JEROME, PATRON SAINT OF ASCETIC LIBRARIANS. Paula, patron saint of widows, the voiceless, and the codependent. Lawrence, patron saint of students and barbecues. Anthony, patron saint of masturbators, epileptics, and tortured French realists.
Colin Dickey’s Afterlives of Saints: Stories from the Ends of Faith offers what to most of us will be an unfamiliar (and thus seductive) litany. These are not the standard, well-behaved saints, the Johns, Jameses, and Josephs. They are instead, as Dickey notes, the miscreants: “saints who murder, saints who [gouge] out their own eyes and hold them out for inspection, saints who minister to the petty and the bizarre and the maligned.” Dickey’s saints are petulant in their pursuit of spiritual perfection. They steal away, sequester themselves, or expose their suffering for all to see. They are excessive, indecorous, mad, and mostly unable to live in the world. They are, for better or worse, a lot like us.
Or maybe something altogether different. Dickey places the question of the saints’ humanity at the core of his meditation on these extreme figures, tortured souls marginalized in their lifetimes yet enjoying raucous afterlives in literature, film, and painting. Such are the narratives — the fictions we build of and around the saints — that consume Dickey, who wisely tables the miraculous in favor of the weird and the unwonted. Lawrence, who made light of his own execution-by-fire; Lucy, who repelled an ardent suitor by self-mutilation; Barbara, who exacted justice (allegedly) by spontaneous combustion. Dickey’s saints do not amaze so much as they unsettle, confounding fixed boundaries of the human, bridging the gap between faith and fecklessness, pathos and pathology. Like tears in public, the saints are unruly; they overflow propriety, or whatever categories we use to contain them.
As in his last book, Cranioklepty: Grave Robbing and the Search for Genius, Dickey is preoccupied with remains and remainders, with examining the cultural afterlives of singular individuals and the bodies they uneasily inhabited. In moving from the purloined skulls of Haydn and Swedenborg to the preserved relics (literary and otherwise) of the saints, Dickey digs even deeper. To invoke an afterlife is to suggest a haunting surplus: something disturbingly unassimilable, a ghost that resists our best efforts to lay it to rest. This is at least part of how Dickey approaches the afterlives of the saints: as symptomatic of those lingering excesses of faith which haunt the dreams of a supposedly secular age. But an afterlife can also indicate a recycled use — value, a new “ends” of faith that Afterlives implicitly works to recover. As Dickey notes, the temptation is always to glean something useful from the lives of the saints, even if the lesson is that “the lesson always gets away from us.”
Perhaps it is the saints’ ability to embody this tension — between productive pedagogical value and the very resistance to being productive — that has made them so endlessly compelling. Nowhere is this dynamic more striking than in Dickey’s account of the third-century saint Anthony and the nineteenth-century realist who tried to tell his story. Gustave Flaubert spent nearly three decades obsessively writing (and rewriting, and not writing) The Temptation of Saint Anthony, a work of excess by almost any measure. His friends deemed it a waste of energies: a “perv...read more