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RELIGION | BOOK REVIEW

A Corrective to Traditional View of St. Augustine

ST. AUGUSTINE: By Garry Wills; Lipper / Viking; $19.95, 152 pp.

July 03, 1999|JONATHAN KIRSCH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

"St. Augustine" by Garry Wills is the fourth title in the Penguin Lives series, a library of short biographies from Lipper/Viking Books that already includes Larry McMurtry on Crazy Horse, Edmund White on Marcel Proust and Peter Gay on Mozart. Appropriately enough, the title of the series obliquely recalls Plutarch's "Lives" and thereby reminds us that the biographies of great men and women have always been mined for secret and sometimes exalted meanings.

Like Plutarch, Wills has turned to the classical world for his moral examples, and he has chosen an especially rich vein in the life of Augustine, the 4th century African bishop. Augustine preached some 8,000 sermons, and he dictated late into the night to relay teams of copyists in order to produce countless books and countless letters, including such seminal works of theology as "Confessions" and "The City of God." Indeed, Augustine subjected his own life to such intimate moral scrutiny that he has come to be regarded as the inventor of a certain kind of confessional literature.

Wills offers his appreciation of Augustine as a corrective to the traditional view that turns him from "the great seeker into nothing but the great sinner," as Wills puts it, "an ex-debauchee obsessed with sex." Indeed, Wills insists on translating the title of Augustine's most celebrated and oft-cited work as "The Testimony" rather than "Confessions," if only to make the theological point that Augustine sought to achieve something loftier than a public breast-beating. According to Wills, virtually every experience of Augustine's life, whether dramatic or trivial, was an occasion to praise God.

"Augustine sincerely experienced his memories as drenched in God's grace," explains Wills, "which makes the memories testify, belatedly, to God."

This biography of Augustine is compounded in equal measure of fact and exegesis, all of it offered up in elegant prose. "Mountains he had known from boyhood, but not the sea," Wills writes of Augustine's childhood in North Africa, a line that scans like a poem. At other moments, Wills succeeds in illuminating his subject by invoking, for example, Philip Roth's "Portnoy's Complaint." If Augustine, like Portnoy, can be seen as "sex-obsessed," it is only because Augustine was willing to go "to the very limits of decent description" in order to make a theological point.

Wills, for example, compares Portnoy's complaint about the unpredictability of male sexual functions to Augustine's musings on the same subject. "At times, without intention, the body stirs on its own," wrote Augustine. "At other times, it leaves a straining lover in the lurch." Augustine's point, according to Wills, focuses on moral rather than sexual dysfunction.

"Augustine dwells most often on impotence," Wills explains, "as the extreme example of inner dividedness, where desire is rebellious not only against reason but against itself."

Wills allows that certain vivid experiences of early life shaped Augustine and his philosophy, including his experience of the friction between good intention and evil impulse. Augustine savored the pagan culture that persisted in Rome even after the adoption of Christianity: "He knew the power the pagan poets had--they had, for a while, made him a pagan." When Augustine arrived at Carthage, where he found "illicit loves sizzling around me," he declared: "I was reckless for love, wanting to be its captive." And Wills explains the significance of Augustine's single most famous confession--the theft of some pears--as something weightier than it might otherwise seem precisely because the forbidden fruit was so trivial. "Simply what was not allowed allured us," explained Augustine himself.

But Wills warns against reading too much into the experiences of a life, even one so closely examined as Augustine's, and he denounces the whole enterprise of psycho-history as it applies to Augustine's sexuality. Those who speculate that Augustine experienced incestuous or homosexual passions, Wills insists, are missing the point: "The bishop is concerned with the mysteries of grace . . . and salvation," writes Wills, "while his modern readers are indulging their own fantasies about a hyperactive penis." Above all, he shares his subject's conviction that rationalism only carries us to the edge of the most crucial insights: "Since it is God we are speaking of, you do not understand it," observed Augustine himself. "If you could understand it, it would not be God."

*

Jonathan Kirsch, a contributing writer to the Los Angeles Times Book Review, is the author of, most recently, "Moses: A Life" (Ballantine).

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