Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2012.10.33
Fabio Gasti (ed.), Sant'Agostino: Storie di conversione (Confessioni, Libro VIII). Letteratura universale Marsilio. Venezia: Marsilio Editori, 2012. Pp. 174. ISBN 9788831711067. €14.00 (pb).
Reviewed by Karin Schlapbach, University of Ottawa (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Those wishing to read the Confessions in Italian are able to choose from about ten different translations available now, many of them published in affordable paperback editions, which testifies in itself to the unrelenting popularity of this classic among Italian readers. Several of these editions include the Latin text (e.g. Fondazione Valla, Milan 1992-1997, with notes; ET Classici, Torino 2005; Classici Greci e Latini, Siena 2007). Fabio Gasti has now produced a slim volume containing book 8 in Latin and Italian with an introduction, a brief biographical outline, notes and a bibliography. Book 8, if not unanimously the centre of a work whose structure has exercised many scholars,1 is probably rightly presented as the most famous book of the Confessions, containing the notorious garden scene which culminates in Augustine’s conversion to a Christian life. The volume offers both a point of departure for those who are interested in the Confessions but don’t necessarily want to read the whole work and a possible complement for those who want to deepen their understanding of Book 8, although it serves the former purpose perhaps better than the latter.
The plural in the Italian title, “Stories of conversion”, does justice to the fact that Book 8 contains not only the account of Augustine’s own conversion, but also narrations of the conversions of Marius Victorinus and of two officials in Trier, which are given by internal narrators. Moreover, Antonius’ conversion, referred to various times in the course of the book, is finally recounted briefly but prominently, when Augustine, at the height of his inner turmoil, is reminded of the hermit’s example by the “tolle lege” he hears in the garden. Gasti rightly reminds us that conversion is thus always first and foremost an “object of a narration” (Introduction, 21), and he argues that one of the goals of the Confessions is to create an exemplary literary account of a conversion in a culture where self-scrutiny and the adoption of a new lifestyle is almost a “collective phenomenon” (30). The newness of the Confessions as a literary project and Augustine’s originality as a writer, who is above all interested in composing a powerful piece of literature (28), are a central focus of the introduction. Augustine has fully absorbed the lessons of his trade, rhetoric, and he is profoundly familiar with the literary tradition. Among the textual models that made an impact on Augustine’s project, Gasti mentions notably Seneca’s Letters to Lucilius and the Platonic strand of redemption narratives represented in Apuleius’ Metamorphoses, as well as Christian writers like Hilary of Poitiers and Cyprian, and of course the bible. This insistence on the “literariness” of the Confessions does not mean that the historicity of the events that are recounted is put into question; rather, Gasti asserts that these events are elaborated in a manner that serves the literary purpose. This touches on an old question that has been raised with particular urgency in relation to the garden scene, but the positivism of older scholars like Bolgiani (quoted on p. 42 n. 46) seems now too naïve and out of date even to serve as a foil.
Setting out from the observation that among the nuances of the Latin confessio, “praise” serves as the unifying element in the Confessions, Gasti shows how the work is both more and less than an autobiography. He foregrounds in particular the hortatory nature of the account (with reference to Revisions 2.6.1). Overall, the introduction covers the important points in terms of genre, context, purpose. The Latin text is that of Verheijen in CChL 27. The translation reads well and does a good job at rendering the artful combination of simple diction and elaborate structure of the original. If Gasti points out as a formal characteristic of book 8 that portions of narrative and comment or reflection alternate to form a coherent whole, this is perhaps no less true for other books as well (a similar pattern can be observed e.g. in book 3, where sections 3, 8, 10, 13 and 15-17 contain reflections on the events that are narrated). Also, it is misleading to describe the entire garden scene (8.19-30) as a reflective passage (p. 109), inasmuch as sections 19 and 28-30 are surely narrative (as Gasti himself points out on p. 159). These details aside, the notes provide a wealth of helpful information. Notes usually cover an entire paragraph of the Confessions (but there may also be two notes per paragraph), and they stretch over one to two pages, sometimes more, which allows for quite detailed comments. They typically offer a summary of the argument, some background on it in Augustine’s thought and elsewhere, the discussion of literary models (both classical and biblical) and, notably, stylistic analysis.
Gasti is often at his best when he focuses on stylistic analysis. Many passages gain depth and become more nuanced under his careful observation of vocabulary and structure. Thus, for instance, the note on section 4 traces the climax of verbs that indicate Marius Victorinus’ progressive immersion in Scripture (p. 120); the words that one of the officials in Trier addresses to the other (section 15) are shown to follow the style of a suasoria (p. 142f.); the description of inner turmoil in a series of short paratactic sentences which abound in rhetorical figures (section 25) is singled out for not containing any scriptural references (p. 154). It would be easy to continue this list. Given this attention to style and texture, it is surprising that no mention is made of P. Burton’s Language in the Confessions of Augustine (2007).
In general, one regrets that Gasti relies heavily on older scholarship, especially Bolgiani’s La conversione di S. Agostino e l’VIII libro delle “Confessioni” (1956), Guardini’s La conversione di sant’Agostino from 1935 (though the Italian translation from 1957 has been reprinted in 2002), Pizzolato’s Le “Confessioni” di sant’Agostino (1968), Mandouze’s Saint Augustin (1968), as well as Fontaine’s introduction to the above mentioned bilingual edition in the Fondazione Valla series. This faithfulness to the long established scholarly canon makes the volume a bit less exciting reading for the specialist. One misses an engagement with more recent monographs on the Confessions, e.g. by Jeanmart (who elaborates eloquently, among else, on the themes of procrastination and delay, so important in book 8 and mentioned on p. 145, 157, etc.), Kotzé (who foregrounds the affinity with the protreptic tradition, mentioned in the Introduction), Vannier, or recent discussions of the will in book 8 by Byers and on the role of exempla in book 8 by Ayres.2 Also, references to entries from the Augustinus-Lexikon like Conuersio (G. Madec) or Marius Victorinus (V.H. Drecoll, from 2010) would have been of interest. The bibliography does contain a number of more recent titles, which however do not seem to be worked into the introduction or notes (Fuhrer 2008 would have been useful to include in n. 34 on p. 40, whereas Gantar 2008 and Lim 2004 seem out of place under the heading “general studies” in the bibliography).3 Even a non-specialist readership would have benefited from a slightly more up to date overview of Augustinian scholarship on Conf. 8.
Despite this limitation, the carefully produced volume still fulfils the aim of making Conf. 8 accessible and giving its reading depth, and students of Augustine will doubtless find it useful not in the least for providing a reliable shortcut to an important tradition of scholarship on this central text in Augustine’s oeuvre.4
1. F. Crosson, "Structure and Meaning in St. Augustine's Confessions", in: G.B. Matthews (ed.), The Augustinian Tradition (Berkeley/Los Angeles/London 1999) 27-38 argues convincingly that book 5 is the actual turning point of the action in the Confessions.
2. G. Jeanmart, Herméneutique et subjectivité dans les Confessions d'Augustin (Turnhout 2006); A. Kotzé, Augustine’s Confessions. Communicative Purpose and Audience (Leiden 2004); M.-A. Vannier, Les confessions de saint Augustin (Paris 2007), S.C. Byers, “The meaning of voluntas in Augustine”, AugStud 37 (2006) 171-189; L. Ayres, “Into the Poem of the Universe. Exempla, Conversion, and Church in Augustine's Confessiones”, ZAC 13 (2009) 263-281.
3. T. Fuhrer, “Augustin in Mailand”, in: Ead. (ed.), Die christlich-philosophischen Diskurse der Spätantike (Stuttgart 2008) 63-79; K. Gantar, “Beobachtungen zu Vergils Schullektüre in Augustins ‘Confessiones’”, in: S. Freund / M. Vielberg (eds), Vergil und das antike Epos, Festschrift H.J. Tschiedel (Stuttgart 2008) 425-435; R. Lim, “Augustine, the grammarians and the cultural authority of Vergil”, in: R. Rees (ed.), Romane memento. Vergil in the fourth century (London 2004) 112-127.
4. I spotted very few typos (O’Donnell is misspelled on p. 123, Schmidt-Dengler on p. 136). A minor source of confusion is Gasti’s use of the term “focalizzazione” (e.g. p. 27 “the narration focalizes on the garden”), since the term is more familiar as denoting the kind of perspective through which something is seen (e.g. a character’s eyes), rather than the object itself.