Journal of the History of Sexuality 10.3&4 (2001) 442-479
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Queer Lives of Saints:
"HOW OFTEN, when I was living in the desert, in the vast solitude which gives to hermits a savage dwelling-place, parched by the flames of the sun, how often did I fancy myself among the pleasures of Rome [putavi me Romanis interesse deliciis]!" (Epistula 22.7). Thus begins Jerome's account of his own brief career as a hermit, intruded into a letter written to the Roman virgin Eustochium circa 384, some eight years after Jerome had decisively fled the Syrian desert. In this passage, ascetic "fancy" quickly overwhelms historical description. Still inventing himself in the present, Jerome's interest in his own past lies largely with the power of fantasy to shape--and reshape--a human life. 1 His autobiographical confession unfolds in a series of dreamily shifting scenes, as vibrant in emotional tone as they are rich in sensory detail. The remembered landscape conveys the tenor of the former life, even as the terrain of memory itself buckles and folds: Jerome's vivid depictions of locale, written with the eyes of his imagination wide open, dramatically undermine the stability of place and time. In the desert he once fancied Roman allurements; in Rome he now fancies [End Page 442] desert delights. Mobile displacements of pleasures in the text thus make space for desire while transforming both topography and chronology. 2 Defined by mutual lack, desert and Rome, past and present become (by mutual attraction) almost one topos, a savage habitation that is also the no-place where Christian eros burns bright. 3
As Jerome rewrites his past, he reinscribes the desert on his body, roughly effacing the soft pallor of Rome: "my skin from long neglect had become like Ethiopian flesh" [squalida cutis situm Aethiopicae carnis adduxerat]. The scene bends back on itself, as his savagely "burning mind"--itself a desert product--in turn converts the almost intolerably bleak solitude of sandy wastes into a stage crowded with foregone delights: "I often found myself amidst bevies of girls [choris . . . puellarum]," he reminisces boldly. In this fantastic desert that is also the site of Roman pleasures, Jerome appears indistinguishable from the voluptuous bands of chorus girls, a confusion not repressed but intensified by the text. His skin weathered in the sun-scorched desert, the hermit has become as dark--and perhaps thereby as beautiful--as the sun-scorched bride of the Song of Songs (see Song of Sol. 1:6), 4 whose naked desire he will, later in this same letter, commend to the girl Eustochium in terms exceeding even the Song's abundant eroticism (Ep. 22.25). 5 First, however, he abandons himself fleetingly to a still more exuberant identification with another sensuously (indeed, sinfully) female biblical figure: "Helpless, I cast myself at the feet of Jesus, I watered them with my tears, I wiped them with my hair, and then I subdued my rebellious body with weeks of abstinence" (see Luke7:38). Beating his breast and weeping copiously in the queerly feminized and [End Page 443] darkly exoticized literary persona of his own construction, 6 Jerome quickly returns to the opening verses of the Song of Songs, now with an explicit citation, as he sings joyously to his Lord: "because of the scent of thy ointments we will run after thee" (Song of Sol. 1:3). The words of the Song's lover and her maidens, directly voiced by Jerome, thus supplement the account of foot washing. The fragrant oils initially elided in his abstinent citation of the Lukan text mingle again with the foot washer's tears, and the mutely weeping woman is fractured, pluralized, and dispersed in dancing choruses of maidenly celebration--"bevies of girls" fit to accompany the Savior's bride, none other than Jerome himself, now more than ever one of the girls. 7 Authorial "fancy" is no longer worldly but rather densely biblical, as Jerome refashions his desire ascetically by rewriting the desert...