The final stretches of this enduring self-examination leave self behind as transcendence beckons.
A skilled rhetorician, Augustine of Hippo by his elegant prose and penetrating intellect proved a formidable defender for his Christian faith when he converted after the long struggle told in his Confessions. His newest interpreter tells his story in as fluent an English register hinting at the Latin as can be attempted 17 centuries later. Sarah Ruden explains that “a translator must govern her distaste and try to make her author’s thought and experience as vivid and sympathetic as it plainly was to his contemporaries. Otherwise, there can be no limits to the demands of a condescending, manipulative, and anachronistic political correctness.” Acclaimed for her versions of Greek plays and Roman narratives, she produces her first extended take on sacred literature. Her choice would daunt many; Augustine’s memoir and meditation combines deft performance and passion, as he confronts his sinful self and as he conveys his spiritual search.
The title must be one Ruden keeps, for this book has gained its fame thus. She comments that it goes beyond the salacious or confidential connotations which color our reaction to a confessional tale. For “the Latin word at this stage of the language still has a strong judicial tinge and links back to the ‘testimony’ prescribed in the New Testament for missionaries and the persecuted: fearless public declaration of faith. This is what Augustine is doing in this book. In any case, Augustine heads with the word confessio not just revelations of his own sins but celebrations of his salvation, praise of God, metaphysical speculation and much else. The testimony is that his life, his mind and everything else in the universe belongs to God.” This necessary reminder elevates Augustine’s strategy above merely personal intimacies revealed in print; Ruden grounds her edition in textual accuracy while placing his sounds and moods within historical evidence. Her vocabulary echoes his blunt admissions, his hesitant air, his soaring poetry, and his painful recollections which, by the last chapters, give way to a paean to the mysteries of time and space.
Ruden rearranges his reflections into shorter blocks subdividing the original’s standard chapter enumeration. This cuts down their density. “This layout allows Augustine more explicit latitude, whereas the long paragraphs of previous English translations hardly separate prayer, narrative, homily, and speculation, jamming all these together both physically and, as implied, logically.” Therefore, readers can better hear, as Augustine proclaims his message in “cadences of oral delivery,” the rhythms of words that in his era would have been articulated rather than silently perused. In fact, Augustine admits his astonishment when he witnesses his teacher Ambrose of Milan scanning a book without moving his lips. Rome was collapsing, but oral delivery endured.
Results illustrate varied strategies employed by Augustine in the classical tradition he inherited and the Christian innovations he championed. Consider this passage as a sample of his sentences which convey his intricate thoughts as they flow through his pen onto parchment. “Is anyone’s courage so great, because it clings to you with mammoth devotion; is there anyone, I ask—and come to think of it, a certain kind of cement-headedness could achieve this, so in fact there is someone—who in clinging to you reverently is so enormously devoted that he can pooh-pooh, in this grown-up manner, racks and hooks and similar devices for torture, panicked pleas to escape which rise to you from all over the earth? Could he love those harboring a razor-sharp fear of such things and yet, as our parents did, laugh at the torments our teachers inflicted on us?” The preacher’s dramatic asides and admissions to his audience reverberate with these whirling tones.
Contrast that with this evocation of his desire. “No, mine were the putrid fumes rising from scummy bodily lust and the diseased eruption of puberty, befouling and befuddling my heart with their smoke, so that there was no telling the unclouded sky of affection from the thick murk of carnality.” Previous translations as spot-checked by this reviewer come nowhere near this excessive accumulation of disgusting and disorienting descriptions that embody Augustine’s youthful fall from grace. He examines his adolescence with contempt as well as vivid content.
By dividing such autobiographical dramatization from fervent appeals, Ruden sharpens the shifts in this cleverly constructed, unpredictably paced series of revelations. We listen in as Augustine addresses another. “To whom am I telling this story? It isn’t of course to you, my God, but in your presence I’m telling it to my race, the human race, however minute a snippet out of that might stumble on my writing, such as it is. And what’s the story’s purpose? Obviously, it’s so that I and whoever reads this can contemplate from what depths we must cry out to you. But what’s closer to your ears, if the heart humbles itself in confession and the life is lived in faith?”
The well-known events endure: when Augustine lamented the theft of pears from an orchard as a lad, when he as an established lecturer abandoned his mistress and their son and when he returned to his patient mother Monica as a prodigal and profligate son. “I loved the happy life, but I didn’t love her in the place where she presides. I ran away from her and looked for her at the same time.” His quest led to a theatrical dialogue, when Augustine, after hesitating to pick up a book of scripture, reacts to a nearby child’s disembodied voice: “Pick it up! Read it! Pick it up! Read it!” He follows the ancient practice of bibliomancy, and opens the volume at random. In Paul’s letter to the Romans, Augustine reads of the necessity to abandon lust, and follow Christ.
Intensity rises as the events of his life fade and the philosophical investigation of divine creation dominates his deeper concerns. “I don’t confess with physical words, with the sounds of speech, but with the words of my soul and the shouts of my thoughts—which are familiar to your ear.” While the latter parts of Confessions earn much less attention as far as the average reader today begrudges them, in Sarah Ruden’s vigorous and probing approach, they too resound. “I asked the whole huge universe about my God, and it answered me, ‘I am not God, but God made me.’”
Similar to Dante’s Commedia, it’s a shame when modern celebrations of a revered book based on a devout life but yearning for a higher hope after death stop at that narrative’s lowest points. Sex and sin recede. Textual tension may slacken after Augustine accepts Christianity, but the ultimate goal of his dogged journey cannot be comprehended unless one seeks more rarified scholarly and theological heights. “It couldn’t have been for nothing that you wanted so many pages of dimly lit, recondite things written: those forests of words have stags native to them, who retire inward and revive themselves, walking around and grazing, reclining and ruminating.” Contemplation replaces action as Augustine’s fleshly appetites transform into the soul’s longing.
Near the end, anticipating Dante again, images unfold into beauty while words desperately try to describe what transcends verbal equivalence. For Augustine, he wraps up Confessions with touching simplicity and everyday analogies. Up in the firmament as the conclusion leaves a reader, Augustine eases his audience gently back down to earthier scenes. “Have pity, our God and Master, and keep those who are walking down the road from trampling into nothing the chick who has no feathers yet, and send your angel to put him back in the nest, so that he lives until he can lift himself on his wings.” Many celebrations of this author since the Confessions have immortalized Augustine as a callow miscreant more than a gallant messenger of tough love. But a persistent determination to march past the lively accounts of temptation and seduction will reward a patient pilgrim. The summits may be obscured but the seeker will not be discouraged. The final stretches of this enduring self-examination leave self behind as transcendence beckons.