Monday, March 06, 2006

A Tale of Two Augustines

Anyone who professes to have even the least interest in the life and work of Saint Augustine of Hippo will have read Peter Brown's magisterial Augustine of Hippo: A Biography (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1967, new edition 2000). It has been, and remains, the principal authority in English on the subject, and in addition it is a model of the genre, written in a style that is both readable and scholarly, accessible and authoritative. The much shorter Saint Augustine by Garry Wills (Viking, 1999) was never intended to compete with Brown's book, but it is difficult to avoid comparisons nonetheless: Brown's book is scholarly, thoughtful, insightful, and meticulously fair, while Wills' book is marred, in my own opinion, by some of the peculiar conceptions of the Catholic Church that appear to have motivated him in such works as his Papal Sin: Structures of Deceit and Why I Am a Catholic (talk about your false advertising). Wills is an excellent scholar, however, and I won't pretend that my reading of his work is not motivated by biases of my own.

Now another biography has come along by another scholar just as great, Augustine: A New Biography by James J. O'Donnell (New York: Harper Collins, 2005), more scholarly by far than the Wills book but clearly not on a par with Brown's. In fact, it is plainly a popularizing account in many aspects, which is somewhat surprising in some ways. The book has some scholarly apparatus (629 footnotes, for example, and an impressive list of references), and makes rather extensive use of that academic argot of literary criticism that is strangely technical and accessible at the same time. Indeed, the book reads almost like a blog at times. In itself this is not surprising: O'Donnell describes himself on his website as "a recognized innovator in the application of networked information technology in higher education" and one almost expects him to be able to straddle easily the line between the technical and the popular. He is an active contributor to the classics discussion listserv list (archived here), he has held graduate level seminars on Augustine on the net, and his impressive edition of Augustine's Confessiones has been made available on the web. Certainly there is nothing per se wrong with adopting a certain prose style (I hope). In a couple of cases I was somewhat startled by what struck me, personally, as rather forced intrusions of contempoary ideas or attitudes into the assessment of a very different cultural milieux ("Augustine's god was off the charts" or "To read much of Augustine requires or facilitates a respectful bond between reader and author. Call it codependency or Stockholm syndrome at its mildest....") but by and large the book is an enjoyable read.

As in the case of reading Wills' book, however, one is regularly struck, while reading O'Donnell's book, by what comes across as a kind of dissonance in the text, a tension between a sense of the greatness of the subject matter, on the one hand, and on the other hand the creeping feeling that one's tour guide is surreptitiously sneaking in derogatory remarks about the scenery even while he praises its beauty. It's not that O'Donnell is overtly critical of his subject: although he goes to great lengths to distance himself from Augustine's way of life and from Augustine's view of the world, he makes it quite clear that the man was truly remarkable, whatever we might make of his quaint little religion or hopelessly backwards (that is, pre-post-modern) way of experiencing things. There is this tone, however--what comes across almost as a kind of ironically self-conscious disdain for the subject matter--that continues to gnaw at the joists supporting the reader's growing admiration for the Saint. It really is the strangest sensation; I cannot say whether or not O'Donnell intended this effect, but it is arguably one of the book's most fascinating aspects.

I think that some post-postmodernists have been too quick to dismiss some forms of criticism as mere sophistry or jargonics-infused academic time wasting. O'Donnell's book nicely skirts the boundary between mere supposition and genuinely interesting speculation informed by real documentary evidence in a way that much contemporary analysis has not succeeded in doing. That might sound like I'm saying that it "pushes the envolope" or some such, but I don't mean for it to come across as that naive. What I would like to emphasize about the reading of this book is that it is more of an experience than a mere opportunity for learning. Upon reading and re-reading certain chapters in this book, for example, one sometimes gets a distinct impression that the author is trying a little too hard to do what his own text shows to be impossible: to adopt a stance that is at once critical and "value neutral" if only with respect to its subject matter, while trying to pay lip service at the same time to an ideology according to which there is no such thing as value neutrality. One is tempted, on such occasions, to respond with something along the lines of "this project is conceptually impossible." By contrasting O'Donnell's book with Wills', however, it is possible to find ways in which O'Donnell has succeeded, because his critical stance comes across as far more neutral (and nuanced) than Wills', while endorsing the same critique.

Is it purely coincidental that both Wills and O'Donnell are carrying a lot of Catholic Baggage around? I have no way of knowing for sure, but based on what they've written in their respective biographies of Saint Augustine one cannot help but suspect that neither can be very happy about the most recent Papal election. Even a casual reader will be struck by certain passages:
I have resisted--some will undoubtedly think perversely--calling Augustine a "catholic" until one...compelling way he succeeded in being just that half-second ahead of his time that marks the true leaders...among the failures....

One essential part of his argument against the Donatists was his interpretation of "catholicism." We have seen how the Donatist reading of that word could emphasize a completeness found within the walls of a single African town, but for Augustine it evoked instead a universality of church across the Mediterranean world. To be "catholic" for Augustine meant to be in communion with people one had never seen, people who lived across seas one would never dare to cross....

But it was an idea with a future. Augustine supported that future, and that future supported and received him....the high-concept notino of a church that would reach out to embrace the whole an idea that has triumphed, lapsed, and triumphed again in all the centuries since, though the power of the institution and the power of the idea are often out of synch with each other. The Jesuits of the sixteenth century spoke for a vision of universal Christianity that went beyond what the papacy of their own time could tolerate, and the lapse that followed as they were pulled back from China and checkmated in South America begat centuries of narrow community-building. The twentieth century saw another exhilarating movement into openness in the papacy of John XXIII, but popes since have retreated into narrow definitions of community.
The vision of the Church stretching, without boundaries, "across seas one would never dare to cross" is indeed a compelling one, and yet I cannot help but sense, in the last paragraph quoted, a feeling on the part of our author that there are certain seas that ought not to be crossed whether we dare to do so or not. That is, one gets the impression that the vision of the Church as inclusive is being interpreted here in that way so familiar in our own time: we ought to include all points of view except those points of view that we find uncongenial. Points of view, for example, that strike us--we 21st century inclusivists--as rather more narrow than we had hoped. Did John XXIII represent something else? Some folks certainly seem to like to think so, and, like John Kennedy, he died at a time that was most opportune for his legend. The four Popes since him have only moved the Church "backwards", to a time earlier even than the origins of the Jesuit Order--to a time when the Church saw itself, unfortunately, as a repository of truth, and it saw the truth, unfortunately, as something objective.

It is really quite telling, I think, that in the many pages of analysis and assessment on offer here, there are relatively few normative claims, but in this passage we get several--Augustine was, as it were, a kind of "success among the failures"; certain conceptions of ecclesial community are "narrower" than others; and, in a rare moment of personal revelation, O'Donnell avers as to how John XXIII's aggiornamento was "exhilarating", while the papacies since then have represented a "retreat" of some kind.

Clearly one can write objectively and well about Augustine--or any other Christian--without sharing any of his beliefs or his worldview, and it can be done without a secret partisanship regarding the various factions within Christianity--that has already been proven by Peter Brown, whose attitude towards Christianity is that of an outsider, but one who has managed to pull off a detached treatment of Augustine and "his religion". O'Donnell's book is no less compelling for being less detached. Detachment has its value, of course, within a scholarly context; but within the context of biography it may be less useful. One of the greatest biographers of our time, Peter Ackroyd, writes with an excitement and inspiration that draws upon a geniune interest in and love for the subject matter, and his writing is the more animated, stimulating, and brilliant for all that. Whatever animus O'Donnell may harbor for Augustine and "his religion", it clearly affects his work and gives it a sense of power and focus that it would not otherwise have. We all have our axe's to grind, and in grinding them we advertise who we are no less accurately than the sights, sounds, and smells of the smithy tell you what's going on in there when real axes are being ground.

In the book's epilogue, "We are Not Who We Think We Are", O'Donnell seems to come closest to telling us what he himself thinks of himself as doing in the book:
It is only in late-modern and postmodern times that the self has been dethroned from self-knowledge and others reinstated. The biographical tradition embodies that arrogance of the other, empowered by trains of thought for which Freud can stand as the patron saint. The analyst, the biographer, the journalist--by now, anyone at all is presumptively a better authority on the innermost thoughts and motivations of the object of public attention. Only the other can surmise the hidden springs, plumb the subconscious motivations, and see the patterns the self is too close to see. Pirandello's Right You Are (If You Think You Are) ends on a refusal to determine identity that leaves people playing different roles to different audiences, and for good reason.
Here the reader is openly invited to make of O'Donnell himself what one can on the basis of this text. That is a very dangerous, but a very generous, invitation.

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