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In My Good Books


James Fenton
copyright © 2006

Originally published in The Guardian
8 July 2006

Turning to Saint Augustine's Confessions, after so broad an inquiry into the nature and history of life-writing, feels like turning to the great source of all. But the Confessions are confessions, they offer what we think of as classic autobiographical material in incomparably vivid, regular glimpses. Each memory is a theme for meditation, and the form of the whole is that of a great extended prayer.

So the secular reader may feel a little like a scavenger, on the alert for those passages which will serve a purpose rather at odds with that of the author. We wait for the famous phrases: "To Carthage then I came" or "I had prayed for chastity and said 'Give me chastity and continence, but not yet'."

Famous too is the description of a man, Saint Ambrose in Milan, reading without reading aloud - a novelty whose significance Augustine takes time to contemplate. "When [Ambrose] read, his eyes scanned the page and his heart explored the meaning, but his voice was silent and his tongue was still. All could approach him freely and it was not unusual for visitors to be announced, so that often, when we came to see him, we found him reading like this in silence, for he never read aloud." Perhaps, Augustine wonders, Ambrose was afraid that, if he read aloud, someone would ask him to explain a point, and he would not be able to get on with his reading. At all events, this habit of silent reading was clearly unique to Ambrose, while the spirit of psychological inquiry is typical of Augustine.

Book one is the source for so many brilliant insights into developmental psychology. Augustine begins with the days when all he knew was how to suck, how to lie still when comfortable and to cry on feeling pain. "Later on I began to smile as well, first in my sleep, and then when I was awake. Others have told me this about myself, and I believe what they said, because we see others do the same." There follows the struggle to express meaning: "I would toss my arms and legs about and make noises, hoping that such few signs as I could make would show my meaning, though they were quite unlike what they were meant to mime." When frustrated of his wishes, he "would take my revenge by bursting into tears. By watching babies I have learnt that this is how they behave."

What sins did he commit when a baby? Was it a sin to cry when he wanted to feed at the breast? The belief that an infant was capable of sin makes Augustine alert to infant psychology: "I have myself seen jealousy in a baby and know what it means. He was not old enough to talk, but whenever he saw his foster-brother at the breast, he would grow pale with envy." This is a very Viennese 1920s sort of insight.

Augustine tells us that his father, an otherwise shadowy figure, one day at the public baths "saw the signs of active virility coming to life in me and this was enough to make him relish the thought of having grandchildren". His father was happy, Augustine adds, to tell his mother, thereby making her alarmed about her 16-year-old son, so that "she most earnestly warned me not to commit fornication and above all not to seduce any man's wife".

She is right to be worried, for at this stage in his life Augustine is under intense peer pressure: "I gave in more and more to vice simply in order not to be despised. If I had not sinned enough to rival other sinners, I used to pretend that I had done things I had not done at all, because I was afraid that innocence would be taken for cowardice and chastity for weakness."

The Penguin translator, RS Pine-Coffin, finds it hard to avoid the conclusion that the terms in which Augustine writes about his sinful past are "unnecessarily harsh". A great deal hangs on the meaning of the word "unnecessarily" - Augustine probably thought he had let himself off the hook all too often. We may recoil, but if we find the obsession excessive we may simply be refusing to appreciate the issues at stake for a Christian of Augustine's time (354-430).

One thing that sets Augustine apart from the innumerable "conversion narratives" of later ages is that the conversion, so carefully prepared for and so vividly described, does not make the convert secure. No man can completely know his own personality. It is a mystery and a mystery it will remain. Augustine will greatly fear his hidden parts, which God can see but he himself cannot see. That's what makes the situation scary, what makes it interesting.

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