In his most recent exploration of semiotics in Augustine's Confessions, Eugene Vance argues that its story "must be read ... not only as the drama of a young man's conversion to his mother's faith, but also as the story of a no less dramatic conversion of his classical rhetorical models of reading and writing to those of the Christian Word."1 The importance of the rhetorical conversion depicted within the narrative suggests that Augustine expected readers to apply these Christian rhetorical models to the narrative itself. If this is indeed true, then our method in interpreting the first ten books of the Confessions should parallel that of Augustine's exegesis of the Genesis Creation story in its final three books. Vance, in reading the text this way, shows how Augustine's rhetorical conversion is inextricably linked to his familial relationships: the figurative understanding of Augustine's mother Monica shows that the Confessions constitutes a "verbal tomb," intended as a monument, for her.
I would like to follow Vance's lead by suggesting that Patricius's joy upon seeing his son's pubescence in the bathhouse (Conf. 2.3.6) signals that this father-son relationship is to be read figuratively as a reversal of the relationship between that most paternal and patriarchal of Old Testament figures, Abraham, and his son Isaac. Jerome Baschet, arguing that "the network of kinship plays a major, structuring role in the medieval world, in the organisation of society as well as in its representations," shows that Abraham plays a seminal role in this network.2. Abraham "is both the formidable and the pathetic father, the hero of sacrifice," he notes: formidable in that "[b]elonging to the chosen people means being a child of Abraham, a member of semen Abrahae," and pathetic in that he is willing to sacrifice his offspring according to God's command.3 We can thus apply Erich Auerbach's classic phrase about the binding of Isaac, "fraught with background," to the depiction of the Patricius-Augustine relationship.4 Because of its silent Biblical background, this depiction of kinship should be understood by reference to the preeminent element of this network of kinship, the Trinity, whose familial structure fulfills and perfects that of Abraham and Isaac. Augustine's heightened sense of the spiritual possibilities of sacrifice renders the Patricius- Augustine submission to concupiscence that much more devastating, for like the binding of Isaac, it has implications well beyond its pathetic human elements. Augustine's rhetorical conversion to God's Word has the power to reveal the divine workings behind Patricius's simple reaction to the dangerous knowledge acquired in the bathhouse.
The method by which Vance and I arrive at these readings is not only inscripted in final three books of the Confessions, but also suggested by the chronology of Augustine's writings: "Curiously, just as Augustine began to elaborate on the nature of tropes" in De doctrina christiana, Vance notes, "he suddenly interrupted his text, not to return to it until the end of his life, some thirty years later." One of the last sentences before this interruption "may therefore be conceived as a prelude to the Confessions": "Quod cum apparuerit, uerba, quibus continetur, aut a similibus rebus ducta inueniuntur aut ab aliqua uicinitate attingentibus" ("When a figurative locution appears, the words of which it is composed will be seen to be derived from similar things or related to such things by some association" [doctr. 3.25.34]):5 Similitude and association, metaphor and metonymy: these, for Augustine, are the master-tropes governing all allegoresis, by which literal meanings are converted to spiritual ones. Such a theory is doubly pertinent to the Confessions, since it deals very explicitly with the conversion of a sinful rhetorician through the tricks of his very own trade.
The master of that trade is Ambrose, whose sermon De Isaac uel anima "seduced" the young Augustine, as Pierre Courcelle has established, into a Christian rhetoric.6 But Courcelle does not explain the intellectual purpose of that historical incident: as Vance argues, Ambrose is equally important because he showed Augustine how the scriptures verbalized the young man's personal struggles. At the time, Augustine claims, the Christian content of Ambrose's sermons was distasteful to him: "verbis eius suspendebar intentus, rerum autem incuriosus et contemptor adstabam" ("I hung on his diction in rapt attention, but remained bored and contemptuous of the subject-matter" [5.13.23]).7 But this paragraph emphasizes his ignorance of these sermons' effect, suggesting that perhaps we should not accept the young rhetorician's point of view at face value.8 Thus, in arguing that "it was not Ambrose's method alone, but also the content of his discourse that affected Augustine so deeply," Vance suggests that "Ambrose's figural exegesis of the Isaac story in [this] sermon offered some very powerful medicine to the young man now bereft of a woman he still desired and under considerable pressure both to marry and to submit to his mother's faith."
In particular, Ambrose's reliance upon the sensual language of the Song of Songs to explain the figural importance of Isaac would have appealed to a someone in Augustine's situation. As Vance summarizes, "Isaac may be interpreted, respectively, both as the messiah who is the spiritual bridegroom of the human soul, and as the human soul longing for the Church as its spotless bride. Inversely, Rebecca is both the Church as bride and the desiring human soul panting for its messiah." This exegesis showed Augustine that he could displace his sexual longing with a spiritual longing for the Church, in the person of his mother:
The pertinence of this figural exegesis, with its interesting chiasmus of gender and parental roles, to Augustine's relationship with his mother and Ambrose is hard to deny. If Rebecca as bride is, for Isaac, a surrogate for his mother Sara, and if Rebecca is figuratively the church, then Augustine's conversion (and marriage) to the church of aged Monica is also a figurative union with the church as a surrogate mother, exactly as the Biblical Rebecca had been for Isaac.
It is precisely Augustine's strong sexuality that enabled the application of Ambrose's sermon to his own life: "[B]y his sermon, [Ambrose] kindled in the libidinis servus [6.15.25] who was Monica's debauched son a purified erotic love for the church, both as a virginal bride and as a surrogate mother," Vance argues. "Ambrose gives full credence to the libidinal impulses in Augustine that are quite literally crying out for transfiguration."
If only because it shows how far Augustine must turn to be united with "the church of aged Monica," the depiction of Patricius as a negative inversion of Abraham complements this figural narrative quite well. But there is no need to confine such figurative reading to the figures of Ambrose and Monica: I suggest that the sermon on Abraham, which immediately preceded that on Isaac, provides an intertext by which we understand how Patricius fits into Augustine's figurative construct. Whereas Abraham demonstrates his faithfulness through his willingness to serve God by sacrificing his whole world in the person of his son, Patricius instead displays his carnality and rejection of God. He serves the world, which is, in Ambrosian terms, carnal desire. As Vance points out, it is Augustine's carnality that enables Ambrose's profound impact: "libininis servus eram" ("I was a slave of lust" [6.15.25]). While Abraham is willing to sacrifice his beloved son upon God's command, Patricius is ready to sacrifice his son not to God but to the world, and, more explicitly, to what Augustine himself called (in his De libero arbitrio) libido.9
Ambrose's De Isaac uel anima does not concern the sacrifice of Isaac, yet as Vance asserts, this story "held special appeal at a time when persecutions of Christians ... were a thing of the past, yet fresh in memory." Moreover, the binding of Isaac was a foundational event for Christian art, liturgy, and allegoresis. Sarcophogi, for instance, frequently depicted Abraham's interrupted sacrifice in juxtaposition with the miracles of healing and reviving performed by Christ:10
The story of Isaac was prominent in the iconography of early Christianity not only because it celebrated in a poignant way a new covenant between humans and their once-vengeful God, but also because it underscored transformations of the sacrificial act upon which Christian life, as well as its liturgy, was grounded. Isaac remained, for Augustine, a model for his own priesthood, precisely because it launched a motif of sacrifice first transformed into the circumcision of the Jews and then perfected by Christ on the cross, whom Christians must now spiritually imitate.
The iconographic tradition not only juxtaposes the binding with Christ's miracles, it also resembles those miracles by transforming the Old Testament event into its fulfillment before viewers' eyes. As Vance argues, it thus literalizes precisely the terms upon which Augustine grounds his discussion of tropology: "the most prominent visual 'figures' or master-tropes linking the Old Testament Isaac's interrupted sacrifice with New Testament miracles are, precisely, metaphor and metonymy--similitudo and vicinitas, to cite Augustine's exact terms at that place where he interrupted the De doctrina christiana to begin the Confessions." While perhaps De Isaac uel anima was the more immediate catalyst for Augustine's rhetorical conversion, nevertheless the sermon on Abraham would have registered profoundly for Augustine as a commentary on that very process--exegesis--that it enacted.
Vance displays considerable skill in dealing with a number of different texts and discursive models, and his method reaps large rewards. However, I would like to add an important point to his analysis: Augustine, or the makers of the sarcophagi, need have gone no further than the Pauline exegesis of Genesis 22 to have found a basis for a spiritualized notion of similitudo. Augustine himself would later cite these passages to proove that Isaac would be restored to him:
Sic intellectum est et in epistula ad Hebraeos, et sic expositum. "Fide," inquit, "praecessit Abraham Isaac temptatus et unicum obtulit, qui promissiones suscepit, ad quem dictum est: In Isaac uocabitur tibi semen, cogitans quia et es mortuis suscitare potest Deus." Proinde addidit: "Pro hoc etiam eum et in similitudinem adduxit;" cuius similitudinem, nisi illius unde dicit apostolus: "Qui proprio filio non pepercit, sed pro nobis omnibus tradidit eum?"
(It is in this way the passage in the Epistle to the Hebrews is also to be understood and explained. "By faith," he says, "Abraham overcame, when tempted about Isaac: and he who had received the promise offered up his only son, to whom it was said, In Isaac shall thy seed by called: thinking that God was able to raise him up, even from the dead;" therefore he has added, "from whence also he received him in a similitude." In whose similitude but His of whom the apostle says, "He that spared not His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all?" [civ. 16.32])11
Isaac does not just prefigure Christ; he is, literally, a similitudo. The binding of Isaac, even without the benefit of Paul's term, is easily given to Christian figurative interpretation. That Augustine bases his reading on the term similitudo, therefore, demonstrates the centrality of this notion to his exegesis. Moreover, if Augustine's doctrines concerning tropes do indeed serve as a prelude to the Confessions, as Vance suggests, then the bishop could easily have taken the exegesis of this particular story as an inspiration for his own new project. Sacrifice and bonds of family, after all, are crucial in both this foundational text of allegoresis and his own life. Genesis 22 might thus have prompted Augustine to consider how his own life could be profitably presented in figural terms.
Despite having established this crucial relationship between the interrupted sacrifice and the Confessions, Vance abandons this story since it does not feature the sexual overtones so important to both Augustine's narrative and his rhetorical education. In suggesting why the content of De Isaac uel anima would have attracted Augustine, Vance distinguishes the "very different thrust" of its sexual themes from that of the previous sermon. But while the explicit thrust of the stories is indeed different--as Ambrose's dependence on the Song of Songs in his allegoresis of the De Isaac suggests--Augustine's explanation of libidinous reading in De doctrina christiana shows that in Genesis 22, as well, Augustine might well have seen a lesson about concupiscence. In granting many of his narrative's actors and sites--his parents, Ambrose, and the bathhouse--figural as well as literal meanings, Augustine weaves the motif of sacrifice into his own story.
Because Genesis 22 exemplifies Old Testament scriptural prefiguration of the Christ event, Augustine would easily have understood Paul's exegesis of that text as a prime model for his own practice. Its opposite is quite carefully termed "carnal" interpretation, for in De doctrina christiana Augustine uses fornification as an analogy for sinful interpretation of God's Word. He considers those who, by reading scriptures literally, find support for their sinful ways: "Quod nisi dominante cupiditate et ipsarum quoque scripturarum, quibus euertenda est, satellitium quaerente, non faciet" ("Unless he is dominated by cupidity and seeks protection for it in the very Scriptures by means of which it is to be overthrown, no one will do this" [3.18.26]). Men who think they find lechery in the scriptures are acting out the concupiscence in their own moral practices:
Nam si multis uxoribus caste uti quisquam pro tempore potuit, potest alius una libidinose. Magis enim probo multarum fecunditate utentem propter aliud, quam unius carne fruentem propter ipsam. Ibi enim quaeritur utilitas temporum opportunitatibus congrua, hic satiatur cupiditas temporalibus uoluptatibus implicata inferiorisque gradus ad deum sunt, quibus secundum ueniam concedit apostolus carnalem cum singulis coniugibus consuetudinem propter intemperantiam eorum, quam illi, qui plures singuli cum haberent, sicut sapiens in cibo et potu nonnisi salutem corporis, sic in concubitu nonnisi procreationem filiorum intuebantur.
(For if because of the times a man could then use many wives chastely, a man may nevertheless use one wife libidinously. I commend more a man who uses the fecundity of many wives for a disinterested purpose than a man enjoying the flesh of one wife for itself. In the first instance a utility congruous with the circumstances of the time is sought; in the second a cupidity implicated in temporal delights is satiated. They are on a lower step toward God to whom the Apostle "by indulgence" allowed carnal commerce with one wife because of intemperance than those who, although they had several wives, sought in intercourse with them only the procreation of children in the same way that a wise man seeks only nourishment in food and drink. [3.18.27])
Augustine makes it explicit that those who not only enjoy the flesh of a wife, but also believe that "men of old" behaved this way, are caught in the snares of the libido: "et quod ipsi laqueis libidinis obstricti uel in una non faciunt, nullo modo in multis fieri posse arbitrantur" ("And since they who are caught in snares of libido do not behave in this way with one wife, they think it could not be done in any way with many" [3.19.28]). This example displays the fundamental distinction with which Augustine began his treatise: "Frui est enim amore inhaerere alicui rei propter se ipsam. Vti autem, quod in usum uenerit, ad id, quod amas obtinendum referre, si tamen amandum est" ("To enjoy something is to cling to it with love for its own sake. To use something, however, is to employ it in obtaining that which you love, provided that it is worthy of love" [1.4.4]). The persons of the Trinity are the only things to be enjoyed (1.5.5): wives, therefore, should be used only for procreation, not for sexual enjoyment. Likewise, and crucial to the theory expounded in De doctrina christiana, words are properly used to obtain the knowledge of the Trinity.
This theory might not seem pertinent to the binding of Isaac: Paul's exegesis, after all, epitomizes precisely the opposite of libidinous interpretation. But the story's focus on procreation brings it closer to the sexual issues both invoked in De doctrina christiana and dramatized in the Bible's following chapters on Isaac's marriage to Rebecca.12 Augustine could have found in Genesis 22 a lesson easily applied to the temptation of lechery, for it is Abraham's reward for his faithfulness that endues the Isaac-Rebecca union with such significance:
Et uocauit angelus Domini Abraham secundo de caelo dicens: Per me ipsum iuraui, dicit Dominus, propter quod fecisti uerbum hoc et non pepercisti filio tuo delicto propter me, nisi benedicens benedicam te, et multiplicans multiplicabo semen tuum tamquam stellas caeli et tamquam harenam, quae iuxta labium maris. Et hereditate possidebit semen tuum ciuitates aduersariorum, et benedicentur in semine tuo omnes gentes terrae, quia obaudisti uocem meam.
("And the Angel of the Lord called unto Abraham from heaven the second time, saying, By myself have I sworn, saith the Lord; because thou hast done this thing, and hast not spared thy beloved son for my sake; that in blessing I will bless thee, and in multiplying I will multiply thy seed as the stars of heaven, and as the sand which is upon the seashore; and thy seed shall possess by inheritance the cities of the adversaries: and in thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed because thou hast obeyed my voice" [Gen. 22:16-18; civ. 16.32])13
It is not difficult to see how the blessing of Abraham's seend would, in Vance's words, offer "some very powerful medicine" to the young Augustine as he wrestled with his desire for his concubine, his mother's wish that he marry, and her pressure on him to accept Christianity. Although it is true that, as Vance shows, the Isaac story, because of its radical revision of the ethical and moral priorities of fourth- century spirituality, offers a "very different thrust" from that of Abraham, nevertheless the two narratives complement each other in their theme of the blessing of offspring.
Although Augustine does not describe the binding of Isaac as a sacrifice to libido, in a striking passage in a sermon on Christ's genealogy he shows that he did indeed extend the notion of filial sacrifice to the sexual realm. Like De doctrina christiana, this sermon stresses that scriptural marriages were intended for procreation, but the difference between the two is crucial. The sermon adds the element of parental responsibility: "Hinc intelligite, fratres mei, quid senserit Scriptura de illis parentibus nostris, qui sic erant conjugati, ut solam prolem de conjugibus quaererent" ("Hence, my brethren, understand the sense of Scripture concerning those our ancient fathers, whose sole design in their marriage was to have children by their wives"). Even those who had many wives treated them with honor, he insists, and our marriage contracts stress the same purpose: "recitantur tabulae, et recitantur in conspectu omnium attestantium, et recitatur, 'liberorum procreandorum causa,' et vocantur tabulae matrimoniales. nisi ad hoc dentur, ad hoc accipiantur uxores, quis sana fronte dat filiam suam libidini alienae?" ("The contract is read, read in the presence of all the attesting witnesses; and an express clause is there that they marry 'for the procreation of children;' and this is called the marriage contract. If it was not for this that wives were given and taken to wife, what father could without blushing give up his daughter to the lust of any man?" [s. 51.13.22]).14 In this sermon Augustine assumes that parents have the capacity to give away their daughters, and the obligation to do so wisely.15 Perhaps the story of Lot's offer of his virgin daughters to the men of Sodom underlies Augustine's horror: "'sunt mihi duae filiae quae nondum nouerunt uiros; producam illas ad uos, utimini illis quomodo placuerit uobis; tantum in uiros istos ne faciatis iniquum'" ("'I have two daughters who as yet have not known man: I will bring them out to you, and abuse you them as it shall please you, so that you do no evil to these men" [Gen. 19:8; qu. hept. 1.42]).16
If daughters are gifts to husbands--or, in some instances, sacrifices to abusive men (as was Monica)--what, then, is the role of sons? They are not given in marriage, for they are to find a wife. Nevertheless, sons can be given as well, as the Abraham story demonstrates: Isaac is an offering, holocaustum, to God (Gen. 22:2). More important, his role as an offering prefigures the sacrifice of Christ, as Augustine remarks in continuing his explanation of the term similitudo: "Propterea et Isaac, sicut Dominus crucem suam, ita sibi ligna ad uictimae locum, quibus fuerat et inponendus, ipse portauit" ("And on this account Isaac also himself carried to the place of sacrifice the wood on which he was to be offered up, just as the Lord Himself carried His own cross" [civ. 16.32]). The clearest statement that the Son is a gift, of course, is John's famous verse: "sic enim dilexit Deus mundum ut Filium suum unigenitum daret" ("For God so loved the world, as to give his only begotten Son" [John 3:16]).17 Finally, the name of Augustine's son, "Adeodatus," indicates his recognition that his son is a gift from God. Daughters and sons would seem, therefore, to occupy very different roles in the economy of early Christian families and belief systems. While daughters are gifts to future husbands in the everyday world, sons are gifts only when born, not as sacrifices but instead as signs of God's grace. Only in the symbolic worlds of the scriptures and Christian cosmology can sons be given as sacrifices; and even there, unlike their sisters, sons have agency, or at least the virtue of participating willfully in these sacrifices, as Isaac's and Christ's willing burdens testify.
In the Confessions, Augustine the author dismantles, perhaps unconsciously, this hierarchy of the holy sacrifices of sons over the matrimonial gifts of daughters. He does so, I suggest, by depicting the young Augustine's relationship with his father Patricius in the context of both of the sacrificial narratives outlined above: this father-son relationship negatively reflects the spiritual nature of Abraham's and Isaac's, for Augustine, like the daughter in sermon 51, is sacrificed on the altar not of the Lord, but of libido. But while Augustine occupies the feminine slot in this sacrifice, nevertheless he retains that important element of agency: for the purpose of the first nine books of the Confessions, after all, is to show that the protagonist's errors are his own, and that his salvation was always within his own reach. Like Isaac and Jesus, Augustine is a willing participant in his sacrifice. He writes that he gave himself to lechery: "ubi eram? et quam longe exulabam a deliciis domus tuae anno illo sexto decimo aetatis carnis meae, cum accepit in me sceptrum (et totas manus ei dedi) vesania libidinis, licentiosae per dedecus humanum, inlicitae autem per leges tuas?" ("Where was I in the sixteenth year of my flesh? Far away in exile from the pleasures of your house. Sensual folly assumed domination over me, and I game myself totally to it in acts allowed by shameful humanity but under your laws illicit" [2.2.4]). Indeed, it is this lustfulness that keeps him from converting even after he has intellectually accepted Christianity.
Augustine's program of allusions to the prodigal son, a program in which the passage just quoted participates, illuminates both Patricius's role in Augustine's figurative construct and the notion of the son as a sacrifice. As a contemporary prodigal son, the young Augustine is both imprisoned to licentiousness and promised an eventual joyful return to the father.18 It is within this program of allusions that Patricius is depicted as a negative father. James J. O'Donnell notes that the allegorical reading of this story, in which the departure from home is equated with original sin, adds pressure to the real father-son relationship of the Confessions:
By the flexibility of that allegorical reading, the story then becomes the story of Augustine himself, a man whose relationship with his own father was difficult and strained, apparently unmarked by any final reconciliation. When Augustine is baptized (which on the theological level represents a return of the prodigal to the paternal God), he is at the same time being reconciled with Patricius--or at least with Patricius' own final disposition to accept baptism. 19
If Augustine is the prodigal son, then his father has a particularly important role, for which he is perhaps not very well qualified. Had Augustine given the story an innovative reading, he could have focused on those attributes of the Lucan father that parallel those of Patricius: "The story itself seems to invite reflection on the prodigality of the father as much as of the son," O'Donnell points out, "but this reading seems alien to the interpretation of Augustine and his time...."20 I suggest that, because this story is not conducive to his secondary project of dramatizing his father's failures, Augustine interweaves allusions to the binding of Isaac, a story against which he can easily reveal these failures, among those to the prodigal son. Augustine was thinking of both sons, prodigal and submissive, in tandem when writing the Confessions: the passage that inititiates the Augustine/prodigal son parallels, in fact, depends not only upon the Biblical story, but also upon Ambrose's sermon on Isaac, which does not itself refer to the prodigal son. 21
The construction of the Patricius-Augustine relationship, therefore, reverses that of the exemplary Abraham-Isaac relationship: the opposite depiction of such crucial themes as paternal duties, serving the Lord, and the promise of posterity suggests that the bathhouse episode can be understood as a carnal revision of Abrahm's spiritual sacrifice. The similarities are strong enough to suggest that perhaps Patricius's joy upon his son's pubescence amounts to a willingness to sacrifice his son to concupiscence, reversing Abraham's sacred faithfulness. Patricius falls under heavy censure for his failure to keep his son on the path of righteousness:
Sed ubi sexto illo et decimo anno, interposito otio ex necessitate domestica, feriatus ab omni schola cum parentibus esse coepi, excesserunt caput meum vepres libidinum, et nulla erat eradicans manus. quin immo ubi me ille pater in balneis vidit pubescentem et inquieta indutum adulescentia, quasi iam ex hoc in nepotes gestiret, gaudens matri indicavit, gaudens vinulentia in qua te iste mundus oblitus est creatorem suum et creaturam tuam pro te amavit, de vino invisibili perversae atque inclinatae in ima voluntatis suae.
(In my sixteenth year idleness interposed because of my family's lack of funds. I was on holiday from all schooling and lived with my parents. The thorns of lust rose above my head, and there was no hand to root them out. Indeed, when at the bathhouse my father saw that I was showing signs of virility and the stirrings of adolescence, he was overjoyed to suppose that he would now be having grandchildren, and told my mother so. His delight was that of the intoxication which makes the world oblivious of you, its Creator, and to love your creation instead of you. He was drunk with the invisible wine of his perverse will directed downwards to inferior things. [2.3.6])
Patricius's failure is first marked by an absence--"nulla erat eradicans manus"--but it then becomes much more grievous in that he actively celebrates his son's carnal development. The contrast with Abraham's high paternal standards could hardly be starker: while Abraham unquestioningly follows God's seemingly horrible command, Patricius, drunkenly loving God's creation, remains oblivious of God. By invoking the binding of Isaac, Augustine can reflect on the prodigality of the father: Leo Charles Ferrari points out that "Augustine's interpretation of this distant country ["peregre ... in regionem longinquam," Lk. 15.13] is that it signifies forgetfulness of God: 'regio longinqua oblivio Dei est.'"22 Both Augustine, as the prodigal son, and Patricius, as the negative Abraham who is forgetful of God, inhabit distant regions whose figurative signification is opposite to that of the distant mountain to which the Lord sent Abraham.
Patricius's joy in the promise of carnal posterity most strikingly contrasts with the blessing of Abraham's seed as a reward for his faithfulness. Abraham's spiritual reward signals his spiritual worthiness; Patricius's delight, however, not only reveals his carnality, but also his presumption: in contrast with Abraham, he rejoices before any display of worthiness, and in spite of his unfaithfulness. This desire for grandchildren is especially perverse when we remember that Augustine condemns those marriages intended only for sexual pleasure rather than procreation. At least such marriages might literally die out, leaving no progeny behind; Patricius, however, celebrates the potential for offspring precisely because now concupiscence might now engender even more concupiscence. This celebration of generative carnality amounts to a perverse parody of the blessing of Abraham's seed. In De civitate dei, Augustine remarks upon the body's proper role as a sacrifice: "Corpus etiam nostrum cum temperantia castigamus, si hoc, quem ad modum debemus, propter Deum facimus, ut non exhibeamus membra nostra arma iniquitatis peccato, sed arma iustitae Deo, sacrificium est" ("Our body, too, is a sacrifice when we chasten it by temperance, if we do so as we ought, for God's sake, that we may not yield our members instruments of unrighteousness unto sin, but instruments of righteousness unto God" [civ. 10.6]). Patricius, however, uses his son's body for precisely the opposite purpose: to sacrifice to the false idol intemperance. The bathhouse episode depicts Patricius and Augustine sinning both bodily, through their celebration of the flesh, and rhetorically, through their dramatization and concretization of interpretive sin as figured in De doctrina christiana.
Before Ambrose's arrival, Monica is complicit in, if anxious about, the behavior of her son and husband. While she knows that Patricius's joy is misguided--"illa exilivit pia trepidatione ac tremore" ("She shook with a pious trepidation and a holy fear" [2.3.6])-- she nevertheless does not fulfill her role as well as she might have: "sicut monuit me pudicitiam, ita curavit quod de me a viro suo audierat, iamque pestilentiosum et in posterum periculosum sentiebat cohercere termino coniugalis affectus, si resecari ad vivum non poterat" ("Although she had warned me to guard my virginity, she did not seriously pay heed to what her husband had told her about me, and which she felt to hold danger for the future: for she did not seek to restrain my sexual drive within the limit of the marriage bond, if it could not be cut back to the quick" [2.3.8]). Monica's family is slipping away from her guidance--their sinfulness has even infected her judgment--and Augustine's rhetorical practice reflects his bodily carnality: as he writes about his subsequent encounter with the Bible, "tumor enim meus refugiebat modum eius et acies mea non penetrabat interiora eius" ("My inflated conceit shunned the Bible's restraint, and my gaze never penetrated to its inwardness" [3.5.9]). This state of spiritual flux prepares the reader for the interconnected reconfigurations of both Augustine's family and his rhetorical practices that effect his escape from the bonds of concupiscence on both fronts. These changes enable the bishop to construct what Vance identifies as the "verbal tomb" for his mother.
Ambrose's appearance, as we have seen, is the catalyst for these reconfigurations. He thus fills an important role in Augustine's depiction of his family: Vance remarks: "On an obvious level, his new teacher displayed a specifically paternal charity: 'that man of God received me in a fatherly fashion' [paterne, 5.13.23], and this demeanor made of Ambrose a welcome antitype both of the paterfamilial Patricius and of those grammarians who had dispensed the justice of a wrathful God in their classroom beatings." Ambrose can also serve as husband to Monica:
Given that Monica had never enjoyed her conjugal duties and had considered marriage as the legal slavery of wives to their husbands, the surge of spiritual love that Monica felt for Ambrose--this 'angel' sent by the very God she had always yearned to wed--was the perfect opposite of her carnal tribulations with the violent and unfaithful Patricius.
Vance locates this new familial structure within the development of Augustine's thought:
[T]he burgeoning triangle of Ambrose, Monica and Augustine amounted to a radical recasting of the nuclear family as a spiritual bond from which all of the traumas of real experience were now expunged. This is a waypoint, perhaps, toward Augustine's theology of the Trinity, but this latter will demand an expulsion of woman (in the person of Mary) from the bond of the Father and Son, and the inclusion of the yet-to-be-defined Holy Spirit.23
In this reconfiguration, the real-life traumas are expunged, so that the crisis that arose in the bathhouse, amounting to a real sacrifice by a real father, becomes in the narrative a negative prefiguration of Augustine's victory over lustfulness upon his baptism. The real-life sacrifice to which daughters are subject, therefore, is transformed into that figural plane of Christian cosmology occupied by the sacrifices of Isaac and Christ. The expulsion of woman from the Trinity thus parallels the expulson of daughters from Augustine's depiction of sacrifice.
Given that, as Vance has shown, Augustine's use of similitude and association in the Confessions raises the text's events to the figural plane, what role does the negative bathhouse scene play in Augustine's spiritual development? I suggest that the location of the episode in the bathhouse prefigures the miraculous transformation of earthly water into three spiritual substances: wine, with the connotation of the eucharist; the Word of God, as represented by Ambrose's sermons; and baptism, so important in Book 9, in which the bathhouse appears again. The juxtaposition of water and wine in the sacrificial episode--Patricius is "gaudens vinulentia" and "de vino invisibili perversae atque inclinatae in ima voluntatis suae"--suggests a parody of Jesus' first miracle at the wedding at Cana. The water of the bathhouse turns into the wine of Patricius's carnal excitement. Moreover, wine, like sex, can be used for the glory of God (as in the sacrament of the eucharist), but its misuse constitutes a grave sin. This is why Augustine defends Monica against charges of drunkenness for wishing to bring cakes and wine to the memorial shrines of the saints in Milan: "pietatem ibi quaerebat," he explains, "non voluptatem" ("Her quest was for devotion, not pleasure" [6.2.2]); and also why, in his "verbal tomb" for her, he emphasizes Monica's victory over alcoholism (9.8.18). Just as Patricius perverts the notion of procreation, so too does he act with the perverse will of intoxication.
Augustine also uses water as a figure for the Word of God in Confessions 6.1.1, when Monica crosses the ocean to Milan. Augustine's revision of Genesis 22-- so crucial to his conception of similitudo--to occur in a bathhouse helps to explain his later use of aquatic imagery to consider tropological issues. The paragraph concerning Monica's arrival also offers the most explicit evidence that Ambrose, by means of his divine words, has taken over Patricius's role. This passage thus carries a palinodic force, for the errors of the bathhouse scene are recalled and corrected here. The negative associations of water appear when Augustine writes, "et veneram in profundum maris, et diffidebam et desperabam de inventione veri" ("I had come into the depth of the sea. I had no confidence, and had lost hope that truth could be found" [6.1.1]). His mother's faith, however, could overcome such depths: "nam et per marina discrimina ipsos nautas consolabatur, a quibus rudes abyssi viatores, cum perturbantur, consolari solent, pollicens eis perventionem cum salute, quia hoc ei tu per visum pollicitus eras" ("During a hazardous voyage she encouraged the crew themselves who are accustomed to offering consolation to frightened travellers with no experience of the deep sea. She promised them a safe arrival, for in a vision you had promised this to her" [6.1.1]). Having arrived in Milan, Monica remains hopeful about her son's spiritual prognosis, and she relies on Ambrose's words to buoy her faith: "tibi autem, fons misericordiarum, preces et lacrimas densiores, ut accelerares adiutorium tuum et inluminares tenebras meas, et studiosius ad ecclesiam currere et in Ambrosii ora suspendi, ad fontem salientis aquae in vitam aeternam" ("To you, fount of mercies, she redoubled her petitions and tears, begging that you would hasten your help and lighten my darknesses. She would zealously run to the Church to hang on Ambrose's lips, to the fount of water bubbling up to eternal life" [6.1.1]). In retrospect, we can more fully see Patricius's actions as a perversion: he runs, rejoicing in his news, from the bathhouse to Monica, but in the later palinodic episode it is Monica who runs ad fontem salientis aquae of Ambrose's sermons. At issue in both episodes are words and life: Patricius's carnal words celebrate the barren life of licentiousness, whereas Ambrose's spiritual words prompt Monica's prayers for her son's resurrection from his sickness. The emphasis on Ambrose's sermons shows once again that spiritual interpretation is crucial to avoiding the dangers of concupiscence. Patricius should have seen his son's pubescence as an opportunity to lead him on the right path, and we readers should understand these events in a figural context.
Both the figurative and literal levels of Augustine's narrative culminate in his most important sacrifice in the text, the sacrifice of himself in the sacrament of baptism. Baptism, Augustine believed, signals the Christian's participation in the fulfillment of the Old Testament figurae, for it supersedes the sign of faith instituted by Abraham: "circumcisio quippe fuit illius temporis sacramentum, quod praefigurabat nostri temporis baptismum" ("of course circumcision was the sacrament of that time, which prefigured the baptism of our time" [nat. et or. an. 2.11.15]).24 Likewise, the dominance of baptism in Book 9 of the Confessions signals that Augustine's conversions, to both the rhetorical models of the Christian Word and to his mother's faith, are complete. For even though the narrative of Monica's arrival in Milan, and of her encounter with Ambrose, corrects the sacrifice depicted in the bathhouse scene, it nevertheless does not represent a compete redemption of that episode. Had Patricius fully succeeded in offering his son to licentiousness, both he and Augustine would have been spiritually dead. The baptisms of both of them, as well as Augustine's friends and son, in Book 9 represent their deaths to the body: it is therefore no coincidence that so many important figures, including both Monica and Patricius, die in this book. For Augustine understands this sacrament as the death of the self and a sacrifice to God: "Vnde ipse homo Dei nomine consecratus et Deo uotus, in quantum mundo moritur ut Deo uiuat, sacrificium est" ("Thus man himself, consecrated in the name of God, and vowed to God, is a sacrifice in so far as he dies to the world that he may live to God" [civ. 10.6]). In the largest sense, therefore, any non-Christian death can be seen as a negative figure of Christian baptism, or as a sacrifice to a false idol. In a Christian narrative of conversion, such deaths can be effectively dramatized by depicting the unfulfilled promise of baptism. The bathhouse episode presents an obvious example: its waters, figuratively interpreted, remind the reader that the path to God leads to baptism. The waters should indeed prompt a sacrifice--but one signaled by baptism, not by the celebration of libido.
The figural relationship between the waters of the bathhouse and those of baptism is further suggested by the re-appearance of the baths when Augustine mourns Monica's death. This episode begins at her funeral with the ritual re-enactment of Christ's sacrifice, the fulfillment of the binding of Isaac, which, as Vance has reminded us, "underscored transformations of the sacrificial act upon which Christian life, as well as its liturgy, was grounded." This liturgy provides a backdrop for Augustine's discussion of his struggle with tears: "Cum ecce corpus elatum est, imus, redimus sine lacrimis. nam neque in eis precibus quas tibi fudimus, cum offerretur pro ea sacrificium pretii nostri iam iuxta sepulchrum, posito cadavere priusquam deponeretur, sicut illic fieri solet, nec in eis ergo precibus flevi ..." ("When her body was carried out, we went and returned without a tear. Even during those prayers which we pured out to you when the sacrifice of our redemption was offered for her, when her corpse was placed beside the tomb prior to burial, as was the custom there, not even at those prayers did I weep" [9.12.32]). As an adolescent, Augustine had been the victim of a sacrifice to libidinousness that had marked his distance from his mother's faith; now, he has been united with both his mother and her faith. In baptism, he has died so that his spirit might live; in the so-called "vision at Ostia" he has achieved communion with Monica; and at her funeral he offers sacrificium pretii nostri. His family and faith are complete, as signified through the sacraments of baptism and eucharist, through which he can sacrifice himself to God.
Augustine realizes that his sacrifice to libidinousness has been redeemed in his acceptance of the sacraments. Why, then, does he cry? He knows that Monica is in the city of God and that he will again see her there. His sadness and tears belie the joy that he should be feeling. These struggles lead him to the bathhouse: "visum etiam mihi est ut irem lavatum, quod audieram inde balneis nomen inditum quia graeci balanion dixerint, quod anxietatem pellat ex animo" ("I decided to go and take a bath, because I had heard that baths, for which the Greeks say balaneion, get their name from throwing anxiety out of the mind" [9.12.32]). In effect, Augustine is attempting a baptism of the body, a cure for his ailment through literal cleansing. But the efficacy of the baptismal sacrament renders this literal attempt moot. Moreover, this return to the bathhouse raises the textual ghost, at least, of Patricius and his carnal sacrifice, for it would be difficult for Augustine's readers to forget the horror of the first bathhouse scene. It is therefore appropriate that his spiritual father's words--which, we will remember, Augustine has already likened to a fontem salientis aquae--signal his recovery: "ut eram in lecto meo solus, recordatus sum veridicos versus Ambrosii tui" ("Alone upon my bed I remembered the very true verses of your Ambrose" [9.12.32]). Whereas Patricius displays a drunken idolotry that serves God's creation, Ambrose's recognition of the Creator can root out Augustine's most recent sin: "deus, creator omnium / polique rector vestiens" ("Creator of all things. / You rule the heavens" [9.12.32]). With this assurance, Augustine can finally offer the sacrifice of spiritual tears for those who are not baptized: "Ego autem, iam sanato corde ab illo vulnere in quo poterat redargui carnalis affectus, fundo tibi, deus noster, pro illa famula tua longe aliud lacrimarum genus, quod manat de concusso spiritu consideratione periculorum omnis animae quae in Adam moritur" ("My heart is healed of that wound; I could be reproached for yielding to that emotion of physical kinship. But now, on behalf of your maidservant, I pour out to you, our God, another kind of tears. They flow from a spirit struck hard by considering the perils threatening every soul that dies in Adam" [9.13.34]). Augustine prays that his spiritual tears might effect the baptism of those souls outside the faith, and continues by offering petitions for his mother's sins (9.13.35). Having conquered his habit of earthly tears, he has finally learned how to drink from the fountain of the Creator, to sacrifice his former carnal self to the will of God.
The Confessions not only records, but also enacts spiritual sacrifice. Augustine opens books 4, 5, 8, and 9 with the idea of sacrifice. 25 In Book 4 he offers himself: "da mihi ... immolare tibi hostiam iubilationis" ("Allow me ... to sacrifice to you a victim of jubilation" [4.1.1]); in Book 5, his confessions themselves: "Accipe sacrificium confessionum mearum" ("Accept the sacrifice of my confessions" [5.1.1]). Finally, he recalls Psalm 115: 17 in the proems of both Books 8 and 9. Here is the opening to the book of baptisms: "O domine, ego servus tuus, ego servus tuus et filius ancillae tuae: dirupisti vincula mea, tibi sacrificabo hostiam laudis" ("O Lord, I am your servant, I am your servant and the son of your handmaid. You have snapped my chains. I will sacrifice to you the offering of praise" [9.1.1]).26 If Isaac can literally be a similitude, then by extension Augustine's text can literally be a sacrifice, which indeed is one of the bishop's fundamental understandings of the term "confession." This, finally, explains why the Isaac story is so crucial to the idea of allegoresis: for a sacrifice is properly a sign that points to the charity of both the one sacrificing and God. Augustine writes: "Sacrificium ergo visibile invisibilis sacrificii sacramentum, id est sacrum signum est.... Proinde verum sacrificium est omne opus quo agitur ut sancta societate inhaereamus deo, relatum scilicet ad illum finem boni quo veraciter beati esse possimus" ("A sacrifice, therefore, is the visible sacrament or sacred sign of an invisible sacrifice....Thus a true sacrifice is every work which is done that we may be united to God in holy fellowship, and which has a reference to that supreme good and end in which alone we can be truly blessed" [civ. 10.5, 6]). Particular scenes like the ones concerning the bathhouse, as well as the structure of the narrative, achieve their fullest meanings when readers find signification beyond the story of a young man's conversions. Augustine would hope that the understanding of Patricius's joy in the bathhouse as both a sacrifice to libido and as a parodic inversion of the Isaac story constitutes participation in the sacrifices of praise and baptism. This is where the reader's agency should become congruent with not only Augustine's, but also even Isaac's and Christ's. The narrative of the Confessions depicts the protagonist's willing sacrifice of himself to God, which rectifies his father's earlier sacrifice to licentiousness. Equally important, however, is the author's act of sacrifice in the creation of a work--a visible, sacred sign--so that his readers might unite in holy fellowship with God. This is perhaps the sacrifice Augustine most ardently sought after in composing the Confessions, for the act of making signs of praise constitutes a sacrifice that will, he hoped, remain for eternity, along with the blessed seed of Abraham.
- Eugene Vance, "Grave Art: Early Christian Tombs and Figures of Mourning in Augustine's Confessions," presented to the Augustine Seminar at the University of Pennsylvania, James J. O'Donnell, Director, January 31, 1994. For two of Vance's other articles on Augustine's semiotics, see "Augustine's Confessionsand the Poetics of the Law," and "Saint Augustine: Language as Temporality," in Mervelous Signals: Poetics and Sign Theory in the Middle Ages (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1986), 1-33 and 34-50, respectively; further references are in the former essay, 3n. Back
- Jerome Baschet, "Medieval Abraham: Between Fleshly Patriarch and Divine Father," MLN 108 (1993): 738. Back
- Baschet, 743. Back
- Erich Auerbach, "Odysseus' Scar," in Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature, trans. Willard R. Trask (1946; Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1953), 12. Back
- Quotations are from de doctrina christiana, ed. Joseph Martin, Corpus Christianorum, Series Latina (hereafter CCSL) 32 (Turnhout: Brepols, 1962), and will hereafter be cited in the text; translations are from On Christian Doctrine, trans. D. W. Robertson, Jr., The Library of Liberal Arts (Indianapolis: Bobbs- Merrill, 1958). Back
- Pierre Courcelle, Recherches sur les Confessions de saint Augustin (1950; 2nd ed. Paris: E. de Boccard, 1968), 124-132. Back
- Quotations are from Augustine, Confessions, ed. James J. O'Donnell, 3 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon, 1992), and will be cited in the text; citations from O'Donnell's critical apparatus will appear by volume and page number. English translations are from Henry Chadwick's translation (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991); I have occasionally silently modified some of his punctuation. Back
- "ad eum autem ducebar abs te nesciens, ut per eum ad te sciens ducerer" ("I was led to him by you, unaware that through him, in full awareness, I might be led to you"); "sed longe est a peccatoribus salus, qualis ego tunc aderam, et tamen propinquabam sensim et nesciens" ("From sinners such as I was at that time, salvation is far distant. Nevertheless, gradually, though I did not realize it, I was drawing closer") (5.13.23). In the next paragraph, Augustine again claims that the sermons' Christian content was beginning to influence him: "et dum cor aperirem ad excipiendum quam diserte diceret, pariter intrabat et quam vere diceret, gradatim quidem" ("While I opened my heart in noting the eloquence with which he spoke, there also entered no less the truth which he affirmed, though only gradually" 5.14.24). Back
- See Augustine, de libero arbitrio, ed. W. M. Green, CCSL 29 (Turnhout: Brepols, 1970), esp. 188.8.131.52 and 184.108.40.206. Back
- Vance's talk was accompanied by slides of such sarcophogi. Back
- In this text Augustine quotes Hebrews 11:17-19 and Romans 8:32. Quotations are from de civitate dei, ed. Bernard Dombart and Alphonse Kalb, CCSL 47-48 (Turnhout: Brepols, 1955), hereafter cited as civ. in my text. Translations are from The City of God, trans. Marcus Dods (New York: Modern Library, 1950). Back
- At least one author has found an application of the story's structure to sexual treachery: in Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston likens the proposed marriage of the protagonist Janie to the sacrifice of Isaac. When Janie asks, "Who Ah'm goin' tuh marry off-hand lak dat?", her grandmother Nanny responds: "De Lawd will provide" (1937; rpt. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1978), 27. Back
- Except where noted, quotations of the Bible are from Augustine's own citations, which often differ drastically from those of the Vulgate. I therefore cite both Biblical text and the text of Augustine's in which it is found. On the problems of citing scriptural texts in Augustinian scholarship, see O'Donnell, I: lxix-lxxi. Back
- Augustine, sermon 51, ed. Migne, Patrologiae Latinae, vol. 38, col. 345. Part of this is also quoted in O'Donnell, III: 119, as a note to Augustine's phrase "tabulas quae matrimoniales vocantur" (9.9.19). I adopt O'Donnell's punctuation for those sentences he cites. Back
- For an anthropological survey of women's role as gifts, see Gayle Rubin, "The Traffic in Women: Notes on the 'Political Economy' of Sex," in Toward an Anthropology of Women, ed. Rayna R. Reiter (New York: Monthly Review, 1975), 157-210; esp. 171- 77. Back
- Augustine, Quaestionum in Heptateuchum, ed. I. Fraipont, CCSL 33 (Turnhout: Brepols, 1958); the translation is from the Douay version of the Bible. I am grateful to Carolyn Jacobson for suggesting the relevance of Lot to this topic. Back
- This is the Vulgate version and Douay translation. It is interesting to note that Augustine's knowledge of this passage differs drastically from ours: the closest he comes to quoting it is in de catechizandis rudibus: "ut diligeremus deum, qui sic nos dilexit, ut unicum filium suum mitteret, qui humilitate nostrae mortalitatis indutus et a peccatoribus et pro peccatoribus moreretur" (cat. rud. 17.28), ed. I. B. Bauer, CCSL 46 (Turnhout: Brepols, 1959). Not only did Augustine know this passage in different wording, he also did not cite it nearly as frequently as one would expect from its contemporary reputation (according to various word searches on the CETEDOC Early Christian Latin Writings CD-ROM). Back
- On Augustine's use of the prodigal son in the Confessions, see Georg Nicolaus Knauer, "Peregrination Animae," Hermes 85 (1957): 216-48; Leo Charles Ferrari, "The Theme of the Prodigal Son in Augustine's Confessions," Recherches Augustiniennes 12 (1977): 105-18; and O'Donnell, II: 95-98. The program begins in earnest at 1.18.28. Back
- O'Donnell, II: 97. Back
- O'Donnell, II: 95- 96n. Back
- See Knauer, 219, who refers to Courcelle, 126ff, in pointing out that Ambrose does not refer to the Prodigal Son in De Isaac vel anima. Back
- Ferrari, 107. Augustine's interpretation is in qu. ev. 2.33, quoted at length in O'Donnell, II: 97. Back
- R. Howard Bloch makes a similar point about the expulsion of woman from Augustine's gendered theology: "In the sacramental theology elaborated by Augustine,... the relation of the signified to its sign is cast as a relation of the speaker to his word that is also given an explicitly familial cast in the relation of Father to Son, who occupies the position of the woman with respect to the man," he notes, subsequently quoting De Trinitate (PL 8:936). "The goal of Augustine's theology of the sign, and of history, is precisely a transcendence of the body by a journey through perception and cognition toward the male-defined intellectio that he associates with a union of parent and child. This union, which is indistinguishable from the sacrament itself, not only implies a return of the Son to the Father, but represents a convergence of the form of knowledge with its object, a recuperation of the names that are the 'images of things.' Thus, the paternalized relation between father and son, between the speaker and his word, implies an ontological priority of origin to effect, of engenderer to engendered, which, in philosophy, is expressed as a priority of the genre over its species" (Medieval Misogyny and the Invention of Western Romantic Love [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991], 34). Back
- Augustine, de natura et origine animae, ed. Charles F. Urba and Joseph Zycha, Corpus Scriptorum Ecclesiasticorum Latinorum 60 (1913; rpt. New York: Johnson Reprints, 1962); my translation. This text is entitled de anima et eius origine in the Migne's edition. In this and many other passages that discuss baptism as the fulfillment of circumcision, Augustine follows the example of St. Paul. Paul uses literal circumcision to represent the old law; those beholden to the new covenant have circumcised hearts (Rom. 2:29). Those with circumcised hearts, Paul's following chapters imply, are those who have been baptized into Christ's death and resurrection (Rom. 6:1-11). Back
- See O'Donnell, III: 73. Back
- O'Donnell notes that the indicative guture sacrificabo here is a change from the subjunctive sacrificem in Book 8 (III: 4, 73). Back