by Colin Dickey
“Afterlives of the Saints is a woven gathering of groundbreaking essays that move through Renaissance anatomy and the Sistine Chapel, Borges’ “Library of Babel,” the history of spontaneous human combustion, the dangers of masturbation, the pleasures of castration, “and so forth” — each essay focusing on the story of a particular (and particularly strange) saint.” (via Amazon)
Good Things: As the above summary says, this book is a collection of essays, each about a particular saint–but this book departs from traditional hagiography (biographical writings about saints) in that, while each essay includes each saint’s story, the true focus is generally the cultural impact or relevance the particular saint gained post-canonization. This is an interesting direction to take, and gives the author freedom to cover a lot of ground, which he does: discussion of Saint Paula leads to Chaucer’s depictions of women; discussion of Saint Lawrence leads to the often-confusing iconography of saints in general (Lawrence was burnt alive over a gridiron, and so is depicted carrying one, which has alarmingly led to his becoming the patron saint of barbecues); discussion of Saint Bartholomew, flayed alive, leads to the evolution of the study of anatomy. Despite being a distinctly unreligious person myself, I have a lot of interest in the way that different religions and pieces of religions shape world cultures and how we live, and Afterlives of the Saints is right up my alley.
There’s a decent amount of the juicy details, too–I like to imagine that, like me, at least a decent number of people who seek out stories of saints are interested in the weird and gory details of their martyrdom, like Saint Lucy and her gouged-out eyes or Saint Agatha and her cut-off breasts. The book doesn’t shy away from these, and often helpfully provides images of paintings discussed in the text, so we get to see Saint Sebastian pierced by arrows in all his weirdly sexy glory. It also doesn’t shy away from the strange and myriad connections saints have to the rest of history. Pornography, castration, masturbation, racism, and all sorts of other complex subjects come up, and I appreciated the frank (and non-moralizing) treatment of all of the above.
Plus, I just plain like collections of essays. The variety of topics keeps things interesting, while the overarching theme mostly brings it all back around in the end. I thought it would be something that I would pick up and put down frequently over the course of a month, an essay here and an essay there, but I actually ended up reading it almost straight through over the course of two or three days. Saints are fascinating! I would, however, caution against reading it in the wee hours just before going to sleep, however. Reading about Bartholomew being skinned is one thing, but dreaming about it is entirely another.
Bad Things: Unfortunately, I felt like the essays didn’t really hit their stride until Part Two. The book is divided into five Parts, with Part One covering saints that have written things, Parts Two and Three covering saints that inspired art and literature, Part Four covering “the wide range of beliefs [certain saints] encompassed,” and Part Five covering some non-saints, those who were not formally canonized but who are of interest despite (and partially because of) their non-sainthood. While I found Part One interesting, particularly as a former student of Literature, I felt like the essays in this section tended to wander a bit more, and didn’t feel as tightly written as the later sections. I still enjoyed them, but didn’t feel that they would draw a standard reader into the book as easily. When the book is at its strongest, it is fun interesting, fun, and informative, but occasionally the essays get either a bit didactic or a bit muddled, which both serve to draw one out of the text. I also occasionally disagreed with the conclusions the author came to about this or that saint, but that’s not so much a “bad thing” as “humans having differing opinions,” so I won’t count that against him.
Overall: In the prologue, Dickey writes, “I, too, am uninterested in writing that downplays the humanity of the saint in favor of God’s divinity. For me, saints exist not as a medium for God but as a lens for humanity.” The essays that come after serve this vision well–even when the essays stray from the original topic, they always get to the heart of the universal nature of the saints’ stories, whether some of them were real people who actually existed or whether they are simply symbols of a certain place and time. We see what the saints meant and continue to mean to people, Catholics and non-Catholics alike, and how they interest and inspire and connect us through all sorts of media. It connects pornography, spontaneous human combustion, WWII, and Margery Kemp’s endless torrent of tears, and through that, this book makes me see the web of the world.