Augustine Entries

Confessions of an Excerpted Sinner


I hate to say it, but I have some bad news about the Penguin Great Ideas series with which I'm so smitten. I'm not sure if you'll find this as shocking as I did, but here it is: some of these books are excerpted. And I say "excerpted" only so as to avoid an uglier word: if pressed, I must admit that this edition of Augustine's Confessions is - I can barely stand to write it - ABRIDGED.

To Penguin's credit, they don't try to hide the abridgment, as some expurgators have done before them. Right on the title page, they let you know "this extract first published in Penguin Books 2004," and as the text commences they mark each omission with a [...] symbol. There are MANY such symbols. My full edition of the Confessions is 305 pages of dense, close-set text; the Great Ideas edition is only 114 smaller, wider-set pages. Based on that and on my remembered reading of the whole thing in my senior seminar in college, I think it's a safe bet that about two-thirds of the entire text has been removed, if not more. Which is a huge percentage. Frankly, even with their omissions clearly marked throughout the text, I think it's disingenuous of Penguin to market this book as St. Augustine's Confessions of a Sinner (a very similar title to the more standard Confessions), rather than as something like "Selections from the Confessions." People should know what they're getting before the book arrives in the mail, and what they're getting in this case is a MUCH different experience than they'll have if they read the full document.

Take the famous pear-stealing scene. In both versions, Augustine relates that one night in his adolescence, he and a band of other teenagers stole some pears from a neighborhood tree - not because they wanted or needed the pears, but just for the joy of stealing. In the original text, he then goes on to angst about the theological implications of the pear theft for six densely-packed pages. Got it? He's seriously tortured about the pears. HOW COULD HE HAVE TAKEN THE PEARS? In the abridged version, this angsting is cut to barely one small, medium-spaced page, giving the impression that he's merely remarking, reasonably enough, at the perversity of a humanity that commits a crime solely for the wicked joy of sinning, and that he's then moving on to other subjects.

I bring up the pears not because I have some burning desire to read about them in their entirety yet again. I may not quite agree with Richard, who claims that his definition of hell is having to read the pear-stealing scene one more time, but I've certainly had my fill of it. No, my point in mentioning this passage is that it's one example of how the Penguin abridgment distorts Augustine's character. It makes him out to be a pious, reasonable man, a bit overwrought perhaps, but able to write clearly and concisely about his spiritual journey and eventual conversion to Catholicism. Whereas in fact Augustine is not reasonable AT ALL, and he's certainly not concise. In fact, I think two big points of his narrative are that the spiritual realm evades reason, and that to portray his journey as less than the long, brutal struggle he found it would be to minimize something that he wants, on the contrary, to emphasize.

The struggle with reason, for example, is at the forefront of young Augustine's grappling with the church doctrines. He writes about finding many of these doctrines nonsensical, since for a long time he tries to interpret them literally. Only when Bishop Ambrose explains them to him figuratively can he grasp their value. (And there are pages and pages in which he tries to get a handle on "figurative" - all excised from the abridgment.) Likewise he is only able to make real progress toward conversion when he relinquishes his need to prove and understand things:

Then, O Lord, you laid your most gentle, most merciful finger on my heart and set my thoughts in order, for I began to realize that I believed countless things which I had never seen or which had taken place when I was not there to see - so many events in the history of the world, so many facts about places and towns which I had never seen, and so much that I believed on the word of friends or doctors or various other people. Unless we took these things on trust, we should accomplish absolutely nothing in this life. Most of all it came home to me how firm and unshakable was the faith which told me who my parents were, because I could never have known this unless I believed what I was told.

When Augustine's conversion finally does come, it is a completely non-rational process, described in language more akin to physical ecstasy than reasoned argument. In terms of the curated Great Ideas series, I think this is an important point: Augustine breaks with the Stoic tradition of rationality and constrained emotion represented by Seneca and Marcus Aurelius. His emotions run rampant all over the Confessions, and he depicts his relationship with God in language modern readers will recognize from the subsequent literature of erotically-charged romance:

For love of your love I shall retrace my wicked ways. The memory is bitter, but it will help me to savour your sweetness, the sweetness that does not deceive but brings real joy and never fails. For love of your love I shall retrieve myself from the havoc of disruption which tore me to pieces when I turned away from you, whom alone I should have sought, and lost myself instead on many a different quest.

Removing the angst from Augustine is kind of like removing the cabbage from coleslaw. And while the Penguin folks don't manage to get all of it, their abridged Augustine is a much different fellow than the full-force version available elsewhere - too bad, since I think he's theoretically a great choice to illustrate the transition from Stoic rationalism to early Christian mysticism.

Similarly, the structure of the complete Confessions is an excellent (if excruciating) example of form reflecting content. The story Augustine wants to tell is one of a disgustingly sinful young man, who knows in his soul that he should convert to the true church, but lacks the decisiveness and strength of character to do so. He struggles over this for nine years, almost converting several times and then losing courage at the last moment. Finally, he is driven to distraction and has an epiphanic moment, wherein the chains of his self-imposed slavery fall away and he is born again in God. From that day on, he is a completely different man: he never looks back or regresses; he is cleansed of all sinful urges and dedicates himself completely to the work of the Church. (The completeness of Augustine's conversion experience rings very false to me, and it's something we discussed a lot in my seminar. Apparently Augustine set the standard for conversion narratives for many years: early church members didn't want to acknowledge that spiritual life might still be a struggle after conversion. According to my professor, it wasn't until the writings of Teresa of Avila in the sixteenth century that Christian leaders started telling conversion stories in which the converted person still struggled with sin and doubt even AFTER adult baptism.)

In any case, the structure of the Confessions reflects this story beautifully; it's one of the things I most appreciate about the original document. Augustine's pre-conversion struggles go on for such a painfully long time that the reader, unable to stand any more, joins him in his desperation to make some kind of change. After the conversion happens, Augustine's voice becomes almost completely disembodied: whereas previously he had been writing a story about himself and his actions, his post-epiphanic text is straight theology, with little or no narrative at all. This reflects the heightened, unchanging realm in which his post-conversion existence is supposed to be happening. And while it makes the second half pretty darned boring to a religious agnostic like myself, I still think it's highly effective: the reader can literally see and feel the difference in the person Augustine was versus the person (or saint) he becomes. In the abridged version, we get neither the excruciatingly long lead-up to the conversion, nor as much of the change in mood after baptism. Which I think is a shame.

On the plus side, and rather predictably, the abridged version is much more readable than the original. It flows briskly along, like a fourth-century version of some snappy modern memoir. Had it been published as "Selections from the Confessions," it could have served a valuable role as a quick-and-dirty introduction to the more famous and influential passages from Augustine - and it can still serve that function, albeit not as easily given that people ordering it won't know what they're getting.

Am I still in love with the Great Ideas series? I have to admit that this discovery gives me pause. I've found that offers their "Look Inside" feature on most of the volumes in the series, so I've done a little research about how many are affected. (The second page of this preview, for example, reassures me that Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own is presented whole. I could never have forgiven them for altering a single word.) And while most of the remainder of Series One is uncut, the vast majority of Series Two are extracts. This can mean, I think, a couple of things: in many cases, it just means that certain essays were taken from Penguin's "Complete Essays" edition of the author's work. That kind of excerpting doesn't bother me at all, as long as each essay remains complete. But a few editions are, like Augustine, out-and-out abridged, which really rubs me the wrong way. It's one thing if I would never seek out the author on my own: realistically, I'm never going to read the entire Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, so I don't really mind getting a taste of it here and there. But a few of the abridged volumes are things I'm actually interested in reading independently of the Great Ideas series: Christine de Pizan's The Book of the City of Ladies, Marco Polo's Travels, and Hannah Arendt's Eichmann in Jerusalem are the three that leap to mind. I don't think I want to experience those in abridged form, but neither do I want to give up on the curated experience that is the Great Ideas series. Even among the three volumes I've finished, there has been such an interesting dialog that I'm still convinced reading these series in order will be a rewarding exercise.

So...I think what I'll do is to keep ordering them in sets of four, but when I reach an abridged one that I'm independently interested in, I'll find a complete version to substitute for the expurgated one. It kind of hurts me to give up the idea of the full eighty-volume set with all its pretty matching covers, but I think it would bother me even more to wonder what I was missing all the time. Alternatively, if I'm feeling flush it might be interesting to buy both editions and see which parts the Great Ideas people wanted to stress and which they thought could be done away with.

The next in the series, Thomas à Kempis's The Inner Life, is another expurgated title: an extract from The Imitation of Christ. But I get the impression that the cuts are nowhere near as radical as in the Confessions. Anyhow, we'll see how I enjoy the jump of almost a thousand years into medieval Germanic Christianity!

June 2012

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link to Wolves 2011 reading list
link to more disgust bibliography