Reviewed Work(s): An Introduction to Augustine's Confessions by James J. O'Donnell

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Reviewed Work(s): An Introduction to Augustine's Confessions by James J. O'Donnell Empty Reviewed Work(s): An Introduction to Augustine's Confessions by James J. O'Donnell

Post by RobynduPreez on Fri Aug 17, 2018 8:57 am

Honours Medieval Seminar Small Task
Reviewed Work(s): "An Introduction to Augustine's Confessions" by James J. O'Donnell
Review By: Robyn du Preez
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Wordcount: 1219 
(Two Page Word Document)

“It is impossible then, to take the Confession in a vacuum, and it is impossible to give any single interpretation that will satisfy. Even these few paragraphs of summary give a misleading impression of simplicity and directness, for a work that draws its rare power from complexity, subtlety, and nuance.”  - James J. O’Donnell.

This review stands in agreement that O’Donnell’s portrayal and introductory commentary on St Augustine’s Confessions are, as he stated, “misleading.” However, it is not any more misleading than any other given critique of this particular text, and in most ways acts as an amiable guide into the beginnings of understanding St Augustine and his work. 

Understanding that O’Donnell’s article functions as an introductory source into the work of St Augustine, the broad scope covered by the author and the little interaction with the text itself is feasible. However, the argument for the presence of at least a few significant extracts from the text would have bettered the approach taken. In becoming acquainted with Augustine, to know that he wished to be told “(setting before him my anxieties) which were the fittest way for one in my case to walk in Thy paths” (Book 8 Chapter 1) would have given the clear direction and purpose of the text as a unified whole. Furthermore, knowing that the author wrote with his reader’s in mind allows for a better guide to understanding the text and its purpose. The text was written, unarguably, to write his ‘confessions’ in order to bring his God praise, as well as for the benefit of other readers who are plausible future converts or followers of his faith. “If then my voice and pen would confess unto Thee the whole, whatsoever knots Thou didst open for me in this question, what reader would hold out to take in the whole? Nor shall my heart for all this cease to give Thee honour, and a song of praise, for those things which it is not able to express” (Book 12 Chapter 6).

 O’Donnell draws on the ideas of the opaque, the confused and the ambiguous. He begins his article, however, with a particular focus on something that is notably clear in Confessions; being Augustine’s anxiety over his writing and his validity of identity under the authority of his God. O’Donnell then shifts this anxiety to the readers; depicting specific ways in how the readers of the text “fail him (Augustine) in many ways.” He states that “just when we are best explaining Augustine, we are then perhaps furthest away from his thought.”

O’Donnell pays much focus to there not being one specific hidden key to unlocking the text; assumedly quoting Augustine in stating that Augustine wanted to stir the reader’s soul, not test the reader’s ability to “picklock.” This stirring of the soul is depicted fairly often within Augustine’s text itself, but more subtly than O’Donnell suggests. Augustine often interrupts his narrative, asking his God to “stir up” his heart or soul in favour of the Lord, and “awake in the love of Thy mercy and the sweetness of Thy grace,” for example (Book X, Chapter III). This “stirring” is indeed a priority of Augustine’s writing, as he states: “Not, of a truth, that Thou mightest learn them through me, but to stir up mine own and my readers’ devotions towards Thee, that we may all say, Great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised” (Book XI, Chapter 1). Augustine here reveals a subtle intention and purpose that adorns his writing. The nature of this stirring, however, is more eluded than the act itself.

O’Donnell’s introduction acknowledges the questioning attitudes that have historically encompassed the text, namely, the neo-Platonic influences upon Augustine’s Christian thinking, and the validity of his Christian authenticity. To add on to the ambiguity, O’Donnell clearly highlights the work of Augustine, being retrospective and autobiographical, was carefully edited; a rhetorically distant text. He states that “God stays silent” in the text, and Augustine only rhetorically represents himself in Confessions. This is how Augustine draws in the reader to see themselves on the page, reading his story as if it were a part of their own.  Perhaps an important factor here would have been to elaborate on rhetoric within Confessions, and how it functions. James M. Farrel in his “The Rhetoric(s) of St. Augustine’s Confessions” substantiates the significant value of critiquing rhetoric within Augustine’s text. He states that “the conversion story structures the whole narrative of the Confessions and thus rhetoric is implicated in that narrative.”

“The Confessions, then, present themselves to us as a book about God, and about Augustine: more Augustine at the beginning, more God at the end.” O’Donnell explains that Augustine undergoes the process of redemption throughout the text, becoming more like God and more into the image of God; becoming “representative” of all humankind. Like God, like man, he gives a testimony to humanity, and an example to follow. O’Donnell draws ties of shared anxiety between writer and reader, the rhetoric and finally a common identity between Augustine and his audience in the identity found in his God. His description of the texts as being a “model and pattern for other acts of confession” allows for an amiable availability to question whether textual, theological ambiguity on the narrator’s part was to intentionally leave room for the reader’s story to relate and intrude upon the text.

A certain quoted passage from O’Donnell’s commentary gives an account from Augustine himself to Paulinas of Nola on how he ought to be read. No doubt, the passage holds vital information on understanding the thoughts and mindset of the author. If only the text were to be translated out of Latin and into English, for the particularly “introductory” Augustine scholar. But with such in mind, O’Donnell’s article merely justifies its own argument with this extract; revealing the ambiguity, difficulty and unavailability of a simplistic understanding of Confessions in its own commentary thereof. Whether this idea was an intentional act by the author or not is debatable.

O’Donnell concludes his article with a paragraph stating, “he was assuredly the heir of an ancient rhetorical tradition that did not write to prove but to persuade, that knew that a work must have its effect on a reader or hearer directly or it is unlikely to have the desired effect at all.”  O’Donnell acknowledges the prominence of the rhetoric, which does have it’s functioning within the complex nature of the text. In its nature as introductory, this commentary by O’Donnell does not stray far off from depicting what is known about Augustine’s text to be anxious, ambiguous, and intricately complex.

O’Donnell’s article, then, is satisfactory in its ability to introduce to the reader the work of Augustine. O’Donnell brings into conversation vital contextual elements that influenced Augustine's work, as well as arguments,  present that play an important factor in the ongoing academic debates around the critiquing of the text. However, as the author claims himself; the article is misleading, and therefore should be read and used in relation to other secondary texts, in order to gain a more complete and better understanding of Augustine’s Confessions.


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