What I Am Not Yet, I Am Print

st.-augustine-of-hippo-icon-full-of-grace-and-truth-excerpt-from-the-encomium-to-st-nicholas-pic(Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies April 1, 2017) (Revised version)

The first person in Western literature to write his spiritual journey is Augustine (354-430 CE), author of Confessions (399). In it, he testifies to what he knows and to what he’s been instructed by God he should know. Writing in Latin, Augustine tells the struggle between his self (bad) and his soul (good), which, he believes, mirrors the physical wounds Christ’s endured. When I read Augustine, I see that his selfish choices have been so immoral and his soul so scarred that remaining on his path he will lose God’s grace, he will forgo Heaven. His sins are not abstract. They are real, and they take place in the individual’s daily life, and he tells us just how much they hurt, over and over and over

The book bridles with analysis, with philosophical argument about the compulsion of humans to sin, Augustine one of its great exemplars. As one of the first Christian writers who will develop the literature of Christianity, he does not confess the tale of his conversion until later in the book, only after explaining the entirety of his weaknesses in a kind of Aristotelian testimony.

The month is August, the year, 386 CE. Augustine of Hippo is thirty-two, living in Milan and teaching rhetoric. He’s at the end of his rope, faith-wise. He is tormented, “soul-sick,” and blubbering uncontrollably to a witnessing friend. Why the tears? He’s an A.D.D.-mix of sex maniac and self-flagellator. He has promised to marry a young girl and is waiting for her to turn twelve, the legal age. In the interim, he continues his depravity with several concubines, hating himself for his lust. He is enslaved, he writes: “My now-ingrained panic was increasing daily, and I daily panted for you.” At one point, so loving his sin, he tells God not to save him too soon “from the sick urges I wanted rather intensified than terminated.” One afternoon he crawls into the backyard garden of his home, collapses under a fig-tree, and beseeches God to save him, which he’s been asking in prose over the previous tens of thousands of words to no avail. “How much more, how much more,” he begs, before his conflict between the flesh and the spirit—“Lord, give me chastity, but not just yet”—will end.

He hears a neighboring child say, “Lift! Look!” (Tolle, rege, tolle, rege). (Much confusion exists about the “voice.” Is it intoned by an actual child, by Augustine’s inner child, by God or Christ calling?) What should he lift? The Epistles of Paul, he tells us, which are conveniently lying nearby. He lifts and the book falls open to Romans 13:13. He reads the verses silently: “Give up indulgence and drunkenness, give up lust and obscenity, give up strife and rivalries.” He is instructed to “clothe yourself in Jesus Christ the Lord,” which for Augustine means to do away with his beloved “concupiscence,” or lusts, which, like any addict, he quits only to quickly slip back. In what is Book Eight of Confessions, he ends the paragraph with perhaps the greatest reported moment of spiritual awakening (some might call it the greatest non-sequitur) in confessional narrative: “

The very instant I finished that sentence [from the Epistles], light was flooding my heart with assurance, and all my shadowy reluctance evanesced.” Augustine is converted. Or, as Garry Wills suggests—in Saint Augustine’s Conversion (2004), a companion to his translation of Confessions (2006)— the already Christianized Augustine (son of a pagan father and a nunnish mother) is released, “reluctance evanesced,” from his lust. (Such liberation from sexual cravings is often construed as “religious freedom,” that is, one is “set free.” As in, Christ, free me from the grip of porn!)

In any case, voilà, Augustine is, at last, celibate—or so he claims.

What? I don’t believe him? Yes and no.

His feelings shift from seedy vice to missionary virtue—he sees his vocation now as his calling, quite literally—but this is only a small part of Confessions. A few paragraphs. In Book Eight. The passage, however, forms the high-point of the text, its most daringly argued feat. In Book Eight’s first half, Augustine prepares us for his change by outlining seven conversion stories of other pilgrims. As if to say these lost souls were initiated and, dear reader, mine is coming as well. As additives to his style, he quotes Bible verses, clothing himself in the Word as the intellectual wardrobe of his deliverance. An example: “So by experiment upon myself I was coming to realize what I had read of how ‘the desire of the flesh opposes the spirit, the desire of the spirit opposes the flesh,’ for I was experiencing both—yet I felt more identified with that in me which I now wanted than with that in me that I found wanting.” In quoting Galatians 5:17, he uses God’s cleverly juxtaposed antithesis to evidence his core conflict as well as underscores the change in himself by contrasting the clauses, which I now wanted and that I found wanting.

As Book Eight develops and he returns to the drama of his self-surrender, we feel captured by its inevitability. Augustine takes pains to deliver a work of artistic forbearance, through which he develops his argument autobiographically. He takes pains to purify his sin and self with a public document, initiating a line of what will become personal affirmations to the Christian journey, rendered truer in text (printed and inalterable) than in speech. The whole point of a lasting conversion, whether to the individual or the religion, is testimony. Augustine’s life and text merge. Indeed, Christianity (and the invention of writing) conjured this need for religious individuals to confess so as to be saved—that salvation requires a form like writing or a vessel, say, a youth group—Jesus Camp—where one is encouraged to be saved and must, therefore, testify. (Note below, Langston Hughes’s anti-conversion tale.)

How exactly does Augustine do it? He discovers that if he moves from the rhetoric of persuasion by means of analysis and logic to the rhetoric of persuasion by means of story and emotion, he has us enraptured, coming and going. I’m reminded of Lucy Grealy who when asked how she remembered the lapidary detail of her past in Autobiography of a Face said: “I didn’t remember it. I wrote it.”

Here it gets interesting. Some argue that Augustine’s conversion happens to him, comes from outside him, descends like a spell, and then only when he’s at the end of his rope. (From Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne”: “Only drowning men could see him.”) But the composed structure of Confessions belies this idea. At the climax of Book Eight, Section 25, comes this last-ditch admission, in one paragraph, of the turmoil still bewitching him (like Lucy Grealy, it feels to be in the moment of his writing it, not his remembering it)—something new in literature: a writerly performance of one’s confusion and uncertainty dramatized as prose. (Gary Wills’s translation.)

So sick was I, so tortured, as I reviled myself more bitterly than ever, churning and chafing in my chains, not broken free of them entirely, held more loosely now, but still held, as you were working in my hidden places, with your fierce pity wielding the double whip of fear and shame to prevent my relapse, to prevent the loosening and light bond that still held me from renewing its grip, to grapple me again more tightly than before. My inner self was urging me: Make it now! Make it now! With those words I was moving to a resolution, I was almost there—but was not there. Still, I did not slide all the way back, but braced myself nearby, catching my breath then, renewing the effort, I almost made it—almost—but did not; I was all but touching, all but clasping—but no, I was not there, not yet touching, not yet clasping, not ready to die to death and live to life, still held by the engrained evil in me over the untrained good in me. The moment when I would become someone different, the closer it came, the terror it struck in me—a terror, however, that no longer wrenched me back or fended me off, but left me hanging.


If there’s a more apt foundational paragraph than Confessions’ Book Eight, Section 25, that initiates spiritual authorship into Western literature, I don’t know it. Of course, this passage by no means exemplifies Augustine’s style, one regularly analytic and theological. (Augustine trained as a rhetorician and would leave it, post-conversion, to become a religious philosopher, really, a writing machine: His collected works are ten times longer than the Bible or all of Shakespeare.) Garry Wills, in Saint Augustine’s Conversion, remarks that in the paragraph I quoted his “grammar tosses about in this long, loosely constructed, and entrammeling [first] sentence. A good case of moral quandary reenacted in language.” Indeed. In my reading, the reenacted is the enacted! Make it now! Make it now!

So much to recommend here. First, that word, entrammeling: To entangle, to be so entangled that the entanglement takes over, and is binding—and isn’t that pleading engagement with now absolute zero in the spiritual struggle? Next, the writing is not Bible-enlaced; the nagging references to that book stop. The words are Augustine’s. How to tell? The use of “I.” Nine times. And, for “me” and “my,” even more uses. The sentences’ subjects and objects are the self, different than such typical injunctions, written elsewhere, as “Lord . . . how you liberated me from the chains of carnal yearning tight wrapped around me, and from the drudgery of my secular career.” Somehow carnal yearning is the not the same as I was all but touching, all but clasping. Augustine is trying to inhabit the writing itself with the raw, immediate moment he feels while fast-inking his quill. He’s learning how to loosen the chronological order of his life and occupy the moment of his deliverance—so we get it.

Suddenly, he finds the autobiographer’s self-references are as important as his God-references; he discovers his self-assertiveness via repetition, anchoring and varying the emotion in the sentence as well as loading a kind of bodily fierceness into the verbs: churn, chafe, grip, grapple, brace, wrench, fend, hang, catch, renew, clasp, touch, ingrain, and untrain, plus loosely and tightly, and the refrain, almost, not yet, almost. He activates, indeed over-activates, these differently timed verbal constructs. He quickens the pulse of the clauses, so they feel twitchy, turning him/us this way and that. As a result, he wrings the emotion long enough for the paragraph to ring the abject aloneness of his condition. Only then, by his literariness, do we take his word for it. Or the words take us. (It’s not that I agree with him, though he’s convinced me; it’s not that I’m converted, though he constructs an argument for conversion in language; it’s not that I share his spiritual experience, though he reveals his crossing over has changed him in this moment, as though he were lifting the rattlesnakes and the faith was shielding him.)

When Augustine stays the Bible quotations, the dogmatic rhetoric, and the constant explaining, and, by contrast, gives his narrator a confessional booth whose curtained privacy opens him up, we get into the thicket, namely, the felt self who contends with the recording writer.

The achievement of this passage, as brief and rare as it is, is its shift from Paul’s bonk on the head, a pilgrim ordered from on-high to receive and evangelize Christ’s will. Contrarily, in parts of Confessions, Augustine is his own motivator—he is not the lantern-led child of faith. In the grip of such prose, his will is freed or activated (like a man in A.A.: He will change), and he doesn’t just pledge himself. He becomes a rather sweaty Christian. He makes choices, commits. How? The writing pushes him to locate that which is emotionally fraught in him. The writing pushes him to linger on it, so that when it’s read, it feels rocky, unresolved, hand-to-hand combative. The writing extends the rhetorical nerve he is already versed in. The writing dramatizes the intimacy between his fleshy and his spiritual self. Despite his absolute surety that the deity’s will is directing his life, Augustine asserts a kind of self-knowledge that is equal to, or, at least, competitive with, the deity’s will.

Alas, such intrinsically autobiographical passages—when the author busts a move—are rare in the book. Other sections of pithy personal drama in Book Eight include 16-18 and 21. Here, Augustine struggles between commanding the mind to act, his will, and his inability to issue that command: “If” his desire to be chaste “were wholehearted,” he writes, “it would not have to issue the command, it would already have willed it.” And then, in sections 28-29, the “I” again takes over. His actions—“I leaped” he states five times, not the passive, “I was thrown”—become the motor of his disclosure. The action is his. It is willed. That is, until “I blubbered pitiably” in his converted state.

In much of Book Eight, the confessional intensity of his uncertainty leaks out and is given a few seconds of obsessional time on the page. At such moments, his testimony is like a soliloquy—Hamlet on indecision, Montaigne on hygiene—the passionately attentive confessor.

Because of these (few) raw moments, put down (399 CE) thirteen years after the experience (386)—my sense is that the majority of the text is more remembered than written—Augustine’s Confessions becomes our first autobiography with glimmers of the memoirist’s self-disclosure. I’ll stipulate here (and will unpack later) that the memoiristic occurs when the emotion of the prose, for writer and reader, is as high-strung as the story being told. Such is Augustine’s stumbling upon the art of life-writing, his “churning and chafing,” his tight looseness, his not-yet delays and equivocations. He sets the bar, which almost slips by without being noticed. But, still, there it is.

We need to remember that personal testimony is, by one definition, the absence of corroborating evidence because the testimony is internal. The way we judge whether an autobiographer’s inner claims are true is to study the author’s dubiety, gauge his emotional stake, the authenticity of his yearning, in what we traditionally call literary language: narrative drama, metaphoric zeal, weighed verbs. A writer must exaggerate emotional language for us to feel—not by artistic tomfoolery but by his willingness to enlarge, take possession of, and overstay the moment’s inscription. To strut and fret his hour. He must occupy the worded extensions, transmute jealousy, rage, misery, humility, closeness to God, or the sorrow of his unworthiness into a prose so physically knotted and anxious, at times, overly cooked, at times, perfectly pinged (read any long novel by Joyce Carol Oates), that it manifests similar tensions and releases in us as we read. There is no other way.


Last—to be indexed under Augustine, Postmodern—is this: A written confession allows the author to create an “I” on the page, which is not a mirror image but a separate character altogether. This paged “I” becomes, as Eric Havelock, in The Muse Learns to Write, referring to the “I” of Socrates, “the ‘personality’ who could now discover its existence” by way of writing. So, when Augustine says “I leaped,” he is using a “chosen symbol of selfhood.” In effect, he becomes a literary self—an individual created by the writer as an entity who stands in for, but cannot be, his actual self.

There are—and this has troubled the autobiography from the get-go—two-writers-in-one: the author and the narrator. Or, shall we say, there is a one divided, the author and another who masks himself as the author. This narrator, who is saved in Confessions, is less reliable than the living, breathing, speaking, actual Augustine was. All we have of the narrator is what the text tells us; we don’t know what’s left out. The author chooses to tell us certain things and, perhaps, chooses to expurgate other things, for instance, the randiest and most God-offending details of his lust. The autobiographical author is always a censor, the narrator, the censored.

The point is, this obvious editing by the author, giving the narrator only so much say, works, favorably, back and forth: the author is the creative force (the artist) behind what the narrator (the actor) says while the narrator’s tale, when it is superbly told, creates a kind of true illusion that the story is the narrator’s tale alone. Augustine’s “I” on the page is the one we judge—unless we were there, and knew him, and he confided in us, and even then, he could be faking it, we can’t know the actuality of his conversion. We can only judge how he’s written it.

The idea is essentialized by the life-writing critic, Roy Pascal, in Design and Truth in Autobiography. He emphasizes the “distinction of great autobiography,” of which there are few. The best memoirists achieve “not so much the truth of knowing as the truth of being, an integration and reunion of different aspects of the person, a coherence of the acting and the spiritual personality in the particularity of circumstances.”

Different aspects = the person who has fervently lived it and the person who has expressly got it down. The “truth of being” comes when our Jekyll and Hydes “wrestle” with each other toward “integration and reunion”—reunion is spot on—a coming together, via the writing, of what life may have torn asunder. Circumstances sever a person’s coherence; writing (art) stitches it together again. Call it a rapprochement between our actual and spiritual selves, the former, the way things are, and the latter, the author’s desire to change the way things are or atone for them. The writing, again, is the fulcrum. It’s not hard to imagine then that the spiritual self in Augustine’s being could agent the author in him. This I’ll save you narrator works on his behalf. When he is divided from himself, he reunites himself. Thus, the spiritual personality Pascal cites has an actual purpose.

As far as I know, Augustine is the first to record the fissure not only between himself and the world but also (again, to his surprise) within himself—that I-and-Thou division of author and narrator. Each person, post-Enlightenment, is “not only a subject among objects,” but, in Foucault’s phrase, “the subject and the object of his own understanding.” Though it will take an inordinate time, the ticking clock as loud as thunder, Augustine’s confessor will eventually become Camus’s stranger.


Jean-Francois Lyotard’s The Confession of Augustine, unfinished at his death in 1998, seeks to destabilize the metanarrative or Grand Model of the Confession. Lyotard argues that Augustine’s self-scourging tone and autobiographical awakening are equally required and earned by his effort. Indeed, “every single thing that he believes merits the lord’s indignation is recorded,” a “dossier for prosecution,” as it were. Throughout Confessions’ 160,000 words, Augustine has to show that God’s unceasing “violent affection” for him is reasonable. How? By showing how unworthy he is of God’s love. He must be wholly abject, the epitome of the hopeless sinner.

To be granted atonement, Augustine has to convince God, his other Thou, that his worthlessness is worthwhile. Thus, the need to show God how miserable God’s creations are. Lyotard: “Not only because these confessions make it clear to what extent his creatures have been poorly put together to be so unhappy, but also because he finds out to what perverse use writing can be turned, when it has been given to them by him.” In short, God gives us writing so we might report, scabs and lesions, how disabled we are. Multiply those scab and lesions by psychotic episodes and self-abuse and thus, one is drawn to write the whole damn thing down, the whole morbid life-story.

This shows itself in our need to love God even after unimaginable evils have scourged us: the Crusades, slavery, the Holocaust. (According to Alan Watts, Augustine must learn that “God did not give us commandments in order that we should obey them, but rather to prove that we could not.”) This is why, according to Lyotard, the page-bound confession exists. This is why Christianity is indentured servitude. Total self-expiation—backs whipped to shreds, feet and wrists nailed—is never enough. Augustine’s bondage is to be as embellished as it is celebrated.

Augustine, an artist-scholar and penitent sinner, was the first to insist in prose on his unworthiness to his maker. But there is more to this than merely lifting his shirt and showing his lashes. The revelation of sin and failure eventually careens out of control. Or better, that loss of control, when it gets fiendishly unmoored, suggests that the author is improvising a new self on the page, if you will, his improvisation a different or unexplored aspect of his person, perhaps an entirely new person. That there can be such self-improvisation in the moment the composition is engraved on the page—when we assess the life of our dilemmas and out rushes, we know not what—writers are opened to the true theme, perhaps the only theme, of autobiography, a golden nugget Lyotard coins: What I am not yet, I am.

Despite Lyotard’s tally that Augustine is “one hundred percent guilty” before God, the testimony still must embody it—to provable degree. Overall, Augustine renders his emotional turbulence with such heartfelt self-loathing that we understand the covenant of unforgiveable sin and its soul-by-soul redemption through Jesus Christ. There’s no alternative, at least, that’s how he’s diagnosed his state of grace. Such a harrowingly voiced illness in Christian authorship kowtowed writers for centuries after Augustine. No one pens a religious autobiography equal to his dissonant sincerity. Virtually no other “Christian” author attempts to draw out his or her self-liberating self until Leo Tolstoy arm-wrestles his “deconversion” story into print, in 1882, nearly fifteen hundred years later.

I have some ideas why this weird literary gap exists.

One is that all religious autobiographies, in the “Amazing Grace” model, employ a potted plot: I’m lost, I’m unworthy, but still I’m found: Glory be to Father and Son; you never abandoned me. One Christian/religious autobiography is or, at least, reads like any Christian/religious autobiography. Augustine’s is the apotheosis as well as the seed for each progeny that follows. We need no other source. Nor do we get much else when we examine a handful of medieval mystics; they form variations of, or exercises on, Augustine’s admissions, despite their exhaustive and frighteningly detailed visions, created by intense contemplation. To their souls, they tie Augustine’s anvil weight of sin. And purge themselves of said sin they apparently do. Another idea of Augustine’s singularity is that given the onerousness of Christian suffering, the bar of its self-expression is incredibly high. Any zealot must write up the personal loathing it takes to mount the confessional altar. Instead of writing their wrongs, Christianity has mandated the masses live by keeping the light salvation has brought either to themselves or to their pastors and priests.

Like all glacial movement, literary time moves slowly: Any turn from the Christian drama in life-writing would have to wait for the plays of Shakespeare, the essays of Montaigne, and the novels of Cervantes, all to large degree heretical writers. Strangely, too, it is not until 1782 that we have the first secular autobiography, The Confessions of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. And one hundred years later, Tolstoy’s post-Christian mashup, Confession, a religious-cum-spiritual-cum-philosophical polemic whose goal is to free the author from his religion by throwing out the supernatural impulses and keeping the charitable practices, a true reformation of one’s belief.