Saturday, December 29, 2012

On Hagiography

On Hagiography

I was born for hagiography.  For the lives of saints.  I recognize that now.  The mania that possesses me for taking notes, for times and dates, and what is overheard.  The unparalleled fondness of for hyperbole and superlatives.  What better task could be found for a writer with first-rate determination and third-rate talent?  The fact bears repeating: I was born for hagiography. 

It is a tremendous pity that history, in its collapse, has deprived me of a saint.  There is no function I could better serve, than trailing after a saint, asking questions and rarely understanding the answers, but writing absolutely everything down.

Hagiography, it seems to me, affords one of few opportunities for blinkered people of limited intelligence to create written works of real beauty and significance.  A beauty and significance which is not theirs, and does not belong to them, but is available because they did not attempt judge or interpret, but only took care to write absolutely everything down.

When I speak of great hagiography, I do not mean the homogenized variety, which assigns, to each holy man or woman, one pious father, one saintly mother, and one charming village to which their holiness shone forth even as a toddler.

I speak of great hagiographies like The Gospel of Ramakrishna by “M” (the model of the genre), or Swami Satchidananda’s Gosp el of Swami Ramdas, or Suri Nagamma’s Letters from Ramanasramam.  These are works in which the disciple was so awed by the saint that they did not presume to condense or interpret, but simply wrote absolutely everything down, convinced that every action or word of the saint must contain a sacred and important message.

These books are invariably gigantic and published on Bible paper with a cloth bookmark.  It is to the creation of such a tome that my life ought to have been devoted.  A hagiographer without a saint is a sad bit of business, forever taking notes to no purpose.

The great hagiographies are paradoxical in several ways.  The first surprise is how lovely they are to read, how engrossing it is to watch the saint go through his morning mail, suffer from rheumatism, and discuss the local population of squirrels.  Page after page, these books are full of actual life, unlike the official biographies that are written based upon them, into which what is important is supposedly extracted, and which are invariably dull and lifeless.

Another paradox: these hagiographies often become integral to the religious community which forms around a saint, particularly once the saint has died.  (Except saints do not die.  Saints drop the body, attain mahasamadhi, or merge with Arunachala.  They never simply die.)  However, because these books present a full and unedited picture of the saint, they are always threatening, to some degree, to the institution which forms around the saint, and which wishes to present a picture of the saint which is unified, simplified, and sanitized. 

That is why you will NEVER find a full English version of The Gospel of Ramakrishna anywhere near the Ramakrishna Mission.  They’ve removed the homosexual references, which they’ve decided we can’t handle.  That is why it took nearly fifty years for the publication a full and unified version of Suri Nagamma’s Letters.  (The Gospel of Swami Ramdas is protected by remaining almost universally unread.)

I understand a little, but only a very little.  Not very much.  That is why I am forever taking notes to no purpose.  That is why I would make a first-rate hagiographer, despite being a third-rate everything else.

If you know of other great hagiographies, could you please share their titles?  Sending me an actual copy would be especially welcome, as they books are often privately printed and difficult to find. 

More importantly, if you by chance should happen to locate a saint, please let me know immediately.  Perhaps I could throw together a resume.

1 comment:

FogCityJohn said...

You're anything but a third-rate talent. The writing on this blog is all I need to refute that particular claim.