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Augustine and Self-Constituting Narration

Brian Horne’s essay “Person as Confession” is an interesting look at what Augustine was perhaps “doing” in writing his Confessions. This has clearly been a source of debate among scholars of Augustine for some time, but Horne’s analysis certainly poses some interesting questions. Why, for example did Augustine assume that people would be interested in reading about his own spiritual development? Did he even have an audience in mind?

Horne suggests that Augustine’s unstated motivation in writing the confessions is actually quite different. Augustine was not primarily writing for others but rather for himself. What is going on in the Confessions is “the deliberate creation of a ‘persona’, the ‘I’ or subject of the narrative.” Horne goes on:

It is no accident that so many writers on ‘narrative theology’ go to Augustine’s Confessions as a primary text, the classical example (outside the biblical text) of the genre of ‘narrative theology.’ It does exactly what narrative theologians want a text to do: it presents a theology by telling a story, or, perhaps, to put it the other way around, it tells a story in such a way that the theological implications are unmistakable. We take this further: in the Confessions we have the attempt at discovering meaning in a life and imposing an order on chaos by means for relating and forming into a narrative (a human history) selected pieces of previous experience. It is, in a real sense, the re-creation of the person by the recollection of the past; and the process by which this is done is highly selective. (p. 68)

What Augustine in doing in the Confessions is an  act of constitutive self-narration. Augustine is constructing his persona, his very self in recounting his story. This is seen most clearly in the central role that memory plays in the Confessions. This trajectory reaches its apogee in Book X, chapter 17 when Augustine actually identifies personality with memory:

O my God, profound infinite complexity, what a great faculty memory is, how awesome a mystery! It is the mind, and this is nothing other than my very self.

Thus, for Augustine, personhood itself is found in memory. To be a person is to remember. As such, Augustine’s exercise in telling his story is, in a very real  sense, Augustine’s own exercise of becoming a person:

Memory and personhood are co-terminous, hence the necessity for the subject to tell his own story. The ostensible motive for Augustin’s writing of the Confessions was the ethical one: the encouragement of his readers in their struggle to live the Christian life; but might not the real, though unacknowledged, motive have been the ‘achievement’ of his own personality? Like Proust who has to relate the middle-aged Parisian Marcel to the Marcel who was a child in Combray, the Marcel who was an adolescent in Balbec, and the Marcel who was obsessed with Albertine; so Augustine has to integrate the various Augustines of the past (the Manichee, the neo-Platonist, the youth of powerful sexual energy and emotion) with the man who finds himself Bishop of Hippo. And it is only memory that can be used for this function: without memory the person cannot exist. (p. 71)

If this sort of reading is correct, perhaps we can say that Augustine is the first “pure” narrative theologian in the modern sense. And it also rasies questions about the nature of the Augustinian self and what relation it has to the modern self.

9 Comments

  1. Sure, something like this is undoubtedly true (Brian Stock makes the same case in _Augustine the Reader_). Indeed, this is exactly how I teach the Confessions in my Intro to Philosophy class. However, it’s not either/or. We also can’t underestimate the fact that when the Confessions appear, he’s a bishop. And a bishop with a very public past. So this isn’t just a personal project. The fact is that he would have had all sorts of readers “interested” in his story.

    Tuesday, September 1, 2009 at 10:32 am | Permalink
  2. Halden wrote:

    Agreed.

    Tuesday, September 1, 2009 at 11:29 am | Permalink
  3. Andrew wrote:

    As an English major who was first introduced to Confessions from a literary angle, I appreciate this post and the perspective you are exploring.

    Thanks Halden.

    That is all.

    Tuesday, September 1, 2009 at 11:32 am | Permalink
  4. kim fabricius wrote:

    Questions of time, narrative, memory, identity have exercised me a lot in pastoral care with those suffering from Alzheimer’s – and in time spent with my father, who suffered from an Alzheimer’s related illness before he died four years ago. Appropriately, the American journalist David Shenk has an arresting book on Alzheimer’s entitled The Forgetting (2003). In A Precarious Peace (2006), Chris Huebner also writes movingly on the subject, in connection with his maternal grandmother. He observes that “In a world in which we are schooled into a life of therapeutic forgetfulness, Alzheimer’s is not so much a disease as it is a fitting conclusion to life.” “But,” he adds, “the church is not the world.” And Huebner suggests, very importantly I think, that in the church, the community of faith, memory is a collective act, and that in cases of Alzheimer’s, we must be there to do the “remembering for each other,” vicariously (if you like). I must re-read the Confessions with this take on identity in mind. The term “introspection” certainly doesn’t even begin to characterise what’s going on in this supreme spiritual autobiography.

    Tuesday, September 1, 2009 at 11:41 am | Permalink
  5. D. Jonathan Grieser wrote:

    It’s important to place the Confessions in its biographical setting, Peter Brown, of course, is convincing and eloquent on this. To understand Augustine’s understanding of the self, one must also read de trinitate.

    Tuesday, September 1, 2009 at 5:53 pm | Permalink
  6. myles wrote:

    Halden, what’s the reference for the Brian Horne work?

    Wednesday, September 2, 2009 at 6:11 am | Permalink
  7. Halden wrote:

    It is: “Person as Confession,” in Persons: Divine and Human, edited by Christoph Schwobel and Colin Gunton (T&T Clark).

    Wednesday, September 2, 2009 at 8:05 am | Permalink
  8. I would like to register a dissenting voice. while on the one hand of course Augustine of writing an autobiography, and is therefore entering into an act of “self-narration”, but to say that it is a “constitutive act of self-narration” is to miss the point of the narration, which is that “God has converted me to himself!” The role of memory here is not the constitution of the self, but rather the retrospective acknowledgment that God had always been at work, even in those most forsaken places, in calling the self to the godhead.

    Saturday, September 5, 2009 at 6:49 am | Permalink
  9. Brad A. wrote:

    This is an excellent point, I think, and I’d love to think through how we reconcile these two perspectives, since I think they both have merit.

    Of course, I don’t know how just yet, so I’ll shut up now.

    Saturday, September 5, 2009 at 9:16 am | Permalink

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