Reviewed work: Autobiography and Perspective in the Confessions of St. Augustine by Lawrence Rothfield

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Reviewed work: Autobiography and Perspective in the Confessions of St. Augustine by Lawrence Rothfield

Post by Samanthajane on Sat Aug 18, 2018 10:09 pm

LAWRENCE ROTHFIELD Autobiography and Perspective in The Confessions of St. Augustin

In Autobiography and Perspective in the Confessions of St. Augustin, Lawrence Rothfield seeks to understand the relation between the theology and the form of St. Augustine’s Confessions. Specifically, he interrogates how Augustine resolves the autobiographical disconnect through his Christian faith. Though he raises interesting and valid points on the subject, I find that his interrogation could be more rigorous in its research.

Firstly, he describes the disparate camps of historical and literary analysis of Confessions as an autobiography. In this, he cites George Misch, whose History of Autobiography situates Confessions as an autobiographical text. However, Rothfield argues that the Confessions are inextricably linked to a set of philosophical assumptions, though notes that these assumptions are not explicitly religious. He discusses the meanings associated with “history” and “autobiography,” and concludes that the work, seen in a purely autobiographical light, the Confessions represent an “immature” form of autobiography as a genre, citing Misch’s statement that in the Confessions, the soul has not yet achieved complete independence from materiality. He contrasts Misch’s approach to that of Courcelle, who emphasized the philological - that is to say, that Courcelle preferred to analyse the work’s literary motifs, rhetorical conventions, and influences. He quite adroitly describes how Courcelle’s research throws into question any claims of positivism in historical autobiographical analyses of Confessions: the more the work is adapted for literary or rhetorical purposes and influenced by the contemporary and preceding literature, the less it is can be regarded as an authentic historical document. He then says that Augustine’s “individuality” turns out to be no more than a series of literary and rhetorical tropes, which are neither Christian nor autobiographical.

While I do certainly agree that these literary patterns are neither inherently Christian nor autobiographical in nature, I do not agree that the individuality of the author or the work are effaced by the use of literary and rhetorical motifs, quite the contrary: the work’s strange mix of Christian theology, autobiography, Roman culture and religious parable make the work and its author rather unusual, to say the least. Though I would agree if he argued the narrator is not an individual by Misch’s definition of a “full” autobiography as the separation of the soul from the material, he provides no such substantiation here.

He continues by saying that Misch and Courcelle have succeeded in placing the work in its context and by disproving the claim that any individual autobiography can be truly unique - but more importantly, that they do not provide answers as to the relationship between the work’s theology and its form. He then calls for the camps of Misch and Courcelle to be reunited: for a reconciliation between Augustinian theology (comprehension of experience, as with Misch) and Augustinian formalism (comprehension of literary structure, as with Courcelle).

He then states that the structural problem of autobiography is congruent with the epistemological problem in spiritual death and rebirth in Augustine’s work: it is, if you will, a reverse Incarnation, where word stands for the flesh.

To prove this, he first explains the contradiction of autobiography, where one must be both inside of and outside of oneself. He then problematizes this tension of self in light of “a Western metaphysical system that gives priority to presence, continuity and unity.” Though I agree that there exists an autobiographical tension, I find that a “Western metaphysical system” is too vague to be properly understood. He then examines the half-blindness of the self in autobiography: though one can see one’s past as a narrative whole, one cannot envision the future.

In Augustine’s work, Rothfield argues, this tension of the first person narrator, the two “I”s, is not unlike a Baroque piece in which this tension is played upon and eventually resolved into a harmonious whole. He proceeds by stating that the conversion from one “I” to another can be traced by analysing the movement of the narrator’s interiority and exteriority from the self, and that if all autobiography requires this movement of the self, it is through the narrative that it occurs. Thus, he says, his aim is to track the movement of the physical and psychological aspects of the self in Augustine’s work, emphasizing the fact that although symbolism helps Augustine to resolve the tension of the self, it ultimately stands at odds with a Christian resolution of the self. Though this is helpful in understanding the self when reading this work as an autobiography, since much of Augustine’s symbolism is explicitly Christian, such as stealing of pears from the garden, I remain skeptical about the possibility of dividing symbolism and Christianity for separate analysis.

Despite this, his statement that the Augustinian conception of the self is radically different to that of Descartes, with which we today are much more familiar, is a convincing one. He notes the importance of division in the work of Augustine, as well as the much later influence upon our modern conception of the self and childhood by the Romantics, who introduced the idea of childhood as a distinct, privileged and innocent stage of life.

As for his Freudian reading of breastfeeding representing an ultimate oneness, though I do not necessarily agree with what I feel is an anachronistic application of 20th-century ideas regarding the modern conception of self to an early medieval conception of self, I do agree that the text uses breastfeeding to represent unity, and that this unity is ultimately tied God and wholeness with God, emphasizing that unity with God surpasses the unity of breastfeeding. He also notes, helpfully, the rhetorical use by Augustine of the image to “proselytize”. However, in discussing the formation of the concept of the self and distance, he makes only one brief reference to the text, and I believe that his argument could be better supported by more direct references to the text.

His proceeding argument of Augustine’s frowning upon games and diversions is convincing, but slightly undercut by the dense academic tone that seems to obfuscate rather than elucidate. I think now of the phrase: “The source of both types "magic," like the source of mimesis itself, must be sought level of a topographical dialectic which can issue in specific mimetic configurations.”
Despite this, his proceeding comparison of Augustine’s conversion to Christianity and Alypius’ attraction to the Roman games is clear enough, I wonder that his representations of some spatial, metaphysical battle for the soul might earn reproach from Augustine for the folly of Manichaeism.

Subsequently. Rothfield seems to argue that language is in a sense a game, but that the level of “self-symbolisation” will account for Augustine’s capacity to write his autobiography. However, he makes little reference to the text of Confessions or of the Bible to substantiate his claims.

Consequently, though it is indisputable that Augustine does achieve a resolution of a fractured self through God, I do not feel as though Rothfield has provided enough relevant evidence to substantiate all his claims.


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