In a Garden in Milan

Adam Phillips

  • Confessions: A New Translation by Augustine, translated by Peter Constantine
    Liveright, 329 pp, £22.99, February 2018, ISBN 978 0 87140 714 6

Early on in Emmanuel Carrère’s remarkable novel The Kingdom (2014), about the vagaries of Christian conversion, the narrator tells us that his unhappy mother always knew of the ‘inner kingdom’ – ‘the only one that’s really worth aspiring to: the treasure for which the Gospel tells us to renounce all riches’ – but that she had been irresistibly tempted by worldly pleasures. ‘Her difficult personal history,’ he writes, ‘made these riches – success, social status, popular acclaim – infinitely desirable for her, and she spent her life going after them.’ And yet there was always ‘a voice reminding her that … the true combat takes place elsewhere. It’s to hear this voice that she has read St Augustine her whole life, almost in secret’ – ‘almost in secret’ suggesting that she wasn’t quite sure who she wanted to be, or wanted to be seen to be, by herself in particular. Such choices, she would have found by reading Confessions, are utterly spurious; indeed to think of one’s life in terms of them is just one more sign of corruption. You read Confessions to find out what it is to become and to be a believer. To live a life in which there is nothing but God. ‘All my wealth that is not my God is poverty,’ the converted Augustine realised. Only a life lived in the acknowledged service of God had any value. Augustine was not a pluralist.

Carrère’s novel is not much interested in individual psychology, although it is intimated that the mother’s difficult personal history – she lost both her parents when young, and grew up in poverty – has led her to fob herself off with conventional satisfactions, but also to continue reading Augustine. She is just another double agent working for God and Mammon – after the Fall everyone is a double agent – but she needs Augustine’s voice, as many people do, in order to keep something essential alive in her, the ‘elsewhere’ of the ‘true combat’, there being many false combats that she could comfort herself with, and many competing essential (and anti-essentialist) values. She is a modern person in the sense that there was – unlike for Augustine and his contemporaries – always something she wanted to make up for, or to distract herself from, the deprivations of her childhood, a wanting for something other than the aims and objects procured for her by the society she grew up in, but, just like Augustine, she relished the ordinary, obvious pleasures. Indeed, one of the reasons Confessions is so appealing to her, and to us, is that we are in no doubt about the excitement the young Augustine really felt. His descriptions in Confessions of the baffling and unbaffled pleasure he took in sex, friendship, competition, cruelty, conversation, stealing, delinquency, reading, learning, feasting, entertainment, blood sports, and above all in himself and who he happened to be (his serial conversions from one stimulant to another), have always been reason enough to read the book, tempered though the pleasures have to be by his retrospective sense of having been a ‘slave’ to them. His infamous request to God – ‘Grant me chastity and continence, only not yet’ – makes the point. Eventually he will prefer ‘slavery’ to God over the other slaveries, and Confessions works hard to discriminate between them.

The perplexities of male adolescence, its urgencies and its ecstasies (‘the continuing delights with which I was so familiar’), are what makes Augustine’s transformation into a man of God at once so confounding and so inevitable. He knew what he was giving up, and could acknowledge how little he could know about what he was giving it up for; and it is clearly this drama of faith, its improbable necessity, that gets to him. In the secular language of appetite and gratification that the novel and indeed Confessions plays on, and that can make Confessions sound so contemporary, the true struggle is to find a satisfactory object of desire: to find the right thing to want and the right way of wanting it (pre-conversion desire is by definition seen in retrospect as restless and unsettled). For the young Augustine it came down to a choice of pleasures. But in the ‘true combat’ that he gradually sets himself to in Confessions, the limits of the secular languages of consumption and satisfaction and so-called pleasure, are reached and found inadequate; the need and longing felt are in excess of the available ways and means, as though he began to realise that he had the wrong picture, the wrong story, of what a life was. ‘I became a great enigma to myself,’ he writes, intimating that until you become an enigma to yourself nothing can change; as though self-knowledge had been the problem, not the solution. The mother in Carrère’s novel, like the young Augustine, wanted something more than her world seems to offer, while not being allowed to believe in another world. ‘Let me not be my own life,’ Augustine writes in an extraordinary passage in Confessions, ‘for through myself I have lived badly.’ Living through oneself, as though one were the source of one’s own life, or that other people were, is not enough. Confessions, that is to say, is countercultural if you believe that there can be more to culture than culture.

So Augustine is a companionable voice, a perennial if disturbing contemporary, because he writes with such startling intelligence about the individual’s dissatisfaction with what she is supposed to want, by the powers that be (the society, the body).

‘In over one and a half millennia,’ Peter Constantine writes in the introduction to his compelling new translation, ‘Confessions has maintained a persistent and intense relevance for readers throughout the world.’ And part of this relevance is that it is as much a book for unbelievers as for believers; partly because it is a book about believing – about the kind of experience believing is – and partly because it is about the relationship between belief and pleasure, and about the possibility of developing a capacity to distinguish between forms of satisfaction, in the quest to find a life that is, in Augustine’s view, more than just opportunism and desperation. But it is also a book about belief and pleasure that is wholly unconvinced by the idea of convincing people (the need to be believed tends to be something that hedonists and religious believers have in common). In Confessions Augustine wants us to imagine, as well as a thoroughly disciplined and coerced life, a life in which no one ever tries to persuade anyone of anything, a life of faith. And in that sense, in Confessions, he is converted to a scepticism about conversion, or about certain kinds of experience of conversion. Confessions is a long argument against conversion by argument. Augustine shows us – it is a disturbing and compelling aspect of the book – that one of the great and tricky things about believing in (his) God is that it exposes the irrelevance of persuasion. It raises interesting questions, that is to say, about the way people change, and the way they change each other. Significant change, Augustine suggests, has language as its pretext, but not as its cause. Change, like goodness, is conferred by God, not achieved by individuals. It was because God ‘penetrated my hidden depths with severe mercy’, Augustine writes, that he was receptive to the words in the garden in Milan that finally converted him. He is converted by what he calls ‘divine words’, true words from the source of Truth.

Confessions, a coming-of-age story of what was then an unprecedented kind (it was written between 397 and 401), is the by now familiar story of an unusually talented and ambitious young man who, over time, finds himself wanting something that in his case is eventually called God; a story at once for the religious, and for those who belong to the religion of wanting. The ordinary story of a boy, born in 354 in Thagaste, in Roman North Africa, who had a close relationship with his accomplished (and devout) mother, and a troubled relationship with his inadequate, mediocre father (a pagan). A not unfamiliar account, at least from a son’s point of view: what is unusual is that God seems to have been presented to Augustine by his mother as his real father (a grandiose version of the Family Romance, but by definition true in Augustine’s theocracy). He is, in his own view, an exceptionally curious and intelligent boy, unduly impressed by his rowdy peers, who struggles – due to his father’s lack of wealth – to get the education he wants, but does eventually get thanks to a wealthy local patron. After studying and teaching (pagan) rhetoric and philosophy he finds the Truth of Christianity. He had been brought up by his mother in the Christian faith and so his conversion, as he acknowledges, was more of a return than a discovery. A return to his mother and a return to God, the two seemingly inextricable as Augustine presents them.

There is quite a lot of travelling, with and without his mother, in the young Augustine’s quest at first for education and a viable profession, and then for Truth. And the bare bones of his account of his life up to conversion to Christianity suggest a person unmoored, in search of something that might dispel an obscure and restless uncertainty that he equates with an insidious kind of self-destructiveness (‘What am I to myself without You,’ he asks God early in Confessions, ‘but a guide to my own downfall?’). Indeed, what haunts Augustine in various forms throughout Confessions is an enduring helplessness, masked by Pride, that he will come to think of as both fundamental and salutary. In Book X he writes to God, to place himself: ‘Your best servant,’ he says, ‘is he who does not seek to hear from You that which he himself wants, but rather wants that which he hears from You.’ It is a crucial distinction – the difference between what you can hear and what you want to hear – and one that comes in many versions, since it isn’t at all clear which is more likely to get you the life you want. The life you really want, though, as Augustine knows, is the life God wants for you, indeed created you for; but he also knows that to acknowledge this is never enough, because ‘things are so evident and ordinary, but at the same time extremely obscure, and fathoming them is a novel task.’ It is easy and self-aggrandising to love mystery, and Augustine is sufficiently wary of this, as of so many other temptations; but once you do believe in God you are really at a loss, because you can never know what God wants from you, or wants you for. For Augustine the question becomes: how do you live in absolute distrust of human wanting? What do you rely on, if not your desire? These are the questions that drive him and that he flees from in his unsettled early life, and that Christianity seems to resolve for him. Dependence on God is the acid test of dependence. Only God ‘can unravel this tangled and twisted knot’, but Augustine’s God is a law unto himself, so Augustine can never quite know what it is that he wants in wanting God. No one writes with more subtlety about what it is like simultaneously to know exactly what you want and not to have a clue what you want.

And yet the one thing that Augustine seems to have always wanted was to know – which, among other things, has made him popular with philosophers. From his home town of Thagaste, he goes to study in Madauros (365-369), a small but well-known intellectual centre, also in North Africa, then in 370 moves on to university in Carthage. There he finds a mistress, another North African whom he never names, with whom he has a son, Adeodatus. After 15 years together, he sends her away without her son. (The misogyny of the book, and clearly of the times, is startling even by modern standards: Augustine’s mother, Augustine tells us, was a local expert on living with abusive husbands.) He goes back to Thagaste in 373 to open a school of rhetoric, and opens another school in Carthage in 376. In Carthage he becomes a devout Manichean; after seven years there he leaves to teach in Rome, but a year later, in 384, he is made professor of rhetoric at Milan. He begins to drift away from Manicheism as he becomes interested in Cicero and Neoplatonism, and ultimately in the letters of St Paul. In 386, at the age of 32, he has his now famous conversion experience.

Confessions is the most detailed and elaborate account we have of a man from what the blurb on this book calls ‘the beguiling world of late antiquity’, but this says more about the paucity of the other surviving accounts of the period. We actually get very little sense – unsurprisingly, at least for those who are used to the conventional realisms of the 19th and 20th-century novel and memoir – of what Augustine’s world was like; but what we do get is a strong sense of what we call Augustine’s inner life, of what he thought and felt about the people he knew and the experiences he had. Indeed experiences are had in Confessions in order to be reflected on – which is what can make it seem such a modern book – but always ultimately reflected on in order to see the signs of God’s providential design. Because Augustine’s life is plotted by God, reading the signs is a version of ‘meet the author’. But if the Augustine described in Confessions is more of an intelligence, or a sensibility, than what we might think of as a character, it is because this is the story of someone, above all, trying to work out who, if anyone, this someone is or could be, having been created by such a God. It is an inquiry into something rather than an evocation of someone. But unlike most inquiries, it is an inquiry into something – how to live a real life – that has already been understood (by God: Confessions is adept at getting us to imagine God, though in the full knowledge that God is not like anything or anyone). And so as readers of Confessions we are always divided between following the story as it unfolds, and imagining what it would be already to know everything in it – God is the book’s silent, unsurprised, omniscient narrator. So Augustine’s life is presented as a problem with an answer, though the answer is not always available. And this makes any reading – and indeed any translation – of Confessions an essential perplexity, like the God it refers us to.

It is a difficult book not least because – like all books written after the Fall presumably should be – it is self-consciously sceptical of the language in which it is written, so corrupted is it by worldly concerns. This alone is confounding, for Augustine was a teacher of rhetoric before his conversion, a ‘seller of words’. What are we to do with a medium, language, which we can’t trust? At his most extreme – and he is often at his most extreme, without always seeming to be – Augustine believes that language is an insufficient medium for our relationship with God. Augustine the erstwhile rhetorician knows that language as inducement (or seduction) is the problem, not the point (God can’t be persuaded, and he wouldn’t need to persuade us). Language used to get what we want from people could never be a suitable medium for our relationship with God, a relationship absolutely unlike any other relationship; and in that sense it can’t be described as a relationship at all. And this, of course, leaves us as readers of Augustine wondering what he might then want from us, as opposed to God, in writing Confessions.

Augustine’s belief in language is always at stake in Confessions. Indeed believing in God, Augustine shows, makes you doubt everything else – makes you wonder what you can believe if you believe in God. If Satan is the father of lies, God is the father of scepticism. So Confessions is not a conventionally reassuring book, because it can only reassure us about God but not about language. ‘I have encountered many who want to deceive, but no one who wants to be deceived,’ he writes as an enigmatic warning to himself and to us. Henry Chadwick writes of Augustine’s ‘acute sense of the inadequacy of words’ for the ‘expression of divine mysteries’ in the introduction to his translation of Confessions (1991) while Garry Wills, who produced his own translation in 2008, encourages us to believe that, for Augustine, ‘God is the Word. We are made in his image. We are words.’ Such contradictions seem integral to Augustine’s project, and he wants the confusions to show through.

Anyone who is at all interested in desire and frustration and language – and, indeed, in the Judeo-Christian God – will find many satisfying things in this strange and eloquent book, as Augustine himself hoped. But it can’t be, by definition, what Roland Barthes called a readerly text, a conventionally familiar one, even in Constantine’s compelling and fluent new translation: it is a book that wants to be more accessible and hospitable than it could possibly be because the writing of the book is beset by complication, if not by impossibility. Indeed the first two sentences of Book I announce the problem:

You are great, O Lord, and worthy of the highest praise; great is Your power, and Your wisdom incalculable. Seeking to praise You is a man, part of Your creation, a man bearing with him his mortality, bearing evidence of his sin and evidence that You oppose the proud.

This book is addressed to God, who knows everything and always has, by one of His creatures who, as He knows and Augustine knows, can’t be trusted, because he is a fallen creature. (Is God himself compromised by being the creator of a sinful creature?) So praise, for example, may now be born of pride, which God opposes; and even though God must be worthy of the highest praise – no one and nothing could be more worthy – it is not clear that man, let alone this particular man, is up to the task (there is a difference between seeking to praise and praising). What could be possible between two such incommensurate beings (if God can be called a being; and if God speaks our language though we don’t speak his)? Augustine goes on to say that God inspires in him the wish to praise him but he can’t know whether God wants to be praised, wanting to be praised being a suspiciously human thing to want. But how can we know what a God we cannot know wants from us? The reasons for addressing (or even believing in) God sound like the reasons for not addressing him, as Augustine seems to know. For Augustine the difficulty of all this is the point, and the point of writing Confessions.

Chadwick’s translation of the opening sentences is characteristically lucid and pared down:

You are great Lord and highly to be praised: great is your power and your wisdom immeasurable. Man, a little piece of your creation, desires to praise you, a human being ‘bearing his mortality with him’, carrying with him the witness of his sin and the witness that ‘you resist the proud.’

You can quibble over the relative merits of ‘incalculable’ over ‘immeasurable’ or ‘seeking to praise’ over ‘desiring to praise’; but clearly Constantine’s translation of man as ‘part of Your creation’ is interestingly different from Chadwick’s more diminishing (and fragmented) ‘little piece of your creation’. Constantine keeps the biblical and other references to the end of each book, so the text is unimpeded. Wills omits both references and notes, and true to his word, is the more extravagant and verbose:

‘Vast are you Lord, and as vast should be your praise’ – ‘vast what you do; what you know beyond assaying’. Yet man, a mere segment of what you made, strives to appraise you – man ‘confined by a nature that must die’, confined by this evidence of his sin, the evidence that you rebuff the overweening, yet man would still appraise you, this mere segment of what you made.

Wills’s version, effective in a different way, wants to jolt us with its declaration and vocabulary. This is clearly Augustine the rhetorician while Chadwick’s Augustine is suspicious of the way the rhetorician draws attention to his own performance. Constantine keeps us wondering about what someone is up to when they are praising praise. Everyone will have their preferences but Constantine carefully keeps the measure of Augustine’s complicated preoccupations, not the least of which is his preoccupation with the figure to whom Confessions is addressed: God.

‘The interesting twist’, as Constantine puts it, ‘is that Confessions is technically not written for a mortal reader’, but takes ‘the form of an intimate prayer to God’. Nor is it a justification of the ways of God to man – which by definition require no justification. The task Augustine sets himself, as the opening sentences make clear, is peculiarly daunting: a description of how someone comes to devote their life to something wholly unintelligible, which they believe themselves to be utterly dependent on (everything Augustine values about himself and his life comes from God, and belongs to God: ‘What does man have that he has not received from You?’). And this very devotion brings out what he knows to be the best in himself and, indeed, in everyone else in the world. ‘Since it is God we are speaking of, you do not understand it,’ he said in one of his sermons. ‘If you could understand it it would not be God.’ ‘Don’t understand’ is the ultimate paradoxical injunction. When it comes to God, understanding is not the point. If you take understanding out of a relationship what are you left with? You can read Confessions – as it was clearly not meant to be read – as a description of how to have a relationship with something (or someone) you cannot live without, and which is as unlike yourself as it is possible to be. A description of a new kind of life, in which the best thing about you is that you have no power over what you need.

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Confessions is often referred to as an autobiography, a new kind of life-story – the first great autobiography, one of the founding texts of ‘life-writing’ – but also as the fundamental account of a Christian conversion, second only to Paul’s, to which it is much indebted. There is a consensus among modern scholars – made clear initially in Peter Brown’s magnificent biography – that ‘conversion’ is too modern a word for what Augustine (and indeed Paul) experienced; and that Confessions is, if anything, a series of conversion-like experiences (Robin Lane Fox called his recent book Augustine: Conversions and Confessions to suggest a sequence or an accumulation of experiences rather than a blinding revelation). And there is also a consensus among modern commentators (Constantine confirms this, though the text itself makes it fairly plain) that given that Confessions is actually a prayer to God – even though the prayer involves quite a lot of confessing, and there is more speaking to God than of Him – we need to be careful about changes of vocabulary. We should not too easily translate (i.e. redescribe) prayer, or confession, as autobiography; nor assume that the conversion scene in Milan is too singular a turning point (autobiography as a kind of prayer seems in some ways a more illuminating idea than prayer as autobiography: incremental change can be as striking as dramatic transformation). Prayer tends not to be a before-and-after story, or to have an organising central drama. So another great boon of Constantine’s new translation is that Augustine’s ‘conversion’ in Milan is made to sound more of a piece with the previous and subsequent rhythms of Augustine’s life, and less of an outstanding event. Chadwick entitles Book VIII ‘The Birthpangs of Conversion’; Wills, dramatically gives it the title ‘Vocation’; in Constantine’s version it is simply Book VIII, numbered like all the other books. This seems both apt and eloquent in a book that goes in fear of entitlement.