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  • Augustine: A New Biography
  • Brent Shaw
Augustine: A New Biography. By James J. O'Donnell. (New York: Harper Collins Publishers. 2005. Pp. xvi, 396. $26.95.)

The subtitle of this new life of Augustine announces a biography. It is both that and rather more. Before O'Donnell's Augustine, there were two big standard works on Augustine's life. Peter Brown's now-classic Augustine of Hippo first appeared in the 1960's. It was a spectacular and pathbreaking work of genius written by a young man who was then only in his early thirties. Not without good reason does O'Donnell himself laud Brown as "Augustine's best biographer" (p. 73). Brown's Augustine appeared again at the turn of the millennium, with reconsiderations [End Page 132] that looked back on the author's original work from the perspective of a half-century of changes in which Brown himself had a large part. Then Serge Lancel's Saint Augustin appeared just before the turn of the millennium, first in French and then, within three years, in an English translation—a biography whose extraordinary quality was assured by the author's incomparable command of the whole range of ancient North African history. Whereas Brown's work set Augustine's life in the context of the development of Late Antique culture and thought, Lancel offered a more strictly biographical perspective that placed the man more firmly than ever in his African homeland and culture.

O'Donnell's Augustine is not like either of these now-classic lives. His Augustine is not set in any context. Instead, the reader is taken for a sometimes breathtaking ride, invited to sense the forces involved in making the man from the inside out. The "more" that the reader gets is a postmodern rush. We feel the depression and anxiety, the rage and anguish of a man living his driven life of success and failure. Patently influenced by cybernetics, virtual and deconstructive currents, this Augustine is not a neat narrative retold in careful chronological order. It is a critical inspection that strives to break down the pieces of personality (p. 84). In the postscript that has appeared with the paperback version (2006, p. 7), the author confesses that he had toyed with the subtitle of "An Antibiography," much in the manner that my clothing has sometimes been derided as an Antifashion, I suppose. The result is anything but neat or intended to satisfy.

O'Donnell's Augustine is a site of immense talent, huge ambition, and great frustrations whose self-fashioning, down to the center of the famous conversion, was deliberately constructed in his Confessions. Alert to the stratagems of deliberate amnesia and fiction, there is a constant drive to interrogate the subject. What is it that Augustine is not telling us? And why? In a man who was so attuned to his increasing celebrity, the tactic is useful and produces better insights. Moved by a hermeneutic of suspicion, O'Donnell is determined not to be seduced or hypnotized by his subject's words. In his prying apart, he does not shrink from imaginative reconstructions, fictional biographies, and counterfactual scenarios that might well make an Edmund Morris blush (e.g., pp. 51-52, 80-81, 171-172, 205-207, 230-231). He brings into the glare of his spotlight experiences that Augustine most wants us not to see—amongst others, his eleven (not nine, as he minimized) years as a devoted Manichee, and his beloved mother's involvement in the Donatist church. The personal story is set against a deep cultural background: the making of sermons, the writing of letters, the quality and knowledge of Latin, Greek, and Punic, and the complex and rapidly evolving template of late antique social relations.

O'Donnell warns us, as we might expect, not to take the power of late paganism as gravely as it is presented to us: "Christian parody and polemic is taken too seriously" (p. 189). The fright of a great religious threat was needed in the forging of a new Christianity in the late fourth century. The polemics did serve one great end and personal success: "Augustine's part in shaping catholic identity was...


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