Hagiography

Kapur's Elizabeth is criticized, in historical terms, for reasons that represent modern difficulties with traditional hagiography. Writing at the beginning of the twentieth century, Hippolyte Delehaye, famous for his "scientific hagiography," is critical of popular legends in ways still prominent today "An idealized figure," he observes, "takes the place of history's sharply defined and living portrait" (Delehaye 1962: 19). Delehaye attributes hagiographic abstraction to the subjective element of human understanding. On the one hand, we tend to see what we want to see, and on the other, even our fair understanding of events requires intuitive links that cloud the complexity of historical experience (Delehaye 1962: 12-14). Delehaye outlines a critical method for reducing the damage that hagiography brings upon its biographies, but he admits that the very nature of hagiography makes extensive historical "correction" unlikely Like Kapur's Elizabeth, the saints are "types" rather than individuals, and their stories present explanatory schemes and markers for histories and identities not their own.

Pre-modern, pre-critical hagiographers (including those that are still with us today) expect the saints to provide imitable and theologically expressive ways of life, either as exemplary in virtue or as descriptive of God's ways, grace, and power in the world. Saints are expected to transform us. They are expected to disturb the world with God. Delehaye explains that hagiographers write according to age-old historical conventions. They hope to entertain and to enlighten, "not only to interest people, but above all to edify them, to do them good" (Delehaye 1962: 54). The life of the saint is presented for the transformation of those who receive it. The hearer is the one whose life is re-positioned and re-interpreted, like the changes put upon Ignatius of Loyola while he plays out the lives of the saints in his sickbed. Ironically, the reverse is the case as well. "Historical persons are deprived of their individuality, removed from their proper surroundings, and in a way isolated in time and space" (Delehaye 1962: 19). With the impulse to transform, the stories of saints become otherworldly.

Characteristically modern theories of sainthood attempt to break with traditional conventions by following contemporary standards of historical detachment. We like to leave things in the world as we expect they already are, and we want to keep the saints in the world as it is. For the most part, this modern project has been a failure. Historical objectivity turns out to be only as coherent or fragmented as common life, and in a "pluralistic" world, historians reproduce themselves by criticizing and consciously changing biases and perspectives. The practices of writing history belie canons of modernist historiography Likewise, modern theories of sainthood are quite different than present-day practices of devotion and veneration. The practices look to what can be gained from or pushed upon a saint. The theories, on the other hand, promise to find something in the life of the saint that accords with some freestanding possession or quality of the saint, such as virtue, altruism, or God-consciousness.

These theories intend to reform popular practices, ancient and contemporary, by excluding many who are thought to be saints, such as Saint Jude (Orsi 1996). By bringing veneration under control, modern theories domesticate the saints as well. What is the point, for instance, of claiming that St Francis is exemplary for his "religious consciousness" when in our world, as in his, his way of life is more likely to be considered uncivilized or crazy? (Cunningham 1980) The point, it seems, is to present (i.e., divide) Francis in our modern image, to retain an internal kernel of religious subjectivity while avoiding implications of the practical husk. The idea of Francis's "religious consciousness" is useful because it makes his life meaningful for good modern capitalists who love birds and are open to loving squirrels and rabbits as well. Even though modernist hagiography may claim to depart from ancient ways of taming history, it serves to bring saints under our control.

Pre-modern elements of hagiography tend to make the lives of saints more credible to their audiences (through the testimony of miracles for instance), but at the same time, they open us to an untamed world. Historical perspectives are always anachronistic, at least to some degree, inasmuch as conceptual categories of one time are used to display the meaning of events in another. Hagiography intensifies this narrative projection insofar as the saint's life is told in order to enlighten and to underline a larger truth. Pushing beyond their own lives, saints will break with the ordinary. While a saint's story is written to the time of its readers, its goal is to change them and their world (Wyschogrod 1990).1 In these terms, Elizabeth does not complete the hagiographic picture of a saint. It is true that we know her as more than a historical reconstruction. We understand her. Historians might scoff at the story's modern flourishes, but they too will recognize the personal trials and motives of this Elizabeth. We know the trials and yearnings of her body, but her transformation into the Virgin Queen is clearly not a conversion of our own.

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