Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2002.05.05

Catherine Conybeare, Self and Symbols in the Letters of Paulinus of Nola.   Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 2000.  Pp. xi + 187.  ISBN 0-19-924072-8.  $60.  

Reviewed by Jennifer Ebbeler, Thesaurus Linguae Latinae (
Word count: 3985 words

Upon first opening Catherine Conybeare's (henceforth C.) Paulinus Noster: Self and Symbols in the Letters of Paulinus of Nola, one is made aware of just how much the world of Paulinus -- a late fourth century aristocrat and convert to Christianity -- differed from that of Cicero or Pliny. Facing the first page of the Introduction, C. has helpfully provided a map locating Paulinus's correspondents, spread across modern-day France, Germany and Italy, and extending to Augustine in North Africa and Jerome in Bethlehem. While the geographic dispersion is perhaps not so striking to our modern sensibility, it is nevertheless remarkable when one considers that these epistolary networks were maintained in the absence of any institutionalized postal system, and that often the correspondents had never met in person. C.'s map also highlights the extent to which ascetic withdrawal was a carefully crafted fiction. Through his letters Paulinus, like many of his contemporaries, was able to maintain a kind of virtual presence in the broader Christian community. Community, in turn, comes to be defined in ideological rather than spatial terms; and, as C. rightly argues, the letter exchange was integral to what she sees as a new kind of virtual community that was constructed around a shared love of Christ rather than physical presence: absent in body, but present in spirit -- and letters.

As C. herself says, one need not justify the production of a study on Paulinus; and C.'s book is a fine addition to the Oxford Early Christian Studies series and a worthy complement to Dennis Trout's masterful 1999 biography of Paulinus. C. might also have said that one need not justify a study of a late antique author's letters. Ever so slowly this gap is being filled, but it remains true that, despite its widespread and innovative use in the late antique period, the letter remains seriously understudied (and undertheorized). The primary audience for this book will be scholars of early Christian thought; but especially the first two chapters may be of interest to those working on classical epistolography. As well, the final chapter will be of relevance to both classicists and medievalists with interests in the history of the subject.

C. is not so much arguing a sustained, linear thesis as providing a series of related snapshots, all of which illustrate from different perspectives --material, rhetorical, philosophical-- the relationship between the literal (material/corporeal) and symbolic (incorporeal/spiritual) in Paulinus's theology as it is articulated in his letters. The letter exchange, which C. convincingly argues ought to be seen as a complex social act that extends well beyond the simple exchange of texts and which involves messengers and communities as well as the individual correspondents, is the means by which Paulinus both articulates and enacts his vision of Christian amicitia and Christian community. Probably the most significant element of Paulinus's "theory" of Christian friendship and letter exchange is his reversal of the traditional presence/absence hierarchy, so that, unlike his epistolary predecessors (and even many of his contemporaries), Paulinus assiduously privileges absence over presence, the spiritual over the corporeal, the symbolic over the literal. The letter, in that it is itself a symbol of its author's absence, is the ideal medium for embodying Paulinus's ideas. Finally, in that the letter exchange allows one to participate in the community of fellow Christ-lovers, it allows one to develop a sense of self not as an individual but as a member of a larger community, through a process which C. calls "relational subjectivity" (this term is defined below in the summary of Chapter 6).

In the introduction, C. provides a succinct sketch of Paulinus's life and cultural milieu. Like many Late Roman male aristocrats, Paulinus converted to Christianity in adulthood; unlike most of his peers, however, he chose to live as an ascetic and withdrew (together with his wife Therasia) to the Southern Italian town of Nola, where he lived a chaste marriage and devoted himself to the maintenance and popularization of the cult of St. Felix. Despite his withdrawal, Paulinus maintained contact with the wider Christian community through the exchange of letters. His correspondents were a veritable who's who of the late fourth century and included Augustine, Jerome, perhaps Ambrose, Alypius, Sulpicius Severus, and Ausonius. Still, as C. points out, relatively little quality work has been done on the Paulinian corpus, especially the prose works. In this regard, C. aptly observes, "his metrical works, apparently because of their more obvious appeal to traditional classicists, have fared rather better. Paulinus remains exemplary, and hence, though of utility in developing the master narrative of declining empire, of only limited interest" (9). Whereas Ausonius is at least a blip on the radar screen of most classicists -- if only because he so self-consciously engages with his classical past--Paulinus's far more ambivalent management of the classical past, and his overt engagement with Christian topoi, reinforces his marginalization. C. quickly summarizes the few existing studies of Paulinus and then explains her choice of emphasizing Paulinus's prose letters over his perhaps better known metrical works (particularly the Natalicia). One of the highlights of the introduction is C.'s description of Paulinus's epistolary corpus and her cautionary remarks about the notion of a Paulinian letter "collection" (15ff). Although ancient letters are presented to modern readers as (often chronologically ordered) collections, in most cases the collection is an artifact created by modern editors and not a reflection of the author's vision--or intention.

In her first chapter, "Ipsae Litterae: the actual letters," C. wisely avoids rehearsing the now stale debate about what constitutes a letter (19). Instead, she defines her subject by reference to a "working notion" of a letter, extracted from the ancient letters themselves: rhetorical style, appropriate length, the idea of correspondence as an officium, and the concomitant notion of reciprocity. C.'s real contribution here is the discussion of reciprocity, the exchange as an officium, and the implied relationship between the letter exchange and gift exchange writ large -- especially as it pertains to the exchange of literary texts. Still, her reading is more suggestive than substantive and would have been strengthened by a more sustained engagement with both classical and other late antique letters, as well as with modern anthropological theory on gift exchange. C. is quite correct to imply that textual exchange was a constitutive feature of Christian culture and the management of community; but such textual practices were well-known in the Latin-speaking West before the late fourth century, and in many respects Christians were appropriating and reinvigorating the practices of the Roman aristocratic elite.

One of C.'s most compelling arguments in the book is her claim that we should view the letter not simply as a text but as an "historical event" -- in other words, as a performative act at a particular historical moment, of which the surviving text is but a trace remain. A correspondence may appear to be the exchange of texts between two individuals, but in fact it involved messengers, the exchange of material gifts (food, clothing, literary texts, religious artifacts), and entire communities. C.'s characterization of the messenger and his role in the late antique letter exchange is informative, entertaining, and thought-provoking. In late antiquity, messengers not only delivered letters, but (like the letter) substituted for the absent body of the correspondent. C.'s comments remind us that, at least as far as letters are concerned, it is difficult to separate text from cultural context.

Chapter 2, "Sacramenta epistularia: letters as sacraments," continues the examination of the material aspects of the letter exchange. If Chapter 1 considers the question, "What is a letter?", this chapter asks "Is there such a thing as a private letter?" For C., at least in the case of Paulinus's letters, the answer is a resounding no. In general terms, I agree: it is very clear that this selection of letters (like many ancient and even modern letters) were intended for an audience beyond the addressee, and, given the method of delivery, no author or addressee could expect total privacy (though special steps could be taken to ensure privacy: codes, special seals, etc.). And, of course, the very fact that they were preserved and copied confirms that these particular letters had an audience beyond the addressee. At the same time, notions of public and private -- in antiquity as well as today -- are enormously complicated, ever-changing, culturally conditioned constructs. It seems that if one is going to invoke the public/private opposition, as C. does, one also has the responsibility to detail the risks and assumptions involved. It is undoubtedly true that a central characteristic of Christian culture -- and Paulinian theology -- is a re-imagination of the public/private opposition, but it is more complicated than a collapse of distinction between the two spheres, particularly in the dynamic period of the late 4th century.

In the context of her discussions of various "public" letters, and almost as an aside, C. offers some tantalizingly brief suggestions about the status of authorship and text ownership in Paulinus's day (43ff). Citing Jerome's acerbic request to Augustine that Augustine make sure that his letters to Jerome come to Jerome first, C. suggests that Jerome's concern for privacy and individual authorship is "anachronistic". But it may be pushing the argument a bit too far to suggest that Paulinus was attempting "to dissolve the classical sense of authorship and its cohesion with textual authority" (44) on the basis of Augustine's quotation of a section of Paulinus's letter back to him; or his quotation of a Paulinus letter to Sulpicius back to Paulinus. First, and most importantly, this practice of quoting letters is well-documented in, among other places, Cicero's correspondence: all three of Caesar's extant letters to Cicero, for example, survive because Cicero copied them and forwarded them to Atticus. Second, I wonder what exactly C. means by "the classical sense of authorship". And how does it differ from a "late antique" sense of authorship/ownership as exemplified by, for example, Augustine's Retractationes?

The final third of the chapter turns to the subject hinted at in the title--the epistolary act as a sacramental activity: "For Paulinus, the letters are an outward and visible sign of the invisible connection in Christ between those who write and those who receive and read them. The letter as 'historical event' becomes a sign of spiritual dedication" (55). The content is subordinated to the mode since it is the act of letter-writing itself that leads to the reaffirmation of one's identity as a Christian. Indeed, C. suggests, the length of the message does not matter because the "primary purpose of the letter is to serve as a tangible sign of an invisible communion between writer and recipient". Of course, as a quick glance through the letters of Cicero, Seneca, Pliny and Fronto reveals, the letter could perform essentially the same function in the classical world. What Paulinus seems to add is the sense that the letter not only put one in communion with the correspondent but extended outside of the correspondence to put one in communion with the absent Christ and reinforced both author's and addressee's spiritual connection through their Christian faith.

Chapter 3, "Amicitia and caritas Christi: friendship and the love of Christ", examines Paulinus's innovative formulation of Christian amicitia, in which he reverses the traditional absence/presence binary to suggest that absence is actually preferable to physical presence. Primarily with reference to Cicero's Laelius, C. sketches an overview of philosophical discourse on friendship in classical antiquity and then proceeds, through readings of Augustine and Paulinus, to define a Christian version of amicitia, in which veritas, virtus, and caritas Christi occupy center stage. For Paulinus, friendship cannot exist without divine involvement; and the epistolary exchange that facilitates these friendships is at the same time an enactment of them. Thus, C. concludes, "the very fact that epistolary relationships are fundamental -- rather than adjunct -- to Christian friendship shows how far we have come from the classical tradition. Letters are no longer merely a substitute for the presence of the friend; they become a crucial, constitutive part of the expression of friendship....The spiritual connection through letters actually supplants the literal connection of friends" (67).

While I am sympathetic to and intrigued by many aspects of this conclusion, it is nevertheless problematic as it stands. First, since no classical examples are treated in this chapter, it is unclear to me how C. has arrived at the conclusion that the epistolary relationship has been fundamentally transformed by Paulinus. Her conclusion is defensible, but it needed to be supported and nuanced with the plentiful examples of classical letter-writers bemoaning the inability of the letter to fully replace the physical body. More difficult is how much we can generalize from Paulinus to all Christian letter-writers. Here I think the evidence indicates that Paulinus's contemporaries were far more ambivalent about the notion that absence was preferable to presence. Finally, it seems to me that Paulinus's theological response to the problem of absence and bodily separation could be interpreted as a rational reaction to reality. That is, in the case of many of his correspondences he surely had little expectation of ever establishing a face-to-face relationship; he could either lament this, or could exalt the virtues of absence.

Traditionally, one of the anxieties that letters aroused was the possibility that the author could pretend to be something he was not (a slave impersonating a citizen, a woman impersonating a man, or, to take a more modern example, middle-aged men impersonating teenage boys on the Internet). That is, the letter was an imperfect representation of the author's body. By making the author's body irrelevant and claiming that truth resided in the unanimity of spirit, Paulinus removes this threat. Indeed, in Paulinus's view, all Christians share the same body. Bodies could lie; but spirits, united in love for Christ, could not (or so claims Paulinus). Ultimately, participation in epistolary exchange with one's fellow Christians was a form of imitatio Christi. The epistolary act is invested with tremendous spiritual importance in Paulinus's conception of amicitia. It allows one to establish and maintain friendships at vast distances, sometimes with correspondents one has never met face-to-face. And it was inclusive rather than exclusive--at least with regard to Christian males. C. concludes the chapter with a fascinating reading of the friendship between Paulinus and Sulpicius Severus, as well as some commentary on Paulinus's so-called friendship with his patron saint, Felix.

In Chapter 4, "Imago terrena and imago caelestis: the earthly and heavenly image," C. shifts her argument to the relationship between the literal and the symbolic in Paulinus's rhetoric and narratology: "How are the ideas expressed by which the spiritual becomes superior to the physical, while the physical is taken as capable of implying the spiritual? How, indeed, is the idea realized that the 'letter' (as segment of correspondence or as semiotic unit) is never sufficient, but always merely a small part of a greater 'nexus of communication'?" (91). In particular, C. is interested in Paulinus's preference for treating material objects in symbolic terms. He is not so interested in the objects themselves, but in their symbolic potential. Texts continue to play an important mediatory role (96ff). As C. interprets it, Paulinus advocates a kind of reader-response theory of reading, in which the interpretative act is a starting point for private meditation, and reading (ideally, at least) should result in action in the extra-textual world. And this emphasis on the textual--as text and as motivator of action -- is, for C., "a reiteration of the primacy of the spiritual over the temporal" (101). The literal/temporal has meaning and value only insofar as it points to the superior spiritual. This contrast between the temporal and spiritual is nicely illustrated by Paulinus's distinction of imago terrena and imago caelestis -- images of the body and the soul. Although C. does not pursue the connection, it is also worth observing that letters themselves, both in classical and late antiquity, are at times characterized as imagines of their author's body and/or spirit.

The second part of this chapter looks at Paulinus's preference for figural language. It is C.'s contention that for Paulinus, the figural usage of language is natural, not an extension of "normal" language (105). In addition, Paulinus prefers an associative rather than strictly linear narrative logic, because it is through the juxtaposition of images that he is best able to represent the paradoxes that are intrinsic to Christian rhetoric. Paulinus's chains of images (catenae) are not merely ornamental but in fact inextricably connected to his theological views. Just as Paulinus reversed the apparently natural (but in fact highly artificial) binary which traditionally privileged presence over absence, at the linguistic level he seems to be challenging the notion that unadorned language and linear narrative are natural while figurative language and associative narrative are artificial--and, by extension, that the literal is somehow more real than the symbolic.

Chapter 5, "Imagines intextae: images interwoven in the text," continues to develop the close relationship between Paulinus's theological views and the rhetoric with which he expresses those views. Through a series of close readings, but with special focus on Ep. 23, C. nicely illustrates Paulinus's preference for an associative style of narrative that depends on the juxtaposition of evocative imagery for its logic. Like his classical predecessors, Paulinus employed intertextual reference as a means of expanding meaning, but, suggests C., "the difference seems to lie in the expected psychology of reading: the sense of the text, not as an end in itself, but as a conduit, however imperfect, of a truth that lies beyond the textual" (115-116). Once again, we see that the literal has meaning and value only in so far as it points to the spiritual. As C. demonstrates through reference to selected examples of visual art from the period, Paulinus's narrative logic was not idiosyncratic. In representational art we may also find examples of associative rather than sequential narrative (118ff).

One of the results of such narrative is that multiplicity of meaning rather than closure (and "the right answer") is privileged. Says C., "Paulinus is precisely trying to break out of the 'circular path' of conventional, temporal 'reality', and to move off on the spiritual tangents which construct an alternative reality. He is creating, as it were, a spiritual ontology" (126). The hierarchical temporal/spiritual relationship, C. concludes, is replaced with one in which the temporal and spiritual are non-hierarchical and complementary (129). I think I would frame this slightly differently, since Paulinus does not replace hierarchy with non-hierarchy so much as, like a good Derridean, he overturns the hierarchical binary and reveals the intrinsic instability of oppositional relationships. He demonstrates that there is nothing natural about privileging the literal over the symbolic; presence over absence; the man/physical presence (virum) over the text (verbum).

Chapter 6, "Homo interior: the inner self," takes up the problem of subjectivity in Paulinus (and Christian culture as a whole). In particular, C. asks, "if spiritual bonds are superior to and in some sense more real than physical ones, what implications does that have for the relationship of mind to body as constitutive parts of a person....If a friend is conceived of as another self, then what is that self? And if letters are circulated within a far-flung community configured as 'members of one body' by people who are in the strongest possible sense representing their dispatchers, what are the implications for personal identity?" (131). Of particular interest to C. is the relationship between body and soul. "For Paulinus," C. suggests, "the spirit is always and unequivocally superior to the flesh in the configuration of the self, and as time goes on the corporeal becomes increasingly insignificant in comparison with the spiritual and symbolic" (135-136). The body and corporeality in general posed a number of complicated problems for Christians; and indeed, corporeality and spirituality could not be separated from one another since it was through the corporeal that the divine and personal came together (137). Inner and outer, body and soul, are both oppositional and complementary. Or, to put it another way, despite the problematic status of the body, it was ultimately essential to the configuration of the Christian self.

Still, as C. sees it, Paulinus figures the body as completely penetrable and interchangeable. Individual identity is usurped by group identity, by the sense of oneself as being a Christian and belonging to the single body of the Christian community: "a notion of the self which, while located in individuals, is essentially unboundaried, for it is profoundly relational" (144). If I understand, C. is proposing that the Christian self is precisely a non-self; it is the insistent view that the self exists only in so far as it is a member of a larger community -- and in so far as all human selves look to Christ. "For Paulinus and those he influenced," observes C., "the self is essentially permeable to other selves, because it has been permeated by Christ; and what one is therefore depends fundamentally upon with whom one associates" (147).

Applying these arguments, C. concludes the chapter with an intelligent and convincing reading of the well-known Ausonius-Paulinus correspondence. The sudden rupture in the friendship of Ausonius and Paulinus has puzzled many readers of the correspondence; but, posits C., it was the inevitable conclusion to Paulinus's conversion to ascetic Christianity and his break with his former classical-loving pre-conversion self. As a member of the Christian community, Paulinus's personal identity has been subsumed, and he is no longer capable of maintaining an individuated friendship with someone who does not share his values, who is not already "a second self." For C., the epistolary form was ideally suited for Christian communication precisely because it provided "an ongoing enacted metaphor for the self which [was] at once individuated and relational" (157). In a brief (5 pp.) Appendix, C. briefly addresses the transmission and shape of the Paulinian epistolary corpus. After helpfully describing the contents of the manuscripts and their stemmatic relationship, C. argues contra Hartel that there is no evidence that the surviving manuscripts derive from a single archetype (162-163). Further, she questions Hartel's often ill-advised reliance on O. Without a more thorough examination of variant readings, I am reluctant to evaluate this revised stemma (and, indeed, it would have been helpful if C. had gathered together specific examples to bolster her argument). But it is certainly true that Hartel's 1894 edition prints a number of odd and indefensible readings and that Paulinus's letters are ripe for an updated edition.

As the length of this review evidences, I found C's book to be stimulating and suggestive and in most cases the conclusions were persuasive. I have addressed specific quibbles in the chapter summaries, but if I may be permitted a final, more general quibble (which undoubtedly illustrates the reviewer's prejudices rather than the author's aims or intentions): in a book whose arguments are significantly influenced -- consciously or not -- by Poststructuralism, I was disappointed to find not a single reference to Derrida (perhaps The Postcard or "Plato's Pharmacy"?) or other poststructuralist theorists. There were a number of instances in which the absence of engagement with modern theory on, for example, subjectivity, gift exchange, absence/presence, and epistolarity, was striking. In addition, although it is true that the bibliography on letter-writing is sparse, C. overlooks a number of important studies that would have further nuanced some of her arguments.1

For scholars of late antique culture, Christian thought, and the Latin letter in general, C.'s study is a thought-provoking and welcome addition. She speaks to a number of current issues, including the changing definition of community in late Roman and early Christian culture, the problematic status of the body, the place of the individual in the Christian community, and the cultural function of letter exchange. Although Paulinus has been neglected by comparison to Augustine and Jerome, he is slowly assuming his rightful place in Late Antique/Early Christian studies, thanks to studies like C.'s.


1.   E.g., Hermann Peter, Der Brief in der römischen Litteratur; Klaus Thraede, Grundzüge griechisch-römischer Brieftopik; numerous articles by Michaela Zelzer; Janet Altman, Epistolarity: Approaches to a Form; Linda Kauffman, Special Delivery: Epistolary Modes in Modern Fiction; G.O. Hutchinson, Cicero's Correspondence: A Literary Study. I was also surprised to see no reference to, among other studies, Peter Brown's 1988 Body and Society in the discussion of Paulinus's views of the body.

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