The Long View: Reconsidering the Confessions

I hesitate before I answer one particular question that I am regularly asked: what do you write? I write memoir. My reticence is indirectly related to the idea that memoir ranks quite low in the hierarchy of creative literature — there is something about the very premise of the genre that can cause a knee-jerk reaction in some readers. Apparently memoir is too personal. It’s self-involved. It’s exhibitionist, egotist, self-indulgent, and unsophisticated. Even the success of Eat, Pray, Love was not enough to shield its author from accusations of being ‘spoiled’ and ‘navel-gazing’. I disagree with these verdicts almost completely (almost because we must allow for the existence of good and bad examples in any genre, obviously). The truth is I am a proud memoirist. I only hesitate to divulge this information to gauge my listener’s interest, to ascertain if they want to know why I love the genre so much. I have spent considerable time investigating the origins of memoir, perhaps in part attempting to justify the genre’s existence. In the process, I’ve learned just how much contemporary memoir still resembles its origins.

In books about the history and craft of the genre, The Confessions of St Augustine is routinely named as the first memoir. Augustine was certainly not the first to write about his own life. Others, including Plato, St Paul, Cicero, and Julius Caesar did so before him, but not in memoir form. What matters most here is that Augustine was the first to write about making sense of his life. This is one of the subtle but crucial differences between memoir and other forms of autobiographical writing.

The sheer diversity of memoir sub-genres may suggest that the form has changed beyond all recognition from its fourth century origins. Memoirs now offer reflections on everything from the experience of living in the author’s body (Roxane Gay’s Hunger) to undergoing self-imposed challenges (A. J. Jacobs’ The Year of Living Biblically). But the crux of the genre remains the same. Memoir continues to be the written quest for self-discovery. It was Augustine who laid down the patterns that persist in contemporary memoir, even amidst the genre’s progression and proliferation. He set out on a quest to ask and answer the question of meaning. His methods of searching included the written forms of various religious practices such as prayer, reflection, testimony, and, of course, confession. On the first page of the book, in one of his most recognised lines, he concludes that he can find no life satisfaction apart from God: ‘Because you made us for yourself […] our hearts find no peace until they rest in you.’

Augustine’s pattern of asking, searching, and drawing conclusions can be found in most good memoirs. He set out on a quest for self-discovery, expressed the use of various methods of inquiry, and arrived at a conclusion. While Augustine’s methods of inquiry are readily describable in religious terms, contemporary memoirists make more secular articulations of similar concepts. For example, prayer may become another type of internal dialogue or questioning. An example of this internal dialogue can be found in Mary Karr’s second memoir, Cherry. Karr’s narrator self addresses the entire book to her younger self in an exchange between naivety and wisdom:

You’re thinking it’s been a while since you wanted to be Queen Guinevere, and will you ever again wait for some knight to gallop up and sweep you away? … But you’d damn sure like your own horse … Anything to ride the fuck out of here.

Conclusions reached by mainstream contemporary authors are rarely overtly or favourably linked to religious faith, but they do equate to the significant ordering of life’s priorities. Lines of parallel can be drawn between memoirs old and new, spanning a gamut of topics.

There are two crucial organising principles that survive in memoir from Augustine to the present day — confession and conversion. The practice of confession is commonly confused with confessionalism. Blake Morrison says that ‘Confessionalism has always been a disreputable genre […] It is privacy for public consumption, something picked up by a hidden camera or a tape recorder.’ Two examples of well-known memoirs that could be accused of indulging in confessionalism are Confessions by Jean-Jacques Rousseau and The Kiss by Kathryn Harrison. Rousseau confesses his sexual deviance, including the purchase of a child to be used as a concubine. Harrison’s story is about the obsessive and incestuous love affair she had with her father. Although there is scope for a defence of both books, it is fair to question whether some details are designed simply to shock. (That said, it is a shame that The Kiss has been overshadowed by its reputation. Alongside the deliberately scandalous, it contains a well-written and insightful explanation, not a defence, of a very unusual relationship.)

81hSJtPKgcLUsing confession as a device to shock his reader is not what St Augustine had in mind. The worst of the sins he confesses in his book are the theft of pears that he ends up throwing at some pigs, a bit of intellectual pride, and really enjoying sex. Adam H. Becker writes, ‘Readers raised in a confessional culture will be disappointed by Augustine’s Confessions […] Augustine is simply not that exciting or so self-obsessed.’ Augustine did not write about his sins to surprise his readers. He wasn’t actually writing to his readers at all — his book is a prayer addressed to God with the intention of being overheard. The God Augustine addresses is omniscient, already privy to all of the author’s secrets; he does not need to be told about them.

Augustine’s confession is not simply an admission of fault: it is his acknowledgement of belief. Ralph Waldo Emerson writes that ‘People do not seem to realize that their opinion of the world is also a confession of character.’ In the words of David Foster Wallace, ‘we all worship something’, whether it is fame, religion, or some other system for the ordering of experience. Like Augustine, contemporary memoirists organise their stories to arrive at some form of revelation that confirms a (now usually secular) belief: in Sickened, Julia Gregory realises that the abuse she suffered at the hand of her mother was due to her mother having Munchausen By Proxy. Although Gregory has grown up and left, her mother is still mentally ill and has taken in foster children, continuing in her mistreatment of the innocent. Having spent years working on her own recovery throughout the course of the memoir Gregory decides that she cannot detach from her past, but must step back in and alert the authorities.

Conversion is the second organising principle in the Confessions that has clear parallels in contemporary memoir. The traditional conversion narrative goes much like the famous hymn lyrics ‘I once was lost, but now am found, was blind, but now I see.’ What was old and bad becomes new and good. This form of Christian conversion story is found in the bible, most notably with Saint Paul, who was converted as he travelled on the road to Damascus. An Old Testament example of spiritual life writing is offered by the author of Ecclesiastes. And in the New Testament, the apostle Peter urged believers to ‘always be prepared to give an answer to anyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.’ The traditional sort of conversion story is what was popular in the fourth century. But scholars agree that while Augustine did finally conclude that he could find rest only in God, he did not have this classic kind of conversion experience, nor does he allude to one in his memoir. In his seminal biography on Augustine, Peter Brown points out that one of the reasons the Confessions made such an impact was its departure from the arc established in the bible. Augustine did not claim blissful ignorance, and he did not run toward the light. He spends most of his youth dithering. He likens himself to a drowsy man who knows he must get up but chooses instead to stay in bed for a few more minutes, thus delaying the inevitable.

Augustine chose not to end his story at, or even shortly after, the garden scene in which he feels prompted to take up his bible, read, and consequently devote his life to chastity. Brown says that, ‘For Augustine, conversion was no longer enough. No such dramatic experience should delude his readers into believing that they could so easily cast off their past identity.’ The section that follows the garden scene in Book 8 serves as evidence of Augustine’s continued grappling with doubt, as well as his commitment to intellectual scrutiny. His story does not end in conversion, baptism, or even ordination. Instead he leaves his readers with four more long books containing rigorous theological problems, problems that co-exist with his faith. On the one hand the Saint is ready to confess his life’s conclusion on the first page of his book; on the other hand, by the end he has raised more questions than he answered.

The questions raised in the Confessions represent Augustine’s success as a great thinker, but they also represent a type of failure. Linda R. Anderson points out that, ‘We can begin to see Augustine’s writing as never attaining the final mastery of truth he desires but as haunted by its own otherness, by figures of uncertainty or dissolution.’ By questioning his own conclusions, Augustine expresses a very human basis for his faith. It is a faith that exists in the presence of doubt rather than one based on arrogant certainty. His memoir rejects off-puttingly prescriptive, example-setting conversion narratives.

Augustine’s memoir also resonates with Keats’ idea of negative capability — ‘when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.’ Negative capability is a fundamental characteristic of the best memoirs. Elements of the quest for self-discovery often fail, but this type of failure enriches the narrative. The authors allow readers to share in intimate mysteries instead of tying up their stories with neat bows and pat answers. Two examples of this can be found in memoirs by Blake Morrison and Jeanette Winterson respectively. In And When Did you Last See Your Father?, Morrison, believing that the truth will set him free, tries to get to the bottom of a possible love affair of his father’s. He writes to the woman in question after his father’s death, but is asked to leave it alone. In her reply she writes, ‘Please leave me one last small piece—it’s mine.’ When Morrison is left to make peace with not knowing, in reflection he writes, ‘Now I know I’ll never know the truth about him and Beaty […] My father’s affair is his affair. His story is not my story. And Beaty doesn’t have the missing piece.’
 Jeanette Winterson sets out on a mission to find her birth mother in Why be Happy When You Could Be Normal?. She writes about the idea of home, explaining her need to understand where she has come from: ‘A displaced person, literally, does not know which way is up, because there is no true north. No compass point. Home is much more than shelter; home is our centre of gravity.’ Winterson eventually succeeds in connecting with the woman who gave her life, only then to discover that she does not gain the relief or sense of closure that she once imagined she would. ‘All my life I have worked from the wound. To heal it would mean an end to one identity — the defining identity. But the healed wound is not the disappeared wound; there will always be a scar.’ Her memoir ends — ‘I have no idea what happens next.’

Augustine’s Confessions gave us the models for some of the best examples of modern memoir. But beyond naming it as the first example of memoir, there is surprisingly little literature on The Confessions of Saint Augustine written from the perspective of creative writing. Is it fair to equate the creative writing community’s lack of research into the Confessions with a lack of interest? And if so, why do so many of us continue to pay lip service to Augustine while declining deeper investigation into the origins of the genre? It is likely that the answer to this question relates to the fact that the Confessions is a story of a religious conversion. Religion is no longer as popular or well-tolerated a subject as it once was. In the UK at least, we are living in what has been called a secular age. A majority of people seek their answers to their meaning-of-life questions in areas other than religion. Of course, the secularisation of society is in no way complete — there are thriving religious communities all over the world — but the cultural climate has changed significantly since Augustine’s day.

Religious conversion stories now are generally aimed at a self-selecting, and therefore limited, reading audience. The sacred-secular divide in creative writing is pronounced, particularly in relation to Christianity in the West. Conservative religious readers might look with apprehension at books that are too worldly: they are a bad influence. One example of this was the reaction some conservative/fundamental Christians had to the Harry Potter series: they advised believers against allowing children to read the books for fear of demonic and magical influence. And general readers seem to have little interest in reading stories that involve anything more than the hint of a religious theme. This is an unfortunate but reasonable explanation as to why few contemporary authors are consciously mining Augustine’s Confessions for guidance in their craft.

To overlook the Confessions on the grounds of it being a religious conversion narrative is, in my opinion, a mistake. The distinction between St. Augustine’s use of religion and the majority of contemporary memoirists’ use of a secular framework should not overshadow the similarities between ancient and modern day memoirs. Today’s memoirists continue to ask similar questions to those posed by St Augustine in the fourth century, and they use similar methods to arrive at their varying conclusions — as they have throughout history. Too heavy a focus on the differences between religious and non-religiously themed conclusions perpetuates a sacred/secular divide. This is a problem for anyone who, like myself, believes that the role of memoir is to foster connection. Deeper understanding of the genre’s origins can prove invaluable for authors writing on any themes who hope to reach a wide audience.

My goal here is not to lay claim to the genre of memoir in the name of either religion or secularism. Rather, my goal is to allow memoirists writing on any subject to be inspired by a closer reading of the Confessions. Confession and conversion are just two examples that demonstrate how foundational The Confessions of Saint Augustine are for modern memoir. Other examples include reflection, testimony, lamentation, and repentance. The genre has endured centuries of diversification and proliferation, and maintains its status as simultaneously popular and controversial. This alone suggests that the act of memoir writing meets a universally felt need. The Confessions can validate the impulses common to all memoirists; I know it has done this in my own creative practice.

Jacinta Read

Jacinta is a PhD student studying Creative Writing at Goldsmiths, University of London. She lives in Oxford with her husband and two children, and is developing a creative writing course for the Oxfordshire Recovery College, where she works as a tutor.

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