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Catherine Conybeare discusses the Routledge Guidebook to Augustine's Confessions

The Routledge Guidebook to Augustine’s Confessions is an engaging introduction to this spiritually creative and intellectually original work. We spent five minutes with author Catherine Conybeare to find out more about the book.

1. Could you tell us a little about your background?

I have quite an unusual academic background for a scholar of Augustine. My first degree was a very traditional philological one in classics, or ‘Literae Humaniores’, at Oxford. But I then went to the University of Toronto to do a doctorate in Medieval Studies, and there I came into contact with distinguished practitioners of the incredibly wide-ranging complex of disciplines that together make the composite of Medieval Studies. So I’ve always tried to combine the precise attention to language of my Oxford training with the intellectual breadth that I found in Toronto. But I have no formal training in theology: I’ve had to pick that up along the way, not least through close reading of Augustine’s own words.

2. How did you develop an interest in Augustine’s Confessions?

In some ways, it was inevitable. The Confessions is situated at the fulchrum between the classical and medieval worlds. Augustine in general, if not the Confessions in particular, is incredibly influential on the latter; and surveys of Western literature often take the Confessions as the single representative of post-classical and pre-Renaissance literature. But (as I say in my preface) when I first read the Confessions, I was baffled and bored: I had no idea how to read this incredibly original work. With repeated re-reading, I’ve come to love the Confessions, both in Latin and in English; but I’ve tried to write the Guidebook for those readers who, like me, don’t immediately fall in love with the work.

3. What makes Confessions such a unique and important piece of writing?

The whole Guidebook is an attempt to answer this one! But in a nutshell, I think it’s because of two things: Augustine’s relationship to language; and his relationship to time. Augustine essentially forges a new language for the Confessions – new in the literary tradition, and new to his own work. He never wrote in quite the same style again. That language encapsulates his rejection of the smoothness and formulae of Roman rhetoric and his embrace of the resonant yet simple language of the bible. Even in English, one can get some of this effect, but it’s why it was so important to me to share some excerpts of the Latin with my readers. He also – and this is the transition between language and time – narrates the work in such a way that he makes the readers feel what he is feeling. He varies the pace of his narrative enormously, sometimes with long-drawn-out descriptions, sometimes with a cascade of events. It produces what I call affective mimesis in the reader. Then, Augustine thinks in such serious and original ways about time. I don’t just mean the explicit reflections on the mystifying nature of time in Book 11, but also about the situation of the self in time. How remarkable, for example, to reflect in an autobiography on what the self was doing before birth. And there are many other examples.

4. Why is Confessions a book that still resonates with readers today?

That’s an excellent question. Partly, once one’s committed to it, it’s because of its very uniqueness. It is so rich and so original. One can read it again and again and see more and more of the exquisitely intertwined strands within it. Partly because Augustine’s observations about human nature can be so acute, the reader has a shock of recognition: we see our own present concerns or anxieties or confusions sharply reflected in his own, and we get a sudden sense of eerie closeness to Augustine and his times. Then for some people it is a matter of their own faith, or their reaching toward faith. They find Augustine’s descriptions of his own struggles and doubts incredibly appealing; and when he recounts his ecstatic moment of divine vision at Ostia, it can prove an extraordinary moment of connection. – I once went to teach a group of trainee lay readers about the Confessions. I gave them some excerpts to read, one of which was the ascent at Ostia. They agreed that, though they could not have put it into words, this experience was familiar to them. I was in awe. So I tried to write for those people too.

5. How do you see this book being used on courses?

I’ve tried to create this book so that it can be used in multiple ways. A student or a teacher could, of course, simply read it from end to end to procure an introduction to the Confessions and what I think are its most important themes. Because I’ve organized the book thematically rather than working sequentially through the Confessions, they could also read it to get a sense of the Confessions as a whole, even if they don’t have the time or inclination to tangle with the entire work. But there is also a very detailed Index Locorum, so that anyone who wants to use the book as a commentary on particular passages can look up every place I’ve discussed them, what other passages I’ve put them in conversation with, etc. I would be thrilled if the four excerpts, as well as the book overall, were used in Latin language classes as a model for how to write detailed commentary on a Latin passage. And I would hope that the book will be used as a jumping-off point for other works about Augustine and the ideas he deals with: to that end, rather than just providing lists for further reading, I’ve situated each work I suggest with a phrase or two so that the reader knows what she is taking on.

6. What makes this guidebook different to others on the market?

There is nothing like this on the market. There are book-by-book introductions to the Confessions; there are general introductions, but these tend to concentrate on the biographical material and to fade out when approaching the more philosophical/theological material of the later books. There is nothing of this length and accessibility that deals with the Confessions simultaneously as a work of literature and a work of theology; that emphasizes the unifying themes in the work as a whole; and that through this treatment tries to arouse the reader to the complexity and richness of the work.