Thursday, June 5, 2008

The Confessions of Saint Augustine

How does a person successfully interpret something outside of himself, considering he also believes that his self is the only thing he can possibly possess perfect knowledge of? On top of that, is perfect knowledge possible, even for something that is as near and known to us as our own selves? There cannot possibly be any certainty or fixity to our own conclusions. They are contingent upon our perceptions, which are viewed through a glass darkly. We are ultimately dependent upon subjectivity, since we cannot reach objectivity through our own imperfect means. Saint Augustine firmly believes a transcendental Truth is not only possible, but exists through God.

Now, I personally am unable to surrender myself to the concept of any objectivity, divine or otherwise, though by its very nature I guess objectivity might have to be divine. I am also highly suspicious of "transcendence," and the inalienable veracity of the epiphanic moment. I just don't buy it. Thankfully, St. Augustine is a magnificently sophisticated skeptic, and his Confessions, composed in the final years of the pagan Roman Empire as Western Culture was steadily becoming transformed by Christian thought, are dedicated not to simple edicts or the purity of idea, but "…to the search for that of which not only the finding, but merely the seeking must be preferred to the discovered…" The Confessions grapple with reading, how we do it and what it means. Not merely with what we "get" from it, but with the act itself.

With "reading," not with what is "read!"

Reading is the transference of things, as well as a transformation of one thing into another thing. Something is lost in the act, but it is also equally correct to say that something can be gained. This is no balanced equation in which each side is equal to the other. It would also be incorrect to squarely state which side is "greater than" or "less than," because quite honestly, who's to judge? Since there can be no certainty in that regard, we must actually read with other intentions in mind. We must engage first and foremost in interpretation. What exactly are we interpreting though?

St. Augustine's Confessions are not, as many book jackets will advertise, the record of a "…man who journeyed from sin to sainthood…," I mean, yes, it is in one sense, but reducing it to a simple conversion from an "undesirable" state to a "desirable" state cheapens the entire book. It's a better book than that. The Confessions depend not on the rote details of Augustine of Hippo's life, but on his interpretation of them. His life is just as much composed of what he does as it is what he reads & what he thinks. Early on, Augustine describes his famous childhood act of theft, where he "…set out at night…and stole all the fruit…" he could carry. This act, minor as it is in actuality, gains relevance, exhibiting a terrifying import, because of how it is interpreted and transformed through the act of thought. The deed is not significant, but intent engenders significance, for the young Augustine was "…not seeking some object by shameful means, but seeking shame itself." The act gains a particular significant to Augustine based on his interpretation of it.

Is Augustine asking us to firmly attribute a particular significance to each particular deed? That would be impossible! It's easy to be impressed by just how much like us Augustine is, but it would be dangerous to lose sight of the irreconcilable differences in which Augustine, a fifth century provincial bishop, thinks as compared to us – as compared to me, a white middle class American. Augustine is writing as a citizen of a pagan imperial power; while I'm writing as the citizen of a Christian imperial power - Christianity being the insurgent religion of Augustine's time! Augustine doesn't say that he is writing from the standpoint of the Objective. He says "…I hear these views and examine them as far as the weakness of my capacities…" Augustine has a limit to his understanding, and everything that possesses boundaries (what doesn't?) must admit to its subjectivity.

Augustine believes in the reality of a Truth - sure it may and perhaps must exist in multiplicity, but for him it does indeed exist. He is actively aware of the reader, and wishes "…that there brotherly minds should love in me what you (God) teach them to be loved, and should lament in me what you teach them is to be lamented." As readers, we are acutely aware that, yes, we're bound to "fail" Augustine in this regard. There is no way I'm going to react to what Augustine presents in the manner he wants me to. A certain "thing" may be so, but how that thing is interpreted will vary immensely. Augustine doesn't hate different truths than his own, he hates when people hate truths because they don't emanate from themselves. Truth doesn't come from an individual, by being true it belongs to everyone, so pride over one's knowledge, how "smart" they are, is ridiculous! The only thing which a person can personally lay claim to is a lie.

This is amazing. Remember, Augustine was trained as a rhetorician, someone who doesn't learn what is true, as much as to deliver what he has to say in the most convincing manner and have the most people possible accept it as true. Augustine's stance in the Confessions, written at mid-life, is an admirably radical refutation of what he was raised to believe. Though he is writing in the Confessions what is understood to be the "first" autobiography, Augustine places authority in the reader's hands, and asks if it is wrong that a reader come to his own conclusions "…even if the author whom he is reading did not grasp this truth- though of course the author did express a truth, a different one?" The answer? Of course not!

My personal conception of truth is in sharp refutation of divinity and transcendence, but does that make the Confessions impenetrable to me, even though I don't believe in either the specificity or even possibility of a God of whom "…great is thy power, and thy wisdom is infinite?" No, it doesn't. Because even though Augustine believes unlike me in divinity, he isn't one for transcendence either. The Confessions aren't a linear narrative from "lost" to "found," because we can never be conclusively found unless we ceased to be. That's why the best part of the Confessions comes at the end.

The final four books of the thirteen books of the Confessions have long been seen as troubling or mysterious. They are the source of the greatest pleasure for me. Though the first nine books describe Augustine's own life, it is in these final four sections that the most stable possible bridge is build between Augustine and the reader, any reader, regardless of ideology or context. Memory, time and interpretation are considered, concluding with a virtuosity braiding of Augustine's text with that of the psalms. In speaking of God, that is, in speaking to the conception of Truth, Augustine writes that he grapples to reach God, "but my pen's tongue will never have strength to declare all of your exhortations and your terrors, the consolations and the guidance…" Okay. Words are our attempt to exclaim the ineffable. We're always going to fail in our attempt. The words have holes, no matter how airtight we build them. Augustine isn't even interested in purity or perfection. His final declaration towards meaning is of freedom, "so, so it shall be received, so shall it be found, so shall it be opened." Yes, let it be opened, but more importantly let it never be closed, reductive, fixed.

Let it be open.

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