Thursday, June 23, 2011

Meandering through La Mancha

Breathless followers of this blog are undoubtely wondering how things are going with the reading of Don Quijote in Spanish. The answer, I suppose, is "deliberately."

There are some things that ought not to be rushed, and if it takes me another ten years to make it through, that's OK. It will give me some comfort in not being an ungraduate trying to finish it in a semester.

And what has been most arresting? The story of the Grisostomo, who died for love of the "cruel Marcela," the beautiful shepherdess who spurned his advance is remarkable, both for its faithful telling of this rather standard kind of pastoral (complete with the late lover's despairing poetry), and for the epilogue in which Marcella is allowed to come on stage and ask, essentially, Where does Grisostomo get off dying for me? I didn't ask him to do it!

"Que si a Grisóstomo mató su impaciencia y arrojado deseo, ¿por qué se ha de culpar mi honesto proceder y recato? Si yo conservo mi limpieza con la compañía de los árboles, ¿por qué ha de querer que la pierda el que quiere que la tenga con los hombres? Yo, como sabéis, tengo riquezas propias y no codicio las ajenas; tengo libre condición y no gusto de sujetarme: ni quiero ni aborrezco a nadie. No engaño a éste ni solicito aquél, ni burlo con uno ni me entretengo con el otro."

"My condition is free, and I am not pleased to be subject to anyone." Some would say that this is "modern." I would be more inclined to say that it is more of Cervantes' contrast of the idyllic and the real. Marcella's protest is just as appropriate in the seventeenth century as today. It was, after all, Chaucer's Wife of Bath who informed us that that what women want is "sovereneyee/As wel over hir housbond as hir love,/And for to been in maistrei him above."

Antecedents of the Confessions

I have been reading, the last year or so, Augustine's Confessions--the third time through it, for me, but this time in Latin, with much help from the Loeb Classical Library crib. Reading in a language other than English always slows me down a lot, and, in this case, I think that's a very good thing. Augustine is not easy, and often goes where one is not expecting him to go, and where one might have even thought he went, reading rapidly.

It is commonly said that the Confessions is the first autobiography, the first literary expression of this kind of personal history and self-revelation. And I suppose it is so. Nevertheless, I think it important to see here still an assembling of much that went before. I don't think it at all lessens the Confessions' originality to see that it has precursors.

One obvious antecedent--obvious because quoted and paraphrased continually--is the book of Psalms. There the various psalmists give expression to brief but heartfelt cries of internal turmoil, addressed, like the Confessions, not to some future reader, but to God. Of personal history there is little (except of course that addressed in the headings: A psalm of David, when he was fleeing this or that enemy). But they narrate the internal, what is otherwise inobservable. To me Augustine's tone is very like the tone of the psalms: very personal, imploring, and leaving behind a sense of openness, a waiting for the divine response which, if it comes, must be from outside the text.

Another possible percursor is suggested by a descendant, an almost contemporary account of faith obtained through struggle and doubt, Newman's Apologia. The very word sends us back to Plato's Apologia Socratous.

There, of course, we are probably not reading Socrates' words about himself; Xenophon's alternative version compels some degree of doubt, unhappily. But the form of the narrative is Socrates telling his own life, justifying the notariety that placed him before the Athenian tribunal. It is not only a "what happened," but "how I internally changed": the encounter with the oracle, the disillusionment that followed on seeking to test the oracle, and the defense of a life, in every sense, examined, and examining. The tone is quite different from Augustine's, but the autobiographical form is there.

But is it really? Can there be any greater opposites than a Confession and an Apology? One seeks to set out and admit, "I was wrong." The other is a defense, an assertion, "Indeed, I am not guilty of what I am accused of; I was right." Certainly in that sense they are quite different.

But of course Augustine's Confessions are, to some extent, an Apology. We are so used to seeing the man as the great stodgy Father of Grace that we tend to forget that, for his contemporaries, he was a bishop with some decided negatives. First, of course, he was for years an adherent of the heresy of the Manichees--he, a man whose upbringing by a devout Christian mother allowed no excuse of ignorance. Second, there was that small matter that, over the years, he had had at least two mistresses, and had a son out of wedlock. These, today, would be weighty clouds hanging over the head of any bishop. In the Church of his day, of course, they would have especial significance because of the Donatist's continuing charge of laxity against the Catholics.

So, in some sense, by combining the imploring and repentant stance of the psalmists with the defensive explanatory history attributed to Socrates, Augustine both confesses himself guilty and seeks vindication for the outcome of a seemingly misspent life. It is a remarkable synthesis of two seemingly incompatible aims.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Par pareille moyen on arrive a divers fins.

"Something's existence with a thing does not prove that it exists by that thing."

"We do not claim that these things are necessary [i.e. fire not burning, bread not satisfying]. On the contrary, they are possibilities that may or may not occur. But the continuous habit of their occurence repeatedly, on time after another, fixes unshakably in our minds the belief in their occurance according to past habit."

The foregoing is not from David Hume, but from part seventeen of the Tahafut al-falasifa of Abu Hamid Muhammed ibn Muhammed al-Tusi al-Ghazali--the "Incoherence of the Philosophers," from twelfth century Baghdad. It grounds an argument for miracles, much as Hume relied on such observations to declare them inherently incredible. Thus by similar means we arrive at diverse ends.

There is also that strangely illiberal conclusion to the Enquiry: Examine any book in your library, and, if it lacks "abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number, " or "experiemental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence," "Commit it then to to the flames: For it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion." We can rejoice that Hume's admonition has not been honored in the West, and lament the hand that al-Ghazali, with similar exhortations, had in eventually virtually extinguishing Islamic philosophy.