ASSAY: A JOURNAL OF NONFICTION STUDIES
The first person in Western literature to write his spiritual journey is Augustine (354-430 CE), author of The Confessions, (399). In this Christian autobiography, he testifies to what he knows and to what he’s been instructed by God he should know. Writing in Latin, Augustine tells the struggle between his self (bad) and his soul (good), which, he believes, mirrors the physical wounds Christ’s endured. (Christ’s self and soul were both good.) When you read Augustine, you see that his selfish choices have been so immoral and his soul so scarred that he is in danger of losing God’s grace, in danger of forgoing Heaven. These dangers are not abstract, not mere Christian principle. No, they are real, and they take place in each individual’s sinful life. Who among the growing Christian population can confess to such a sinful life? Augustine volunteers, as it were. Speaking and writing wholly for himself, he attests to his failure to live up to the virtues God commands of him, commands that all but Christ fail to uphold. But still one must try to redeem oneself by declaring and overcoming one’s sins. No small task, Augustine knows what he should do: convert, confess, renounce all competing beliefs, and receive the Holy Spirit. He must bear this news for everyone to read. Thus, if he proves himself worthy—in life and in writing—he will be saved, he will gain eternal life. Augustine must ask this not of God but of himself.
Here is the day and the self-revelation that he’s worthy.
It is August, 386 CE. Augustine of Hippo is thirty-two, living in Milan and teaching rhetoric. He’s at the end of his rope, faith-wise. He is tormented, “soul-sick,” and blubbering uncontrollably to a witnessing friend. Why the tears? He’s an A.D.D.-mix of sex maniac and self-flagellator. He has promised to marry a young girl and is waiting for her to turn twelve, the legal age. In the interim, he continues his depravity with several concubines, hating himself for his lust. He is enslaved, he writes, “by the chains of carnal yearning” (169). (All Augustine quotations are from Gary Wills’ translation of Confessions.) At one point, so loving his sin, he tells God not to save him too soon “from the sick urges I wanted rather intensified than terminated” (173). One afternoon he crawls into the backyard garden of his residence, collapses under a fig-tree, and beseeches God (whom he tells us he’s been beseeching for salvation over the previous fifty-thousand words of the Confessions to no avail) “How much more, how much more” before his conflict between the flesh and the spirit—“Lord, give me chastity, but not just yet”—will end (173). He hears a neighboring child say, “Lift! Look!” (Tolle, rege, tolle, rege) (181). (Much doubt still exists about this “voice.” Is it Augustine’s internal calling? An actual child whose innocence should attract our own? Is it God’s or Christs, echoing St. Paul’s audition?) Lift what? The Epistles of Paul, which are conveniently lying nearby. He does and the book falls open to Romans 13:13. He reads the verses silently; they call the lost person, Augustine, to “Give up indulgence and drunkenness, give up lust and obscenity, give up strife and rivalries” (181). He is instructed to “clothe yourself in Jesus Christ the Lord,” which for Augustine means to do away with his beloved “concupiscence,” or lusts, which, like any addict, he quits only to slip back. In what becomes Book Eight of Confessions, he ends the paragraph with perhaps the greatest reported moment of spiritual awakening (some might call it the greatest non-sequitur) in written conversion narrative: “The very instant I finished that sentence, light was flooding my heart with assurance, and all my shadowy reluctance evanesced” (182).
Augustine is converted. He is released from his lust. (Such liberation from sexual cravings is often construed as “religious freedom,” that is, one is “set free.” As in, Christ, free me from the grip of porn! In like manner, American Christians also demand “religious liberty” from national laws, which would exempt them from certain “sins” of secular society.)
In any case, voila, Augustine is, at last, celibate—or so the claim goes.
What? I don’t believe him? Yes and no.
His conversion from seedy vice and into missionary virtue—he has vocation now that he’s been called—is one small part of the Confessions. A few paragraphs. But it forms the climactic high-point of the text, Book Eight’s most daringly argued feat. In Book Eight’s first half, Augustine prepares us for his change by outlining seven conversion stories of other pilgrims. As if to say these lost souls were initiated and, dear reader, mine is coming as well. As additives to his style he quotes Bible verses that illustrate an idea or story, clothing himself in God’s Word as the intellectual wardrobe of his deliverance. An example: “So by experiment upon myself I was coming to realize what I had read of how ‘the desire of the flesh opposes the spirit, the desire of the spirit opposes the flesh,’ for I was experiencing both—yet I felt more identified with that in me which I now wanted than with that in me that I found wanting” (168). In quoting Galatians 5:17, he not only uses God’s cleverly juxtaposed antithesis to evidence his core conflict but, more strongly, he underscores the change in himself via his emphatic clause, which I now wanted vs. that I found wanting.
As Book Eight develops and he returns to the drama of his self-surrender, we feel captured by its inevitability. Augustine takes pains to deliver a work of artistic forbearance, through which he develops his argument autobiographically. He takes pains to purify his sin and self with a public document, initiating a line of what will become personal affirmations to the Christian journey, again, rendered truer (printed, inalterable) in text than in speech. The whole point of faith is to fulfill the individual’s life through testimony. It may as well be Augustine’s life and text: Christianity seems to have conjured this need for religious individuals to confess so as to be saved—that salvation (as we know today with the notion of a “personal God,” or Christ as one’s “personal savior”) requires a form or vessel, a youth group—Jesus Camp—with which to confess. Thus, it makes sense that the form issues from the educated or the literate who have the rhetorical chops to shape such a document. How exactly does Augustine do it? He discovers that if he moves from the rhetoric of persuasion by means of analysis and logic to the rhetoric of persuasion by means of story and emotion, he has us coming and going. I’m reminded of Lucy Grealy who when asked how she remembered the lapidary detail of her past in Autobiography of a Face said: “I didn’t remember it. I wrote it.”
Here is where it gets interesting. Some argue that Augustine’s conversion happens to him, comes from outside him, descends like a spell, and then only when he’s at the end of his rope. (From Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne”: “Only drowning men could see him.”) But the composed structure of Confessions belies this idea. At the climax of Book Eight comes this last-ditch admission, in one paragraph (quoted below), of the thwarted turmoil bewitching him (like Grealy, it feels to be in the moment of his writing it, not his remembering it)—something new to literature—a kind of writerly devotion to one’s confusion and uncertainty dramatized as prose:
So sick was I, so tortured, as I reviled myself more bitterly than ever, churning and chafing in my chains, not broken free of them entirely, held more loosely now, but still held, as you were working in my hidden places, with your fierce pity wielding the double whip of fear and shame to prevent my relapse, to prevent the loosening and light bond that still held me from renewing its grip, to grapple me again more tightly than before. My inner self was urging me: Make it now! Make it now! With those words I was moving to a resolution, I was almost there—but was not there. Still, I did not slide all the way back, but braced myself nearby, catching my breath then, renewing the effort, I almost made it—almost—but did not; I was all but touching, all but clasping—but no, I was not there, not yet touching, not yet clasping, not ready to die to death and live to life, still held by the engrained evil in me over the untrained good in me. The moment when I would become someone different, the closer it came, the terror it struck in me—a terror, however, that no longer wrenched me back or fended me off, but left me hanging. (179)
If there’s a more apt foundational paragraph than Book Eight, Section 25, to initiate the spiritual personality into Western literature, I don’t know it. Of course, this passage by no means exemplifies Augustine’s style, which is regularly analytic and theological. (Augustine trained as a rhetorician and would leave it, post-conversion, to become a religious philosopher, really, a writing machine: His collected works are ten times longer than the Bible or all of Shakespeare.) Garry Wills, in his Saint Augustine’s Conversion, a companion volume to his translation of Confessions, remarks that in Section 25 his “grammar tosses about in this long, loosely constructed, and entrammeling [opening] sentence. A good case of moral quandary reenacted in language” (92). Indeed. In my reading (and Wills’ familiar style), the reenacted is the enacted! Make it now! Make it now!
So much to recommend here. First, that word, entrammeling: To entangle, to be so entangled that the entanglement takes over, and is binding—and isn’t that pleading engagement with now absolute zero in the spiritual struggle? Next, the writing is not Bible-enlaced; the nagging references to that book stop. The words are Augustine’s. How to tell? The use of “I.” Nine times. And, for “me” and “my,” even more uses. The sentences’ subjects and objects are the self, different than such typical injunctions as “Lord . . . how you liberated me from the chains of carnal yearning tight wrapped around me, and from the drudgery of my secular career.” Somehow carnal yearning is the not the same as I was all but touching, all but clasping. Augustine is trying to inhabit the writing itself with the raw, immediate moment he feels while fast-inking his quill. He’s learning how to loosen the chronological order of his life and occupy the moment of his deliverance—so we get it. Suddenly, he finds, the autobiographer’s self-references are as important as his God-references; he discovers his self-assertiveness via repetition, anchoring and varying the emotion in the sentence as well as loading a kind of bodily fierceness into the verbs: churn, chafe, grip, grapple, brace, wrench, fend, hang, catch, renew, clasp, touch, ingrain, and untrain, plus loosely and tightly, and the refrain, almost, not yet, almost. He activates, indeed over-activates, these differently timed verbal constructs. He quickens the pulse of the clauses, so they feel twitchy, turning him this way and that. As a result, he wrings the emotion long enough for the paragraph to ring the abject aloneness of his condition. Only then, by his literariness, do we take his word for it. Or the words take us. (It’s not that I agree with him, though he’s convinced me; it’s not that I’m converted, though he constructs an argument for conversion in language; it’s not that I share his spiritual experience, though he reveals his crossing over to being someone different in this moment—as though he were lifting the rattlesnakes and the faith was shielding him.)
When Augustine stays the Bible quotations, the dogmatic rhetoric, and the constant explaining, and, by contrast, gives his narrator a confessional booth whose curtained privacy opens him up, we get somewhere, namely, the self in contention with the writer.
The achievement of this passage, as brief and rare as it is, is its shift from Paul’s bonk on the head, a pilgrim ordered from on-high to receive and evangelize Christ’s will. Contrarily, in parts of the Confessions, Augustine is his own motivator—he is not the lantern-led child of faith. In the grip of such prose, his will is freed or activated (like a man in A.A., he will change), and he doesn’t just pledge himself: He becomes a rather sweaty Christian. He makes choices. How? The writing pushes him to locate that which is emotionally fraught in himself. The writing pushes him to linger on it, so that when it’s read, it feels rocky, unresolved, hand-to-hand combative. The writing, the art of personal narrative, an extension of rhetorical possibilities he is versed in already, possesses a dramatized intimacy between the fleshy self and the spiritual self. Despite his absolute surety that God’s will is directing his life, Augustine asserts a kind of self-knowledge that is equal to the deity’s will.
Alas, such intrinsically autobiographical passages, when the author busts a move, are rare in the book. Other sections of high personal drama in Book Eight include 16-18 and 21. Here, Augustine struggles between commanding the mind to act, his will, and his inability to issue that command: “If” his desire to be chaste “were wholehearted,” he writes, “it would not have to issue the command, it would already have willed it” (177). And then, in sections 28-29, the “I” again takes over, his actions—“I leaped” he states five times, not the passive, “I was thrown”—becoming the motor of his disclosure, the action is his, is willed: until “I blubbered pitiably” (181). And then the voice (perhaps his from the faraway near) telling him to pick up the book and read arrives, salvation! or as close as he’ll get. Throughout, the confessional intensity of his uncertainty leaks out and is given a few seconds of obsessional time on the page. At such moments, his testimony is like a soliloquy—Hamlet on indecision, Montaigne on hygiene—the passionately attentive confessor.
Because of these (few) raw moments, put down (399 CE) thirteen years after the experience (386)—my sense is, unlike Lucy Grealy, the majority of the text is more remembered than written—the Confessions becomes our first autobiography with glimmers of the memoirist’s self-disclosure. I’ll stipulate here (and unpack later) that the memoiristic occurs when the emotion of the prose, for writer and reader, is as high-strung as the story being told. Such is Augustine’s stumbling upon the art of life-writing, his “churning and chafing,” his tight looseness, his not-yet delays and equivocations. He sets the bar, which almost slips by without being noticed, but there it is. We need to remember that personal testimony is, by definition, the absence of corroborating evidence because what’s being testified to is internal. The way we can judge whether an autobiographer’s inner claims are true is to mark the author’s arousal, gauge his emotional stake, the authenticity of his yearning, in what we traditionally call literary language: narrative drama, metaphoric zeal, weighted verbs. A writer must exaggerate emotions in language for us to feel them—not by artistic tomfoolery but by the author’s will as he writes to exaggerate—enlarge, take possession, overstay—the moment of their inscribing. To strut and fret his hour upon the stage. He has to stubbornly occupy the worded extension, transmute whatever must be: jealousy, rage, misery, humility, closeness to God, or the sorrow of his unworthiness. There is no other way.
Last—to be indexed under Augustine, Postmodern—is this: A written confession allows the author to create an “I” on the page, which is not a mirror image but a separate character altogether. This paged “I” becomes, as Eric Havelock, in The Muse Learns to Write, referring to the “I” of Socrates, “the ‘personality’ who could now discover its existence” (114) by way of writing. So, when Augustine says “I leaped,” he is using a “chosen symbol of selfhood”; in effect, he becomes a literary self—an individual created by the writer as an entity who stands in for, but cannot be, his actual self.
There are—and this has troubled the autobiographical form from the get-go—two-in-one: the author and the narrator, or, shall we say, a one divided, an entity who is and is not the author. This narrator, who is saved in the Confessions, is, as all author-created narrators are, less reliable than the living, breathing, speaking, actual Augustine was. All we have of the narrator is what the text tells us; we don’t know what’s left out. Another all we have is that of the author who is choosing to tell us certain things and choosing to leave out even more. The autobiographical author is always a censor, the narrator, the censored. The point is, this obvious editing by the author, giving the narrator only so much say, works in both their favor: the author is the creative force (the artist) behind what the narrator (the actor) says while the narrator’s tale, when it is superbly written, gives us the illusion that the story is the narrator’s creation. I know; it sounds mystical. Augustine’s textual being, his “I” on the page, is the one we must judge—unless we were there (and even then, he could be faking it), we can’t know the actuality of his conversion. We can only know or judge the actuality of how he’s written it.
The idea is essentialized by the great life-writing critic, Roy Pascal, in his Design and Truth in Autobiography. He describes why he believes Saint Teresa of Avila’s Autobiography, a work of ecstatic devotion, is a rare multidimensional Christian confession: “We see how her mind, submissive yet obstinate, trusting yet critical, wrestles with her visions, and how these themselves become surer, more understood in the sense that they find expression in practical behavior with others, ultimately in the reform of conventual life and the founding of St. Joseph’s.” Pascal emphasizes the “distinction of great autobiography.” It’s “not so much the truth of knowing as the truth of being, an integration and reunion of different aspects of the person, a coherence of the acting and the spiritual personality in the particularity of circumstances” (98).
Different aspects: the person who has lived it and the person who is writing it. The “truth of being” comes when these different aspects “wrestle” with each other toward “integration and reunion” in the writing itself as, for example, when Augustine, relentlessly demanding grace, leaves himself in terror, leaves himself hanging. Call it a rapprochement between the actual self and the spiritual self, the former emerging as the living touchstone and the latter emerging in and because of the author’s willingness to be that person, not merely to know what he’s been through. It’s not hard to imagine then that the spiritual self of the narrator could, in Augustine’s head, be transferred to him, the author. His “saved” narrator becomes him. He saves himself.
Still, being in writing has become emblematic of what Michel Foucault terms our modern condition. At the end of the eighteenth century, he writes, “Once the order of the world was no longer God-given and representable in a table, then the continuous relation which had placed man with the other beings of the world was broken. Man, who was once himself a being among others, now is subject among objects” (313). (God was such a “being among others,” and God as subject has been lost.) To lose one’s locus with other beings was to gain subjectivity and a kind of self-aggrandizing wretchedness: If God cannot save us, we can try to save ourselves in life-writing. As far as I know, Augustine is the first to record the fissure not just between himself and the world but (again, to his surprise) within himself, that I-and-Thou division of author and narrator. Each individual, post-Enlightenment, is “not only a subject among objects,” but, in Foucault’s phrase, “the subject and the object of his own understanding” (313). Though it will take what seems to be an inordinate time, Augustine’s confessor will eventually become Camus’s stranger.
Jean-Francois Lyotard’s The Confession of Augustine, unfinished at his death in 1998, seeks to destabilize the metanarrative or Grand Model of the Confession. Lyotard argues that Augustine’s self-scourging tone and autobiographical awakening are equally required and earned by his effort. Indeed, “every single thing that he believes merits the lord’s indignation is recorded,” a “dossier for prosecution,” as it were (95).. Throughout the Confessions’ 100,000 words, Augustine has to show that God’s unceasing “violent affection” for him is reasonable. How? By showing just how unworthy he is of God’s love. He must be wholly abject, the epitome of the hopeless sinner.
To be granted atonement, Augustine has to convince God, his other Thou, that his worthlessness is worthwhile. Thus, the need to show God just how miserable God’s creations are. Lyotard: “Not only because these confessions make it clear to what extent his creatures have been poorly put together to be so unhappy, but also because he finds out to what perverse use writing can be turned, when it has been given to them by him” (95). In short, God gives us writing so we might report, scabs and lesions, how disabled we are. Multiply those scab and lesions by psychotic episodes and self-abuse and thus, one is drawn to write the whole damn thing down, the whole morbid life-story. This shows itself in our pathetic need to love God even after unimaginable evils have scourged us: the Crusades, slavery, the Holocaust. (According to Alan Watts, Augustine must learn that “God did not give us commandments in order that we should obey them, but rather to prove that we could not” .) This is why, according to Lyotard, the page-bound confession exists. This is why Christianity is indentured servitude. Total self-expiation—backs whipped to shreds, feet and wrists nailed—is never enough. Augustine’s bondage is to be as embellished as it is celebrated.
Augustine, an artist-scholar and penitent sinner, was the first to insist in prose on his unworthiness to his maker. But there is more to this than merely displaying his stripes. The instability such intense confession of sin and revelation of failure eventually careens out of control. Or better, that loss of control, when it gets fiendishly unmoored, proves that the author is improvising a new self on the page, if you will, his improvisation a different or unexplored aspect of his person. That there can be such self-improvisation in the moment the composition is engraved on the page—when we assess the life of our dilemmas and out comes we know not what—opens authors to the true theme of life-writing, a golden nugget Lyotard coins: What I am not yet, I am (57).
Despite Lyotard’s tally that Augustine is “one hundred percent guilty” before God, the testimony still must embody it—to provable degree. Overall, Augustine renders his emotional turbulence with such heartfelt self-loathing that we understand the covenant of unforgiveable sin and its soul-by-soul redemption through Jesus Christ. There’s no alternative, at least, that’s how he’s diagnosed his condition. Such a harrowingly voiced illness in Christian authorship kowtowed writers for centuries after Augustine. No one pens a religious autobiography equal to his dissonant sincerity. No other “Christian” author (excepting Saint Teresa who models her life story on Augustine’s confession) attempts to draw out his self-liberating self until Leo Tolstoy arm-wrestles his “deconversion” story into print, in 1882, nearly fifteen hundred years later.
I have some ideas why this weird literary gap exists.
One is that all religious autobiographies, in the “Amazing Grace” sense, employ a potted plot: I’m lost, I’m unworthy, but still I’m found: Glory be to Father and Son who never abandoned me. One Christian/religious autobiography is or, at least, reads like any Christian/religious autobiography. Augustine’s is the apotheosis as well as the seed for each progeny that follows. We need no other source. Nor do we get much else when we examine the handful of medieval mystics who form variations of, or exercises on, Augustine’s admissions, despite their exhaustive and frighteningly detailed visions, created by intense contemplation. To their souls, they tie Augustine’s anvil weight of sin. And purge themselves of said sin they apparently do. Another idea of Augustine’s singularity is that given the onerousness of Christian suffering the bar of its self-expression is incredibly high; any zealot must actually write up the personal loathing it takes to mount the confessional altar. Instead of writing their wrongs, Christianity has mandated the masses live by keeping to themselves, or to their pastors and priests, the light salvation has brought them.
Like all glacial movement, literary time moves slowly: Any turn from the Christian drama in life-writing would have to wait for the plays of Shakespeare, the essays of Montaigne, and the novels of Cervantes, all to large degree heretical writers. Strangely, too, it is not until 1782 that we have the first secular autobiography, The Confessions of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. And one hundred years later, Tolstoy’s post-Christian mashup, Confession, a religious-cum-spiritual-cum-philosophical polemic whose goal is to free the author from his religion by throwing out the supernatural impulses and keeping the charitable practices, a true reformation of one author’s belief.
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Critic, memoirist, and essayist, Thomas Larson is the author of three books: The Sanctuary of Illness: A Memoir of Heart Disease, The Saddest Music Ever Written: The Story of Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings,” and The Memoir and the Memoirist: Reading and Writing Personal Narrative. He is a longtime staff writer for the San Diego Reader, Book Reviews editor for River Teeth, and a regular contributor to The Truth Seeker, America’s oldest free-thought magazine. Larson teaches in the MFA Program at Ashland University, Ashland, Ohio. His website is www.thomaslarson.com.
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