is the sudden interpolation of highly personal reflection, such as the "Fragments of an Autobiography" at the end of chapter 2, where she muses on her hairstyle, or her fanciful empathetic engagement with the Life of Hilarion at the end of chapter 1: "I know how to taste without devouring, and I desire to...