The Sex Lives of Saints: An Erotics of Ancient Hagiography. Burrus, Virginia. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007 [paperbound edition]. 224 pp. ISBN 978-0-8122-2020-9.

REVIEWED BY: Eileen A. Joy, Southern Illinois University Edwardsville; published in GLQ: A Journal of Gay and Lesbian Studies 16.1-2 (2010).

Many scholars of late antiquity and the early Middle Ages will resist the idea of a queer erotics of Christian hagiography, and of sanctity and ascesis as queer erotic arts. But consider Severin, one of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s main characters in his 1870 novel Venus in Furs, who is regularly aroused reading The Lives of the Martyrs. Sacher-Masoch himself once recounted of his childhood, “I would sit in a dark, secluded corner of my great-aunt’s house, devouring the legends of the Saints; I was plunged into a state of feverish excitement on reading about the torments suffered by the martyrs.”[1] Far from reading these Lives perversely (or perverting their more “proper” reading within a repressive morality of sexuality), it could be argued that the young Sacher-Masoch was simply recognizing what Virginia Burrus calls their “exuberant eroticism” (p. 1) — an eroticism, moreover, very much predicated on what Karmen Mackendrick has termed the “counterpleasures” of sadism, masochism, and ascesis.[2] Very much under the influence of Georges Bataille’s notion that erotic experience might be closer to sanctity (and therefore, also, to theology) than to anything else, and lured by the mesmerism of Jean Baudrillard’s idea of seduction as a nonteleological and infinite suspension (pp. 156–59), Burrus’s book offers transgressive (and frankly passionate) readings of ancient Mediterranean saints’ lives in order to show how these Lives reveal a sacred and sublime countereroticism that was (and perhaps still is) subversive of “the constraining and often violently oppressive structures of familial, civic, and imperial domination” (p. 161).

Although Burrus’s book does not take up an explicitly Foucauldian analysis, she does avow that her delineation of an ancient hagiographical erotics is partly an attempt to grapple with Michel Foucault’s treatment of Christianity in his multivolume History of Sexuality. In part a contestation of Foucault’s understanding that the rise of Roman Christianity helped consolidate a disciplinary heterosexist ethics, Burrus proposes that “there arises within Christianity a distinctive ars erotica that does not so much predate as effectively resist and evade the scientia sexualis that likewise emerges (derivatively) in late antiquity and eventually culminates in the production of a modern, western regime of ‘sexuality’ ” (p. 3). But Burrus also acknowledges that Foucault himself was ambivalent about early Christian asceticism, seeing in it both the matrix of disciplinary, modern sexuality, as well as “an emergent strategy for escaping sexuality’s disciplinary power” (p. 3) through various techniques of cultivating a self that would ultimately transcend itself in order to invent, in Foucault’s own words, “a manner of being that is still improbable.”[3] Indeed, I see Burrus’s book as a very timely contribution on behalf of premodern studies into discourses on ascesis in contemporary queer studies — discourses, moreover, that are partly troubling, in my mind, for their attachment to romanticized and nostalgic narratives of ancient, medieval, and early modern Christian practices of abjection, self-disavowal, and martyrdom to God. I am thinking here, especially, of Leo Bersani’s recent comparison between barebacking and the “perfect passivity toward God’s will” of Le pur amour (“pure love”) practiced by seventeenth-century Catholic mystics who believed in the “ ‘impossible supposition’: if God were to annihilate the souls of the just at the moment of death, or if He were to banish their souls to hell for all eternity, those whose love for God were pure would continue to serve Him with an absolute disinterested love.”[4] I am also thinking of David Halperin’s recent proposal of a queerly “upbeat and sentimental” abjection that helps “capture and make sense of the antisocial, transgressive appeal of risky sex” without recourse to the language of pathology or the death drive, and which relies for some of its force on medieval Christianity’s contemptus mundi.[5] But I run ahead of myself, for what, perhaps, troubles me does not trouble Burrus, for whom the intersection of eroticism, risk-taking, and theology is “crucial” (p. 17).

For Burrus, in the Lives of the ancient saints, we can trace (and even feel in the present) “not the chastening of the sexual subject but the seduction of salvific grace through the sacrifice of a ‘self’ reified . . . in its very ‘sexuality,’ ” as well as the “twinned (intertwined) possibilities of God and love” (p. 17). Especially important to Burrus is not so much the forms of asceticism (and queer love) developed in the details of the Lives themselves (as if their narratives offered models of how to live and love, and yes, die, queerly — although Burrus does, rather surprisingly, hope that her reading of them will result in “a different way of loving”) — but what happens in the writing and reading of these lives when we recognize these processes as “open, ever unfinished and unstable enterprises[s]” (p. 8). The writing of these ancient texts, in Burrus’s view, was itself an erotic practice, and the Lives are still writing themselves, and when we read them today, we “open” ourselves to their multiple and mobile fields (and shifting deserts) of “indefinite interpretation” (p. 18). This is not to say that history does not matter, for the role of ancient hagiography, understood in terms of certain logics of temporality, does matter if we are to have some hope of a genealogy of the erotics of hagiography in relation to a history of sexuality. Ultimately, whether describing the “self-shattering” occasioned by Jerome’s narratives of the desert hermits Paul, Malchus, and Hilarion (chapter 1), the masochistically eroticized deaths of women in the writings of Gregory of Nyssa and Augustine (chapter 2), the queer “womanliness” and sadistic “hypernaturalness” of Sulpicius Severus’s Martin (chapter 3), or the unrepentant seductiveness of the later “harlot” Lives of Syrian Mary, Pelagia, and Mary of Egypt (chapter 4), Burrus aims to offer an archaeology of desires that move beyond gendered or any other subjectivity and which open onto “the expansiveness of the soul,” even cutting “between souls” (p. 162).

Burrus’s book is an extremely welcome intervention in a field — studies of early hagiography — that has not readily admitted the transerotics of saints’ vitae. And these are erotics that will be all the more troubling to some precisely because of Burrus’s dazzling illustrations of early Christian asceticism’s dependence on desires that not only do not deny the sexualized body but even take that body to its most breakable limits and beyond. The paeans to “holy” love, however, invoked with breathlessness throughout, raise (for this reviewer) a troubling difficulty. It is one thing to locate (and even enjoy) the sex in asceticism and abjection — ancient or modern — but quite another to make of that a form of “divine” love we should all hope for. What is love, again (as opposed to desire, to pleasure, to sex, to the erotic, to voluptuousness, to jouissance, to sublimity, and so on)? This question remains undertheorized in queer studies at large.[6]


1. Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, “A Childhood Memory and Reflections on the Novel,” in Masochism, trans. Jean McNeil (New York: Zone, 1989), 273–74.

2. Karmen Mackendrick, Counterpleasures (Albany: State University Press of New York, 1999).

3. Interview with Michel Foucault, in Foucault Live: Collected Interviews, 1961-1984, ed. Sylvère Lotringer, trans. Lysa Hochroth and John Johnson (New York: Semiotext(e): 1996), 310.

4. Leo Bersani, “Shame on You,” in Leo Bersani and Adam Phillips, Intimacies (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008), 51–52.

5. David Halperin, What Do Gay Men Want? An Essay on Sex, Risk, and Subjectivity (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2007), 106, 64.

6. Mackendrick provides one possible answer to this question in her book Counterpleasures where she writes that love is “an impossible joyous abandon — a sense of being without recourse — which opens the self and thus undoes it” (p. 156). But Mackendrick also conflates here, I think, love and ecstasy (or jouissance) and the question of the relation of love (of who to who or to what, on whose behalf?) remains open.