The Inheritance of Augustine: Confessions
European literature began with mênis, but romantic literature always begins with amor. For St Augustine, finding out what “love” really meant, discovering love’s proper object and understanding his own life were three aspects of the same process. By the time of his Confessions, written at the turbulent close of the fourth century AD, with the Roman Empire about to collapse, that concept so compellingly evoked by Plato at an earlier epoch of collapse had become the one essential and reliable constituent of all self-understanding. Quid enim miserius misero non miserante se ipsum et flente Didonis mortem, quae fiebat amando Aenean, non flente autem mortem suam, quae fiebat non amando te, deus, lumen cordis mei? What more pitiable than the pitiful one who pities Dido, dying for love of Aeneas, but not himself, dying for not loving you, my God, my heart’s light?1 Augustine’s characteristic, spiralling syntax always coils tightly around its critical concepts, and at the heart of the spiral is love. Here he is disparaging his own third-hand adolescent passion for the passion of a poetic character, Virgil’s Dido. Even when the counterfeit love of poetry no longer satisfied him, he realises, its false image continued to mislead him in the passional realm. Nondum amabam, et amare amabam… quaerebam quid amarem, amans amare. He was in love with the idea of love, but did not yet know what to love, and so did not yet really “love”.2 Confessions sees a life as the search for and final apprehension of its own meaning; confessio means “acknowledgement”, or even “recognition”, rather than “owning up to”.
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