Confessions of a sinner
"O God, give me chastity and continence but not just yet. For I was afraid you would answer my prayer at once and cure me too soon of the disease of lust, which I wanted satisfied, not quelled... "
Saint Augustine: Confessions
BY their deeds shall ye know them is the basic law of fiction; there cannot be a good novel which is not founded on it. Actions alone reveal moral choices, actions alone defines a character and of course no more clearly and dramatically than in St. Augustine's Confessions. It has been defined as "the first autobiography" of a great sinner who became a great saint and the greatness all the more valuable because it was achieved against odds. It is a fact, but not a fact which would be acceptable for left intellectuals, that Augustine was the first to develop the recurrent theme of great literature of returning to the best through the worst. From his own account we know that he lived a life of fornication until the age of 32, and even after he was convinced of the Christian truth, he prevented himself from accepting the faith because of his sexual temptations. It is this self-awareness, the description of the journey within and the attempt to interpret his life to himself that makes Confessions the "the first modern book" because it comes close to the concerns of our times.
Augustine was a local boy who made good, a provincial from the southern edge of Fourth-Century Roman Africa, vain and enslaved to a fierce mother. After a bout of literary and philosophical high society in Milan, he went home and became a terribly argumentative clergyman, pouring out sermons and books against heresies forgotten by laymen; while all about him the splendours of the province faded and public morals decayed.
Essentially, Augustine was a Platonist who believed in the dialectics of ideas, argument and counter-argument and how these jelled with the real world; a scholar-cum-politician to the end who terrified his flock and used all the rhetorical devices to squeeze out meaning and carry conviction. Therefore all the tricks of rhetoric were used: rhymes, puns, vulgarisms and homilies.
Augustine was a renegade against his mother's religion; took profane mistresses and lapsed into Manichaeism, a religion whose dualism always had a strong appeal for him. Subsequently he experienced two conversions, not clean breaks because he was intensely aware of the continuities of personality and how everything merged into one another religion into philosophy, philosophy into literature and sociology and so on. The first made him a Manichaean lecturer in rhetoric, the second a Christian lay philosopher, a theocrat and a defender of the faith.
Confessions, which is divided into 13 books, is an account of these "travels". In the first nine books, Augustine confesses all the errors and faults of his whole life, from earliest infancy and his mother's milk; in the 10th, the surviving remnants of sin and his present state of life; in the last three his uncertainties about the scriptures and often his ignorance. The whole book is terribly combative and has a quality of contest running right through it. He combines vivid presentation and analysis with a sense that his own motives are beyond his intellectual reach, something he could not understand himself: he is therefore fascinating and mysterious to himself, always dissatisfied with himself, and always aware of conflict and limitation. As he says in Book Four:
"I was wretched, and wretched in every soul fettered by the love of mortal things, and is torn apart when it loses them, and it feels the wretchedness which makes it wretched both then and before it loses them. Thus it was in that time, and I wept most bitterly and took my rest in bitterness. I was wretched, and felt my own life of wretchedness to be dearer than my friend (who had passed away)."
Conscious misery is a kind of relief, almost enjoyable in real distress. It is this kind of moral self-analysis, that runs through the book, and described with unprecedented clarity, that makes Confessions a kind of a guide to 20th-Century novelists.
So, as you go through it, he seems to carry you along through all his major arguments: some would say it is because he is downright honest and therefore appears to be right; others that he is, more than his enemies, a man who knew the mysteries of personality, especially of guilt and wanted a Church that included sinners, not merely initiates. Above all, he carries conviction because he is like one of us, always wracked by doubt and uncertainties.
"How do they know, when they hear from me about me, whether I am telling the truth, since no one knows what is going on in a human being, except the spirit of the human being, which is in him?"
Augustine reiterates, at critical moments in Confessions, that he could not see where he was going, or why, or what was really important like Robert Graves' butterfly who "lurches here and there by guess and God and hope and hopelessness." He also acknowledges that there were many things he had forgotten, or that he misunderstood at the time. In Book Ten he makes us look at himself who has told the story and who is still wrestling with temptation and confusion. He describes his experience of searching his memory and finds that what comes to mind is not what he intended. So, he asks how could we believe his Confessions when memory is so unreliable a guide? Wouldn't we be justified to accuse him of deliberate lies or at least misrepresentation? Augustine says he was trying to tell the truth, but suppose he had got it all wrong? It is all so terribly downright honest and authentic.
It was his sense of integrity that made him reject Manichaeism in later life, because he felt feelings are always predominant that there was something phoney about its philosophy: it neatly divided the spirit and body, black and white, that ignored the complexities of human personality, the lapse and rejuvenation of real life.
If he had written nothing else, Augustine would be read for two reasons. First, his awareness of himself as reader and writer and of his audience as readers, how language affects him and them, how life in practice can be influenced by many factors, including fiction. Augustine is sure that without language, his own and that of others, there is no memory; he cannot retain or pass on to others, what he cannot put into words. Which reminds you of Auden's lines: "Time... / Worships language and forgives/ Everyone by whom it lives;/ Pardons cowardice, conceit,/Lays its honours at their feet."
Second, the subtleties of his thoughts on guilt and on habit and on memory: Freud and Proust and Beckett are in his direct line of descent. He observes a child at the breast with an unenchanted eye; he is horrified by the distorted operations of sex; he places each man within the context of his time. The conclusions he provides may shock us but these were based on the appalling recognition of the extent of suffering which he had to reconcile with the justice of God. Yet, there was "an appalling strangeness in the mercy of God." If the answers shock, it must be remembered that Augustine sought them from the real world that he had experienced himself, from what he saw to be the unfathomable depths of the personality: so that we feel he had his priorities right when he asked questions about human nature, the existence of God and God's relationship to people, the interpretation of human frustration and conflict problems which we still face.
Augustine wanted readers to use the book to look at themselves and this is what they have done down the centuries, though not always in the sense he meant it:
"I shall set my feet on the step where my parents placed me as a child, until the plain truth is discovered. But where is it to be found? When is to be found? Ambrose (Father of the Latin Church in the Fourth Century) has no time; there is no time for reading. Where do I look for the books? Where and when do I buy them? Who would lend them? There must be set times and hours assigned for the health of the soul... My students occupy the morning hours: what do I do with the rest? Why not this? But when do I visit the important people whose support I need? When do I prepare material for the students to buy? When do I restore myself by relaxing my mind from its preoccupations?"
Questions and more questions which are much the same as they haunt writers today.
Confessions, Saint Augustine, Penguin Classics, translated by R.S. Pine Coffin, Pounds 4.99.
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