Monday, June 28, 2010

CONFESSIONS by Saint Augustine

After a one-month hiatus Mindful Pleasures is back, and I'm reading St. Augustine the only way he should be read--impiously. I'm reading the Confessions in the beautiful Penguin translation by the Gothickly-named R.S. Pine-Coffin; I'm ignoring the theology and enjoying the prose, reading the saint exactly as he would not have wished to be read. (Still waiting for that thunderbolt...) The notorious 'theft of the pears' episode now seems to me an uncannily pitch-perfect parody of Dostoyevsky. A rational reading would understand things the other way round, of course, interpreting Dostoyevsky's underground ranter as an Augustine gone to seed in an urban wasteland, but it's more fruitfully disorienting to read Augustine as the satirist--or in this case, the Monty Python spoofer. I also find myself wondering if the little-read latter chapters of Biblical exegesis might be Augustine's way of refracting the preceding confession through a corrective lens. The final chapters implicitly instruct Augustine's readers to interpret his autobiographical narrative allegorically and perhaps recognize corresponding events in their own lives. The entire work thus becomes an injunction to go and do likewise.

Augustine should be considered the patron saint of momma's boys. His mother (who, like Richard Nixon's, was a saint) is one of the few major characters in his narrative, filling the space that would ordinarily (in later examples of the genre) be given to a spouse or lover. By contrast, Augustine's unloved (and, not coincidentally, non-Christian) father is summarily dispatched in a subordinate clause, his death seemingly affecting his son not at all. Saints can be colder than ice. (Augustine likely recognized this coldness during composition and attempted to mitigate it with a more balanced portrait of his father near the end of his narrative in Book X.)

And then there's the matter of the Sin of Sodom (whatever that was, exactly; experts disagree), Greek Love, the one that dare not speak its name (except when it did, which was quite often in the Ancient World). Augustine's homoeroticism is as obvious as his formidable Oedipal attachment to Santa Monica (a name I can't write without musing that Raymond Chandler lived briefly in Augustine's mom). Compare the relative importance of Augustine's male friends and his barely mentioned mistresses. Note especially the poignant pages on the death of a beloved friend (Book IV, chaps.4-9). Augustine is very Greek, very Platonic/Socratic in this privileging of homoerotic over heteroerotic attachments.

Although I've long known about the linguistic aspect of the Confessions, I'm surprised at the extent to which the work is a treatise on language: on rhetoric and reading, speech and signs, representation and interpretation. From the well-known early chapter in which the child Augustine happily initiates himself into the Lacanian 'Symbolic' to the equally famous description of St. Ambrose's scandalously silent reading (something so unusual ca.380 that it required explanation and excuse) to Augustine's description of the effect of Ambrose's sermons as a semiotic event (wanting to appreciate them purely as rhetoric he finds himself unable to separate sense from sound, signifier from signified, rhetorical dancer from religious dance) to Augustine's ultimate conversion through an act of reading (preceded by Augustine's highly questionable interpretation of the child's overheard words, a hermeneutic act as weak as those of the astrologers he ridicules) to the whole notion of the 'Word made flesh' as a transcendental healing of Derridean differance, a mystic marriage of signifier and signified that redeems the world by granting it meaning--in the light of all these examples (and given that Augustine repeatedly tropes the redeemed consciousness as a form of language sans differance, most dramatically during Augustine and Monica's late conversation about the afterlives of saints), the book can be interestingly read as a mystico-linguistic treatise, a work of Christian poststructuralism. Indeed, the Confessions concerns itself so explicitly with the materials and manner of its own production and consumption that I'm tempted to interpret the book as Augustine's answer to Plato's Phaedrus, that great self-reflecting mirror of a dialogue, the ur-text of deconstruction. It's been a while since I've read the Phaedrus, but I think the case can be pretty easily made.


Amateur Reader said...

Ah, the mama's boy. Now I want to read Augustine not as a parody of Dostoevsky, but as a parody of Proust!

Joe Miller said...

Have Augustine's meditations on time and memory aged well? I'm thinking about reading this, if only for its historical importance.

Clayton said...

I think you're mistaking the nature of friendship in Augustine's time with homoeroticism. Culturally, men and women were not close friends. A man would not share his deepest thoughts with a woman as freely as he would share it with a man, largely due to societal expectations. I think the case can be made that his apparent preference for male friends is largely do to that fact.

BRIAN OARD said...

@ Clayton:

I don't think I'm confusing the two. It seems perfectly acceptable to me to include male friendship in the ancient world under the category of 'homoeroticism.' Indeed, we might provocatively view friendship in the contemporary world along the same lines. Every same-sex friendship surely lies somewhere on a homoerotic continuum, n'est-ce pas?.