Darkness and a slippery place

Robert Alter

  • The Confessions of Saint Augustine translated with an introduction and notes by Henry Chadwick
    Oxford, 311 pp, £17.50, February 1991, ISBN 0 19 281779 5

Augustine’s Confessions, though frequently set at the beginning of a line of literary history that leads to Rousseau and Henry Adams, is a narrative of the writer’s life only in a highly intermittent and drastically selective way. Its aim, as has often been noted, is more spiritual exhortation then self-revelation, or, more precisely, it is an exposition of the divine scheme with reference to a particular life-experience. As Henry Chadwick observes in the judicious introduction to his useful new English version, in explaining the role of the philosophic Books X to XIII that constitute over a third of the whole, ‘the story of the soul wandering away from God and then in torment and tears finding its way home through conversion is also the story of the entire created order.’

I would like to suggest that the Confessions is also a book about reading and the relation between text and truth. Indeed, it proved to be crucial, for better or for worse, in determining Western reading practices over the next millennium and a half. The critical moment of Augustine’s conversion is triggered by the famous tolle lege, the child’s voice saying, ‘Pick up and read,’ but picking up one kind of text means dropping another, along with the complex of readerly assumptions appropriate to it. The converted Augustine laments the fact that he was once ‘forced to learn about the wandering of some legendary fellow named Aeneas (forgetful of my own wanderings) and to weep over the death of a Dido who took her own life from love’. Such fictional texts obviously touch on something of our shared humanity, or we would not be able to weep over them. What is from the Christian viewpoint harmful about them is suggested by Augustine’s parenthesis: as entirely imaginary hypotheses about the limited life of the passions, they cannot be universal models of spiritual existence – Aeneas’s wanderings cannot stir in Augustine a consciousness of the wanderings of his own soul. Fiction touches only the surface of the reader’s self, as he says elsewhere in one of those singularly unpleasant images of disease of which he is so fond: ‘I wanted only to hear stories and imaginary legends of sufferings which ... like the scratches of fingernails ... produced inflamed spots, pus, and repulsive sores.’

What is it about the Bible as Augustine understands it that takes it beyond this mere emotional prurience generated by the fictional text? One must of course begin by saying that he believes the Bible to be the revealed word of God, and hence the articulation of a set of truths, not fictions: but I think it is also important to understand how he conceives the distinctiveness of that textual articulation and how he exploits it in his own prose. He construes the Bible’s plain style – the very feature that provoked his contempt when he was a young academician teaching rhetoric – as a formal sign of its truth-telling power. Scripture’s ‘humble style of diction’ makes its underlying messages accessible to all, while the discerning few are privileged to detect in the ostensible simplicity of Biblical utterance the most complex philosophic truths, as Augustine demonstrates in his last four books. In Book XII, he spells out a hermeneutic theory of Biblical polysemy that underlies his own reading practice. Multiple interpretation of Scripture, he argues, should hardly surprise us. If he were Moses, divinely inspired, in the full consciousness of the multifaceted truth he was conveying, he would cast every statement in a form that would open up many corridors for future interpretation: ‘I would choose to write so that my words would sound out with whatever diverse truth in these matters each reader was able to grasp, rather than to give a quite explicit statement of a single true view of this question in such a way as to exclude other views.’

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