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.’

This theory gives Augustine warrant for reading the Bible powerfully against the grain, or at the very least at a certain tangent to the grain. This mode of reading, the effects of which we are only now beginning to shake off, insists on an absolute division between the kind of attention we give the Bible and that which we give to all those other texts that are merely literature. Augustine’s passionate, unflagging attachment to Psalms is particularly instructive in this regard. The text of the Confessions is studded with Biblical quotations, of which easily three out of four are from the Psalter – a distribution readily visible through Henry Chadwick’s helpful practice of citing all sources, even when only a word or two is taken from Scripture. Now, Augustine himself explains that the Psalms enflamed him (the erotic language is his) as enthralling love-poems of man to God, but I also think there is something about the actual poetic language of Psalms that especially suits his need for a literature that is not ‘merely’ literature. It is worth pondering, moreover, why it is the religious lyric and not narrative that most profoundly speaks to him from the Bible.

The great narrative texts of the Hebrew Bible, despite their rigorous economy of descriptive detail, are intricately entangled in the quotidian, which in turn is urgently implicated in history. Well-digging and lentil stew, quarrels over concubines and a search for lost asses, mark the trajectory of the Biblical personages through the dense historical medium of national destiny. The engine of an allegorising exegesis, like Augustine’s or Philo’s before him, can transform all of this into sublime philosophy, but Augustine is clearly more at ease with Psalms, where it would seem that no transformation is required. I refer not only to the fact that most of the Psalms have no readily discernible narrative framework, no historical track from which they need to be disengaged, but also to their constant use of an archetypal imagery which resonates far beyond the geographical and temporal borders of Biblical Israel and thus could eloquently address the anguished condition of this North African intellectual, groping his way from Manicheism to Christianity, at the end of the fourth century. Sheltering wings and mighty bastions, light shining in darkness, the terrors of the pit, the sharpened arrows of the wicked – all these seemed to Augustine less signs or emblems than direct expressions of his own spiritual crisis. Suspicious as he had become of the seductive power of rhetoric, the archetypal language of Psalms – which of course reflects another kind of rhetoric – struck him as a poetry without ornamentation that sought not to persuade but to convey timeless truths. Listening to the rebuke of Psalm 4, ‘How long will you be dull at heart?’, Augustine revealingly describes his reaction: ‘As I heard the Psalm, I trembled at words spoken to people such as I recalled myself to have been.’ In his view, the Psalmist, unlike the secular poet Virgil, fashions his poetry in language that is strictly and imperatively pertinent to endless numbers of souls (‘people such as I’), over and over.

Augustine sometimes cites Scripture as a kind of verbally authoritative embellishment for his argument, but more typically, and especially in the case of Psalms, Biblical texts flow into his writing in large and small spates because, in his reading of them, they express his experience as fully as does his own prose. The impassioned pastiche that constitutes the initial paragraph of Book VI illustrates how his imagination works through these images:

‘My hope from my youth’ (Ps. 70:5), where were you, and where did you ‘withdraw’ from me (Ps. 10:1)? Did you make me, and ‘make me superior to the animals, and make me wiser than the birds of heaven’ (Job 35:10-11)? I was walking through darkness and ‘a slippery place’ (Ps. 34:6). I was seeking for you outside myself, and I failed to find ‘the God of my heart’ (Ps. 72:26). I had come into the depth of the sea (Ps. 67:23). I had no confidence, and had lost hope that truth could be found.

In addition to all the sources Henry Chadwick identifies here, I suspect that ‘I was walking through darkness’ echoes Isaiah 9:1, ‘the people walking in darkness saw a great light,’ and that the last sentence of the paragraph is inspired by Ps. 116:11: ‘I thought in my haste, all men are false.’ This extreme instance of a total superimposition of the voice of the Psalmist on the voice of the Latin writer is made possible through the operation of two closely cognate forms of allegorical thinking. Augustine conceives his own life – and, implicitly, every individual life – typologically as the universal drama of the soul alienated from its Creator and desperately seeking the means to reorient itself towards its divine origins, much like creation itself in the Neoplatonic cosmogony that deeply influenced him. The Bible as a whole, with the Book of Psalms as the exemplary Scriptural text, is seen as the definitive figuration of that very drama of perilous exile and return. What follows is a mode of reading the Bible that constantly confirms its radical difference from and its spiritual superiority to other kinds of literature. It is surely instructive that Augustine identifies as a turning-point in his movement towards conversion his discovery that all the intellectual knots and seeming contradictions of the Old Testament disappeared under the powerful illumination of figurative reading.

Modern readers may regard it as a historical curiosity that Augustine, reading in this fashion, should have been able, for example, to discover an adumbration of the Church in the first verses of Genesis. In his central use of Psalms, however, he needed no exercise of ingenuity to respond to the suggestive force of those recurrent images that in fact point toward the immemorial perils and urgencies of the human condition – the panic and longing of a creature trapped in darkness, stumbling headlong over slippery places, plunging into the depths of the sea, jubilant in finding at last a great light in the land of the living. There is nevertheless a line of crucial distinction between the archetypal and the figurative, and by crossing it, Augustine contributed significantly to a very long era during which the Bible could only be read devotionally and could not be thought of coherently in relation to Western literature, over which in several respects it exerted a determinative influence.

The landscape of Psalms for Augustine is almost exclusively the landscape of the troubled soul – even, at some junctures of the Confessions, the landscape of the soul seeking illumination for understanding metaphysical enigmas. This reading is encouraged by the fact that the Old Latin version of Scripture that Augustine read regularly uses anima for the recurrent Hebrew term nefesh – a word that means life-breath, person, self, an intensive form of ‘I’, and also neck (perhaps because it encases the windpipe), but not soul. An ontological opposition between body and soul does not seem to have been part of the conceptual world of ancient Israel. There are, to be sure, landscapes of the soul in Psalms, but it is a vividly embodied soul that never imagines itself apart from body. The Jerusalem to which the pilgrim looks up in Psalms across the perspective of the stony Judean hills with their slopes of terraced cultivation is, in the first and compelling instance, a city in real geo-political time and space. The translation of this poetry into pure spiritual allegory, however responsive to one aspect of the poems, has a denaturing effect.

The invocation of Psalm 34 (Psalm 35 according to the now prevalent numeration) in the passage I have quoted – ‘darkness and a slippery place’ – is a case in point. The Psalmist’s image becomes the dangerous topography confronting the soul as it struggles toward conversion. In fact, Psalm 35 is not only anchored in the realm of the mundane but is actually a rather warlike poem beginning with a powerful sequence of battle images:

Take up my quarrel, Lord,
fight my battle.

Seize shield and buckler,
rise to my help.

Poise the spear and close with my pursuers.
Say to me, ‘I am your deliverance.’

Shamed and dismayed be they who seek my life,
may they who plot my ruin fall back in disgrace ...

May their way be darkness and a slippery place.

What follows in the psalm suggests that the battle imagery of the opening lines is a metaphor for legal entrapment by malicious enemies seeking to manipulate the judicial system (the Hebrew term for ‘quarrel’ of the first line also frequently refers to a legal case). It is unclear whether the poet has actually borrowed some lines from a battle poem – of which there are quite a few in the Psalter – or whether he has simply adapted martial imagery for his own purposes. In either case, the imaginative anchorage of the poem in the material here-and-now is strongly manifest. The Lord, gripping spear and buckler, scatters the enemies of his people, just as the supplicant fervently expects him to confound false witnesses in court and foil the conspiracy of the schemers.

It is easy enough to see how the metaphorical language of the poem lends itself to a purely figurative reading like the spiritual one Augustine assumes. The metaphors surely have a certain large resonance, and the poet himself, as I have noted, takes one set of images, elsewhere in Psalms used quite literally, and applies it figuratively to a very different sphere of activity. What the figure and referent share, however, is an acute sense of human life – the nefesh – ‘me’ – ‘life’ of the third and fourth lines – crying out for vindication, fearing destruction, in the temporal realm, in the clash of armies and in society’s legal institutions. The Psalms are poems addressed to God, but given their driving concern with human behaviour in society, with politics, with man’s deviousness and hostility toward man, they have more common ground with, say, the poetry of Horace and Catullus than Augustine’s allegorical reading could possibly allow.

One might argue that this process of the disembodiment of the Hebrew Bible begins with the New Testament, but it comes to a culminating synthesis in Augustine’s reading practice. It should be observed that the allegoresis is a precise correlative of the spiritual ascesis at the centre of the Confessions. Augustine’s obsession with the sinfulness of sexuality is one of his more dubious legacies to later Christianity. His sex life before his conversion was, at least from an external viewpoint, conventional enough: he lived in common-law monogamy for 14 years, from the age of 17, with the same Carthaginian woman, begetting a son with her. But he himself construed this ‘sexual habit’ as a ‘weight’ pulling his soul down from an aspiration to higher things into the muck of earthly existence. Conversion for him had to be an escape from sexuality, a liberation, in so far as was possible in sublunary existence, from the body: ‘And so step by step I ascended from bodies to the soul which perceives through the body, and from there to its inward force, to which bodily senses report external sensations, this being as high as beasts go. From there again I ascended to the power of reasoning to which is to be attributed the power of judging the deliverances of the bodily senses.’

Nothing could illustrate more vividly how modes of reading flow from world-views. Augustine, hungering to be delivered from this body of sin, found a way to deliver the Bible from the body, and in so doing, he bequeathed to Western thought a split between Greco-Roman and Biblical, literature, between Hellenism and Hebraism, that corresponds, rather misleadingly, to the split between body and soul. In fact, the writers of ancient Israel imagined the life-impulse, the divine likeness, in man realising itself through the agency of the senses in the natural realm God had created and in the social realm shaped by humankind. Hence the poignant concreteness of the psalmist’s vision, taking in the Sun and the Moon and the stars and the teeming seas as manifestations of God’s created order, not signs of another, invisible realm. Hence, too, the intricate web of family and society and politics, of sexual urge, rivalry, jealousy, and lust for power, that is the medium of Biblical narrative. The peculiar spiritual urgency of this literature does in one important regard set it off from the literary heritage of Greece and Rome, but there are still significant affinities between the two traditions. An important intellectual agenda for our own age has been to seek to bind together what Augustine first definitively sundered, to articulate a mode of reading that can follow the wanderings of both Aeneas and Jacob, seeing the connections between them as well as the differences, the ways they figure in the twin legacy that has made us culturally what we are.