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Book I

There will be a follow-up post on Book II later today or perhaps tomorrow, but Book I offers a lot with which to begin. I’m going to appeal a lot to our Classicists and Medievalists (or whatever approximation of such we have) and beg you to enlighten us with what histories (of ideas, of places) that I lack. from augustinians.org.au Unfortunately, I don’t have a picture of GKB dressed as Augustine, but the picture at right is how I imagine he’d look. Note the slicked-back hair and furrow of his brow: this is a man who is focused. No tiny purple women will distract him.

The Confessions is a prayer; it is a text of long meditation on the nature of God and the nature of mankind and, specifically, Augustine, whom we’ll get to in a moment. But the text begins with an examination of God. From the outset, in the address, Augustine pushes, pulls, pokes, prods God in every way. He puts God in a box, then exclaims that God can’t be put there! Augustine is exploring God’s paradox: where God is is all of God, and yet not all of God is there. This exploration of paradox is also, significantly, in every way in relation to A himself. God always relates to self; self is always in relation to God—either turned toward or away, inside and out at once. A’s relation to God is a great analogy, a connection between God and himself and all people and things. Analogy connects, which is why he says,

I can bear you testimony, Lord of heaven and earth, returning praise to you for my origin and speechless days, though I remember it not, because you let man learn of his infancy from analogy with other infants, if not from women gossips who were there. (I.ii.10, p. 8)

Where the self cannot know oneself, it discovers itself from analogy.

  • That said, in this beginning, what is memory and selfhood to Augustine? He is developing an ontology and a definition of awareness, hence all the discussion of memory and infancy and, likewise, the exploration of sin and its presence in the soul. Yet this soul: what is it, to A? What relation has he to Plato and Aristotle and the classic understandings of self?
  • That question leads to this. A concludes the uses and abuses of language are clear and distinct. Basically, literary connection (I won’t use the term imagination: it doesn’t fit here) is a false one (so Plato said, too), because it glamorizes sin (cf. I.iv.24, pp 16-17; I.v.26, p. 20, and elsewhere) Reading and writing, however, are OK: they have brought him closer to God. A excuses himself from the class of rhetoricians because they are proud, but is reading/writing the same as rhetoric? Because A makes no apologies for rhetorical playfulness. What role holds language in this confession? How precisely do fictions lead men astray?
  • Was there any consensus baptismal practice in the fourth century? I read his near-deathbed baptism and his mother’s decision to refuse it when he got well, and I wonder. What theology of sin and redemption does he represent (if not his own), and is this an implicit pointing-toward original sin?


PS. Don’t use the categories set aside for these yet. They make the article disappear. I’ll fix it. Promise.

As to reading and writing… it’s not reading and writing that A dislikes, but, as you say, fictions.

The Confessions is a model text… not just in the sense that here we have a Christian man writing of his journey away from and back into Christianity (and so he plays at times the negative and others the positive exemplar), but in the way that Augustine uses Scripture as the language through which he writes.

The Confessions is, in a way, one long set of Scriptural citations, quirky, personal proof-texts. In between the various Psalms he quotes, which serve as a musical score, A tells his own life.

These citations not only instruct the reader in sound doctrine, they also foreshadow what A will do; admonish A and reader to be faithful; praise and blame; and, among many other things, respond and dialogue with A’s life. They teach the proper way to address God and set the emotional/spiritual tone of the narrative.

This is the role of literature: the eloquence it teaches is both that of language and also that of character… this is why, despite the beauty of the pagan poets, their literature must be excoriated.

We should remember, the way A learned to read and write was by copying down long sections of this poetry. Eloquence was learned from modifying propitious turns of phrase and adapting them to the moment. These texts, notably Virgil, are often imperial texts. They are not only used to teach eloquence but also the virtues of Imperial Rome and the proper way that citizens should behave towards each other, the state, and the gods. (Well, this and inflame the passions… dissipating passions rather than the holy passion instilled by Scripture.)

Important, as well, is the last section where he talks about misplaced desire… only God should be enjoyed, only God should be sought for the sake of pleasure, he lays out in the De Doctrina Christiana; everything else should simply be used… knowing that it comes from God and should lead one back to God.

Perhaps I have said too much… and I don’t intend necessarily to play the apologist for A.

if i have jumped the gun… i trust that greg will delete my comment… or ban me from posting all together

Some of that I am going to write further about today. (I sympathize with GKB: it’s difficult to complete a good thought AND write it down when you’re working two jobs. So I apologize if everything I write seems incomplete...) I began to see what you’re saying last night when I was reading over it all again and realized that he’s as much excoriating his form of education as anything. At the same time, I remembered Seven Storey Mountain and how in that book Merton’s relation to his Self has been thoroughly transformed by the monastic life. Augustine writes similarly—or rather, Merton writes like Augustine: it’s less a question of valid interpretation as it is that A’s perspective is now built of the only interpretation that matters, “as a man castrated from heaven” (as he says in book II).

RE:GKB’s job, i was going to post this on your site… and then i thought, i wouldn’t want employers to see this. those allelon people sound like “spiritual” pirates: the whole neighborhood community center whose mission is to come along side of families and individuals (board them, pillage them, etc)

from Ronald Wallace’s Off the Record:

Maybe imagination is just
a form of memory after all, locked
deep in the double helix of eternity.
Or maybe the past is but one more
phantasmagoric invention we use
to fool ourselves into someone else’s shoes.

It is not my voice I want to hear
on memory’s fading page, on imagination’s disk.
It is my father’s in the background
prompting me, doing his best
to stay off the record, his hushed
instructions vanishing in static.

did you hear this morning the interview with athol fugard and his daughter (who has a newly-minted novel out)? they talked at length about how to write someone else’s words & perspective. Athol was unapologetic about imaginative projection, of pretending to be someone else (specifically, a black south african). She, on the other hand, said she hesitated before she wrote. To put oneself in others’ shoes, she worried, might be impossible—unethical. She wrote anyway, as any good writer should do.

Would it be fair to say, though, that Augustine is in some way addressing the same debate, only in respect to himself? Is it ethical/right/theologically sound to write of myself, when it is not myself but God who matters?

I heard a snippet of that interview. . . . There is so much tension in Augustine’s narrative, including that which you describe above. And it’s fascinating to me not only how pervasive a theme it is, but also how pervasive it is in the very language he uses—all that thesis/antithesis business (which Wills does a fine job of representing, I think, but which I suspect is even more apparent in the Latin—I need to take a look). More later—I’m off to Yellowstone for a hike today.

Blast. Friday has become Monday—all that weekend and I don’t have anything to show for it here!

Excuse 1: K’s new computer setup took a long time and a brief worry that we’d have to send it back.

Excuse 2: My house is in midst of planning next month—this is distracting because these plans are wholly different from our plans of the previous 2 months.

Did you know that if you type in hermits.com you go to the homepage of the St. Augustine prep school?

on the whole Greek thing… my susupicion is that Augie is using his dislike for Greek as a way of signaling his blindness.

it is, after all, reading the Greeks (Plotinus, especially, and his more theological passages… the ones about God containing everything and surpassing everything closely follow Plotinus) that lead him back towards God.

his resistance here makes his discovery later all the more of a eureka moment.