As an English major, I took a course on the European novel when I was near graduating from college. It was taught by a young woman who organized the course, brilliantly I can say in retrospect, around the notion of first-person but fictional confessions. She was already predicting the murder of the novel at the hands of the memoirist: she didn’t get tenure.
We started with Augustine, a choice I have ever since admired, and have returned to it in bleak times, when winter feels like the end of all seasons because it freezes my soul. I didn’t understand his Confessions at that age, because I was too sure of everything, including my own intelligence. Like I said, I admired them, but I’ve only recently appreciated their excess, and so can now re-read them to replenish my spirit, to restore my faltering faith in the future.
Erich Auerbach was the bridge that led me back, the first time, to Augustine. According to my disintegrating copy of Mimesis, I read it in 1980-81, when I was teaching in a maximum-security prison (Stateville), ghost-writing for a dean, and getting a job as an editor at Scott, Foresman & Co. Auerbach’s third chapter, “The Arrest of Peter Valvomeres,” scared me, to the clichéd point of goose bumps and hair standing on end.
Of course I asked myself why the man’s impossible erudition made me so uncomfortable, horrified even. My feeble answer at the time was that Auerbach wrote as if Augustine were right—-that “the wicked walk in a circle,” that faith in a better future is only another name for hope. The pagan doctrines Augustine tried to erase from memory were hopeless, because if the past and the future are equivalent phases in a cyclical recurrence without beginning or end, fortune rather than purpose is the regulative principle of the human condition.
Promising is pointless if that is our condition—-Hannah Arendt notwithstanding-—except as the insignia of personal honor (virtue as the ancients knew it), or of faith in nothing but God. That is why Karl Lowith, like Arendt a student of Heidegger, could write the following, in Meaning in History (1949): “The primary fact of human existence [for Augustine] is not . . . identity through generations, but the fact that each individual and generation is weak and ignorant, decaying and dying, and yet capable of being renewed by a spiritual regeneration.” [p. 163]
Compare this to what Karl Marx wrote in a letter to P. V. Annenkov on December 28, 1846: “Every productive force is an acquired force, the product of prior activity. . . . Because of this simple fact that every succeeding generation finds itself in possession of the productive forces acquired by the previous generation, which serve it as the raw material for new production, a coherence arises in human history, a history of humanity takes shape.”
Historical consciousness as we know it, as Marx understood it, presupposes the death of God, then, or at least the displacement of his providence. Lowith reminds us of this fact when he writes, again about Augustine: “But it is precisely the absence of a detailed correlation between sacred and secular events which distinguishes Augustine’s Christian apology from Bossuet’s more elaborate theology of political history and from Hegel’s philosophy of history, both of which prove too much by deducing guarantees of salvation and success from historical events. What to us seems a lack in Augustine’s understanding and appreciation of secular history is due to his unconditional recognition of God’s sovereignty in promoting, frustrating, or perverting the purposes of man.” [p. 172]
But turn to Book 10 of The Confessions. Here you’ll find a dissertation on human memory that challenges God’s singularity—-the unique character of his powers—-as well as his sovereignty. In these amazing passages you’ll experience the open, nearly colloquial “direct address” that makes the book a rhetorical trove, almost a biblical thesaurus, and a literary masterpiece. You’ll discover, as Martin Luther did, that Augustine addresses God as an equal, as “Thou, my inmost Physician”: you’ll think, this is where the Reformation began, and where the novel was born.
Listen now to the blasphemer, whose supposed motto was in interiore homine habitat veritas (“in the inward man dwells the truth”).
“Yet I, though in Thy sight I despise myself, and account myself dust and ashes; yet I know something of Thee, which I know not of myself. And truly, now we see through a glass darkly, not face to face as yet.” [par. 7]
“These things did my inner man know by the ministry of the outer: I the inner knew them; I, the mind, through the senses of my body. I asked the whole frame of the world about my God; and it answered me, ‘I am not He, but He made me. . . .
“Yea, I discern the breath of lilies from violets, though smelling nothing; and I prefer honey to sweet wine, smooth before rugged, at the time neither trusting nor handling, but remembering only. These things do I within, in that vast court of my memory. . . . There also meet I with myself, and recall myself . . . .” [pars. 13-14]
“The memory containeth also reasons and laws innumerable of numbers and dimensions, none of which has any bodily sense impressed; seeing they have neither colour, nor sound, nor taste, nor smell, nor touch. I have heard the sound of the words whereby when discovered they are denoted; but the sounds are other than the things.” [par. 19]
“All these things I remember, and how I learnt them I remember. Many things also falsely objected against them have I heard, and remember; which though they be false, yet it is not false that I remember them.” [par. 20]
“But what is nearer to me than myself? And lo, the force of mine own memory is not understood by me; though I cannot so much as name myself without it. For what shall I say, when it is clear to me that I remember forgetfulness?” [par. 25]
Notice: Augustine here enacts the division of the western philosophical tradition between Anglo-American empiricism and German Idealism! Now listen to him as he compares himself to God, or rather makes himself a God-man, as would the Protestants of a millennium later:
“Great is the power of memory, a fearful thing, O my God, a deep and boundless manifold; and this thing is the mind, and this I am myself. What am I then, O my God? What nature am I? A life various and manifold, and exceeding immense. Behold in the plains, and caves and caverns of my memory . . . innumerable kinds of things . . .—over all these do I run, I fly; I dive on this, and on that, as far as I can, and there is no end. So great is the force of memory, so great the force of life, even in the mortal life of man. What shall I do then, O Thou my true life, my God? I will pass even beyond this power of mine which is called memory: yea, I will pass beyond it, that I may approach unto Thee, O sweet Light.” [par. 26]
Like you, my Lord, but also my fellow men and women, I will renounce my powers and submit my own body to the judgments of this profane world, where I am sure to suffer unto death. I will forgive your transgressions, O my God, by relinquishing this greatest power, of memory, and forgetting your trespasses against us.
It’s the most astonishing moment in western literature until that servant grabs a sword in Act III, Scene 7 of King Lear, and says to his master, “Nay, then, come on, and take the chance of anger.”