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Augustine’s Confessions: Poetics of Harmony, or the Ideal Reader in the Text

Our noisy years seem moments in the being
Of the eternal silence

Wordsworth, “Ode: Intimations of Immortality“

Toward the end of the Confessions (13:30, 31), Augustine makes a last reference to the Manichean doctrines he had espoused during his youth. From the vantage point of a now-acknowledged total dependence on the word of God, his youthful errors are dismissed as the blind ignorance and insane claims of a man not yet illuminated by the power of the word and the proper understanding of God’s truth, the source of all harmony (“concordiam” [12:30]) and beauty. The Manicheans, those he calls insani, or “madmen,” taught a form of materialistic dualism in the belief that good and evil (or light and darkness) were two separate substances, always in conflict. According to this doctrine, the creation of the world was the product of those conflicting forces, and the souls of men consisted of an element of light imprisoned in darkness. As Augustine makes clear in 13:30, Manicheans see God himself as subjected to determinism. God is not a free creator, since he was “compelled by necessity” to assemble the different parts of the universe, such as those had been created “elsewhere.” The vocabulary used by Augustine in this very short chapter (sixteen lines) is of particular interest to the textual approach I shall be using here:

Opera tua, et multa eorum dicunt te fecisse necessitate conpulsum, sicut fabricas caelorum et conpositiones siderum, et hoc non de tuo, sed iam fuisse alibi creata et aliunde, quae tu contraheres et conpaginares atque contexeres, cum de hostibus victis mundana moenia molineris.

Because of their belief in dualism, Manicheans cannot accept that the world, like God’s book, is a harmonious creation. They see its textual fabric as a mere collection of borrowed elements hastily sewn together in order to create a frame, a rampart for protection against darkness and evil. Their views exemplify the need to compartmentalize, separate, and hierarchize reality, a need reenacted again and again throughout history by writers and philosophers intent on defining and classifying the polarities constitutive of Western culture: good/evil, light/darkness, male/female, and so on. In the Confessions, however, such a belief in dualism becomes unacceptable to Augustine the convert. For him, all of God’s creation is good and beautiful as Genesis 1 asserts: “And you saw all that you made, O God, and found it very good.” The last chapters of book 13 (32–38) go on to proclaim the glory of God’s deeds, which reflect both his wholeness and his holiness. The fundamental Manichean conflict between the forces of good and evil is thus transcended by Augustine’s adoption of a Neoplatonic Christian theology of unity and oneness.

As I show later in this chapter, the effacement of rigid boundaries leads Augustine to the progressive transformation and assimilation of what might be termed the feminine elements of his North African Roman Catholic culture. By integrating into one harmonious whole all the oppositional monads defined by Manicheanism, Augustine valorizes both of the opposing terms, making it possible to eschew the binary, exclusionary logic of rational thinking in favor of a more relational view of the world. It is such a relational view that subtends Augustine’s structuring of his autobiography, foreshadowing the patterns of métissage in the writing of contemporary women authors. It is thus extremely appropriate to begin my book with a detailed analysis of the Confessions, this founding document of Western autobiographical discourse, and to attempt to reread it in light of my own contemporary feminist commitment to eliminating the artificial boundaries that centuries of Manichean—indeed, phallogo-centric—thinking have helped to erect. I need not rehearse here the Derridean critique of metaphysics, but let me simply state that my approach to Augustine seeks to free the Confessions from the philosophical and theological traditions that have appropriated it.

In dealing with the Confessions, a text doubly canonical in virtue of its literary qualities and theological statements, critics have generally been tempted either to focus on its status as architexte of Western autobiography and thus paradigm of a certain narrative mode and historical itinerary or to see it as doctrinal supplement to the larger body of Augustinian writings, which belong to a specific philosophical tradition based on Neoplatonic Christianity and Judaic exegesis.2 Indeed, much Augustine criticism has tended to divide along those lines: secular reading of the narrative part, the first nine books, or philosophical/theological interpretation of the sacred doctrine using the rhetorical meditations of the last four books to clarify Augustine’s notions of time, memory, origins, and beginnings.

Yet, if Augustine takes such pains to insist that God’s text, the universe, is a harmonious whole, then I would like to suggest that Augustine’s own text must have been structured so as to conform to similar standards of unity, goodness, and harmony. Why then the combination of nine narrative books (1–9) with one meditative section (10) and three exegetic books (11–13)? This question has perplexed, even troubled, all those who have tried to deal with the text. The structural unity of the work has been a subject of controversy for many critics and some editions of the Confessions even omit completely the last four books on the ground that “they do not form an integral part of the biography.”3

It is certainly difficult for the modern reader to cope with the sudden shift in emphasis which occurs in book 10. The narrative collapses, human historical time gives way to a non-temporal, nonlinear meditation on the nature of memory (book 10) and time (book 11), and to an exegesis of the first verses of Genesis 1 (books 11–13). This seemingly didactic aspect of the four “episcopal” books4 easily leads the secular reader to reject them as doctrinal supplement and therefore not relevant to students of autobiographical narratives. One recent study by William S. Spengemann goes so far as to claim that “correlative changes in the form and doctrine of The Confessions do not permit us to see the three parts as elements in a single preconceived structure” and asserts that there is a “fundamental antipathy” between Augustine’s theology and his artistic method.5

Even Paul Ricoeur, in the first volume of his Time and Narrative, focuses on the aporias of the experience of time in book 11 of the Confessions without ever relating his discussion to the first nine books; Augustine, he says, “inquires into the nature of time without any apparent concern for grounding his inquiry on the narrative structure of the spiritual autobiography developed in the first nine books.” Thus Ricoeur dismisses the so-called spiritual autobiography as irrelevant to his purposes. There is, he says, an unbridgeable, radical discontinuity for Augustine between time and eternity. This ontological split is antithetical to narrative, because “narration is possible wherever eternity attracts and elevates time, not where it abolishes it.” Even if the narration of the first nine books “accomplishes the itinerary whose conditions of possibility are reflected upon in Book 11,” this accomplishment only emphasizes the inherent discontinuity present in the internal hierarchization of the work as a whole.6

That there are hierarchy and discontinuity among the various modes of discourse used by Augustine is clear. But I disagree with Ricoeur’s reading of this fact as an unresolvable opposition: his critical discourse, I suggest, exactly mirrors and mimics the Manichean problematic discussed by Augustine, but Augustine is able to move beyond such binary sterility. For him, the problematic of time and eternity is analogous to that of good and evil and of the split subjectivity. The conflicting forces that make man an enigma to himself signal, indeed, a fundamental dichotomy that can be analyzed and probed through memory and language—that is, the activity of selfreading and self-writing which constitutes the “spiritual autobiography”—but must then be accepted and transcended through a process of reading alterity, otherness—that is, reading God’s word.

It is on this twofold process of reading—writing as self-reading and exegetic reading as redemption—that I want to focus in this chapter. For Augustine, the project of narrating his own life is doomed to a dead end and must be redeemed by his reading of the sacred texts. This reading is a mode of revelation or illumination quite different from the experience of ecstasy (that is, the vision at Ostia or the unsuccessful attempts at atemporal contemplation of the “One” in book 7, which momentarily abolish time and give him a taste of eternity). Reading as revelation is paradigmatic of the vertical filiation that elevates the soul out of the region of dissimilarity and allows it to be “converted,” that is, “turned toward” God, in order to become filled with the word or with love. For love, like language, is both human and divine. Like the human self, it contains the seeds of good and evil, and when used to perverted or self-serving ends, it must be redeemed by a transcendent sublation that returns it to God’s own “grammar” (to use Eugene Vance’s term), so that the creation of all things, both good and bad, can be praised as what Hans Jauss calls “God’s poiesis.”7 Containing both human and divine elements, both good and evil, the act of reading cannot be the final unification with God, but it is a necessary intermediate step, the only bridge between time and eternity, humanity and God. As such it is indispensable to the structure of Augustine’s “autobiography.”

Indeed, a close reading of the Confessions shows Augustine dealing repeatedly with questions of truth and harmony, form and hierarchy, thus, I suggest, unequivocally anticipating some of the objections raised by critics of his text. For instance, it is difficult not to interpret 13:30 (cited at the beginning of this chapter) as an implicit warning against fragmentation of his own text into parts that did not seem to belong together originally, the use of such words as contraheres, conpaginares and contexeres being a case in point. To try to separate textually the good that coexists with evil or the theological meditation from the narrative mode that it puts under erasure is thus to fall prey to the same problematic Augustine was trying to put to rest. Augustine’s text is harmonious because it lets the power of God’s word unify and transform the merely human (and potentially evil) dimensions of his narrative efforts. It is for this reason that book 11 reverses of the textual mechanism that subtends the previous nine books: Genesis becomes the source of Augustine’s interpretive discourse, the pretext for his own writing or interpretive reading of the story of creation.

Augustine’s criticisms of the Manichean doctrine refer, by contrast, to a theory of artistic creation to be modeled on God’s creation and thus, by implication, to a poetics of harmony, completeness, and totality. Augustine was rooted in a mature tradition influenced by Platonic ideas of transcendence and Aristotelian notions of organic cohesion. His awareness of form is evident throughout his text, which repeatedly emphasizes the relationship of the parts to the whole as Socrates had in Plato’s Phaedrus: “Any discourse ought to be constructed like a living creature, with its own body, as it were; it must not lack either head or feet; it must have a middle and extremities so composed as to suit each other and the whole work.”8

Plato’s comparison of discourse to the body became canonical in Latin rhetoric. Clearly stated in the Confessions is Augustine’s own concern for the appropriate links that may exist among the individual parts of a system, as well as between those parts and the system as a whole. The issue arises whether Augustine is dealing with the realm of corporeal beauty, that is, “the due balance between the whole of the body and any of its limbs [pars corporis ad universum suum]” (4:13), or with the sense data that momentarily satisfy the flesh but do not simultaneously partake of our full understanding of the whole (“in parte est et ignoras totum” [4:11]). This, for example, is the case with speech, in which individual syllables must follow one another in order for the hearer to understand the whole sentence. Although each syllable cannot be present to the ear at the same time, it is only when they can be perceived together as one (one word or sentence) that they make sense and are pleasurable (“plus delectant omnia quam singula, si possint sentiri omnia”) [4:11].

Augustine raises the same questions when discussing either the relationship of individuals to society—“For any part that is out of keeping with the whole is corrupt” [Turpis enim omnis pars univer-so suo non congruens]” (3:8) (he is referring here to the members of a society who violate the law)—or the hierarchical relation of creatures to God the creator—“the sum of all creation is better than the higher things alone [sed meliora omnia quam sola superiora]” (7:13).

Finally, one of the concluding chapters (28) of book 13 summarizes these principles: God’s attitude before his creation shows that his is a power of synthesis. He is able to look at the universe as a whole (“vidisti. . . omnia quae fecisti”) and to see it all at once (“tamquam simul omnia”). It is only when taken together and all at once that the creation is revealed as “not merely good [but] very good [et bona et valde].” The same principles apply to every material thing of beauty, every kind of body (“quaeque pulchra corpora”): “For a thing which consists of several parts, each beautiful in itself, is far more beautiful than the individual parts [ipsa membra singula] which, properly combined and arranged, compose the whole, even though each part, taken seperately, is itself a thing of beauty.” Be it God’s or an artist’s, any creation must, for Augustine, contain a unitary principle in order to be beautiful and good. As a student of literature and a professor of grammar and rhetoric, Augustine was always sensitive to questions of aesthetics and well aware of what constituted the classical canons of beauty in a literary form. The Confessions mention Homer, Virgil, Plato, Aristotle, and Horace. Augustine also talks about his love of the theater (3:2) and analyzes his own reactions to the emotions portrayed on the stage (as Rousseau would centuries later). Let us then look at the Confessions in terms of its implicit aesthetics. It must to a large extent conform to Augustine’s own standards of beauty besides being a document of faith in and love for God. It is through such an approach that we can perhaps best understand the structure of the work as well as the problematics of writing and reading implied by that structure.

Death and Writing

“Do we love anything unless it is beautiful?” asks Augustine. “What, then, is beauty and in what does it consist? What is it that attracts us and wins us over to the things we love? Unless there were beauty and grace in them, they would be powerless to win our hearts [ad se moverent]” (4:13, my italics). These aesthetic questions were of great concern to Augustine; indeed, it was on this subject that he wrote his first book, a treatise called De pulchro et apto (“Of beauty and suitableness”), written shortly after he entered the poetry contest at Carthage and won first prize for his dramatic poem, in the year 377. This book, he tells us, has been “lost”; more likely, he did not consider it worth preserving, as it had no religious value, being a purely aesthetic and theoretical document. The Confessions, on the other hand, was written in 397–398, some twelve years after his mystical experience in the garden with Alypius (in 386) and subsequent conversion to Catholicism. The Confessions is not just a confession of sins, or confessio peccati, but also a confessio fidei and a confessio laudis, that is, a statement of faith in the greatness of God and a song of praise and gratitude for the Lord’s love and power.9

Its purpose therefore is twofold: Augustine confesses his sins to God and lets others, his brothers, know of his trials and errors so that his conversion may be an example to them. As he explains in 10:3, “When others read of those past sins of mine, or hear about them, their hearts are stirred so that they no longer lie listless in despair, crying ‘I cannot.’” And having confessed his sins, he is free to declare his faith and love, which become the main justification for writing books 11–13: “By setting them down, I fire my own heart and the hearts of my readers with love of you. . . . I have said before, and I shall say again, that I write this book for love of your love” (11:1; my italics).

How does Augustine “fire the hearts” of his readers with the love of God? And how does the Confessions “win our hearts” (to Augustine, if not to God)? To answer, “By the beauty of its language,” is to state a paradox, since beautiful language is constantly assigned a very negative connotation throughout the narrative books. What do these tensions and ambivalence reveal? The answers to these questions lie primarily in the essential themes of the Confessions, themes that can be unnecessarily blurred if undue emphasis is put on the “doctrinal” aspects of the last four books. For example, the narrator’s changes of perspective throughout the three parts of the work suggest a reversal of the position of authority which is first imparted to that narrator in books 1–9. Indeed, in 11–13, purely human authority is completely eroded by the gradual surrender of the writer to the transcendental relatedness of all things in a healthy and unified whole.

In books 1–9, Augustine’s discursive effort of narration is an inquiry into the divided nature of the self, the conflicts of consciousness, the processes of memory and the seduction of beauty and language. But his purpose is to make known both what he was as a sinner and, as he says, “what I am now, at this moment [in ipso tempore], as I set down my confessions” (10:3). His autobiographical project is thus to be understood within the framework of a dialogue both with God, the “physician of [his] soul [medice meus intime]” (10:3), who is always already in possession of the truth about Augustine, and with the many, “who wish to listen as I confess what I am in my heart into which they cannot pry by eye or ear or mind” (10:3) but whose otherness is mitigated by their willingness to open their ears and to believe him because they have charity.

If the work is to reveal both what he was and what he is, then its form must embody the difference between past and present and serve as a mirror of the different selves corresponding to the divided, discontinuous nature of Augustine’s being before his ultimate surrender to the transcendent other. As Lawrence Rothfield has pointed out, “The Augustinian self . . . is dispersed through a space from which it takes its shape, fragmented in its very existence.”10 In the narrative books, this division is exemplified by the dual nature of narrator (the converted self) and protagonist (the sinning self). The narrator describes his past life from a point outside of it. He confesses the protagonist’s sins, his restlessness, his lusting after material things of beauty, until finally, at the point of conversion, both instances of the self acquire the same degree of enlightenment and then gradually proceed in the rest of the work toward total communion with God. This can only be achieved at a point and time outside the autobiography, that is, in death. The open-ended nature of book 13 calls attention to this hypothetical moment when the symbiosis will be complete, the narrator having been granted salvation by his spiritual addressee, God.

Textually, this reversal of narratorial authority is clearly signaled by the increasing use of scriptural quotations. For although the confessio fidei et laudis is the chief concern of books 10–13, the narrative books, too, are studded with examples of Augustine’s declaration of faith and love. Smoothly integrated in his own narrative style are a large number of scriptural citations. But that which is only intertext in books 1–9 becomes pure pretext in books 10–13. These citations function first to illustrate the points Augustine is making about the protagonist’s lack of focus, his dispersion, or distentio: “This, too, was due to the sinfulness and vanity of life, since I was flesh and blood, no better than a breath of wind that passes by and never returns” (1:13; italics are quotations from Psalm 77).

Second, these scriptural verses are often meant as frames or boundaries for Augustine’s own text, thus giving justification to what would otherwise be a gratuitous and illegitimate love of words: “Let my whole self be steeped in love of you and all my being cry Lord, there is none like you! . . . The words of your Scriptures were planted firmly in my heart and on all sides you were like a rampart to defend me” (8:1, italics from Psalm 34). Again we encounter the image of the frame, the rampart as protection against evil, except that instead of trying, in Manichean fashion, to separate the good that coexists with evil, Augustine’s text lets the power of God’s word unify, transform, and transfigure his writings. God’s voice takes precedence over his own, and he writes so as to persuade the unbelievers “to be silent and to open a way to their hearts for [God’s] word” (12:16). Augustine has become “infans [speechless]” again and he is now clinging (“tibi cohaerendo” [12:11], “adhaerere tibi semper” [13:2]) to God in and for eternity, to a God whose “maternal” symbolic dimensions are clear here. This maternal element is synonymous with a primary identification with, and absorption into, a place of rest, of absolute peace. The “I” is dissolved into the other or, as Julia Kristeva would say, into the “Eternal Phallic Mother” who “rescues” the subject from fragmentation and brings him to bliss or jouissance:11 “I shall not turn aside until you gather all that I am into that holy place of peace, rescuing me from this world where I am dismembered and deformed [dispersione et deformitate], and giving me new form and new strength for eternity” (12:16) Dismemberment, dispersion, deformity, or formlessness: such is the lot of the sinner. The narrative books correspond to this experience of disease and emptiness which generates the autobiographical discourse and can be understood as an attempt to remember the subject, to propel him into the wholeness of peace, “into a signifying or symbolic elsewhere where he exists as a sheltered exile.”12

In his richly detailed study of the modalities of the self-portrait and its relation to ancient rhetoric, Michel Beaujour has argued that it is book 10 that articulates most clearly the experience of absence, the impossibility of self-description and self-unveiling, as attempted in books 1–9. Hence, Beaujour says, “the tenth book is a meditation on the process of remembering and forgetting, and on the memory of forgetfulness, but in it, Augustine says nothing about ‘himself.’ That is probably because the inaugurating experience of the selfportraitist is one of emptiness and absence.”13 But as I shall try to show, this experience of absence already informs all the first nine books, which constitute, in Beaujour’s terms, the religious or spiritual autobiography, as opposed to what he terms the true “self-portrait,” that is, book 10. It is this same experience of absence which determines the unfolding of the narrative and gives structural and thematic unity to the whole work. Indeed, it is precisely because Augustine’s narrative is organized around an empty center, his empty self, that books 11–13 become essential to the completion of the self-portrait. Far from being mere doctrinal supplements, they are central to Augustine’s ontology of the subject—the sinning then converted subject—whose mode of interaction with the world is first through a negative and decentered use of language (writing as a form of dispersion or distentio), then through a positive and dialogical one (reading as a form of paying attention or intentio). Paul Ricoeur understands the Augustinian contrast between distentio and intentio as strictly the dichotomy between time and eternity: for Ricoeur, Augustine’s “paradoxes of the experience of time owe nothing to the activity of narrating a story.”14 What I am suggesting, by contrast, is that this pairing of opposites can just as profitably be understood to connote the subtle differences between writing and reading, narrating and analyzing, such as those activities are inscribed in different narrative segments of the Confessions.

When Augustine shows the vanity and complacency of a posture of self-reflection and self-analysis (10:39), it is to stress the futility of an exercise in pure narration (since these actions cannot give a center to his being). But having done this, Augustine must reveal in what way the converted self differs from the sinning self, and the only way to do so is to show the new self as filled with the word of God and thus fulfilling its spiritual destiny: the last four books thus complement the first nine. That is also why, for Eugene Vance, “it is only appropriate that Augustine should displace the narrative of the particular self and center his text instead on the arch-narrative of the Author-of-all, in whose image Augustine is made and in terms of whom all language signifies.” Thus the Confessions, Vance adds, dramatizes Augustine’s life in language, since the events he chooses to illustrate his progress to God include his acquisition of the power of speech (1:8), as well as his schooling in rhetoric and the parallel fornications he began to engage in (1:13–20; 2:1–10), until finally “the origins of self are forgotten for the origins of the universe.”15 Since in Augustine’s vocabulary, and following biblical usage, to fornicate means “to break one’s troth with God [(fornicabar abs te]” (Psalms 72:27, 73:27) through any misuse of language and all illicit pleasures of the flesh (1:13, 2:16, 4:2, 5:12), it becomes clear how language and all forms of narration are indeed central to the Augustinian notion of sin and to his experience of time and eternity. As Kenneth Burke has pointed out, Augustine himself makes an implicit comparison between the Latin words fornix, from which we derive “fornication,” and fornax or “furnace”:16 “Cotidiana fornax nostra est humana lingua [the human tongue is a furnace in which the temper of our souls is daily tried” (10:37). To narrate is tantamount to sinning and narration must therefore be redeemed by exegetical analysis.

One of the paradigmatic acts of Augustine’s life as a sinner is the famous episode of the stolen pears (2:4–10). Analyzing with great honesty and sincerity his own motivation for committing this theft, he comes to the conclusion that he would never have wanted to do it alone, that the seduction of the act was in the bond of companionship it tightened. He lucidly recognizes this as an instance of male bonding and, one might add, a rather sinister example of brotherhood, in which the “pear” is not sought for its own sake but as an excluded middle in the autoerotic fantasies of a gang of young males who have recently discovered the joys of their own virility. The pears, which are simply “thrown away to the pigs,” are a forbidden fruit that can be read as metaphor for any object of sadistic power play. Kenneth Burke has argued that Augustine dwells on what is ostensibly a minor peccadillo precisely because it is for him the foremost and ultimate sin, “the complete perversion, or perfect parody, of his religious motives” and of the brotherhood of monastic life.17 The “theft” affirms the individual’s place within his community of friends, just as had “fornications” of another sort, fornications that are sometimes enjoyed (2:2) but may also be compulsively engaged in simply because Augustine does not want to appear less dissolute and depraved than his companions (2:3).

Here again, a close reading of the Latin text yields some very strong connotations of defilement in this act of “theft”: “Foeda erat, et amavi eam; amavi perire, amavi defectum meum, non illud, ad quod deficiebam . . . sed dedecus appetens [It was a shameful act, but I loved it. I loved my own perdition and my own fault, not the thing for which I committed wrong . . . but I longed for the shame itself] (2:4, trans. mod.) The adjective foedus, -a, -um, generally translated vaguely as “evil” or “foul,” derives in fact from the verb foedare which literally means “to defile, deform, or disfigure” and figuratively, “to dishonor or disgrace.” Augustine is talking about defiling himself in committing this act, but his degree of self-defilement is a function of the other—the abject object of the act, made abject by the sinful intentions of the perpetrator: “I tasted nothing in them [the pears] but my own sin which I relished and enjoyed. If any part of these fruits passed my lips, it was the villainy that gave it its flavour” (2:6; trans. mod.) Clearly here, the abjection is not seen as radically other, it is not something to be evacuated or purged from the self; rather, it seems to function as the place where communion and jouissance, or bliss, are glimpsed. It is the point of reconciliation, “the point where the scales are tipped towards pure spirituality,” and sinfulness and saintliness merge. As Kristeva has noted, “One of the insights of Christianity, and not the least one, is to have gathered in a single move perversion and beauty as the lining and the cloth of one and the same economy.”18

Augustine analyzes his narcissistic motivations with great lucidity. The episode of the pears can function as sign or reference mark for all other instances of negative object-identification Augustine describes. Pear tree in Latin is pirus: “arbor erat pirus” (2:4), and Augustine says: “amavi perire” (literally, “I loved to perish”). The close resemblance of the words pirus and perire, as well as the use of appetens (to long for) all point to a form of death wish, a desire for self-dissolution into an otherness that is attractive and pleasurable but also demeaning, degrading, and disfiguring because it is pleasurable. This is the ultimate perversion of divine love, divine frui, or jouissance, which gives life and transfigures. The converted narrator’s didactic comments on the incident turn it into a paradigm of negative frui, negative orality (the flesh of the pears). This will be reversed into positive orality when the sole source of spiritual food becomes the word of God, the body of Christ. We are clearly dealing here with two sides of the same coin—the same psychic economy, as Kristeva succintly puts it.

For Augustine, language is a form of orality which can be used to perverted ends, although language is also the power to create—as God’s power is that of the word. This dual nature of language explains the divided structure of the Confessions. Language is both death dealing and life giving, and Augustine uses different modes of discourse as illustrations of the different stages of his spiritual evolution and as emblems of the different selves corresponding to these various stages. Each stage leads to a higher state of being, each ever so much closer to God—hence the need to use a hierarchy of modes (narrative, meditative, and exegetic) to illustrate his soul’s progress. But his various selves still have to be united by the process of writing, and it is the work, the book, in its very materiality and corporeality which allows Augustine to pull together these various facets of his being into an organic, synthetic whole. Only then can he offer himself—and the book as emblem of the self—as “gift [datum]” (13:26) to God, just as the universe with its hierarchy of creatures is God’s gift to man. Thus the quest for truth and the search for the origins come together when Augustine has found God, since “to know God is to know our origins.”19

But the question then becomes: how does one know God? For even if conversion brings faith, faith is not all: one must constantly struggle, through efforts of will to maintain oneself in a state of grace.20 What, then, is the posture of the converted self which allows for this familiarity with God? What talents, resources or attributes of the soul can promote a greater receptivity, or disponibilité, to the word of God?

As Beaujour indicates, the self has to undergo a certain kind of death in order to find God: “Augustine’s self-portrait is the narrative of his pursuit of God, or rather, it is the itinerary of a man searching for God outside of himself, then within himself, destroying all the ‘idols’ he finds on his way: all perceptions, sensory images and contents of his memory which might be the source of anecdotal individualism.”21 Thus in book 10 all purely literary and personal use of language is subsumed under a rhetorical-philosophical meditation on the nature of body and soul, the “outer” man and the “inner” man. Since Augustine the convert is going to start looking for God within himself and since “we might say that the memory is a sort of stomach [venter] for the mind” (10:14), then book 10 amounts quite simply to the pumping out of Augustine’s figurative stomach, the emptying of its poisons.

But this death of the embodied self had already begun in book 7: before he can hear the voices in the garden, Augustine undergoes a kind of exorcism, and in 8:8 he reaches a paroxysm of indecision; “I was frantic. . . . I tore my hair and hammered my forehead with my fists; I locked my fingers and hugged my knees,” because, he says, his “inner self was a house divided against itself.” These images of violence culminate in deafness to sexual temptation. He still hears the voices of his mistresses (“nugae nugarum” [8:11]), but they have become very faint. Only then can he open his “inner ear,” or soul, to a higher voice: the exorcism of his old flames from his old self prepares the ground for his intercourse with God (books 11–13). Following these dramatic events and the “tolle, lege” (8:12), Augustine is no longer a deaf corpse [surdis mortuis] (9:4); but he now loses the ability to speak. First a toothache, then breathing difficulties and lung pains force him to resign his professorship (9:4, 5). He thus gets progressively detached from the needs of his flesh, from the temptations of his intellect, and from the seductions of language and fornication. The meditation, or exercitatio animi, of book 10 therefore completes a process already underway in the narrative books: a killing of the body so the soul can be reborn.

Death, conversion and rebirth are the classic stages of spiritual evolution, and Augustine’s Confessions exemplify this trajectory. The death of the self as it lives in darkness is the main theme of the narrative books. Conversion then leads to the cleansing or purification of book 10, in preparation for the act of reading and the dialogue with God, as mediated through the text of Genesis. These three stages (from external reality through internal reality to superior reality) correspond to the three structural parts of the Confessions but also point to a mimesis of the Catholic practice required of all the faithful: confession of sins, mortification and prayer, and holy communion. “And even when all is well with me, what am I but an infant suckling on your milk [sugens lac tuum] and feeding upon you [fruens te], the incorruptible food” (4:1, trans. mod.) as Augustine says, refering to “feeding” in the literal sense of eating the body of Christ during communion and in the figurative sense of reading and absorbing God’s text. He has returned to a spiritual orality after the sinful orality that had filled his memory-stomach with the “idols” Beaujour mentions. In theological terms, these stages could also correspond to life on earth (1–9), in purgatory (10), and in heaven (11–13), purgatory being assimilated here to the Greek notion of kenosis or “being as emptying.”22

Life on earth is life in death, and books 1–9 abound in examples of the deadly seductions that material things of beauty exert on the individual soul. Augustine loves the “fables and fictions” (3:2) of the theater because they can move him to sorrow. He loves poetry and knows the power and pleasure of language. In the words of Kenneth Burke, he is himself a “great verbalizer.”23 Adept at persuasion, he is a word monger (“venditorem verborum” [9:5]) who sells the services of his tongue in the markets of eloquence (9:2). He is well aware that pleasure subverts self-control and leads to deception, as happened with Alypius, who became “drunk with the fascination of bloodshed” (6:8) when he went to the gladiatorial games, presumptuously believing that he could shield himself from this terrible and blinding pleasure (“cum mira voluptate caecabatur” [4:7]). He had thought that he could remain master of himself but discovered how elusive self-control can be.

We later find an echo of this incident in 10:5. During his meditation on the “inner man,” Augustine says, “there are some things in man which even his own spirit within him does not know.” This Augustinian “inner man,” which corresponds to the notion of “memory” or memoria sui, implies both the existence of a “subconscious” reality and the openness of the soul to a transcendent or metaphysical presence, distinct from the soul itself, as Etienne Gilson has shown.24 What Gilson does not discuss, and what I would like to focus on here, are the various negative connotations associated with this notion of the “inner man.” For example, there is another echo of the somewhat disturbing capacity of man’s spirit or soul to be an enigma to itself in 13:32 and 34: “Just as in man’s soul there are two forces, one which is dominant because it deliberates and one which obeys because it is subject to such guidance, in the same way, in the physical sense, woman has been made for man. In her mind . . . she has a nature the equal of man’s, but in sex she is physically subject to him in the same way as our natural impulses [appetitus actionis] need to be subjected to the reasoning power of the mind” and “You made rational action subject to the rule of the intellect, as woman is subject to man.”25

In the hierarchy of creatures, woman is clearly associated with that part of the inner soul which can escape the control of intellect or reason (as happened to Alypius at the games). “Woman,” then, is a construct, a projection on the external world of an inner and scary reality, which can exert a profound fascination (“voluptas”) on the “reasonable” part of the soul. This inner reality is also revealing of man’s divided consciousness, of his ability to see himself as an undefined or “confused reflection in a mirror [per speculum in aenigmate]” (8:1, 10:5, 12:13, 13:15)/ as goes the scriptural citation (I Cor. 13:12) so frequently used by Augustine.26 This mirror image of a part of the self seems to be associated at times with the as-yet-unachieved metaphysical presence of God and at other times with these “appetites”—the instincts or the unconscious, in later terminology—which Augustine opposes to the reasoning power of the mind. The text thus constructs “woman” as an internal other, and a negative one, whereas God figures as the internal but positive Other: “man, made in your image and likeness, rules over all irrational creatures for the very reason that he was made in your image and resembles you, that is because he has the power of reason and understanding” (13:32, trans. mod.). If “woman” is a textually constructed reality, the negative other of man, then gender differences as traditionally conceptualized since Augustine are shot through with ideological misconceptions. These misconceptions continue to plague us today because hierarchichal distinctions have become naturalized through a process of condensation and reinforcement which projects onto the external world fictional categories of the mind: masculine/feminine, mind/body, reason/unreason spirituality/sexuality, life/death, master race/ slave. This is the legacy that contemporary women autobiographers will have to face before they can start writing and rewriting their selves, thus inventing new and empowering traditions for their (literary) daughters, traditions that will draw upon many of the metaphors of death and loss, reconciliation and plenitude, darkness and light present in the Confessions.

In Augustine’s imagery, woman is to man what the bitter sea is to the dry land, the sinning self to the converted self, the wicked souls to the faithful, and darkness to light (see 13:23, 24). Throughout the narrative books of the Confessions, this area of darkness is associated with language and literature, loss and death. It is out of this darkness that the soul must be reborn: “deus meus, illuminabis tenebras meas” says Augustine in 4:15, echoing the narration of God’s spiritual creation in Genesis, as he will discuss it in 13:2 and 3: “In its [life’s] formless state, it would not have been pleasing to you unless it became light. And it became light, not simply by existing, but by fixing its gaze upon you and clinging [cohaerendo] to you, the Light which shone upon it.”

The divine light transforms formless matter into the living soul, which thus becomes a reflection of the transcendent Other, whose light it absorbs. What then of the negative other? The one associated with “woman,” darkness, and literary language, that is, the fables and fictions that can have such a powerful effect on Augustine’s emotions? To answer this question we need only look at the context in which literature is discussed.27

In 1:13–17 Augustine recalls his schooling in language and literature and his profound love of Latin poetry. He mentions the Aeneid in particular: how he had memorized the “wanderings of a hero named Aeneas” and “wept for Dido” (1:13). These fictional, epic characters and other “empty romances” delighted his boyhood, providing him with futile and enchanting dreams. Relating his skill at recitation, Augustine tells us how he had to learn Juno’s speech (from the Aeneid 1:37–49), order to repeat in prose Virgil’s text. Of all the schoolboys who were assigned that task, he was the one who found “the best words to suit the meaning, and best expressed feelings of sorrow and anger appropriate to the majesty of the character he impersonated” (1:17). He won that contest and was praised for it. But distancing himself from that boy of great promise (“bonae spei”), who could so easily lose himself in the beauty of deceitful words, the narrator denounces the “wine of error,” [vinum erroris] literature, which is poured out to the young by the “masters of eloquence,” the teachers who train them in the art of persuasion and thus blind them to the higher truths of the Scriptures (1:16). Commenting on the Carthaginian custom of hanging curtains over the entrances of the schools where literature is taught, Augustine says:“[These curtains] are not so much symbols in honor of mystery as veils [or covers] concealing error [tegimentum erroris]” (1:13). Later, Augustine describes God’s forgiveness for his sins with a similar metaphor: God has “drawn a veil” over his past life, “covered” his past sins and errors (“quae remisti et texisti” [10:13]).

Augustine’s sinning self is thus equated with his literary self, who shed tears for Dido when she died. In Augustine’s own life, death is a recurrent theme: he mentions the death of his father (3:4) and that of his friend Nebridius (9:3); the major part of book 9 is devoted to his mother, Monica, whose death concludes the autobiographical narrative; Augustine himself comes close to dying in 5:9 but regains his health, fortunately, for at that point in his life, his soul is still “diseased” or “mad,” and he has no desire to be baptized.

This theme of death and loss culminates in book 4. The death of another dear friend (4:4) profoundly affects him. Life becomes dull and distasteful; he feels alien and absent. He is a puzzle, a mystery, a great riddle to himself: “factus eram ipse mihi magna questio.” He is utterly lost without his friend and because he has not yet found himself in God. Augustine’s grief foreshadows Montaigne’s distress at the death of La Boétie, whose absence is literally inscribed in the text of the Essais, which announces the insertion of La Boétie’s own works (in book 2, chap. 29) and then defers this insertion without explanation.

The grief Augustine feels at the loss of his “second self,” the “half of his soul [dimidium animae suae]” (4:6), as he says, quoting Horace’s Odes (1:3:8), is represented by a rare instance of non-biblical quotation in the Augustinian text. As Kenneth Burke has pointed out, “There is a good ‘literary’ reason why at this point Augustine’s account of the motives behind his conversion incorporated a quotation not from the Bible but from a purely secular source in pagan poetry. . . . [The death of his friend] coincided with what we might call an attempt at an ‘aesthetic’ solution of his problems. About this period, Augustine also wrote some books (’two or three, I think,’ a revealing lapse of memory on the part of a man with an exceptionally good memory) on beauty and fitness (de pulchro et apto).”28 But De pulchro et apto was already “lost” when Augustine started writing the Confessions. He mentions this work in 4:13 and devotes that chapter and 4:14 to a discussion of principles of beauty and harmony. These pages are almost at the mathematical center of the pre-conversion part of the narrative (his conversion occurs in 8.12). It is thus interesting to note that that center is occupied by a nonexistent book that seems to metaphorize Augustine’s absence to himself as well as the death of his loved one. The aesthetic phase and the experience of death are clearly made to appear homologous.

The issue, then, is not just loss or “lapse of memory,” as Burke puts it. If Augustine the sinner is also Augustine the lover of poetry, then how better to convey this fact than by mentioning De pulchro et apto at the empty center of the story of his life before conversion, a story that deals with language and loss, literature and death? In so doing, he gives us by analogy an image of himself as a man without God, a soul devoid of purpose. For if the apparent loss of memory seems to censure the remembrance of the treatise on beauty, it is most certainly a censorship that is willed, just as the meditation of book 10 wills the erasure, the veiling of all sensible and individual anecdotes—hence the mention of the treatise at the heart of this narrative, which is overlooked by Burke, although he does point out that the critical moment of conversion occurs at the center of the Confessions as a whole.29

We can now see why book 4 occupies a privileged place in the narrative part of the Confessions. It corresponds to the darkest years of Augustine’s life, his most materialistic and pleasure oriented. It is also the “pivot [cardinem in arte]” (4:15) upon which turns the story of Augustine’s life of sin. The opening paragraph sets the tone for the whole of book 4: “During the space of those nine years, from the nineteenth to the twenty-eighth year of my life, I was seduced myself and I seduced others [seducebamur et seducebamus].” He and his friends used the liberal arts to deceive but only managed to feel “void and empty everywhere [ubique vani].”

The combination of the numbers nine and four seems to have a special importance here, which can help us understand the structure of the Confessions as a whole. Book 4 corresponds to Augustine’s nine years of life from nineteen to twenty-eight. Each of the four succeeding books corresponds to one of the four years of his life between the ages of twenty-nine and thirty-two, when his conversion occurs. This episode is followed by book 9, which is really the book of Monica, his human mediator and redemptor, in whose company he has the famous vision at Ostia. It is during this vision “that Augustine completes the process whereby the Holy Spirit attains final incorporation into his psychic economy,” as Burke puts it.30 Shortly thereafter, Monica dies, on the ninth day of her illness at the end of the ninth book of the confessio peccati. Augustine makes a point of stating that he is now thirty-three years old, thus identifying himself with Christ. Interestingly, it is through the death of the mother’s body that Augustine can be resuscitated in spirit: the death of the mother is the culmination of his narrative of a life of sin and marks his liberation from earthly and bodily connections. It is necessary for the earthly mother to die in order for Augustine to get closer to God, whose attributes are both phallic and maternal. It is only now that the writing of the body can give way to the reading of the transcendent Other.

The temporal and rectilinear discourse (books 1–9) is followed by the eternal and circular speculations or meditations about memory and time, origins and beginnings (10–13). The first nine books would thus seem to correspond to the purification rites of ancient religions which are transformed into the Catholic practice of the novena, the series of pious exercises or privations performed for nine consecutive days or weeks, as a form of mortification.31 Books 1–9 include Augustine’s nine years of sin, which culminate in the aesthetic phase of book 4, followed by the four years of looking for God in the wrong places after his best friend’s death and being seduced by Manicheanism, until finally the “tolle, lege” of 8:12 steers him in the right direction, that of the Scriptures. This, and Monica’s death, literally cleanse him in preparation for the spiritual exercises of the last four books and the inner search for God. There are many other instances of Augustine’s special awareness of numbers throughout the Confessions, too tedious to discuss or enumerate. Here, the number nine seems to be associated with the literal experience of death (Monica’s) and the process of mortification the sinner must undergo before acceding to eternal life. The self that is located within the textual space of the first nine books is thus the self that was trapped in sin—in death—and scattered, dispersed, fragmented because it was too concerned with visible phenomena. The process of writing can be viewed as the exercise in mortification which illustrates, while transcending, the spiritual death of the sinner.

Reading and Redemption

To understand the epistemological ground on which the distinction between writing and reading gets formulated in the Confessions, it is necessary once more to discuss passages in which Augustine outlines his aesthetic principles, opposing visual to aural knowledge. In his discussion of material forms of beauty, Augustine defines two classes of visible, corporeal objects (4:15): those beautiful in themselves and those properly proportioned in relation to something else. In both cases, he emphasizes that they are pleasing to the eye. His volumes on beauty and harmony he calls “corporeal fictions” or “material inventions [corporalia figmenta],” which “obstructed the ears of [his] inner self” because they dealt with visible beauty and thus conflicted with his real intentions, which were to listen to the voice of the bridegroom of his soul. Drawn out of himself, he is perverted by visual stimuli, pulled down into the void, the abyss.

He concludes book 4 with a passage on the perversion of the souls who are turned away (“aversi,” “perversi,” “revertamur,” “ut non evertamur”) from God; by contrast, the last lines of book 8 twice emphasize conversion (“convertisti”), first in the sense of a transmutation into a higher level of divine understanding, then as a transformation of sadness into spiritual joy. The emptiness of his life is thus associated with his dispersion and lack of focus, his being too oral (i.e., too verbal or inquisitive) and too visual (i.e., too concerned with appearances).

It is indeed this concern with visible reputation which leads him to follow his gang of companions on the road to lustful games, and to dedicate De pulchro et apto to Hierius, a brilliant orator whom Augustine admired because he was immensely popular. Augustine goes through a phase of identification with this man, who becomes an objective persona and role model for him during his years in Rome (4:14). Augustine envies and praises him for his active use of his tongue and his skillfulness in language.

As a textual figure, Hierius comes into direct contrast with the bishop Ambrose, who is also a remarkable preacher but who fascinates Augustine because of his silent reading. Ambrose’s spiritual, non-oral nature is underlined by his nondiscursive spirituality of silence. When he read, “his eyes scanned the page and his heart explored the meaning, but his voice was silent and his tongue was still [vox autem et lingua quiescebant]” (6:3). Ambrose’s silent contemplation of the written word and his complete absorption in his reading discourage any attempt by Augustine to question him.

Ambrose is described as the one who strives unerringly to understand the spiritual meaning of texts, as opposed to obeying the letter of the law. His mode of being is in itself an allegorical representation of the process of redemption and salvation. Augustine becomes fascinated by this man who could be so absorbed in silence and he begins to learn to use his ears. “I paid the closest attention to the words he used”; “I was delighted by his charming delivery;” “I was all ears;” “I also began to sense the truth of what he said, though only gradually” (5:13, 14). Initially contemptuous of the content of Ambrose’s speech, Augustine is slowly drawn to a level beyond the mere rhetorical appearances of his style. He becomes open, receptive, disponible to the “sober intoxication of [God’s] wine,” to the words of another who now brings him to mystical ecstasy, spiritual jouissance. Through the mediating role of Ambrose, God’s “holy oracle,” Augustine begins to achieve communion with God, to reach the point of spiritual reconciliation, beginning a process that gradually teaches Augustine to turn inward rather than to disperse himself in meaningless questions about the nature of God and an arrogant use of his tongue and his rhetorical skills (6:3).

Inquisitiveness, or the sin of curiositas, thus becomes textually equated with the overvaluation of the visual at the expense of a proper auditory course of initiation into a truth that is revealed providentially to the receptive intelligence. As Pierre Courcelle indicates, the sin of curiosity is allegorized in the myth of Psyche, whose misadventures are those of the soul overly curious to know the face of God, a myth recounted in one of the earliest biographical narratives, Apuleius’s Golden Ass, a possible intertext of the Confessions.32 Psyche is an early instance of a fictional figure assigned a negative value because of a narcissistic desire to know, that is, to see and to appropriate. By contrast, the staging of Ambrose as the receptive reader par excellence is the first link in a chain of signifiers which creates a self-generating system of figuration, a figural embedding or mise en abyme of the reading process and its effect.33

An analysis of the narrative structure of the Confessions can yield significant insights into this Augustinian project of valorizing aural forms of knowledge. The tools of the structuralist method allow us to analyze and describe the signifying chain of homologous relations constituted by these instances of figural embedding, and through certain criteria developed by recent research in narratology we can use this signifying chain to understand the function of the last three books of the Confessions as an integral part of the autobiography because they show Augustine engaged in the act of performing a reading, an exegetic reading of the most sacred of texts in order to disclose its spiritual meaning to his readers.

Indeed, the manner in which reading is dramatized in book 8 mirrors both what Augustine does in books 11–13 and what I myself, as reader of the Confessions, feel programmed, even compelled to do—by textual constraints—when dealing with those last three books. For example, in 8:6 the conversation among Augustine Alypius, and Ponticianus is triggered by “a book lying on a table.” This book, which happens to be Paul’s Epistles, occasions Ponticianus to narrate two related and interdependent stories of conversion: first, that of Antony, the Egyptian monk who, having chanced upon a reading of the Gospel, heeded the admonition inscribed therein, gave his possessions to the poor, and became a follower of Christ; second, that of Ponticianus’s friend, who remains nameless—purposely so, I think, because he figures as the “hypothetical ideal reader” of Augustine’s own text. I shall just call him X. His story is related in great detail in the Confessions. Augustine actually quotes his words, presumably as reported by Ponticianus, and we learn that X once “found a book containing the life of Antony” and was profoundly affected by it. It made him realize the precariousness of a life in the service of the state and emperor, and he chose instead to follow the example of Antony: “After saying this, he turned back to the book, labouring under the pain of the new life that was taking birth in him. He read on and in his heart, where you alone could see, a change was taking place. His mind was being divested of the world” (8:6; my italics). Here, reading favors kenosis, which empties the soul, the memory or “inner man,” of all sensory and material perceptions in order to make room for God’s word. And as already mentioned, this is exactly how book 10 functions in the Confessions as a whole.

These two stories—Antony’s and X’s—figure as mises en abyme of the effect of reading. Antony’s foreshadows Augustine’s own conversion in the garden with Alypius (8:12), for although Augustine had clearly learned the facts of Antony’s conversion during the dialogue related in 8:6, he waits until after the “tolle, lege” of 8:12 to reveal those facts to his own reader, thereby calling attention to the specular relationship (as mediated through Ponticianus’s tale) between the Confessions and the book of Antony’s life: “For I had heard the story of Antony, and I remembered how he had happened to go into a church while the Gospel was being read. . . . So I hurried back to the place where Alypius was sitting, for when I stood up to move away I had put down the book containing Paul’s Epistles. I seized it and opened it, and in silence I read the first passage on which my eyes fell . . . it was as though the light of confidence flooded into my heart and all the darkness of doubt was dispelled” (my italics). Now we see that reading also favors the illumination and enlightenment that mark the vertical discontinuity of the soul, its elevation to a different level of temporality (but not the abolition of time, as in Plotinian ecstasy). The homology between the role played by the Gospel in Antony’s life and the one played by the Epistles in Augustine’s life is thus obvious:

The second story, about Ponticianus’s friend is an allegorical representation within the Augustinian text of its own ideal reader, the one whose heart would be changed, whose mind would be freed, and who would be brought face to face with himself upon read-ing/hearing the Confessions, just as Augustine had been revealed to himself and had seen his own face in the story of the friend: “You were setting me before my own eyes [ante faciem meam] so that I could see how sordid I was, how deformed and squalid” (8:7). Augustine becomes able to see his own sins because he has learned to listen with an open heart. But as he adds, he is not ready to follow the example of the Roman civil servant: “I had prayed to you for chastity and said ‘Give me chastity and continence, but not yet.’ For I was afraid that you would answer my prayer at once and cure me too soon of the disease of lust, which I wanted satisfied, not quelled” (8:7).

Augustine is not yet ready to give up his life of sin, his dispersion or distentio, but his “life of sin” is also a metaphor for the act of writing, of autobiographical narration, which he continues through four more chapters of book 8 and the thirteen chapters of book 9. To be truly converted right away would have meant giving up all de-centered use of language as “fornication” and putting the literary and historical narration under erasure at that very moment. Unlike Antony and X, who give up everything immediately, Augustine will now start looking for God, his transcendental addressee, within himself: “Ego ad me,” he says after the departure of Ponticianus.

Textually, we now have all the elements of the signifying chain as they configurate the role of Augustine as reader of God’s text:

This sketch shows the circular, tautological nature of the reading process in the Confessions. Ponticianus’s tale is the thread that allows Augustine and his reader to interface and to weave identical tales of recognition and salvation. In the filigree of those tales it is the unknown face of God which slowly becomes defined, textually in the form of clusters of scriptural quotations and thematically as the presence that constitutes the narrator as self, as living soul—a presence that is never experienced directly but is always mediated through another person or a book. These triangular relationships are of course based on the concept of the Trinity, itself a model for the tripartite structure of the Confessions.

As is clear from the example of Ambrose’s silent reading and the fact that Antony heard the Gospel being read, the ideal kind of reading encoded in the Augustinian text is a reading/hearing as opposed to a reading/seeing, that is, a reading receptive enough to suspend judgment and questions temporarily rather than a reading that would try to appropriate meaning rhetorically from appearances and first glances, as Hierius was known to do. Hearing correctly, though, leads to correct seeing: Augustine hears the child’s voice in the garden before having the vision at Ostia; he hears about Ponticianus’s friend before recognizing his own predicament and seeing his own face in Ponticianus’s tale.

In the hierarchy of the senses, the ears precede the eyes because it is harder for Augustine to resist the temptations of visible beauty, as he explains in 10:34: he is easily entrapped or ensnared (“innecto,” “inhaeseram”) by the beautiful. Its seduction is quite literally a scandal, from the Greek skandalon, a trap. The canons of beauty in a literary form are dangerous because they give a pleasure that subverts self-control, leads to deception, and blinds the individual to the higher truths of the Scriptures. Beautiful sounds, on the other hand, seem to inspire feelings of devotion, and in that case, beauty is acceptable because it is subjected to a higher good, because it has a spiritual telos (10:33). (This theory of the curative effects of music had already been advanced by Aristotle and would become an important medieval topos; for Nietzsche, music will become the source of self-dispossession and ecstasis.)

In the Confessions, the narrative mode is acceptable because it is subjected to the exegetic mode, just as action is to reason, “woman” to man and darkness to light. Since the protagonist of the narrative had himself used beautiful language to perverted ends, either remaining in the realm of “corporeal fictions” or “purveying weapons” to students of rhetoric, Augustine the convert must redeem himself by putting his tongue and his pen at the service of God’s word. Since correct reading (as opposed to writing De pulchro et apto or the story of his empty life as sinner) is what gives meaning and a center to the self, then it is only appropriate that the autobiography should include an instance of Augustine engaged in such a reading, in interpreting the Scriptures, the most sacred of texts, in order to disclose their meaning to his own readers. That he should choose to comment on Genesis, on the story of God’s creation, is of particular interest to us here because this amounts to a further mise en abyme of the effect of reading: “But by what means did you make heaven and earth? . . . You spoke and created them in your Word, in your Son,” writes Augustine (11:5, 9), and, “The peoples of your city, your angels. . . . have no need to look up at this firmament of ours or read its text to know your word. For ever they gaze upon your face and there, without the aid of syllables inscribed in time. . . . They read your will: they choose it to be theirs: they cherish it. . . . For you yourself are their book and you forever are” (13:15; my italics). Just as the universe was created out of nothingness, Augustine re-creates himself, the plenitude of his being, out of an experience of emptiness. This re-creation is mediated through the process of reading, which allows him to absorb in his human, historical, linear dimension the timelessness of eternal substance. The result of that re-creation is his own book, the Confessions. Writing allows Augustine to see himself as a whole being, both a sinner and a saved creature, constituting himself in the act of synthesizing the past and the present and offering them to God as his contribution to their dialogue. Books 11–13 thus appear to be allegories of the act of self-creation which had been the narrator’s aim in books 1–9. He had looked at his own life as if it were the protagonist’s book, and then he interpreted its succession of events in order to understand and transcend his own corporeality. The genesis of his evolution parallels God’s act of spiritual creation as Augustine interprets it in 13:3. The conclusion of this upward journey is physical death and eternal life. But the act of writing the Confessions, meanwhile, allows Augustine to define his past in terms of the three modes of being which combine to “make one inseparable life”: to be, to know, to will (“esse,” “nosse,” “velle” [8:11]). These three are inseparable, yet distinct, just as books 1–9 (existence), 10 (knowledge), and 11–13 (will) are inseparable within the body of the Confessions. Because the book is “an attempt to remember the subject along an initiatory path,” as Beaujour writes,34 it is also the act of synthesis, and the precondition of illumination, which allows Augustine to enter “the intellectual heaven, where the intellect is privileged to know all at once, not in part only, not as if it were looking at a confused reflection in a mirror [non in aenigmate, non per speculum], but as a whole, clearly, face to face [facie ad faciem]” (12:13).

The book is a reflection of Augustine in his completeness, a creature in the image of God, engaged in the act of creating and read-ing/listening all at once. Viewed from this perspective, the text lays bare the paradox of all Western discourse about the self. As Jean-François Lyotard has pointed out: “To have the text and its illustration, that is the pride and the sin. This hesitation [/oscillation] is that of Christianity itself, the de facto Christianity which subtends the ground of our Western problematics: to hearken to a voice, yet to have a philosophy of creation.”35 For Augustine, the text is God(’s) and the illustration man(’s). The process of reading is an integral part of that illustration, and it is that which helps constitute the narrator as living self or soul.

But when listening to the voice of an ideal other or when reading alterity, the self becomes other. This form of effacement precipitates the need to re-create a corporeal being as illustration of the text, possibly leading to a verbal reproduction that will repeat ad infinitum the initial experience of emptiness. Indeed, for Augustine, writing can only create an illusory sense of plenitude. But since emptiness and plenitude are both given, once man has acquired knowledge through illumination, it will only be a matter of subduing the embodied self through a process of loving/reading God. Narrative discontinuity is but the illustration of this vertical discontinuity between carnal life and eternal being, a discontinuity already configurated in the embedded episodes of book 8, which stage reading as “illumination,” as the process that bridges the gap between man and God. Paul Ricoeur’s complex hermeneutical approach to the problems of time and narrative would thus appear to be based on a reductive paradigm from book 11, a paradigm that does not take into consideration the internal aesthetics of the Confessions as a whole. That is why I would like to suggest that in the text of the Confessions, the philosophical problem of time is quite secondary to the structural problematic of reading and of its transfigurative effects as they are rhetorically constructed by textual strategies that urge us to see the whole work as harmonious. That this narrative discontinuity would later be perceived by critics as a paradoxical scission or schism in the process of redemption and salvation attests to the enduring binary dichotomies which Western culture has helped to perpetuate and rigidify. Nietzsche’s critique of Christianity and metaphysics focuses on this scission, which was not yet unbridgeable for Augustine, since discontinuity only serves to illustrate his belief in the vertical filiation that traverses the activity of reading and transports the soul to a silent and transcendent resting point.

Discontinuity and split subjectivity are thus metaphors used throughout the Confessions to illustrate a dialectical relationship between self-reading and writing, writing being the antithesis, which must be sublated into a higher form of (exegetical) reading. Given that in this dialectic writing the life of the body is coded as a negative stage to be transcended, it becomes important to stress how this sublation functions as a denial, a denial of the self, of the embodied self born of an earthly mother, to be precise, since it is the life of the soul, of the mind, which will become the focus of Augustine’s attention after his mother’s death accomplishes his earthly transfiguration. Nietzsche fights against this tradition, which he accuses of spawning the “despisers of the body,” the decadent moralists.36 His autobiography is a reading of his written work, a double emphasis on the physical and the textual body: an effort to return the corpus to a valuable place in the unfolding of a life.

It is thanks in large part to Nietzsche’s—and Freud’s—understanding of the fallacy inherent in the mind/body, nature/culture dichotomy that the women authors discussed here are able to subvert in their own writings the commonplaces and stereotypes that have contributed to the devaluation of the female body and its (re)productive capabilities. To reread the past and thus to write freely of the changing boundaries of our racial and sexual bodies constitutes an important step in the complex process of female emancipation dealt with later in this book. This step helps women authors retrieve and verbalize lost traditions and effaced connections to maternal symbolic systems that do not partake of a phallic or divine essence. Only then will these authors be able to regain a sense of what “touch[ing] each other in the spirit” can be like, as Zora Neale Hurston puts it.37


1I use the Latin text from the Loeb Classical Library edition (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1977), vols. 1 and 2, and translations by R. S. Pine-Coffin (New York: Penguin Books, 1979). Citations in the text are to book and chapter. I modify the translation when necessary to provide a more precise rendering of the nuances of the Latin text, as I have done in this quotation. I shall indicate “trans. mod.” when I do so.

2I borrow the term architexte from Gerard Génette, Introduction à l’architexte (Paris: Seuil, 1979).

3Dom Roger Huddleston, ed. and trans., The Confessions of St. Augustine (London: Fontana Books, 1957), p. 13.

4The term is Kenneth Burke’s, in The Rhetoric of Religion: Studies in Logology (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1970), p. 136.

5William S. Spengemann, The Forms of Autobiography (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1980), pp. 6 and 25.

6Paul Ricoeur, Time and Narrative (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1948), 1:4 (my italics), 237 n. 38, 29.

7Eugene Vance, “Augustine’s Confessions and the Grammar of Selfhood,” Genre 6 (March-June 1973), 1–28; Hans R. Jauss, Aesthetic Experience and Literary Hermeneutics (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1982), p. 144.

8As translated by Roger Hackforth, “Phaedrus” in The Collected Dialogues of Plato, ed. Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1961), 264c, p. 510.

9John C. Cooper, “Why Did Augustine Write Books XI-XIII of the Confessions?” Augustinian Studies 2 (1971), 37–46. Also Karl J. Weintraub, The Value of the Individual: Self and Circumstance in Autobiography (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978), pp. 18–48.

10Lawrence Rothfield, “Autobiography and Perspective in The Confessions of St. Augustine,” Comparative Literature 33 (Summer 1981), 213.

11Julia Kristeva, Desire in Language: A Semiotic Approach to Literature and Art, trans. Tom Gora, Alice Jardine, and Leon Roudiez. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1980), pp. 191–208 (206).

12Ibid., p. 206.

13Michel Beaujour, Miroirs d’encre (Paris: Seuil, 1980), p. 9. All translations are mine.

14Ricoeur, 1:52.

15Vance, pp. 13, 17.

16Burke, p. 140n.

17lbid., p. 94.

18Julia Kristeva, Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection (New York: Columbia University Press, 1982), pp. 127 and 125.

19Vance, p. 16.

20In Augustinian terms, will is identical with love and analogous to the Holy Spirit. See for example a discussion of this topic in Hannah Arendt, The Life of the Mind (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1978), 2:99–104, based on the Confessions and On the Trinity. See also Eugene Vance, “The Functions and Limits of Autobiography in Augustine’s Confessions,” Poetics Today 5 (1984), 399–409 (408).

21Beaujour, p. 47.

22For an interesting discussion of kenosis in the context of “the anxiety of influence,” see Harold Bloom, The Anxiety of Influence (New York: Oxford University Press, 1973), pp. 77–92.

23Burke, p. 83.

24Etienne Gilson, Introduction à l’étude de Saint Augustin (Paris: Jean Vrin, 1969), pp. 289–98.

25These two poles both correspond to active behavior: for Augustine, all human behavior is willed, “will is identical with . . . being” (12:28). There is no passivity, or rather, passivity is a willed choice. See the argument in 8:8–11.

26The phrase is traditionally translated as “through a glass, darkly.” For a discussion of the aenigma as a kind of figure of speech in Latin literature and its influence on Augustine’s theory of signification, see Marcia Colish, The Mirror of Language: A Study in the Medieval Theory of Knowledge (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1983), especially the preface and chap. 1. In Marie-Thérèse Humbert’s novel, this image of the mirror will be used to refer to the troubled relation between Anne and her twin Nadège (see my discussion in Chapter 6).

27This is the place to acknowledge my pervasive and diffuse debt to Shoshana Felman’s work. My reading of Augustine was enabled in many ways by her brilliant studies of language, madness, silence, and the feminine in La Folie et la chose littéraire (Paris: Seuil, 1978).

28Burke, p. 74.

29Ibid., p. 62.

30Ibid., p. 117.

31In Zoroastrianism and Manicheanism, the number nine was believed to have special symbolic purification powers, and many rites were performed nine times during purification ceremonies. In Christian religious symbolism, the number four is also important: the fourth sacrament is that of Repentance; there are four Gospels, just as there are four elements and four points on the compass, etc. See Encyclopaedia Britannica (Chicago, 1986), article on “Rites and Ceremonies,” 26:816–89.

32Pierre Courcelle, Les “Confessions” de St Augustin dans la tradition littéraire: Antecedents et postérité (Paris: Etudes Augustiniennes, 1963), pp. 106–8. Augustine had read The Golden Ass and comments on it in The City of God (18:18).

33For a detailed discussion of the mise en abyme, see Lucien Dällenbach, Le Récit spéculaire (Paris: Seuil, 1977). The term refers to a process whereby a mirror image of all or part of a picture is reflected within its frame. In textual terms, a segment of the text reflects the content, the form, the mode of production of the text, as well as the relationship between writer and reader. For Ross Chambers, “’Figural’ embedding . . . consists of the incorporation into the narrative of a ‘figure’ that is representative in some sense . . . of the production and reception of narrative.” See Story and Situation: Narrative Seduction and the Power of Fiction (Minneapolis: University of Minesota Press, 1984), p. 33.

34Beaujour, p. 283.

35Jean-François Lyotard, Discours, Figure (Paris: Klincksieck, 1978), p. 10: “Voilà le péché et l’orgueil, avoir le texte et l’illustration. Cette hesitation est celle du chris-tianisme même, du christianisme de fait qui occupe le sous-sol de nos probléma-tiques, à nous occidentaux: écoute d’une parole mais philosophic de la création” (my translation).

36Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, in The Portable Nietzsche, trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Viking Press, 1967), p. 147.

37Zora Neale Hurston, Dust Tracks on a Road, ed. Robert Hemenway, 2d ed. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1984), p. 173.

Additional Information

ISBN
9781501723100
Related ISBN
9780801420917
MARC Record
OCLC
1057633853
Pages
35-66
Launched on MUSE
2018-04-06
Language
English
Open Access
Yes
Creative Commons
CC-BY-NC-ND
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