The Sex Lives of Saints: An Erotics of Ancient Hagiography
Lying on a bed of soft feathers, bound so that he cannot escape, a young, virile man finds himself in a paradisiacal setting of radiant flowers, murmuring streams, and a gently whispering wind. Along comes a beautiful prostitute, caressing the young man, exciting him with visible success, and throwing herself on top of him to consume the fruits of her seduction. If this sounds like a scene from the soft-porn industry, we have not reckoned with the young man's resilience, for he is no other than a martyr, a soldier for Christ. Helplessly bound and at the brink of losing that which is most valuable, his virtue, "the resourceful youth bites off his own tongue and spits it into the face of the woman who kisses him" (25). Jerome, the author of this patristic text, paints a scene of seductive titillation meant to eradicate erotic desire, yet producing both a desire for what is to be combated and a desire for something even more pleasurable than normative sexuality, even at the price of self-immolation: God.
How are we supposed to interpret this ancient tale? The writing of the history of Christian sexuality has often been subject either to reductionist theories of repression and sublimation or to the dualistic flesh-spirit polarization of devotional piety that is awestruck by the ascetic discipline of substituting earthly pleasures for divine love. But can we also write a Christian history in which sexuality—far from being anathema—is seen anew as a peculiarly slippery passion, at once denied and called upon in Christian narratives and testimonies that paint a landscape filled with countererotic (rather than non-erotic) pleasures? [End Page 259] Virginia Burrus, professor of Early Church History, takes her readers on a journey through the textual worlds of Christian hagiographies of the late Roman Empire. The ancient Lives of the Saints, she suggests, are "the site of an exuberant eroticism" (1), of a desire she calls "countererotics" (3, 14). This kind of eroticism resists cultural norms but harbors within such resistance a "radical affirmation of desire," an intensification through restraint (14).
The countererotics flaunted in ancient hagiographic texts—like the bound youth biting off his tongue, and thereby not only defying predictable sexual responses, but also rendering himself speechless—are constantly playing against normative expectations of what constitutes pleasure. They are traversing and transcending borders and boundaries between desire and discipline, pleasure and pain, sex and gender, biography and fiction, life and death. The "sublime art of eroticism," Burrus suggests, can be unpacked through intertextual and queer readings that resist "the pervasive anti-erotic interpretation of hagiography" (1). As a genre, hagiographies emerge "at the intersections of romance with biography, historiography, panegyric, martyrology"—a kind of "queer . . . version of the ancient novel" (18). Delving into selected texts by Jerome, Gregory of Nyssa, Augustine, and Sulpicius Severus as well as of female hagiographies with uncertain authorships, Burrus sensitizes her readers to the interpretive possibilities of the dizzying and dazzling desires of the narrated lives of saints.
If such a project reminds the reader of Foucault's multivolume History of Sexuality, it is with good reason. Indeed, Burrus sees herself on a similar trajectory, in which the ascetic disciplining of sexuality is not simply a tool of repression, but a strategy of turning desire into discourse, and thus a possibility of both self-discernment and control. Foucault never finished his planned final volume on Christianity, but thanks to Jeremy R. Carrette's recently edited volume on Foucault's essays on religion (Religion and Culture: Michel Foucault, Routledge, 2000) as well as his own detailed study, Foucault and Religion: Spiritual Corporality and Political Spirituality (Routledge, 2000), we have today a fairly good sense of his burgeoning thoughts on Christianity's role in the evolution of sexuality. In her introduction, Burrus wrestles with Foucault's theory, only to move beyond his legacy and to open, with feminist sensibilities, the vista to a "broader web of contemporary discourses of eroticism" (2). Theoretical underpinnings and inspirations are drawn from (non-theological) scholars such as Helene Cixous, Luce Irigaray, Jean Baudrillard, Marjorie Garber, Lynda Hart, Karmen MacKendrick, and Anne McClintock.
The first of her four chapters is devoted to three ascetic vitae penned by Jerome: Paul the Hermit is chased after by the younger St. Antony, who "thirsted" for Paul in the desert; the Syrian monk Malchus is seriously tested in captivity when his master forces him into marriage; Malchus resists its consummation and is later happily reunited with his monastic brethren. In the Life of Hilarion, a young monk is "in hot pursuit" of Antony, satisfying his mimetic desire only after his mentor's death: "Hilarion would lie upon the saint's bed and . . . would affectionately kiss it" (42). The displaced desires are enacted in a homosocial, gender-unstable world and presented by Jerome through hybrid [End Page 260] literary compositions that constitute a "restless experimentation . . . with a remarkably plastic genre" (23f).
In chapter 2, the reader encounters female martyrs and saintly women as seen through the lens of their male hagiographers. Burrus's mission is not to reconstruct the social world of Christian women in the late Roman Empire, but to show the rich narrative interplay between the passions of the male authors and the portrayals of their female subjects. Her textual task is less an archeological search for a hidden female subjectivity, but rather a layered re-reading of the discursive strategies involved in writing "woman." Different, queer longings emerge: the women written about seem to become men, while the male authors engage in a "distinctly feminine performance" (60) of lamentation and grief. There is Jerome's Paula, the longtime companion during his own ascetic life, now deceased; there is also Gregory of Nyssa's sister, Macrina, a manly woman over whose dead body Gregory succumbs to passionate anguish: "A bitter, unrestrained cry broke forth," Gregory writes about himself in the Life of Macrina, "[and] I gave myself over wholly to lamentation" (73). Finally, there is Monica's story, which—though not strictly a woman's vita, but fragments that are strategically placed within Augustine's Confessions—has always been a fertile source of ludic speculations on filial attachments. A lover of sorts, Monica helps her son Augustine to overcome all other female loves, replacing them with the love for Holy Scriptures and the love of writing itself. "Monica," Burrus muses, "is Augustine's eternally unfinished business; she is present in all his beginnings" (77).
The focus shifts away from masculinized, ascetic women as seen through the eyes (and pens) of grief-stricken, feminized men to the "austerely masculine, covertly homoerotic, and finally strangely sexed" (93) portrayal of Martin of Tours, composed by Sulpicius Severus at the end of the fourth century. Chapter 3 traces not only Martin's own queer stunts, but also Sulpicius's own endless tears over Martin's death. St Martin, credited for the militant conversion of Gaul and remembered popularly for slashing his coat into two to give away one half to a beggar, is, in Sulpicius's retelling, constantly slipping into reversals of power relations, which Burrus frames as imperial and sadistic desires. As a Christian catechumen, Martin is drafted into the Roman army, where he performs effeminized acts of unsurpassed humility. When he leaves the army to become a soldier for God, he performs a bewildering array of miracles on his way to Gaul (even the raising from the dead of a young man by stretching "himself at full length on the dead limbs" ) while eradicating violently the native religions. After Martin's death, Sulpicius continues writing about his subject. In his Dialogues, he observes (and participates in) a dispute between his friend Postumianus (representing the charm of Roman hegemonic masculinity) and Gallus, a native convert of Gaul, who once had been a disciple of Martin. Burrus's interpretation of the ensuing colonizing discourse is too rich to compress into this review and are left best to each reader's own discovery.
The last chapter presents a captivating account of three women's vitae, written as late as the seventh century, each of them showcasing conversion narratives of "sexually transgressive women" (129). For example, a Syrian woman called [End Page 261] Mary, a tale contained in the longer manuscript, The Life of Abraham, dedicated herself to an ascetic life with her hermit uncle Abraham. Seduced (or raped?) by an unvirtuous monk, she throws herself into public prostitution, only to be rescued by her celibate uncle masquerading as a client in the brothel. Predictably, Burrus is not satisfied with a more traditional reading of the "penitent prostitute." Rather she presents the Syrian Mary, as well as the Life of Mary of Egypt and The Life of Pelagia, in their full ambiguities of seducer and seduced, and the seducing that the text itself performs for its readers. "Put simply," Burrus summarizes, a woman like Mary is "already holy, and still, unrepentantly, a 'harlot.'" In her hyperfemininity, she "also transgress[es] the bounds of a fixed femininity—not least by parodying prior traditions of women's Lives" (131).
The Sex Lives of Saints is a densely written book, no doubt most enjoyable to those who are familiar with the patristic period and conversant with queer and postmodern theory as well as with literary, feminist, and cultural criticism. Arguably, it might be beneficial to read, first, the saints's vitae in their English translations before embarking on Burrus's hagiographic tour de force. Conversely, we might get seduced by her lavishly textured interpretations just as she has been seduced by ancient texts of countererotic seduction. Can we allow ourselves the reading pleasure of exploring a saintly erotic that is "self-shattering" (14) and agonizing to the point of transcendence? In the Lives of Saints, Burrus writes, "we encounter no 'safe sex' " and "no 'sexual orthodoxy' but only the continually reperformed trial of historical witnesses testifying passionately to the possibility of divine eros" (17).