- The Sex Lives of Saints: An Erotics of Ancient Hagiography, and: Saving Shame: Martyrs, Saints, and Other Abject Subjects
With Saving Shame (2007) and Sex Lives of Saints (2004), Virginia Burrus has added two fascinating studies of early Christian literature to an already remarkable repertoire. Refusing the ascetic strictures of positivistic historiography, Burrus pursues the pleasure of texts and encourages readers to do the same. Drawing on psychoanalytic, literary, feminist, queer, and/or postcolonial theory, her newest monographs find in ancient Christianity rich sources for reflection on desire and shame. In Sex Lives, Burrus points to the lavishly erotic character of Christian ascetic writings: these linger over honey-dipped youths, plunging swords, glowing brides, caressed feet, and bejeweled harlots, resisting desire, as she argues, only by repeatedly and ecstatically pursuing it. "Seduction," in her estimation, is "the very wager of all theology," as saints romance God, and God romances the saint in return (p. 159). In Saving Shame, Burrus reconsiders the productive potentialities of shame, chief among them the "possibility of love" (p. xii). Never simply destructive, Burrus argues, shame provides opportunities for resistance, opening, vulnerability, and encounter, which lead ultimately to God. Recognizing the redemptive potential of shame, early Christians sought divine grace by courting disgrace: flaunting their marked, exposed, and feminized bodies, reveling in broken, torn, and penetrated flesh, and displaying their abject corporeality. Rather than refusing either desire or shame, Burrus avers, Christians enthusiastically embraced both.
Burrus's already highly acclaimed Sex Lives of Saints begins with a reflection on Michel Foucault's description of "so-called Christian morality." Simultaneously undermining and reproducing a phallic subjectivity already in place, Foucault argued that late-antique Christians set the stage for modern sexuality by transforming sex into discourse. Desire, it would seem, must be confessed. It is this ambiguity that Burrus sets out to explore in Sex Lives. As she explains, her interest lies neither in the Christian sacralization of [End Page 764] monogamy nor in its heterosexist focus on reproduction as the telos of sex, but rather in the erotics of the ascetic Christian pursuit of desire. This pursuit, she explains, destabilizes gender, queers genre, and disrupts difference, all in surprising ways.
Jerome's hagiographical writings serve as Burrus's starting point. Rereading the Life of Paul, the Letter to Eustochius, and the Life of Hilarion, she observes that the scholar-monk offers "queer bait" to his audience. In her account, Hieronymian sublimation, when viewed from the perspective of Freudian sublimation (as reinterpreted by Leo Bersani), reveals not a rejection of desire, but a homoerotic disruption of fixed subjectivity that challenges the very notion of a bounded self. The next chapter turns to writings about female saints, observing that the male authors of these Lives regularly begin from the vantage point of death: the women "live" in these lives only by dying. Yet even here the fundamental inversion of gender remains a key theme—the limp swords of executioners fail to penetrate without the guiding hand of a woman, Macrina is described by her brother as a "man," and Monica refuses to be dominated, even by her famous son. The third chapter revisits the homoerotics of hagiography, a topic first raised in chapter 1, this time by presenting a postcolonial reconsideration of the Life of Martin of Tours. In Burrus's reading, the "native" saint of Gaul—unkempt, unruly, and yet fully in control—serves as an erotically charged figure who troubles both gender and the totalizing desires of empire. Martin's hypermasculinity finds its counterpart in the hyperfemininity of the holy harlots, the topic of the final chapter. Here Burrus challenges the view that prostitute saints were inevitably or exclusively symbols of an innately female depravity. Just as the soldier-saint exceeds...