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A History of Privacy

I was going to wait one more book before I wrote, but I think Book X is, of its own type, a justification for The Confessions. I know before I read it that it will demonstrate some of what we’ve already discovered; it will also supply a final framework and discussion of the value of Augustine’s text—why he wrote it, what it represents to him, what it ought to represent to others. But before I get there, I have two posts to write. This first is a follow-up to and extension of J’s excellent explication of A’s conversion. I don’t dispute J’s definition of the Confessions as a history of reading, which is a polite way of saying a history of hermeneutics—how to read texts, how to read the self.

It’s no accident that A remarks on Ambrose’s silent reading. It’s the first recorded instance in Western literature of anyone reading silently. How profound that must have been to A! Writing as he does, presumably after having learned to read silently himself, A merely remarks on it and theorizes that Ambrose used it as a means of escape. Textual evidence that there is more to it than that is slant, but still want to put forward to you that I suggest that Ambrose’s moment of silent reading represented to A the possibility that the self is something other than the public face. For some perspective, Alberto Manguel, from A History of Reading:

Written words, from the days of the first Sumerian tablets, were meant to be pronounced out loud, since the signs carried implicit, as if it were their soul, a particular sound. The classic phrase scripta manent, verba volant—which has come to mean, in our time, “what is written remains, what is spoken vanishes into air”—used to express the exact opposite; it was coined in praise of the word said out loud, which has wings and can fly, as compared to the silent word on the page, which is motionless, dead. Faced with a written text, the reader had a duty to lend voice to the silent letters, the scripta, and to allow them to become, in the delicate biblical distinction, verba, spoken words—spirit. The primordial languages of the Bible—Aramaic and Hebrew—do not differentiate between the act of reading and the act of speaking; they name both with the same word.

Ambrose, reading his codex without speech, absorbing its meaning without expressing voice: consider how profound this must have been to Augustine, whose life, as a rhetorician, was to speak always aloud, to argue and construct, in voice. (Note how in Book IX, after his baptism but before he quits his job in the court at Milan, he remarks that his voice was failing him. It is more than a simple sore throat: it’s a physical manifestation of his rejection of rhetoric.) Books were not the same, then, after all, and J is right to call attention to the books, which seem, especially in Book VIII, to always be lying about ready to be picked up and read. Manguel is keen to note that in the garden, when A picks up the epistles of Paul, the scene is a moment of reading both silently and aloud: Alypius must ask A what it is that he has read.

I find this intriguing because the Confessions is also a history of ontology, of the nature of the self’s being (which is also a history of God’s being). No mistake that Augustine, by the time of his writing, is a certain Neoplatonist. His theology is built on the existence of two worlds, the material and the immaterial, things and spirits. Our soul is an expression of the self that is at once all of the self and greater than the body. Religiously, it is manifest in things transcendent—the Holy Spirit, heaven. These are who we are; we know these represent who we are. Being is such that we take its specific character for granted.

But Augustine didn’t take ontology for granted. Indeed, his Confessions is primarily a narrative of his trying out different philosophies of being. A’s world tracks from the dualistic universe of Manichaeism to a hybrid Manichaen/Catholic universe that is wholly material, to a Platonist singular universe made of dialectic material/immaterial things. Only the dialectic universe can solve the problem of both good and evil. Only the dialectic can envelop all of God and yet allow God to envelop all the universe as well.

What J’s already said is worth repeating—Book VII is really important because it is where Augustine finally discovers a universe that works. It bears rereading because I think it defines a really interesting, even complex world made more valuable because A comes to it not because it’s what he’s lived all his life, but because it’s what he discovers on his own. His path is classically philosophical: he adopts truth as it is made known to him, as he encounters ontologies that better-encompass all the world he knows. When A meets Platonism, he meets his own Grand Unification Theory (to be anachronistic about it) and because it accounts for God and for Truth, he is able eventually to accept God as his own.

It also, however, makes of him an unusual character and allows him to speak of himself pecuiliarly. After Platonism, A can speak of his self divided. It is the very kind of self that I think A must have imagined Ambrose represented to him by his silent reading. It is manifest especially in two passages, one just before the garden, one after. (Note to self: don’t forget A’s paroxysms of the will in the garden.) The first happens as Pontician is telling the story of the monks.

While Pontician was telling this story, you, Lord, used his words to wrench me around to front myself, dragging me out from behind my back, where I had cowered to avoid seeing myself, and ‘planting me in front of my own face,’ where I could see the foul me, how distorted and dirty, how spotted, how ulcerous. The sigh revolted me, but there was no escaping it—each time I tried to turn my gaze away from me, he went on with his story; and you kept holding me there, thrusting me into my own face, so I might ‘look on my sinfulness and learn to hate it.’ I had known of it before, but I kept obscuring, giving in, not remembering. (VIII, iv, 16)

How incredible this is! Augustine creates this private drama of the pulling apart of the self and the turning of self around to look at itself as if it were other. A needs no mirror to see. He only needs to know that he may be a self divided—spirit and body? will and being? judge and accused? It is too important that this is a private drama. Consider A’s character later, after Monica’s death:

I was using truth as a medication for the pain you knew me to be in, though they did not—they heard me speak calmly and thought I could not be suffering. But you heard me within, where they could not listen. I reproached myself for melting into sorrow; I dammed up the flow of grief, so it receded a little, then swept back, and carried things on almost to the sobbing point or the cracking up of my demeanor, which it never reached. But I knew inside what effort it was taking. (IX.iv.31)

Notice how thoroughly Augustine creates of himself an interior and exterior, now? How different he is from the man who wept unconsolably from his lost friend. Augustine’s Confessions are a history of reading; they are also a discovery of privacy, of a being-in-the-world that is immaterial and thus simultaneously a being-apart-from-the-world.



I probably shouldn’t have written this without reading Book X first. There A, acknowledging how singular the transcendent soul is in the world, maps memory—that is, he maps the mind, categorizing its storage spaces and the ways in which it connects to the body and doesn’t. It’s a really fascinating chapter, but having read it, I could’ve put what I wrote above on firmer ground.

you’re absolutely right… it’s a fascinating chapter…

but more on that later…

re: the strange turn of the book after chapter ten

for Augie, it’s all about who you are at the moment of reading… this determines how you read.

there is a way in which augie can’t tell the history of who he is without delving into the weightier matters of Books X-XIII, after all these are his anchors, but he can’t tell them until he has arrived at a narrative place where he can tell them; he can’t write of them, at least in this book, until the difference between the voices has been resolved, until he is no longer wrent assunder in multiplicity.

the confessions is a journey into this platonized-christian cosmology/ontology. it, too, like introducing initiates into any mystery religion needs the reader to embark on this journey of self/world discovery in order to understand the true meaning of the religion.

oh yeah, is that history of reading, when you mentioned it, i remembered having heard an npr interview however many years ago it came out.

Yeah, A History of Reading is the book. I read it a few years ago. I know there’s been other similar books written these past few years, but Manguel’s is well written and offers more than enough of the kind of short, fascinating stories that a good popular history should. (Such as when, a teenager, Manguel read for Borges…) I suspect there’s a better paragraph than the one I quoted. I was in a hurry this morning and that one seemed close enough. There’s several good chapters on A & reading…

To be a philosopher [defined as lover of truth] and to be a Christian is synonymous in fact.

Erasmus… The Education of a Christian Prince

Erasmus, wise fellow, but… I don’t think anyone has said that the two were mutually exclusive?

no, true, but, in a way, it is this book and the ontologic search that A undergoes and records that makes the “lover of truth—defined as philosophy” and the Christian one. no?

Yes, that’s true. So true that it’s only through one that Augustine can gain the other. I mean, Augustine as much as says that he couldn’t accept God at all unless God acted in a Platonist universe. That’s why the two passages I quoted above are so stunning. A needed a way to confront his self and to confront it wholly, but the only way he could do so was to learn how to divide that self in twain.

you, Lord, used his words to wrench me around to front myself, dragging me out from behind my back, where I had cowered to avoid seeing myself, and ‘planting me in front of my own face,’ where I could see the foul me, how distorted and dirty, how spotted, how ulcerous.

Truth, to Augustine, which he also names as God in several places, is a way of knowing self and world, a cosmology that’s classical in that it puts everything in place (as opposed to enlightenment, which puts everything in language), and it is a hermeneutic whereby he can reenvision himself and world in God’s eyes.

Or something like that.