restricted access Henry James and Augustine on Still Life
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Henry James and Augustine on Still Life

In his Time and Narrative1 Paul Ricoeur takes as his point of departure for his elaborate analyses of temporality and narrativity Augustine's concept of time as presented in Book 11 of the Confessions. Next he wages the experiment of blending Augustine's concept of time with Aristotle's concept of plot, the one, time, being unable to furnish us with plot, the other, plot, being unable to furnish us with time. Thus, in Ricoeur's view, Augustinian temporality as the distentio animi, the stretching out of the soul establishing both a past and a future as an extension of an ever looming and ever elusive present, is to be underpinned with a narrative structure that, though an intrinsic part of the subjective drive, somehow guarantees an orderly course of events. Smart and effective though Ricoeur's construct may be, it turns out to have some drawbacks that come particularly to the surface in his discussions of modern literature: Woolf, Proust and Mann. While Ricoeur's choice of those three authors is clearly fortunate since it enables him to trace his own version of emplotment as a blend of temporality and narrative structure and order, it proves also to be quite telling for what it leaves out, radical plotlessness. If, on one hand, Ricoeur's reading of, for instance, The Magic Mountain focuses on the Bildungs-aspects of the novel, thus highlighting narrative and temporal order over and against the circular and eternity aspects of time figuring so prominently in the novel, Beckett's plotlessness is rejected out of hand as being too disorderly and chaotic. If Beckett himself characterizes the telling of his story as "a place of neither plan nor bounds,"2 this disorderly procedure is [End Page 979] clearly a bridge too far for Ricoeur: "Rejecting chronology is one thing [as in the older forms of modernism, Eliot, Pounds, Yeats, Joyce]; the refusal of any substitute principle of configuration is another [Beckett]."3

Now it is quite possible to criticize Ricoeur on this particular issue and read Augustine, in particular his Confessions, from a Beckett-like, plotless point of view. Elsewhere I have been trying to do just that, analyzing the narrative of the Confessions while honoring Augustine's radical view of temporality which, strictly speaking, is about the present, the praesens praesentis, as a reflection of eternity.4 Further research into this matter would reveal the effects of the Augustinian notion of temporality both on the level of his own discourse as another way of accounting for the elaborate and digressive nature of his writings and thought, and as an attempt to trace the atomic moments of the praesens praesentis, breaking in with subtle force in the realm of speech, time and history.

Once this project has been embarked upon, one has to confront another quintessentially Augustinian topic, predestination. In my view predestination is somehow an extension of temporality; time, that is, frozen in its final manifestation. It goes without saying that it does not make any sense here to discuss predestination in its traditional guise of being about predetermination, free will, and the lack of it, and eternal redemption or rejection as a part of divine foreknowledge. I have no intention to walk the beaten track of the history of theology. Rather I propose to approach the matter from a more poetical point of view, following Dante who characterised the drops of imagination raining down on the head of the poet as bullas, containing saints and sinners forever fixated in hell and heaven and hovering between and betwixt in purgatory.5 With predestination being as much about the irdische Welt, the secular world (to quote Auerbach on Dante)6 as about heaven, it may make sense to explore its temporal aspects. Of course, such ambition would seem to be a contradiction in terms, but may turn into a more feasible enterprise if we look at the anthropological appearance of predestination, perseverance. Now the specifically Augustinian aporias of the problem come to the fore if we realize that perseverance, like its underlying divine dimension, predestination, cannot be a matter of sustained action, and not even of...