As if momentarily lost for words, an expert in literary genres once called Augustine’s Confessions a “great book” and left it at that.
Like the Confessions and certain other texts of Augustine (244f.), Stock’s book is a hinged construction in two parts, the parts in this case answering to “narrative” (or “authorial practice”) and “analysis” (or “theory”). Part I is written over “the narrative about reading” in Confessions 1-9, while Part II pursues “various analytical statements on the subject [sc. of reading]” (19) through the early philosophical dialogues, De utilitate credendi, De doctrina christiana, De catechizandis rudibus, Confessions 10-13, and De trinitate. Since each part is written in the light of the other, there are at least two possible orders of reading. In practice, Stock’s readers may find it most natural to begin with and return to the “narrative” (in the larger sense) of Confessions 1-13, from which the topics considered by him as “connected to reading in [Augustine’s] philosophy of mind” (126) visibly derive. Although Augustine the Reader is about more than the Confessions, the Confessions is the text on which it turns; as “the reader” provides “a principle of unity” (301) in Augustine’s XIII libri de se et de scripturis sanctis (cf. Retr. 2.6.1), so those thirteen books supply the theory-in-practice of readership on which the unity of this one depends. Crediting his author at the outset with “the West’s first developed theory of reading,” Stock claims that the objects of that theory (“among other things, mental representations, memory, emotion, cognition, and the ethics of interpretation”) are “unified by Augustine’s concern with the self as reader, that is, with the personal understanding that can be created through a mental ‘rereading’ of the narratives of previous events lodged in memory” (1)—or in other words, by his concern with the kind of personal understanding dramatized in the Confessions. A few pages later he suggests that Augustine “invented a number of new roles for the later ancient reader,” adding (without further argument) that “[h]is reference point for the many writings in which he explored his novel ideas was the Confessions” (18). It is possible to imagine studies of “Augustine the Reader” that would be less exclusively oriented on issues of “the self,” individual psychology, and the philosophy of mind. Henri-Irenee Marrou’s Saint Augustin et la fin de la culture antique
A brisk if circuitous introduction familiarizes us with the array of topics and arguments to be advanced in the sequel, without offering any single focus or conceptual framework for them. It would seem, in fact, that the interest attaching to an exploration of Augustine’s multiple intuitions about the “potential connections between lives and writings” (212) and the desire to ascribe to him a singular and coherent “theory of reading” pull in opposite directions. Augustine is to be expounded strictly ex Augustino, consideration of his “sources” and later fortune set aside, yet even within this (by no means narrow) compass, the points of purchase for a study of his “design for reading” (2) are not readily reduced to a diagram. (Diagrams appear at intervals in later chapters.) Committed to retracing in Augustine’s texts “le mouvement propre de son discours et de sa pensee” (Goulven Madec, cited 3), Stock is uncharacteristically ill at ease in this introductory hors-texte of his own. Of its three unrubricated sections, the last and shortest (15-18) comes closest to grounding the ensuing enarrationes in a discourse outside the opus Augustinianum. Stock writes: “Augustine’s ideas on these issues [sc. of reading] arose out of a traditional Christian position” (15). Two aspects of the relation to tradition are mentioned, both of which betray distinctively Augustinian emphases: first, a belief that the human reliance on signs, including the signs used in reading and writing, is a consequence of the Fall; secondly, a conviction that by living according to “the inner man” (St. Paul) human beings can begin an ascent from the fallen realm of signs to that of the (neoplatonic) undivided intellect or (Christian) God. Because the act of reading was already understood in antiquity to involve a passage from outward (bodily) sign to inward (spiritual) meaning, Augustine came to regard it as paradigmatic, if not instrumental, for this movement of self-recovery. Hence, as he aspired to a mystical experience beyond textuality, he also envisaged a certain type of reading as “indispensable for the acquisition of salvific knowledge and beneficial self-discipline” (17).
The linked concepts of reading as saving self-discipline and of Pauline-neoplatonic spiritual ascent are integral to most, if not all, of the themes traced in Stock’s book. Those themes include: the role of the Bible and other authoritative texts as guiding scripts for moral reform; the ideal supersession of sequential reading ( lectio), and of an associated awareness of life-in-time, by a contemplative apprehension of permanent realities in an extended present ( meditatio); the interplay of oral performance, silent reading and various modes of writing; the respective claims of reason and authority, especially the authority ascribed to tradition, in epistemology and ethics; the theory of signs and its application to christology and biblical hermeneutics; interconnections between psychology and the philosophy of language; the role of memory as a basis for self-knowledge and of first-person literary narrative as a vehicle of the same; the substitution of a newer ascetic for an older aesthetic rationale for the activity of reading; and the emergence of Christian communities defined by their members’ shared obedience to a textual rule of life or shared expression of faith. Anyone familiar with Stock’s previous work, from The Implications of Literacy (1983) through the studies collected in Listening for the Text (1990) to the recent essay on “Reading, Writing, and the Self” in Petrarch and his forerunners (in New Literary History 1995), will discern again in this new book several of the trajectories already sketched by him for a longer history of western modes of reading, interpretation and social organization. The possibilities of such a history form a kind of penumbra round the present work, but its whole light is concentrated on the text of Augustine.
Part I, then, is devoted to Augustine’s “narrative of his progress as a reader” (21), retold by Stock as a series of “chapters” or “stages” in the formation of the “Christian reader” (53), each signalled by one or more key episodes of textual encounter. Although the moments of encounter are for the most part too well marked in traditional readings of the Confessions for the choice of any of them to occasion much surprise, it will be an exceptional reader who does not derive new stimulus from Stock’s commentary on such often-commented passages as those relating Augustine’s initial contact with Vergil’s Aeneid and Cicero’s Hortensius, his witnessing of Ambrose’s silent reading, his own reading of the libri Platonicorum, or the climactic sequence of text-acts that constitutes Book 8. The privileging of acts of reading in a general (r)enarration of the Confessions has its drawbacks. Sometimes the sense of progress is almost comically abrupt, as when we learn that, thanks to the preaching of Ambrose, “[w]ithin a few weeks, one stage of his future student’s reading experience was finished and another begun” (60). And because progress in and through reading is not the whole story of Augustine’s peregrinatio animae, there are places where the author could be faulted for soliciting the text unduly (e.g., 43f. on the interpretive practices of the Manichaeans) or where the discussion seems to offer less than the text itself promises (e.g., 116f. on the vision at Ostia), but they are few and far between. Conversely, there are many instances where the discussion fruitfully, if not always conclusively, overflows the “subject of reading,” even as generously defined by Stock (e.g., 34f. on pagan fictions in performance). Certain sections could be profitably read or assigned to students as separate essays; for example, the one on the texture and tendency of Conf. 7.3-7;9-21 (65-74, ten of the finest pages in the book) or another on the providential correction of Alypius in Conf. 6.7-9 (77-89), recalling and superseding a classic miniature by Erich Auerbach.
In these chapters, as throughout the book, one’s prevailing sense (this reader’s anyway) is of hermeneutic abundance, an effect of Augustinian reading practice which Stock does not specially stress—perhaps because he wants us to ascend, with Augustine, from the Many of textual explication to the One of supratextual contemplation!—but which, it could be argued, is the natural obverse of any theory of reading that can be described as ascetic.
There is, however, a more problematic side to this facility with formulas capable of assuming a kind of autonomy even in the context of commentary. Filling a gap in the “record” of Augustine’s reading for the early months of 386, Stock offers the following summary of the central tenet of his book:
“Encouraged by the allegories of Ambrose, he came to understand that the reader could distinguish between what Paul called the ‘spirit’ and the ‘letter’ as a parallel to the ‘inner’ and ‘outer’ self. Texts and selves interpenetrated: it became possible to look upon the building of a new self as an exegetical and interpretive process. A piece of writing when it was read and understood, mediated the reality that it described, as did our thoughts about the same reality when they were transformed into words. Augustine thus confirmed a Platonic style of thinking, placing realities above representations, while he linked self-improvement to the creation of mentally represented worlds. He envisaged his programme as the living out of a story whose meaning he inwardly understood before it was translated into action, and he did so by evolving a theory that did not depend on specific pagan texts.” (54-55: emphasis added)
We might ask: In what sense is Augustine the author of the “programme” or “theory” here attributed to him? That a pair of Pauline distinctions and a Platonic “style of thinking” provide the basis for much of his thought from the mid-380s will not be lightly disputed. The difficulty begins with the sentence, “Texts and selves interpenetrated ….” By this point in the book, most of the terms and ideas that appear from there to the end of the quoted paragraph are already familiar from previous sections. Yet nowhere, so far as I can see, does Stock find a comparable articulation of them in a text by Augustine. The summary he gives here is explicitly offered in place of texts that are lacking. The next paragraph reviews Augustine’s “progress” to the position stated, as supposedly recapitulated in the “interior monologue” of Conf. 6.11. There Stock claims to discern “a three-stage plan [sic] for self-improvement,” but the movement of the passage is against him. Augustine’s own commentary on the same set of utterances discourages any attempt to read it in search of method: “Cum haec dicebam et alternabant hi venti et impellebant huc atque illuc cor meum ….” Stock is undeterred: “In sum, what he advocates is a union of reading and conduct as a replacement for the ethical relativism of the pagan classroom.” Neither project nor advocacy is so clear to this reader. Stock goes on: “If memory is added and some footnotes on time, we have the complete foundation of the ascetic programme in the later books of the Confessions.” Q.E.D. But what sort of demonstration is this? And how confident should “we” be of possessing the “foundation” of an Augustinian philosophy of reading, when the placement of its building-blocks depends so obviously on the will of the interpreter? I raise these questions, not to belabor Stock’s subtle and productive exegesis with the rod of an old-fashioned textual positivism, but to clarify the challenge it sets us as readers. In Stock’s view, Augustine’s Pauline-neoplatonic hermeneutic located “the student of the Bible in the ontological space between the inner and outer person” (17). As was hinted earlier, the student of Augustine the Reader occupies an analogous interpretive space between the text of Augustine and its latest enarratio. Customary as that position may be for readers in the literary and historical disciplines, we are rarely made so conscious of its responsibilities, even as students of Augustine.
A possible way of treating passages in Stock’s book like the one quoted above, consistent with his own sense of Augustinian theory and practice, is to regard them as acts of meditative (re)collection or synthesis performed in “silences” between the texts taken as objects of analysis and enarratio. By pragmatically distinguishing between narrative and analysis in Augustine’s discourse of reading, Stock maximizes the opportunities for such high-order critical activity. Because any segment of narrative can be submitted to analysis (as above and throughout Part I) and any piece of analysis scrutinized for its narrative possibilities (as routinely in Part II), and because there will always (presumably) be some disparity or incompatibility between the fragments of discourse thus confronted, scholarly readers have ample occasion to harmonize and complete a scheme of thought that may be less than fully immanent in the Augustinian texts at their disposal. In this context, the highest praise we could give to Augustine the Reader would also be the sharpest criticism of it: that it succeeded better than Augustine did himself in the “attempt to lay [a] theoretical foundation for a reading culture” (1). Stock, however, is too good a reader for such success. Another and vital aspect of the abundance of his book is its openness to the more excursive and improvisational qualities of Augustine’s texts and consequent failure to close neatly on the hinge between its own two parts.
A striking instance of this flexibility occurs in the chapter on Confessions 8, entitled “Reading and Conversion” (75-111). The chapter begins with a passage of intra- and paratextual synthesis of the kind already noted. By now we should be able to recognize the “pattern” of Augustine’s proceeding. Stock continues:
“Book 8 introduces a new feature into this pattern, which reflects a heightened tension between God’s predestination and man’s limited understanding of his fate. Augustine contrasts the unknown outcome of reading experiences in personal narratives with the interpretive certainty of his perusal of a single text, Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, which acts as a unifying principle for the various episodes. Book 8 thus transforms the programme of study announced at 7.21.1-6. At the same time, Augustine introduces a variant of typology into the Confessions in which foreshadowing and fulfillment take place not between historical events, figures, or stories in the Bible, but between secular figures, guided by providence, whose narratives are interlocked by means of a logic that is clarified to none of them before the events take place.” (77)
Recognizable here are the usual tropes of collection and recapitulation in the service of a higher harmony: “introduces into this pattern,” “acts as a unifying principle,” “transforms the programme of study.” But we are asked to notice something else “at the same time,” a new “variant,” not in this case of some prior Augustinian construction but of an interpretive procedure current in contemporary Christian culture (biblical typology), a practice adapted by Augustine to reflect what he had come to feel as a basic “tension” in human experience. This something is what Stock, with typical compression of thought, elsewhere calls “literary predestination” (e.g., 313 n.146). It is the compositional technique by which Augustine enables the reader to participate, as interpreter and emulator of his text, in the process by which he and other actors in his story have come to see the events of their lives as part of a divinely-authored narrative or “text” comparable to Scripture. Stock is not the first reader of the Confessions to recognize this typological principle, but he is the first to place it in the larger framework of a “theory” that is profoundly ambivalent (his word) about the utility of reading as a means of understanding oneself in relation to God. “The final lesson of Augustine’s education as a reader,” he writes, “is that nothing is learned from reading itself” (125). And again, on the book’s last page: “Augustine believes that reading is essential for ‘spiritual’ development in the individual, but he is pessimistic about the degree of ‘enlightenment’ that reading itself confers” (278). By constantly “reediting” one’s self-narrative in the light of authoritative texts and whatever personal illumination one may have been granted, one acquires a sense of self approximating the divine “intention”; yet in doing so one also leaves the textual plane behind. Some of the literary and other effects of this ambivalence vis-à-vis textuality are explored in the richly detailed chapter on “Reading and Conversion” but the implicit assimilation of biblical and non-biblical (including Augustinian) texts, qua text, is not pursued in Part II (though cf. 187 on biblically-inspired narratio as “literature”). Instead it is left, like many another insight found obiter in the same pages, for the reader to consider apart. If we wished to weave this particular ambivalence into a larger synthesis than Stock attempts, we could begin by relating it to Augustine’s thoughts on sacred and profane history, as traced by Robert Markus in the context of his theology of the saeculum, locus of all ambivalence.
“Inveniet … fortasse quomodo scribendo profecerim [Augustine wrote at the end of his life], quisquis opuscula mea ordine quo scripta sunt legerit” ( Retr. prol.). By placing the narrative of Confessions 1-9 at the front of Augustine the Reader, Stock signals a decision to let the author’s (earlier) retrospective view of his personal readerly “profectus” predominate over any more documentary reconstruction derived from the sequence of his writings. At the same time, he invites us to set his own reader-centered enarratio of those books alongside the analyses in the first three chapters of Part II, which present a virtually chronological review of Augustine’s ideas about language, texts and interpretation from his earliest letters and dialogues down to the De doctrina christiana (interrupted ca. 397 when the Confessions was begun). No tension arises from the juxtaposition. Nor should it, since Stock has given notice that his interpretation of Augustine’s formative years will be one “that emphasizes the consistency of his thinking, on the basis of his approach to reading, in contrast to the once fashionable tendency of scholars to distinguish sharply between the writings of the early and middle phases of his career” (3). Unlike those amateurs of Augustinian trial and error—and others, such as Pierre Courcelle, who sought to check the historicity of the autobiographical part of the Confessions against the evidence of earlier writings—, Stock is intent on exposing the preparations for Augustine’s mature stylization of the self as Christian reader.
The first section of the short chapter on “Beginnings” gives a rather spare account of his “theory” of reading as it may be inferred from early (and not-so-early) letters to Nebridius, Paulinus and others. The second, on the De ordine and Soliloquia, reveals the basis for his lifelong confidence in the disciplines of grammar and dialectic, “disciplines … which, paradoxically, retain their truth even though their application may be false” (136). Both sections, though slight, bear interestingly on the themes of the Confessions treated in Part I. Read more expansively, they also open new avenues for work on late antique Christian epistolography and the arts of the dialogue. The pace of the book then slows markedly as, in the next two chapters (“Speaking and Reading” and “Toward Theory”), Stock works his way through the complex, overlapping and not always obviously compatible arguments of the De dialectica, De magistro, De utilitate credendi, De catechizandis rudibus and De doctrina christiana. If the reviewer’s experience is at all typical, the reader’s sense of the value of these sections is likely to be mixed. On the one hand, it is good to have Stock’s meticulous summaries and discussion (with up-to-date bibliography) of such relatively understudied texts as the De dialectica and De utilitate credendi, the second of which is only now beginning to receive the attention it merits. Like some of the close readings of Part I, a number of these passages have a usefulness independent of the arguments of the book as a whole. Insofar as they are meant to contribute to those arguments, however, they run into two kinds of difficulty: either they confirm or conveniently supplement the narrative of Part I, an effect which is less satisfying the more often it is repeated; or they do not, in which case the reader, like the author, must deal with the inconsequence. Stock’s punctiliousness again precludes any easy solution of the dilemma. When he asks of the De dialectica, “What are we to make of this fragmentary set of observations on dialectic, grammar, rhetoric, and ‘the force of words’?,” we know that he for one will not make too much of it, despite the investment of the previous pages. In general, the measure of conformity on matters of “reading” between the earlier writings—down to and including the De utilitate credendi of 391, on which these two chapters pivot—and the three closely interrelated texts of the late 390s ( De doctrina christiana, Confessions, De catechizandis rudibus) seems less than the initial hypothesis of continuity and the detail of the subsequent analyses might lead one to expect. Points of contact, insight and interesting complication continue to abound (e.g., on “unstatedness” and the hermeneutic circle [151, 157]; on texts as “combin[ing] visual and aural modes of communication” ; on the ideal “third party” required to qualify interpretations as “true” ; on Augustine’s outline of a “hermeneutic of tradition” [174f.]). In the meantime, the reader who follows Stock every step of the way learns to relish the fact that Augustine started more arguments than he meant to finish and tried more propositions than he ever expected to combine into a single “theory” or system.
The sense of progress “Toward Theory” in the chapter with that title is assured in part through an arrangement whereby issues of “reception” raised in the De utilitate credendi invite the fuller treatment of the De catechizandis rudibus (ca. 399-400) which then, in a “logical rather than … strictly chronological sequence” (181), leads to the incomplete essay De doctrina christiana of ca. 396-7. As Stock notes, this last work is in a different genre from those previously discussed, neither first-person narrative nor dialogue. (He is wrong, however, to call it a tractatio , which for Augustine names the mode of scriptural exposition itself.) That it is in a sense more “theoretical” than Confessions 1-9 seems clear. It is also oriented differently: “In this work the entire [?] Christian community is envisaged, potentially at least, as a body of readers, either as clergy or as cultured laypersons” (190). How well do its methods and concerns mesh with the thematics presented by Stock in earlier chapters? For his purpose, the tractatio scripturarum should be referrable to a self-narrating, self-reforming subject-as-interpreter, who would also be the object of narration. And so it proves to be, to the point that the cultural programme divined in the same text by Marrou and others on the basis of a different Augustinian orientation is cast in shadow. “If there is a community,” writes Stock, summarizing the prologue, “it consists initially of the reader and God” (193). Perhaps. On the other hand, there are few places where Augustine insists more decisively on the reader’s social responsibilities and on the abjection of humanity “si homines per homines nihil discerent” (prol. 4). Book 1 is plotted as a diagram, with the following gloss: “Love operates vertically, descending from the text to the reader, and horizontally, as readers relate to audiences. Christianity emerges as a textual community built around shared principles of interpretation” (196, emphasis added). True as this may be, it is a disappointingly flat epitome of so multi-dimensional a text, especially disappointing given the quality of Stock’s other analyses, to say nothing of his original and influential use elsewhere of the italicized term. In the event, this Augustinian “textual community” is no sooner evoked than it is displaced by a much fuller discussion of the gradual ascent to wisdom at 2.7.9-11. This Stock collates with parallel schemes from earlier works to show how the author unites “the neoplatonic notion of ascent with step-by-step progress through education,” i.e. an education centered on the Bible (200). The confirmatory value of this exegesis for his general argument is plain. Yet one could also argue that the chief interest of the seven-step ascent in De doctrina christiana is as a relic of modes of thought that Augustine was coming to find less and less useful for his purposes as a public interpreter of Scripture; in any case, the scheme plays only the most circumscribed role in the thought of Book 2. Unfortunately, Stock’s summary of the rest of that book and of Book 3 runs so aslant the text as to be barely intelligible at times, while the page and a half on Book 4 carries little conviction. In Book 4, he suggests, “Augustine moves from the personal to the social dimension of communication” (204). As James O’Donnell has pointed out in a review of a new translation of the De doctrina christiana, the very first sentence of Augustine’s treatise already contains a clause (“ut … etiam ipsi aperiendo proficiant”) which, if taken seriously, would make it impossible for him to separate the personal and social aspects of biblical interpretation.
The section on the De doctrina christiana ends on a deconstructive note: “The prologue, perhaps as an afterthought, moves in the direction of hermeneutics; yet book 1 undermines its interpretive potential, and books 2-4 do not attempt to restore it completely” (205, emphasis added). Earlier Stock speaks of the prologue as possibly “contemporary” with Confessions 1-2 (192); were it an afterthought, it would thus be an early one. Attempts to read the prologue as somehow at cross purposes with the rest of the work have been made before, notably by Ulrich Duchrow who argued, against the evidence of the manuscript tradition, that Augustine drafted his “preliminary” remarks while finishing the interrupted treatise in ca. 427. Stock is concerned less with the chronology of the De doctrina christiana than with its internal logic, or (as he sees it) scarcely concealed illogic. On his view, as it emerges from the chapter as a whole, the work is more than just evidence of Augustine’s recognition of the limits of “reading” as salvific discipline; it is also, and not incidentally, a failed attempt at “theory.” The reviewer who has taken a similar line with respect to the incomplete work of ca. 397 will cheerfully agree.
“Historically” speaking, if in no other respect, Augustine the Reader is a thin book. To apply a distinction made by the author himself in an earlier essay, it favours a “compositional” approach to the phenomena of reading and writing, at the expense of a fully “contextual” one.
As it happens, we know little for certain about the context and occasion of either the first De doctrina christiana or the Confessions in its various phases of composition. Their closeness in time and the multiple resonances between them nevertheless invite us to read them, in part at least, as alternative and complementary responses to a set of fairly urgent “thisworldly” demands
As it takes us from the theoretical misfire of the De doctrina christiana to the “exemplary” theorizing of the later books of the Confessions, Chapter 8 also calls in question the utility of theory itself, setting up a finale which, as an extended exploration of allegories of reading in the De trinitate, might be subtitled “Beyond Theory.” “In these discussions,” Stock writes, “Augustine frequently uses theory as a self-deflating device. He gives the discussions a theoretical preface whose function is partly to illustrate what theoretical reason cannot achieve” (208). A note adds that this model is “announced” in the much earlier De dialectica and De magistro. Had Stock himself announced it earlier, his first-time reader might be less troubled by the seeming inconsequences of Augustine’s thought, as it unfolds between and within books. The phrase “self-deflating devices” implicates the rhetorician Augustine as much as the theorist; and rightly so, since the line between (rhetorical) self-deflation as compositional artifice and (theoretical) self-defeat as the suspense of composition itself (e.g., the “writer’s block” diagnosed by O’Donnell in Augustine of the mid-390s) is never easy to draw with this author. When Marrou famously complained that “Augustin compose mal,” one of the things that troubled him was his subject’s habit of following a thought to the point where it was fully worked out or (more often perhaps) became too difficult to pursue any further.
Stock ends by attributing to Augustine a “strongly anti-utopian view of reading,” a belief that “problems of reading and interpretation cannot be solved through the imposition of a conceptual scheme; [that] they can be addressed only by means of a system of deferrals in which the authority for the text is ultimately removed from the reader’s control” (278). It is a neat and fitting conclusion to a relentlessly and irresistibly thought-provoking study. Poststructuralist readers of Augustine the Reader—and that should include everyone who reads it to the end and then starts over again—will be able to determine, with more conviction now than before, that Augustine is their interlocutor. The benefits of such a realization for research on the writings of Augustine and his contemporaries have been slow in coming and we should be grateful to Brian Stock for gently but decisively forcing the pace. It would be a pity, however, if the sharpness of his final focus were to blind us even momentarily to another article of Augustine’s literary (anti-)utopianism,