The Library is pleased to announce that it is has received its copy of Seducing Augustine: Bodies Desires, Confessions, by Drew faculty member Virginia Burrus, in collaboration with Mark Jordan (Harvard Divinity School) and Karmen MacKendrick (LeMoyne College), and published by Fordham University Press. This “little book” (p. x–only 174 pages, sizing in at 6″ x 9″) is a shared reading of Augustine’s Confessions, as illuminated by other writings of the great saint, including On Christian Teaching and The City of God, as well as other interlocutors of our own time–Margaret Miles, Michel Foucault, M. B. Pranger, and many more.
The title is even more seductive than appears for, as the authors emphasize, “seduction is necessarily reversible” (p. 32). That is, the seductions on display here are multiple and variously directed. Take the title alone: “seducing” functions as both an adjective describing Augustine, who seduces, and as a verb whose object is Augustine, the one seduced. Who is seducing whom? In fact, this book may be read as a kind of Pilgrim’s Progress through the Valley of Seduction, seducers at every turn. They include: bodies, desires, sex, beauty, memory, Continence, Plato, Margaret Miles, these three authors themselves, and, of course, Augustine. How can the wary reader feel at ease? But s/he can, because with Augustine ultimately in charge, the seductions are all finally exercises in grace: what we delight in feeling led to, surreptitiously and, we hope, under cover of night, whether it be Augustine’s own lurid sex life, other dark confessions too frightful fully to tell, or the naked but grotesque bodies of the heavenly Resurrection (these from Augustine’s other famous text, The City of God), dissolve at our sight or touch, into our own experience of the divine. “While we were fixing our impatient gaze on Augustine, waiting for him to reveal just a little bit more of himself, he has slipped in his startling substitute, instead revealing God” (p. 124). Pretty tricky. But what would we expect of Augustine’s beautiful prose, whose form belies its content, always pulling upward and away from the abasements it describes. Augustine’s words do not lie flat and innocent on the page. They are “sticky words” and “tickling signs” (p. 48, 49), or so they are at the hands of these gifted interpreters.
To illustrate from the authors: Augustine drops enough hints about these supposed confessions, to suggest they may in fact not be strictly true. He may be boasting of greater sin than he actually enjoyed; he may be fabricating entirely, he who, after all, had, by his own admission, to discipline his native gift for deceiving theatricality. If he is indeed as prone to sin as he claims, then he may fail throughout to restrain that dubious gift, and be offering up a stage performance. Where does that leave the reader? With a lot of words about longing for God. But these words, as the authors observe, so often formulated in the second person–”you”–and addressed to God–”Late have I loved you” (from book 10)–cannot help but engage the reader, too, as alternative addressee and yet, also as joint speaker of them, with Augustine, addressing God. Suddenly the reader, thinking to satisfy prurient interests in Augustine, is caught up with Augustine in prayer.
Adding interest to the interpretations is that they are not in complete agreement over the attractiveness of Augustine. Two of the voices would lead us into Augustine’s own seductions of us; but one of the voices cautions care. Yes, the seducer’s lair may appear to be a launching station to God, but it is actually the confines of the church (Augustine was a bishop, after all), flattening the bounce of the metaphorically rich confessional language with its “authoritative exegesis” (p. 60). The very cover of the book hints at this divergence (and yes, contrary to popular belief, a well-designed book can be judged by its cover) for it comprises three views of a veiled dancer, a small bronze from ancient Greece, sinuously posed. The statue turns invitingly towards us in two of the poses, but directly and forbiddingly away from us in one.
The willing reader will gladly be seduced by these three authors, whether into embrace or repulse of Augustine. But wither might the reader seduce either Augustine or the authors? At least this reader would take us to Kierkegaard, that modern theological master of seduction, who gave us, under pseudonym, the Diary of a Seducer, and who theorized so beguilingly about Don Juan, especially as captured by Mozart’s opera, Don Giovanni, where the character merges with the music and seduces us out of our minds. The modern opera house would indeed be a seduction for Augustine, but wouldn’t the text of the Confessions, smuggled into a performance of the Mozart opera, and let to lie there on the listener’s lap, begin of its own to vibrate in tune with the music?
There is much more to this book. The play of reversal to be found here intoxicates: to self-abase before humility exalts; to remember having forgotten restores to memory; to praise the other reveals the self. The authors indicate a place, via Augustine, where “transcendence and transience touch” (p. 98). The authors indirectly remind us that the most rigorous scholarship in spiritual matters partakes of what it describes and interprets. The reader comes away unsure whether she has simply read a book, or arrived at the end of pilgrim’s path.
A librarianly coda: Students of Augustine, seeking further reading, will find books by and about him gathered at the Dewey Decimal number 281.4 A923 and at the Library of Congress number BR65 .A, both on level E of the Library. A useful reference source is: Augustine Through the Ages: An Encyclopedia (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1999) (281.4 A923Y A9239a). Brief introductions include: Augustine: A Guide for the Perplexed, by James Wetzel (New York: Continuum, 2010) (BR65 .A9 W482 2009) and Augustine, by Gareth Matthews (Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2005) (B655 .Z7 M18 2005). An introductory plunge into the scholarship is available in The Cambridge Companion to Augustine, ed. by Eleanore Stump and Norman Kretzmann (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001) (281.4 A923Y C178c ). Readers of Seducing Augustine may also want to read: Desire and Delight: A New Reading of Augustine’s Confessions, by Margaret Miles (New York: Crossroad, 1992) (281.4 A923cY M643d); Augustine and Postmodernism: Confessions and Circumfession, ed. by John Caputo and Michael Scanlon (Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 2005) (281.4 A923cY A9232a ); and the soon-to-appear Eternity’s Ennui: Temporality, Perseverance and Voice in Augustine and Western Literature, by M. B. Pranger (Brill, scheduled to appear October 2010).