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Augustine: A New Biography Hardcover – Deckle Edge, April 5, 2005
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From Publishers Weekly
O'Donnell, provost at Georgetown University and editor of the definitive edition of Augustine's Confessions, is admirably qualified to chronicle the life of the man who wrote history's most famous autobiography. But in this book, suffused with the methods (though thankfully not the tortured vocabulary) of postmodern critical suspicion, the Confessions is more hindrance than help at seeing the "many Augustines" who have been lost behind Augustine's own self-presentation. The Augustines that O'Donnell sketches include the aspiring social climber who transferred his ambitions from society to church; the bitter and dogged polemicist; and "Don Quixote of Hippo," whose "fantasy world of earliest Christianity has come eerily to be real." O'Donnell's pace is quick, his writing is sharp and there are lively and provocative interpretations on nearly every page. But his jaundiced portrait does not quite seem to do justice to the African bishop's perennial appeal, which O'Donnell acknowledges in characteristically backhanded fashion: "Call it codependency or Stockholm syndrome at its mildest; call it religious partisanship at its most extreme, but even Augustine's severest modern critics find something attractive or fascinating about the man and his work." Readers of this book will certainly wonder why. For O'Donnell, it seems, familiarity has bred contempt. (Apr. 5)
*Starred Review* In a compelling new biography of the great north African bishop, O'Donnell sets out to read between the lines of the Confessiones, a book he knows superlatively well, since he edited the definitive edition. His interest here isn't in what Augustine reveals in that autobiographical classic but in what he did not mention, either because it would have been obvious to his readers or because he wished to distract attention from it. Among the obviousnesses are the conflicting Christianities of the period--Donatist, Arian, and Caecilian, which became Catholicism--of which Augustine's own, Caecilian, was a distinctly minority version helped into prominence by Augustine himself. And Augustine's language: although we may think nothing of his writing in Latin, his use of that language and his dialect of it spoke volumes to his typically polylingual readers. Augustine's contemporaries read him differently than we read him, and O'Donnell provides the theological, historical, and linguistic context in which those earlier readers functioned. As to what Augustine wishes us to not notice, O'Donnell is less expansive, looking for the "darker thread" in the great man's psychology but curiously not addressing such lapses as Augustine's failing to mention how his only son died. Despite such brevity on the personal front, this will become a classic on its subject. Patricia Monaghan
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I'm reading this book now, or trying to, and have read all the customer and editorial reviews here with real pleasure and interest. My sense is that "modernity" or "post-modernity" are not the bad guys here. I don't think this book is an attack on Augustine, and even if it were, we don't really need to worry that one biographer will damage the cultural impact of the greatest of Christian theologians. So what if Augustine was ambivalent about sexual pleasure? So what if he may have been motivated by personal ambition? The body of writing and the history in which it participated are not going to change.
The problem I think most of these reviews is trying to work through is the way the book is written. For whom is it written? Certainly not for students or scholars. But I don't see people carrying this book into the gym for a treadmill workout either. There is something unsettling about the way the author handles his subject matter, and I think it makes reading the book just feel wrong. Personally, I'm suspicious whenever a scholar "supposes" what the subject of a scholarly inquiry is thinking: "In this nothing town, the sun of the Maghreb outside the hall is relentless, but the shade between stone columns within is cool. Men stand on one side, women on the other, all hushed in concentration on the deliberate gestures of one man." The man, of course, will turn out to be Augustine himself, or a fictionalized version of Augustine, presented to give the reader a "feel" of what things in a "nothing town" -- the contemporary idiom is meant to bring everything closer to us -- "must have been like." Writing like this is charming in a Discovery Channel sort of way, but it only creates the illusion of telling us anything real. The "scene setting" in this book detracts from the information readers, or at least this reader, go to the book for in the first place.
For example, here is how the author handles the Manichee heresy:
Manicheism was a new-age religion in its time fashionable, exotic, with an up-to-date brand of humbug.
Cool. But what does this sentence actually tell us? This is from page 48, and the author has still not really defined the Manichean heresy, or the Donatist, or the Caecilian. Besides being fashionable and exotic, what is it? And how why did Augustine care? What, exactly, did each of these groups believe, and why is it important? I'm sure this is why several reviewers recommend staying with earlier biographies of Augustine.
Things get worse. In another page or two (p. 51), we get this:
Augustine had broken now with the Manichees, but not in favor of any positive association. Like Dicken's Mr. Micawber, he is always waiting for something to turn up. . .
Wait! What? Dickens? You read this and you can feel the book's focus leach out from between your hands as you hold it. Dickens? We then go on to a long passage, what the author calls an "experiment," in which he creates "the voice of an imagined Donatist from Hippo" who will criticize Augustine's personal narrative. And so, in place of any historical or critical account of anything that actually happened or got written down, we get an author who, as Sarah Palin puts it, "makes stuff up." The long passage by the "imagined Donatist" spins the book away from Augustine and towards the author.
I'm being mean, I know. The book is very interesting, and, however it may piss off the faithful, its main argument is compelling and important. But this writing style is infuriating because it lacks rigor, focus, respect for the reader and, most importantly, it trivializes its important subject. Here is a last passage, from p. 55, where the author gets to the saint's mother:
And so we come to Monnica. No bit player in the history of autobiography plays quite the role that she plays in Augustine's. One must go to fiction to find the like, perhaps in Proust's mother and grandmother, or Sherlock Holme's "the woman," Irene Adler: powerful, undeniable erotically charged, but at the same time unmistakably taboo and distant.
My problem with this book is that there is no room for Augustine or Monica in passages like these. I'm not sure what they serve. There was a trend in late 19th and early 20th century writing about literature to personalize authors of great literature and to write about them like buddies: Geoff Chaucer, Bill Shakespeare. I think this book will strike people the same way some day, if it doesn't already. And it's too bad, because there is a lot in here of real value that is lost in all the blurbling at the keyboard.
The book's undertaking is ambitious: drag Christianity's most prominent thinker into the trash of modernism; tear down the Bishop of Hippo with sniffy skepticism; mock the model for centuries of penitents; make fools of those inspired by Saint Augustine's fusion of Platonic and Jewish traditions that became the philosophical foundation of the Western religious culture.
The author of this book, O'Donnell, would seem to have the credentials: he wrote volume upon volume of annotations, largely unnoticed, about Saint Augustine's "Confessions." The chapter titles and subtitles of O'Donnell's book taunt the great doctor of Catholicism: "Augustine the Self-Promoter," Augustine the Social Climber," "Augustine and the Invention of Christianity."
O'Donnell's book is the self-proclaimed "modern" understanding of Augustine, as in "modern attitudes," "moderns commonly say of Augustine," and "the dawn of the twentieth century's psychological age" (whatever that is).
O'Donnell's modernism has its own definitions and perspectives, which he claims can explain history "with ideas of rigor, objectivity and truth." But that claim highlights the book's lack of credibility, because O'Donnell's "Augustine" is so obviously the subjective, downright kooky ruminations of O'Donnell, not just on Saint Augustine, but upon all of Christianity and even all of history.
Thus, in O'Donnell's modern interpretation, Augustine becomes "a Don Quixote in a world that really takes him and his obsessions seriously;" Christianity becomes a "community of obsessives" or "like a bowling league or a condominium association;" and history for O'Donnell becomes something explained not "with ideas of rigor, objectivity and truth," but rather occasion for O'Donnell's flights of fantasy, literally. Throughout the book, O'Donnell asks that we join him in his own petty, modernist alternative realities of the past, in page after page of O'Donnell's drag-in-the-dirt brand of "what if?"
O'Donnell tries to preach his "modern" viewpoint with catchy contemporary references and definitions. Classifying pagans is equated with labeling one a "Pinko." On the death of a friend, Augustine reverts to "sex, drugs and rock and roll." Every possible heresy of the time is capitalized (along with "Pagans"), e.g. Donatists, Pelagians and Gnostics. But O'Donnell finds the license to spell "catholics" throughout. Ultimately O'Donnell's "modern" definitions are pretentious, contemptuous and profoundly ignorant, and it simply gets boring wading through O'Donnell's "modern" theses, little more than pedestrian psycho-babble, liberal political correctness and academic pomposity.
Any subsequent biography of Augustine will be compared to Peter Brown's work. The comparison here is very instructive. Written in 1962, Brown's "Augustine of Hippo," like its subject, has stood up well to time. Brown wrote about Augustine with a timeless human reference. Where O'Donnell provides cheap quips, Brown tells us that Augustine "had chosen to see the great complexity of his own view on grace and free will, veiled to the unenquiring mind, a source of wonder to the philosopher." O'Donnell's central interests are mundane human sexuality, ambition and weakness; Brown probes a mind and life consumed in a beatific vision of true human happiness in the illumination of a timeless God (O'Donnell's "god"). Peter Brown presents a human person easily recognizable as he passes through the ages of his life while leaving a posit of millions of words that still resonate with those living today, just as O'Donnell's "modern" retrospection on Augustine will be so quickly forgotten.
O'Donnell's "Augustine" is a mean book by an author without capacity. If it reveals the truly modern man, he is not someone you would want to meet.