Thus I was sick and tormented, reproaching myself more bitterly than ever, rolling and writhing in my chain till it should be utterly broken. By now I was held but slightly, but still was held. And thou, O Lord, didst press upon me in my inmost heart with a severe mercy, redoubling the lashes of fear and shame, lest I should again give way and that same slender remaining tie not be broken off, but recover strength and enchain me yet more securely.
Confessions, Book VIII, Chapter XI
Oh, Augustine of Hippo, another man, like Hamilton, catapulted into the pages of recorded history by the strength of his writing. At least one of his books is pretty much guaranteed to show up on the majority of theological reading lists. His Confessions was assigned at least twice that I recall; and it probably would have shown up more had I not been careful with my course choices. For those who are not familiar, it’s basically a biography centered on the fact that Augustine’s nether regions are trumpeting with a bit too much gusto, and how he wishes they were less musical. He treats his unfortunate circumstances with about the same amount of exasperated concern as I suspect the average man would have if his own genitals started singing “God Save the Queen” every time a mildly attractive person walked by.
Okay, that is maybe unfair. There is a lot more to his conversion and subsequent work than what I’ve exaggerated, and the fact that Christianity moved away from public service announcements reminding people not to f* their goats toward intellectual concerns about “being in love with loving” is a probably a decent move. But this post is not about what Augustine said so much as what I remember of it, and quite frankly, I don’t remember much. Nothing he wrote burned deep enough into my emotional memory to withstand the passing years. Lines from other books had; his hadn’t.
Whoever lies with an animal shall be put to death. Exodus 22:19
Personally, I don’t think having an epic war with one’s own mind shows much substance beyond self-importance; the universe still moves the same whether you’re resonating with extra vibrato or not. And if you accept the fact that you’re a sometimes weird, overly-horny sack of water, I think the heart eventually finds its own way to laugh at itself and move on without much damage, provided you hold enough of the more sophisticated sort of love in your heart to keep from hurting anyone. But that’s just my opinion.
In a nod to fairness, though, Augustine was a master of rhetoric. He was a professor of rhetoric, and he wrote beautifully. But none of that really mattered to me when I read Confessions. What did matter immensely was the context.
Augustine’s life from a contextual standpoint is pretty juicy for 400 CE. He lived with a woman of lower wealth and status than himself for 14 years, had a son with her, taught rhetoric and dabbled in various philosophies while he searched for meaning in life. Mummy, however, did not approve. She wanted Augustine to become a Christian, and when it looked like he might be beginning to consider it, she sent the woman away and arranged for Augustine to marry someone more befitting his rank. The mother of Augustine’s son, known only to history as “the unnamed concubine” took up a vow of continence, pledging herself to God, either in earnest or in an attempt to save herself from destitution. It seems Augustine kind of fell apart at that point; he briefly picked up another concubine but eventually chose to convert Christianity and become a celibate priest, so he never married the woman his mother had arranged. He became the bishop of Hippo and was eventually named a Doctor of the Church. His mother became a saint, seemingly securing both the religiosity and influence for herself and her son with more abundance than she probably had ever hoped for.
And that is what I remember. I remember I didn’t care about Augustine’s deep, intellectual concerns about falling in love with divine wisdom. I cared about the woman who was sent away, a woman he had spent fourteen years with in a monogamous relationship. And it felt like I was the only one who did care. She’s almost completely glossed over in history, marked as a minor detail attached to the sin Augustine so “valiantly” left behind. And that, to me is upsetting. They lived the same, loved the same; in my opinion, she took bigger risks than did he, and technically converted first, yet he went on to become a Doctor of the Church and she a forgotten part of history—a life nearly squashed out by the omnipotent social standards of her time and perhaps also at the hands of another woman, now a saint.
It’s almost haunting how much the story mirrors that of the statue for which I demanded the acquisition records. The statue is of an Egyptian woman held in a case below eye level, standing awkwardly in the middle of the more child-friendly part of an ancient Egypt exhibit. The time of study was a year before I read Augustine. The time of sculpting was the Ptolemaic Roman period, when Egyptian culture was collapsing into Greco-Roman. The defining characteristics of Egyptian art were becoming muddled; symbols were getting mixed and falling away. In that particular statue, nothing was done as it should have been to an extent much beyond that allowed for the time. It was confusing, almost maddening; in the end, I offered two possible conclusions for the unusual piece. It was either a damaged statue of the goddess Sekhmet that had been reworked into a woman, or it was a fake. I refused to conclude that the artist had just been creative; that would not have made a very interesting paper. Now that I think of it, it doesn’t normally make for valuable art.
In general we like art we can interpret and get inside the mind of—art that’s consistent enough with other pieces of art that we can relate to it and logic our way through it, and perhaps even make fancy conclusions about what it means and why it means that. But people are not art pieces. I think we can maybe admire them as such, look at how they think and wonder why they do what they do, but the moment one starts getting upset or frustrated that a person doesn’t fit a particular mold or standard that would place them neatly on a shelf or give them an estimated value, then that’s objectification, and that’s an entirely different story. It’s the story of the woman history has left behind, objectified and swept away with a lifestyle considered damaged and false.
And funny enough, the first time through Confessions I didn’t care much about her either. In fact, I only noticed her when I stumbled, quite by accident, into a philosophy of religion course that turned out to be philosophy of religion from the perspective of homosexuals. Some of the class was interesting, some things felt as unnecessarily dramatic as Augustine, but the pervasive exhaustion from being defined and marginalized according to one’s sexuality was evident in nearly everything. It took a whole semester of sitting with that exhaustion to realize that historically the treatment of women has not been much different. Nothing really had to be said on the subject, it just had to be felt. It had to be felt in the quiet indignation of seeing a woman abused by history and by the social standards of her time, which was more telling than any book on feminism I could have ever read. I think it may have been the first time I used “wrong” to describe the treatment of women and not simply “misunderstood.” The first time I cut through language, looked deeply at context, and wondered sincerely about social constructs and my place in them, and what women have been told they can and cannot do. I couldn’t help but wonder also, “Was Augustine really writing about God?”
Perhaps concerning myself with Augustine’s psyche is too personal. Augustine wrote a book like a general equation with carefully illuminated variables that can mean different things and different times; what it meant to him is perhaps not for me to know. I guess maybe reading his book was a bit like watching people do math. Whether they read thoughtlessly from a memorandum or dump a whole rainbow on your desk, at the end of the day, they both get to blue. And all that really matters for you is that somehow, some way, you also get to blue, whether you found the method interesting or not. But that’s one of the beauties of mathematics: the operators are absolute. It doesn’t matter if the numbers are clunking about like lead weights or racing around the pages, if there’s a plus involved, it’s always the same plus. If it’s somehow been unnecessarily switched to a minus, the equation flat-out fails, and you can see that right up front. Not so with things like philosophy books, where unsavory details of injustice can get woven into the framework like the parasitic plants that occasionally sprout from ants’ brains, often creating a margin of error so small it’s only noticed when it’s compounded into an enormous social problem, like say, a war.
But maybe that’s just the fantasy author talking there, trying to justify why I’m allowed to look into language in a way that no matter what I say, really isn’t my business. A life can be interpreted many different ways. If I were a mother, I might be more inclined to see Augustine & his concubine as unbridled creative types like Lennon & Ono, with Confessions being more of a complaint that his sensible mother had forced him to take the paper bag off his head and get out of bed. But as I am mostly an unbridled creative and a pretty nosy person in general when something interests me, I still wonder about these things as I have wondered in this post. I imagine if the unnamed woman had had the eloquence of Augustine, she may have written a song somewhat like Rebecca Ferguson’s “Teach Me How to be Loved.” For Augustine’s part, I’m not sure if he himself needed the flowery language and the deep introspection his readers find so useful. He could have perhaps felt more deeply and said just as simply, “She left,” and it would have been enough.
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