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In My Good Books

Mother Knows Best

James Fenton
copyright © 2006

Originally published in The Guardian
15 July 2006

Contemplating the "vast, immeasurable sanctuary" of his memory, Augustine comes up with a puzzle: his memory is larger than he is. "Although it is part of my nature, I cannot understand all that I am. This means, then, that the mind is too narrow to contain itself entirely. But where is that part of it which it does not itself contain? Is it somewhere outside itself and not within it? How, then, can it be part of it, if it is not contained within it?"

This feeling that there is something both belonging to him and beyond him is at the heart of Augustine's Confessions. He is talking, in large part, about what we call the subconscious, and nowhere in the Confessions is his sense of the story of his subconscious - his autobiography in the most profound sense - so astute as in what he tells us of his mother, Monica, and his troubled relations with her.

For his father, Augustine seems to feel rather little - and perhaps what little he feels is tinged with contempt. I mentioned last week the moment in the public baths when his father sees that Augustine has reached puberty: he is happy at the prospect of grandchildren, and he tells Monica what he has seen. But for Monica, already a more advanced Christian than Augustine's father will ever be, the news provokes worry: from now on the son will be in mortal danger of sin for his sexuality.

The story of the Confessions, viewed as plain autobiography, is contained within the first nine of its 13 books. It begins with the author's birth, and it ends with his mother's death, when, Augustine tells us "she was 56 and I was 33". And the problem it relates, in its immensely influential way, is not only: what is a man to do with his sexuality, which can be such a torment to him? It is also: what is a man to do with his sexuality, which can be such a torment to his mother?

In a beautiful passage in Book Nine, shortly before Monica's death, mother and son are described in a moment of reconciliation and repose. It takes place in Ostia, the old port of Rome. The pair are alone, leaning out of a window overlooking a courtyard garden, relaxing after a long tiring journey, in anticipation of a sea-voyage home. Quoting St Paul, Augustine says "We had forgotten what we had left behind and were intent on what lay before us."

Their conversation leads them to the conclusion "that no bodily pleasure, however great it might be and whatever earthly light might shed lustre upon it, was worthy of comparison, or even mention, beside the happiness of the life of the saints". The flame of love burns in them, and they have a sense of climbing higher and higher, until, mysteriously, they come to their own souls, and then pass beyond their own souls.

In a sense, Monica has won: she has won Augustine for Christianity, and she has won over his concubine and over his young prospective bride. She has won her son for the ascetic life. But her son must also have had the sense, as set out in Book Five, that Monica has overcome something in herself: she has overcome a "too jealous love for her son as a scourge of sorrow for her just punishment".

Monica's obsession, which has led her to pursue her son from Carthage all the way to Milan, has been a sin. "The torments she suffered," when her son first left for Italy, "were proof that she had inherited the legacy of Eve, seeking in sorrow what with sorrow she had brought into the world." So the reconciliation between mother and son releases both of them, not just the son, from sin.

Peter Brown, in one of those beautiful touches which illuminate his own classic Augustine of Hippo, says that Augustine in Milan "would have been like a westernised Russian in the 19th century, established in Paris". His mother had brought with her to Milan not only her strong belief in the significance of dreams but also various African practices that were frowned on in Italy: taking meal-cakes and bread and wine to the shrines of the saints on their memorial days - a practice which seemed to the local church both suspiciously pagan and an invitation to drunkenness.

Monica and her son were Numidians, that is, Africans, relations of the modern Berbers. Their version of Christianity was, a word Brown uses twice, "drastic". Dreams, trances, alcohol, ritual suicide - a great deal of terror was involved. Their sensuality was very, very frightening indeed. What a relief it must have been for mother and son to escape its terrors together.

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