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  • Two-Part Invention:Voices from Augustine’s The Teacher and Samuel Beckett’s Endgame

Augustine’s The Teacher and Samuel Beckett’s Endgame both depict father-son conversations characterized by similarly strange and self-conscious uses of language. Each father offers his son linguistic guidance of an odd sort. However, the oddity of the offering is not without a point. Drawing on Stanley Cavell’s reading of Endgame, I explain the theological and philosophical motivations for the educations. I suggest Confessions book 9 may illuminate Augustine’s notion of the interior teacher, and I show how the forgotten mothers who haunt Augustine’s and Beckett’s texts offer resources for a richer account of language than that ostensibly offered by the fathers.

We see our fathers naked, we men.

—Stanley Cavell, Little Did I Know1


Among the more poignant moments of Stanley Cavell’s 2010 autobiography Little Did I Know are those in which young (and old) Cavell works to find words to break the silence that hung between himself and his father. In one exchange, seven-year-old Cavell’s aimless remark about speckled chocolate wafers was met with a savage retort and marked the moment when Cavell became certain his father wanted him dead—or rather, not to exist at all (LDIK, p. 18). Cavell was tormented both by his father’s utterances and punishing silences, and it is little wonder Cavell developed a lifelong preoccupation with responsiveness and failures of responsiveness. Here, too, we see the [End Page 480] roots of Cavell’s interest in philosophical scenes of language learning, and its motivations and discontents: for example, his work on book 1 of Augustine’s Confessions, his frequent circling back to the opening pages of Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations, or his reflection on the abusive familial language of Samuel Beckett’s Endgame. Cavell’s parents, like all parents, taught young Cavell words and their meanings, but also gave him some sense of why we speak to one another and what might motivate that speaking. This education in meanings and motives became for Cavell a rich vein of inquiry. The ordinariness of the process of growing into language makes it no less wondrous.

This essay investigates two scenes of instruction in ways of speaking—involving not small children but young men, already well along in their educations. Reading an essay by Cavell suggested to me the possibility of reading the two in concert, as I explain below. The first scene involves Augustine of Hippo and his promising teenage son. That son, Adeodatus, died as a young man. We are left with traces of his intelligence both in Augustine’s mentions of him in the Confessions and in his articulate and perceptive remarks in the dialogue The Teacher, a conversation that took place not long before his untimely death. The actors in the second scene are Hamm and Clov, two fictional characters from Samuel Beckett’s play Endgame. The relationship between these two men is complex, but it is enough for now to note that Hamm is the adoptive father of Clov, his adult son. After a brief prelude, this essay considers each pair in turn, beginning with Augustine and Adeodatus.

One might well worry that these diverse characters, put on the same stage, may be reduced to a boring list of similarities and differences, of interest to none but perhaps the unimaginably rare specialist in both patristics and twentieth-century theater. That this pairing is fruitful remains to be seen, but that possibility would be foreclosed at the outset unless each of these characters is allowed to have his own voice. Therefore, this essay is loosely structured in the form of a fugue wherein this set of voices (two fathers, two sons) plays out a set of themes in language, theology, and gender. A fugue—as both musicians and late-Heideggerians will know—is different from a set of variations. In a fugue, the voices don’t simply repeat in altered form. (Hamm is not just Augustine dressed up in absurd Irish costume.) Instead, the voices speak to and across one another, and the beauty of the music comes from that interplay. In this case, the voices are distinct and separated by centuries, but they reach forward and backward, playing together [End Page 481] and over one another in a kind of theological counterpoint. To speak well about speaking, we must have an ear for voices.

The two fathers, Augustine and Hamm, offer their sons an initiation into a certain way of speaking. The sons, Adeodatus and Clov, try to make some sense of the pictures into which their fathers invite them. That sensemaking is no easy trick, however, because the educations on offer are unusual. The efforts of these fathers are notably different from the efforts of ordinary parents; both fathers encourage their sons to adopt a relation to words that is just plain weird. On the one hand, we hear Augustine trying to persuade his son to agree that he talks only to inform (and not to be informed), and he encourages Adeodatus to think of language as a tool by means of which minds may be brought to contemplation of the same thing. On the other hand, we hear Hamm trying to persuade his son Clov to speak and understand in ways recognizably responsive but also, in a particular way, meaningless; on this view, language becomes a strategy for resisting meaning. Thus one aim of this essay is to explain why each father draws his son toward such an unusual relation to words and language. Why does father teach his son that we use words this way?

A second aim of the essay is to tease out the theological contexts and implications of the odd inheritances of language the two fathers offer (or, rather, make a pretense of offering) their sons. Each father is wrestling with his own relation to his father-God and with his sense of the meaning of the word “redemption.” And each undertakes what appears to be a gesture of decreation. Augustine is the theologian here. And Beckett is something of an antitheologian. Yet Beckett’s concerns and Augustine’s concerns are more harmonious than we might initially think. Both help us see that thinking we exist at a distance from a mortal matrix must affect our sense of our words—and our sense of redemption as well.

In both texts, avowed theories about speaking threaten to dissolve into nonsense in the face of the actual practice of speaking man to man, father to son. This threat motivates the philosophical drama of the scenes. Both texts dramatize a particular problem (or set of problems) that can develop in relation to one’s words. By attending to these dramas, we can understand some of the philosophical and theological motivations for the odd educations on offer, and we can see how both texts might offer their reader a path toward liberation from a certain pathological relationship to language. To the question, “What moves us to speak?” philosophers might add the critical question: “Should those motivations ever be called into question?” These texts suggest ways of doing just that. [End Page 482]


Though Augustine pushes the thesis that we talk only to inform, that possibility is actually first given voice by his teenage son, Adeodatus. Augustine reports later that the views articulated by his son in the dialogue were indeed those of Adeodatus. The father begins with an innocent question: “What do we seem to want to accomplish when we speak with one another?”2 Put on the spot, Adeodatus ventures that we seem to speak to inform one another or to be informed by one another. Surprisingly, Augustine does not point his son toward a more expansive account, one that acknowledges that our talking with one another encompasses things like telling jokes, reminiscing with an old friend, reciting poetry, and many other things that don’t appear to be instances of informing or being informed. Instead, he deftly shows his son that talking to be informed is really just an instance of talking to inform (in which the speaker informs another what he wants: to know something). And he spends the next two-thirds of the book heroically trying to make sense of half of the position his son had first articulated. Though that position was an initially intuitive possibility, the strain of defending that curiously contracted account shows itself as the dialogue plays out.

Having adopted this account of what moves us to speak, Augustine explains to his son how words are able to serve their purpose. Words are signs; they signify (2.3). When I speak, I inform someone by choosing the right word to point someone else’s mind at some reality I have in mind. Presumably, the more I can choose words that signify determinately and unambiguously, the more successful I will be at informing others what I have in mind.

By way of demonstration for how words serve as signs for things, Augustine asks Adeodatus to identify what is signified by each word in this line of Virgil: “Si nihil ex tanta superis placet urbe relinqui” (2.3). Stanley Lombardo translates the Virgilian line in this way: “If it pleases the gods that nothing be left / Of this great city . . . ”3 As Augustine and his educated son would almost certainly have known, the line is taken from another father-son conversation in Virgil’s Aeneid, as Aeneas begs his father, Anchises, to flee doomed Troy. Spoken there, the words don’t simply point to things but are thrown out in a desperate voicing of filial love. Unsurprisingly, Adeodatus’s fumbling efforts to articulate the reality signified by the individual words (including difficult words like nihil [nothing]) butcher the sense of the line. This “clarification” yields not greater meaning but something a good deal less illuminating.4 [End Page 483]

The multivalent richness of the passage is almost endless, but one dimension is especially noteworthy: the familial. The quoted words evoke a father’s love for a son of great promise and a husband’s love for a wife lost. Moments after Aeneas begs his father to flee, Iulus, son of Aeneas, is shown through miraculous signs to be in the very care of the gods. Augustine shared with Aeneas both a father’s sense that his child was beloved of the gods and hope for his son’s brilliant future. Responsibility for the care of the son is intensified by the fact of an absent mother. Following her death during the family’s flight from Troy, the ghost of Aeneas’s wife, Creusa, appears, instructing Aeneas to enter his bright future and leave her behind. And she entrusts their child to his care. Virgil’s scene of parting could just as well have described the unwritten parting scene between Augustine and his unnamed partner, the mother of Adeodatus, sent away lest she become a drag on Augustine’s social and professional ascent.5

All this (and surely more) lurks in the quoted line and hangs in the air between Augustine and Adeodatus. It is odd that Augustine would ask Adeodatus to explain what each word signifies—as though the meaning could be read off the surface of the words by more or less anyone, and as though the unruly connotations did not dance around the edges of the exercise. In fact, Adeodatus fails, able only to offer more words but not things (2.4). It turns out to be no easy trick to show how words can be used to inform minds. As father and son idealize a strange contraction of meaning, they must make a pretense of deafness against the meaning that threatens to swell out.

About halfway through the dialogue, Augustine abruptly interrupts what seemed to be a logical (if strange) unpacking of the thesis that we talk to inform. He hopes aloud Adeodatus does not think they are wasting their time with intellectual games or diverting themselves from matters of importance with childish quibbles. Augustine suggests that Adeodatus may be wondering whether their discussion is bringing forth (parturire) something great or worthy (8.21). This metaphor rewards careful attention: parturire means to be in labor or to be pregnant with (like the English word “parturition”), and Augustine goes on to say that they, father and son, are involved in a kind of birth. Augustine says he is trying to prove that there is a blessed and eternal life which they might enjoy if God assists their steps; for now, their conversation is preparing them with exercises so that, Augustine explains, they might be able “not only to withstand but love the light and heat of that region,” the beata vita (8.21). Tangled in knotty details of the conversation about [End Page 484] signification and talking to inform, we, Augustine’s readers, may well wonder what being born into the bright light of the blessed life has to do with any of this.6

My sense of how to read the parturition passage is informed by what I take to be a curious omission. What Augustine describes is two men (and one divine father) trying to give birth to a life. To be sure, Augustine is speaking metaphorically, but metaphors have legs, and it is unclear where Augustine means for this one to take us. What he offers is the image of a birth into something wonderful (the truly blessed life) coming out of nothing or no one. As father and son speak of birth and happiness, it would be altogether natural to think of or acknowledge the memory of the beloved mother of Adeodatus—even if they couldn’t quite move themselves to speak of her directly or at length. The missing mother haunts the dialogue, written down as it was around the time of the death of Adeodatus, Augustine’s last connection with that woman whom he so much loved. Even faced with an image of this woman—his son, in whom Augustine must have seen traces of her features and gestures—and even while talking about himself and his son being birthed into new life, Augustine has no word to speak of her. Why?

Augustine seems to invite his son into a (basically) motherless birth. God the Father oversees, but this birth is characterized by a sense of autonomy. Augustine gives voice to the thought that he and his son must birth themselves into a new life—and that this is what talking to inform ultimately means. Both (rightly) think that words have something to do with life, but because they have committed themselves to the idea that we talk in order to inform, they end up speaking as though life is something achieved through a feat of articulacy. This is a far cry from ordinary, nonmetaphorical births wherein a mother gifts a child with life. Indeed, the metaphor of birth seems misplaced here—what Augustine describes is no event of deliverance—but interestingly so. What is missing in this passage is a strong sense of life as something one is given. Missing as well is a robust sense of life—mortal, earthly, human, finite life. Perhaps then this passage stands as an image of what it is to talk to inform: when I talk to inform, life is something I have to give myself. Or, it is better to say: when I talk to inform, life is something I have to engineer for myself; that way of putting it highlights that such a life (and “birth”) has little to do with incarnation, with being constituted by life with and from others, with living a life in time and history. When Augustine describes how he and his son will make their way into the happy life, he describes something like an unborn homunculus: a tiny [End Page 485] adult strategizes about how to get born into the world, blind to the fact that the walls that seem to confine him are both the source of his life and the site of his deliverance.


Beckett’s play Endgame7 is also, to start simply, about a father-son relationship and about how language forms and is informed by that relationship. Hamm is the adoptive father of Clov, who was taken in as a starving child at the request of his biological father, who could not care for him. Hamm is disabled, unable to walk or see, and he uses Clov as a slave to bring him the last scraps of food and medicine, to move his wheelchair, and to fulfill his other demands. Clov also serves as audience for the story Hamm tells—a story he has been perfecting for a long time. And the play hints that the two had been lovers. Hamm and Clov live together with Hamm’s mother and father in a strange world where, outside of their dim, oppressive shelter, nothing survives.

My reading of this play is indebted to Stanley Cavell’s attentive and imaginative account in his essay “Ending the Waiting Game: A Reading of Beckett’s Endgame.”8 Cavell is insistent that readers notice both the ordinariness and extraordinariness of the words and characters in the play. Beckett does not merely describe a strange world but describes a strange world that in some important ways reflects our own. And two of the ways in which Beckett’s imagined world reflects our own lie in how we live with our words and in how problems develop with respect to our words (“EWG,” p. 160). Though he is sometimes taken to be advocating for a kind of nihilism, Beckett does not say our words and worlds are meaningless; instead, for Beckett’s characters, emptiness and meaninglessness are—to use Cavell’s phrase—a “new heroic undertaking.” Meaninglessness doesn’t just happen; it is an accomplishment—and not an easy one. Thus we might ask: First, why is meaninglessness a goal for these characters? And, second, if Beckett tries to use words in a meaningless way, why on earth does he write, sending forth words to others? That is, why would someone trying to use words in a nontheatrical way (not for others, not trying to mean something to them) write plays? Cavell imagines someone might put to Beckett a question very much like that Augustine poses to Adeodatus at the beginning of The Teacher: “Why, if there are only words, do you use any? Which means: Why talk?” Cavell continues: “To which Beckett’s answer might have been: That’s what I’d like to know” (“EWG,” p. 161). [End Page 486]

Beckett’s father-son pair speak an unusual language, though they use ordinary and familiar words. Cavell says the grammar of their language has a quality of “hidden literality” (“EWG,” pp. 119–20). When Hamm and Clov speak, words are often taken (by the other) for what they might literally say. But the literality is hidden: what is said is often immediately intelligible to the reader—intelligible in the way that most native English speakers would understand it—but that immediate sense of intelligibility is almost always misleading, and it is not the sense in which Hamm and Clov take the words. So, for example, in reply to Hamm’s question, “Did you ever think of one thing?” Clov answers not as one might expect (“What?”) but rather with “Never,” which is to say that he has never thought of (just) one thing (E, p. 46). Or, as another example, take Clov’s response to Hamm’s question about what he sees out the window: “What in God’s name could there be on the horizon?” (E, p. 38). He’s not cursing but rather asking (for reasons that will become clear in a moment) what could possibly appear on the horizon in God’s name. The meaning is, in a sense, right there in front of us, but we overlook it and seek another meaning.

This literalization of speech is a manifestation of the play’s persistent theme of sterility. The literalization of speech between father and son deprives language of its life and its connection to the lives of the speakers and others. For example: Hamm retells the story of Clov’s biological father coming to seek help for his failing child. The story is poignant, but as Hamm recalls aloud that the man was “crawling on his belly, whining for bread for his brat,” and that he (Hamm) offered the desperate man a job as a gardener, Clov bursts out laughing, tickled at the idea of someone working as a gardener in the barren landscape (E, p. 68). Clov knows what the words mean, but he also has no idea what they mean. That is, he knows what a gardener is and that in the sterile and dead world in which they live, gardening is impossible; his inference is correct. But he is unable to feel the full weight of the words, to see that they record a father’s sacrificial love for his son—for Clov himself, who now only laughs, deaf to the multivalent significance of the story.

Cavell connects the strategy of literalization with the moods of madness that take hold within many periods and traditions of philosophy. Positivism, to take a notable example, held out hope for engineering an ideal language, characterized by clarity of notation and formed according to logic. In this language, ambiguity will be overcome, interpretation never needed; “thought will be as reliable as calculation, and agreement will be as surely achieved” (“EWG,” p. 123). (This is the sort [End Page 487] of language dreamt of by those who talk only to inform.) The meaning of the words exchanged between Hamm and Clov is governed by this sort of madness about language, we might say—language refined to pure logic and following formal implications only. When Hamm asks whether Clov would kill him, Clov replies, “I couldn’t finish you.” Hamm replies, with the perfectly logical inference, “Then you won’t finish me” (E, p. 45). Nothing could be clearer, though the clarity rests on a willful contraction of meaning. If we want the sort of words that would allow us to speak beyond the possibility of misunderstanding—the words that would let us unambiguously inform the minds of others—Beckett shows us we’re left saying almost nothing at all.

By now, it is worth asking why Hamm has this aim of meaninglessness. Cavell highlights a number of details to suggest Hamm, Clov, and Hamm’s parents are living within the shelter of Noah’s ark sometime after the flood. Briefly, the details are these: Hamm’s name (like Ham, son of Noah), the concern that nothing outside the shelter survive, the characters’ inability to leave the shelter, the nautical tools they use, and so on (“EWG,” pp. 137–38). God’s commandment to Noah was to be fruitful and multiply, to replenish the earth. Hamm seeks to undo or thwart this fruitfulness at every turn; his aim is to undo the covenant. Why?

Cavell suggests that being set apart for salvation is as great a burden as being set apart for suffering—in both cases, one must wrestle with the question of why one has been chosen (“EWG,” p. 141). Beckett’s Hamm, like the biblical Ham, may well have wondered at his and his father’s worthiness for being spared while all the world was destroyed in a flood. Famously, Ham sees his drunken father naked in postflood celebration, and for this sin, the son is cursed. The Genesis account does not record what exactly Ham saw, nor why the action warranted such a severe penalty. But perhaps, in seeing his father naked, Ham has seen that his father is ordinary, just a man, like all those other men (and women and children and animals of all kinds) who were swept away by the flood sent by God. And a similar realization elicits in Beckett’s Hamm the conviction that sense cannot come out of whatever God’s calculus is. Hamm perhaps concludes Noah was chosen without good reason—at least with no reason that could justify the “corpsing” (as he puts it) of every other living thing. And thus Hamm decides sense must not come out of the flood.

Imagine that Hamm’s relation to Clov is parallel to God’s relationship to man. (I’m confident Beckett had this analogy in mind.) Beckett asks [End Page 488] us: why do we remain so duty bound to an arbitrary and abusive master? Hamm demands that Clov serve him, cater to his whims, listen to the story he tells, and buy in to the meanings he has assigned to the words they speak with each other. And God requires that humans—Noah and Ham/m chief among them—play their roles in the horrific drama of salvation God has planned. In Beckett’s play, God tries to bind mortal son to divine father—he tries to make his son play the role his father has planned for him—a role that looks much like that played by the father himself. But Hamm doesn’t want to become his divine father. And so he refuses to continue to consent to his own abuse, even though that abuse comes under the guise of life-preserving love. Hamm says, proudly, that he has no father (E, p. 46).

Cavell interprets the story imaginatively, saying that the flood of meaning and hope (the great divine promise and plan) has blotted out the earth for man (“EWG,” p. 149). The heavenly waters overwhelmed any earthly sense. The biblical flood destroyed the earth while the remnant, Noah and his family, are hidden away in God’s shelter. But why should we imagine they would be grateful for this shelter, which keeps them from dying like all the others? Haven’t they lost all their earthly loves and attachments in the great flood of heavenly meaning and hope? Beckett’s implicit question to his viewers is this: why do we persist in mortgaging our senses to a heavenly meaning or story? Hamm struggles against his near inability not to mean what the divine father gives him to mean. In Augustinian language, we might say Hamm feels that God is talking only to inform; he is both presenting signs and controlling their meanings in ways at odds with earthly life and affections. And God’s teaching is damn near inescapable because he can make anything and everything fit into his story of redemption: every horror, every arbitrary choice, every bit of human suffering and death, even a rebellious son. And so Hamm develops a strategy of resistance: if God tells a cosmic narrative such that everything has meaning and sense in a cosmic plan, Hamm will work to defeat meaning at every turn.

Hamm tells his own story in the play, but it is a story without moral. Hamm says no—not just to the flood but to the whole project of eschatology, our name for the endgame to end all endgames. Hamm says no to the notion that, in the end, everything will make sense and be adequately justified. So while Hamm tells a story of his life, it is not a story that has any significance; it is not a story in which either his suffering or his salvation finds some sense. Hamm hopes that he can finally learn how not to hope, how not to escape. The prayer-like words [End Page 489] he voices—“Lord, help thou my unbelief”—now mean “Help me not to believe.” This is Hamm’s strategy of resistance, and this strategy of resistance forms the empty space for Clov’s initiation into language. They exchange meaningless words in a world evacuated of life. Hamm’s strategy of literalization is a strategy of antitheology.


In both texts, we have heard what I take to be the theme of this fugue: decreation. Augustine articulates the theme by suggesting we talk only to inform and to contract the meanings of our words such that we can secure perfect articulation and communication of our inner thoughts. Hamm articulates the theme by trying to secure a meaninglessness that undoes the creation of the world. In what I think we can safely call “spiritual exercises” (though they have not always been read as such), Augustine and Beckett both dramatize accounts of language in which there is no essential connection between language and life—in particular, life born of a woman. Worse, in both accounts, it looks like divine life has nothing to do with incarnate life. In fact, it looks like divine life is accompanied in its arrival by the death or diminishment of earthly life and sense. I don’t mean to suggest that Beckett and Augustine are saying the same thing (speaking with one voice, as it were)—not by any stretch. But from our present vantage point, they both—theologian and antitheologian—appear to raise for us this question: does the coming of divine life always mean the drowning or suffocation of what is mortal and incarnate?9

This essay has been primarily concerned with fathers and sons, yet it also turns out to be about mothers—or, rather, about the absence of mothers. Significantly, Augustine, when imagining his birth into the beata vita, imagines that life without acknowledgment of the matrix that is its very source. It is significant as well that the mother of Adeodatus is but a shadow (like Creusa, mother of Iulus) who haunts the dialogue. And it is probably also significant that the one living mother who shows up in the flesh—Hamm’s mother, Nell—is dead before the end of Beckett’s play. The silent or off-stage mother is a repeated theme in Cavell’s autobiography as well, a haunting counterpoint to his angry, bereft, and ultimately incoherent father.

So what is missing with all these missing mothers? What significance might we hear in these omissions? My sense is that the forgetfulness or occlusion of these mundane origins is intimately bound to the thesis [End Page 490] Augustine has been entertaining: when we insist that language is nothing other than a tool for the articulation of our thoughts, we fail to attend to the way we actually speak with those around us. We have forgotten how we make our way in the life into which we were born. And this is precisely Beckett’s complaint: he rails against a father-god who is always informing, always making himself understood, always inviting his subjects into an immortal life—but a life with its back turned to time, history, human connections, and earthly origins. Therefore, Beckett tries to undo the redemptive economy that binds father to son, and thus he launches a complaint that sounds pretty damning against the Augustine who forgets his attachment to and affection for the mother of his beloved son.

And yet there’s more to Augustine’s story. About two-thirds of the way through The Teacher, well along in the argument that we use words with each other only to inform, Augustine makes a sudden about-face and begins to argue for precisely the opposite thesis: words can’t actually inform minds at all. After noting that many things can be demonstrated to our understanding without the use of signs, Augustine makes the more radical claim that nothing is demonstrated by its own sign (10.33). If I don’t already know what a word signifies, it reveals nothing to me when I hear it; if someone speaks a wholly unfamiliar word (especially a word out of context), I will not understand what it signifies. Words can prompt us to remember something or to seek it, but they do not inform us of anything. In a few pages, Augustine dismantles all the work of the first two-thirds of the dialogue, all his attempts to persuade his son that they talk to inform.

In the final third of the dialogue, Augustine and his son entertain the possibility that they, father and son, can really be born into that happy life constituted by knowing and loving Christ, whom Augustine calls the interior teacher. Many interpreters take Augustine’s comments on the interior teacher to indicate that Christ serves as guarantor that minds are informed when words are spoken.10 On such a reading, Christ is very much like Beckett’s God—always irresistibly informing, always obliterating earthly sense. But it’s odd to attribute such an understanding of Christ to Augustine. For Christ, the very Word of God, was born in Bethlehem of his mother Mary. To invoke him to explain how two minds know something is a strange move; it betrays an impoverished imagination for how the Word of God was made flesh.

If we want to develop an ear for the call of the interior teacher (and, with that, our understanding of the essential connection between words [End Page 491] and life), we may well find it fruitful to contemplate the way words, life, origins, and transcendence come together in the mystical vision Augustine and his mother, Monica, undergo in book 9 of the Confessions.11 The passage seems a fitting way to close a reflection on how communication with others helps draw us into the happy life—a life that is not a repudiation of natality.

As Augustine retells the event, he stands together with his mother, leaning out of a window overlooking a garden. The garden stands as a metaphor for an interior place, but the image suggests an expansive sense of interiority—at least when it comes to those who know and love each other. In this scene, interiority is something that is common, a place where mother and son stand together, but also “inner” because it is a place of great intimacy. They speak together “very intimately,” in the light of Truth, about the eternal life of the saints. As they speak, they lift themselves “in longing yet more ardent toward That Which Is,” and their contemplation moves beyond corporeal objects into “that land of never-failing plenty” where truth serves as flood. They talk and pant for wisdom, and find that they, together, can just touch the “edge” of it through a leap of their hearts. Augustine and Monica speak not to teach or inform each other; rather they speak to bask in truth together, and to spur each other on to greater love of that Truth which, they remind each other, they will ultimately hear in an unmediated way (9.10.23–25). This is perhaps a fleshed-out picture of the workings of the interior teacher, a teacher whose voice is heard in the midst of those who speak with one another within the bonds of charity and a life shared—speaking sometimes with words, sometimes without, letting their lives shoulder some of the weight of understanding. And this teacher’s voice is heard not just quietly within but also sometimes aloud, in the voice and in the presence of Augustine’s very source of earthly life—his mother, Monica.

Augustine tells his son that language is where they will be birthed into life—or rather, language is how they will birth themselves into life, into a happy life, through greater feats of articulacy. Hamm communicates to Clov that language is where he and his son will set up resistance to life, specifically that life foisted on them by what they take to be an overbearing divine father. Both Beckett and Augustine try to dramatize a temptation about language: that we must speak unambiguously, with transparent clarity, in what we might describe as “sterile” speech. And both give us insight into what makes that temptation tempting at all: forgetfulness about one’s origins, as well as anxiety about the productivity of language. But both also dramatize the possibility that lurking [End Page 492] within our language are more expansive possibilities for how we imagine the lives we live with our words. Speaking can take on the form of deliverance from a puny sense of what words mean. The productivity of my words might be a gift, not a burden. What else are we trying to accomplish when we speak with one another, if not to receive the life in our words, to share the communion of a word made flesh?

Erika Kidd
University of St. Thomas


1. Stanley Cavell, Little Did I Know: Excerpts from Memory (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2010), p. 11; hereafter abbreviated LDIK.

2. Augustine, “Quid tibi videmur efficere velle, cum loquimur?” (1.1), from The Teacher (De magistro), ed. K. D. Daur, CCSL 29 (Turnholt: Brepols, 1970); hereafter cited by chapter and section. All translations are my own.

3. Virgil, Aeneid, trans. Stanley Lombardo (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 2005), 2.775–6. For the Latin, see R. A. B. Mynor’s P. Vergili Maronis Opera (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1969).

4. I lay out the broader implications of the breakdown of the Virgilian exercise in my essay “Making Sense of Virgil in De magistro,” in Augustinian Studies 46, no. 2 (2015): 211–24.

5. For an illuminating study of Augustine’s parting from the mother of his son, see Danuta Shanzer, “Avulsa a Latere Meo: Augustine’s Spare Rib: Confessions 6.15.25,” in The Journal of Roman Studies 92 (2002): 157–76.

6. See Michael Mendelson, “‘By the Things Themselves’: Eudaimonism, Direct Acquaintance, and Illumination in Augustine’s De Magistro,” Journal of the History of Philosophy 39, no. 4 (2001): 467–89, as well as two other essays that mark the beata vita comments as significant: Ann K. Clark, “Unity and Method in Augustine’s ‘De magistro,’” Augustinian Studies 8 (1977): 1–10; and Frederick Crosson, “The structure of the De magistro,” Revue des Études Augustiniennes 35 (1989): 120–27.

7. Samuel Beckett, Endgame (New York: Grove Press, 2009); hereafter abbreviated E.

8. Stanley Cavell, “Ending the Waiting Game: A Reading of Beckett’s Endgame,” from Must We Mean What We Say? updated ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), pp. 115–62.

9. This is Luce Irigaray’s guiding question in “When the Gods Are Born,” from Marine Lover of Friedrich Nietzsche, trans. Gillian C. Gill (New York: Columbia University Press, 1991). Her reflection on the meaning of the incarnation of Christ the Word has loosely inspired my reflections here. [End Page 493]

10. On Christ’s illumination of the knowing mind, see Myles Burnyeat, “The Inaugural Address: Wittgenstein and Augustine De Magistro,” Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, supp. vol. 61 (1987): 1–24; Peter King, “Augustine on the Impossibility of Teaching,” Metaphilosophy 29, no. 3 (1998): 179–95; Christopher Kirwan, “Augustine’s Philosophy of Language,” in The Cambridge Companion to Augustine, ed. Eleanor Stump and Norman Kretzmann (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), pp. 186–204; Gareth Matthews, “Knowledge and Illumination,” The Cambridge Companion to Augustine, pp. 171–185; and Louis H. Mackey, “The Mediator Mediated: Faith and Reason in Augustine’s ‘De magistro,’” Franciscan Studies 42 (1982): 135–55. Mackey gives special attention to the matter of Christ’s purported role in clarifying ambiguities of reference.

11. Augustine, The Confessions, 2nd ed., trans. Maria Boulding (Hyde Park: New City Press, 2012); hereafter cited by book, chapter, and section. [End Page 494]

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