review; afterlives of the saints

Title: Afterlives of the Saints
Author: Colin Dickey
Pub. Date: June, 2012
Summary: 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.
Genre: Nonfiction

Hagiography – the writing of the lives of the saints – is a curious genre, now mostly forgotten.

Prior to reading this book, I had no idea hagiography was its own genre. I’ve always been fascinated with the saints and the stories behind their sainthood. The second I saw this book I knew I needed to read it.

Afterlives of the Saints turned out to be much different than I had expected! Over the course of my reading I bounced back and forced before ultimately deciding that this is just an okay book. It has its moments – and Mr. Dickey can be extremely sarcastic and witty, something I definitely appreciate – but I can’t imagine this being a book I’d pick up again. It was enjoyable while it lasted, but now that I’m finished we’ll be parting ways.

You can’t treat a saint as you would an ordinary human. When I think of the saints, what comes to mind are the “replicants” in Ridley Scott’s 1982 science fiction classic Blade Runner, androids of advanced strength and intelligence whom their creator describes as “more human than human.”

Mr. Dickey breaks up the novel into four parts: part one discusses saints and their writings, part two and three focuses on the world of art and literature, and part four sheds light on the beliefs saints held. There’s also a fifth part – perhaps my favorite – reserved for the almost-saints.

The major flaw with this novel was that, oddly enough, not nearly enough attention was given to each saint Dickey selected. Imagine! Each chapter (if you will) can easily be read alone. Unfortunately, while each starts out with a particular saint, Dickey quickly proceeds to deviate and instead ends up discussing how society/film/war/nations/etc have changed or were influenced by that saint. There were times when I felt what Dickey was discussing had absolutely nothing to do with that chapter’s saint.

Conques, meanwhile, was still without its saint. Unable to get Vincent of Saragossa, they decided next to try to acquire Saint Vincent of Pompejac – one Vincent being apparently as good as the next.

Although I didn’t necessarily dislike the book, I definitely feel as though I was a bit mislead. Afterlives of the Saints reads more like a series of essays that sort of kind of deal with a saint, rather than being the book I originally had imagined. Because of the stand-alone nature of the chapters, this is definitely a book where you could pick and choose which chapters you’d like to read. Want to read about Saint George and the dragon? Go for it! Feel like finding out more about Saint Simeon and how he perched atop a pole for three decades (“There are records of at least ten other saints who were revered for standing on poles.”)? Feel free! Certain chapters, or rather certain saints, interested me more than others and those chapters were the ones I got through quickest.

In the end, I’m glad I read Afterlives of the Saints. The book as a whole was very fascinating and I learned an awful lot about these saints.

Favorite Quotes

But even as more and more hermits climbed atop pillars to escape the world, Simeon, the first of them, remained the most well known, the originator of a strange craze that swept the desert in the fifth and sixth centuries.

Let your first image of Gregory be this: singing hymns one morning in 580 to a passed-out Christ.

Agatha’s torture included having her breasts cut off, and she is commonly depicted as holding those breasts on a tray before her. But the laity didn’t always recognize these tan lumps as breats. They were misread often enough both as bells and as loaves of bread that she has become the patron saint of bell-forgers and bakers. And then there’s Bartholomew, flayed alive, who holds, in addition to his own skin, the tool used to cut that skin off, a tool that looks sort of like a cheese cutter, so Florentine cheese merchants took Bartholomew as their patron.

She is not the only military saint, but she is the saint of the cannon, of the powder, of the sudden and convulsive explosion. Saint Barbara, who blows things up for justice.

According to the Palimpsest, George was forced to wear iron boots into which nails had been hammered, his head was beaten with a hammer, a ret-hot helmet was placed on his head, more nails were pounded into his head, his skin was pierced with iron hooks, he had molten lead poured into his mouth, he was placed inside a bronze bull lined with nails and spun around, and then he was set on fire.

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