Detail from Hans Holbein, “The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb” (1520-22)
Reviewing Robin Lane Fox’s Augustine: Conversions to Confessions, Rowan Williams suggests it’s time to revisit the saint’s status as a “patriarchal villain.” Augustine, Williams says, can be more to us than the source of the West’s deep structures of self-punishment. Like Paul, Augustine created new ways of imagining another world, a better realm, beyond, somehow elsewhere but nearby, governed by other forms and practices of justice.
Garry Wills likewise points out what we would today call Augustine’s contributions to psychology and philosophy of mind, both of which Lane Fox tends to downplay in favor of a broad-stroke picture of late Roman culture. From a modern point of view, it’s easy to read about Augustine or Augustinian ideas of original sin and see holdovers from late antiquity, but it’s much harder to read the Confessions without being struck by the entanglement of self and writing. It’s a cliché to say that this entanglement feels “modern,” but I think this is a case where the cliché results from unthinking repetition rather than untruth.
William Franke argues that what the text of the Confessions has revealed to generations of readers is the process of “reading as revelation”:
[…] Augustine’s way of addressing God personally and questioningly provides what he is seeking by his very asking: for he asks that he be given to converse with God, to invoke and so to know him. This self-validating conjuring of divinity by an apparently autistic linguistic act is tantamount to a discovery of God immanent within the self-reflexive faculty of self-consciousness in language. (The Revelation of Imagination, 239)
Brian Stock has also argued for Augustine’s invention of reading as a form of life. Our acts of reading involve much more than passive reception or linear scanning. We take signs as significant while also trying to keep open their potential for continuing (or changing) significance. We want to pin down a meaning even as we want to keep open our experience of that meaning as something we could, sometime down the road, change our mind about. There’s a creative integration at work in every act of reading we undertake, imagining the world of the words before us and testing the words we’ve learned by the measure of that new world.
But what happens if we compare the subject of the paradigmatic Confessions and shaping force on almost every subsequent would-be autobiographer in the West, with another, very different, sort of life? With, for example, an anonymous anchoress who lived in a small cell adjoining St. Julian and Edward Church in Norwich for perhaps thirty years in the late fourteenth century? (I happen to be teaching Julian this week, so she’s on my mind…)
The faithful from Norwich came to ask advice, but mostly they seem to have been seeking the comfort of knowing that someone could perfect a life devoted entirely to God. Called “Julian of Norwich,” this anchoress’s Revelations of Divine Love are famous for suggesting that sins are somehow “behovely” (befitting, appropriate, or advantageous). Like many strains of the Augustinian tradition, Julian regards vices as modeled on virtues: out of proportion or misdirected, but basically revealing important structures of our nature.
At the same time, like many later medieval responses to the Black Plague, Julian further regarded suffering from diseases and illnesses as a valuable source of knowledge as well. Before she received her revelations, she had prayed seriously for serious, life-threatening illness. Bodily dissolution and pain offered a way of imitating and understanding the mysteries of the Incarnation and the Crucifixion.
What happens to reading–and to the meaning of a life in writing–under these more (pardon the pun) excruciating conditions?