- Page 2Saints and Critics
Printers and brewers share a saint.
Augustine of Hippo serves as the patron saint of brewers in recognition of the raucous life he lived prior to his conversion to Christianity, and the patron saint of printers for his extensive writings on his faith.
He is also the patron saint of theologians, and is regarded by many historians of philosophy as the most influential philosopher in Western history.
Before his conversion, he was a teacher of rhetoric. He is also widely credited for developing the first “hermeneutics” in his book, On Christian Doctrine (397 CE).
Augustine of Hippo, or St. Augustine, if you will, is as at home in religious circles as he is in literary and philosophical. He practiced poverty and charity, and made enormous contributions to Western philosophical thought.
He is one those writers we love to hate.
The confluence of devotion and depravity, the secular and the spiritual, and the pious and impure make him one of the more difficult figures in the Western canon.
With Augustine, we always already bring a Catholic Saint and Church Father into our “secular” classrooms. Emphasizing his Berber and North African descent by calling him Augustine “of Hippo” does nothing to divorce him from his founding influence on early Christianity. In the twenty-first century, to bring this “saint” into our classrooms is to risk religious “advocacy,” particularly if unaccompanied by representation from other faiths.
Still, I cannot imagine literature or literary theory without him.
Compared to Augustine, our love/hate relationships with contemporary writers seem trivial, even when measured against the extremes.
Barring the much-debated and well-documented controversies over the alleged Nazi ties of Martin Heidegger and Paul de Man, two of the patron saints of deconstruction, another, less considered controversy is maybe more relevant to considerations of critical sainthood and moral opprobrium: the case of Christopher Hitchens’s attacks on Mother Teresa.
Hitchens began as a journalist with the New Statesman in Britain. Over the course of his career, he contributed mountains of cultural criticism for many different publications including The Nation, The Atlantic, Slate, Harper’s, The New York Times Book Review, and Vanity Fair, as well as many other publications both in America and abroad.
Widely regarded on the lecture circuit, he seemed willing to debate anyone on anything. His firebrand-style of criticism made him one of the most recognized (and loathed) public intellectuals in the world by the time of his death in 2011. Though Hitchens was a darling of the left, he was independent enough in his thinking to break ranks with it for example to support the invasion of Iraq.
Perhaps his most notorious and iconoclastic body of criticism came in response to the charitable work of Mother Teresa. In 1992, he wrote a column critical of her work in The Nation entitled “Mother Teresa: Ghoul of Calcutta.” The following year, in an interview on C-SPAN, he said of the negative response to his criticisms of her, “If you touch the idea of sainthood, especially in this country, people feel you’ve taken something from them personally. I’m fascinated because we like to look down on other religious beliefs as being tribal and superstitious but never dare criticize our own.”
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Then, in 1994, Hitchens and British Pakistani journalist Tariq Ali wrote a documentary called Hell’s Angel: Mother Teresa of Calcutta. It was shown in November of the same year on British television on Channel Four’s arts series “Without Walls.” Their work drew heavily from the account of Aroup Chatterjee, an Indian-born British writer, who had worked in one of Teresa’s charitable homes. Hitchen’s then followed up “Hell’s Angel” with a pamphlet published by Verso in 1995 entitled, The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice.
In his review of the book in The New York Times, Bruno Maddox says that Hitchens’s conclusion is that Mother Teresa was “less interested in helping the poor than in using them as an indefatigable...