Sunday, November 30, 2008

Freedom and Responsibility

Christian existentialism has no particular affinity with Calvinism or the Reformed Tradition. Of the eight major Christian existentialists (Kierkegaard, Dostoevsky, Marcel, Jaspers, Barth, Tillich, and the Niebuhr brothers), only Barth comes from a Reformed background. (Kierkegaard and Tillich were Lutherans; Dostoevsky was Russian Orthodox; Marcel and Jaspers were Catholic; and the Niebuhrs were members of the no-longer extant German Evangelical Synod.) It's not that hard to see why, I suppose: Existentialism involves the ultimate freedom of man, and Calvinism is famously caricatured as "that predestination denomination"--which it is, at least to some extent.

But I'm an existentialist for the same reason I'm a Presbyterian, which is that Karl Barth was and I agree with him on just about all of the major issues. (And I did before I'd ever read him, thanks to the popularization of his theology in Frederick Buechner's books.) And so there must be a synthesis (a bad word for Barth, of course) here; there must be a way to believe in predestination and the ultimate freedom of man.

I found it on my third reading of Church Dogmatics: A Selection. (I still have neither the money nor the guts to read the Dogmatics in their entirety, which I suppose makes me disingenuous when I say that I agree with Barth on just about all of the major issues.) Mankind, as a creature, has a special type of freedom, a freedom which God the Creator does not have: the freedom of alienation. This alienation manifests itself, at least when I talk about it, in three ways: alienation from oneself, alienation from one's fellow-creatures, and alienation from God. God cannot, by His very nature, be alienated:
it is a mark of created being as distinct from divine that in it conflict with God and therefore mortal conflict with itself is not ruled out, but is a definite possibility even if it is only the impossible possibility, the possibility of self-annulment and therefore its own destruction.
This "impossible possible," this possibility for alienation and indeed annihilation, is what our freedom would look like if we held it up to the light. But this freedom is indeed ours, and we are able (and most of the time, willing and ready) to exercise it.

But Barth is not Heidegger. A mere exercise of our freedom is not sufficient to end alienation--indeed, most if not all expressions of human freedom lead only to further alienation. (For a great example, head over to John Updike's Rabbit, Run, which the author has said he fashioned as an object lesson from Barth and Kierkegaard.) We have the ability to choose, but because we are (as Plato says) fundamentally stupid and (as Calvin says) fundamentally perverse, we will choose a Tower of Babel over the Living God every single time. Our freedom leads not to Being but to Nothingness.

The solution, then, is to recognize that our freedom is real but still illusory--that is, we are free but it's not actually a good thing to act on that freedom. (In this sense, our freedom is that of Adam in the Garden; we can choose to eat from the tree or not to eat from it.) Our freedom is an attempt to be like God, and indeed, "From the very first man as such has continual illusions about himself. He wants to be more than a creature." The problem is that he isn't more than a creature.

And so it is that the Christian must relinquish his freedom. The Christian, according to Barth, is defined by his acceptance of his own contingency: "Of all creatures the Christian is the one which not merely is a creature, but actually says yes to being a creature." He submits himself to God's sovereignty (which Barth, good Calvinist that he is, believes will take precedence in the end anyway) and recognizes that this is the dignified and proper place for him, that "it is the glory of the creature to be lowly in relation to God."

Now, I recognize that this in no way solves the age-old problem of the connection between man's free will and God's sovereignty, but it does explain how the Christian existentialist can believe in ultimate freedom and ultimate sovereignty. You just can't put them on the same level. You end up like the canaries at the top of this post. You're able to leave the cage, but you don't--because you recognize that the cage is not a place of imprisonment but the place you belong.

Friday, November 28, 2008

The Civil War in Four Minutes

I'm too busy writing and grading papers to come up with any substantive on here, but here's the coolest video I've seen in a long time.

Gilmour-mandated warning: While the video itself contains absolutely no offensive content, apparently the site is NSFW because of other videos it carries. Consider yourself warned.

I'll post a real post soon, I promise.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Nothing More Than the Traveling Hands of Time

V. and I went on Friday night to see the UGA Theater production of Thornton Wilder's Our Town, a play I loved in high school but have not really looked at since I read it for my master's comps in 2005. It's an odd play, in that you remember it as Main Street U.S.A. when it's actually The Sound and the Fury. I remembered it as sweet and a little corny--a traditional play if there ever was one--but that's a great disservice. It was as Modernist as anything Eliot or Faulkner or Joyce ever wrote, what with the whole "Stage Manager" conceit breaking the fourth wall and stopping the play every 15 seconds to trot out another "expert." (Those experts, I suppose, are a bit like Eliot's footnotes to The Waste Land, obfuscating rather than elucidating the thing in itself.)

If you read my post on Meet the Robinsons, you probably picked up on my recent interest in time. The party line--repeated nearly ad nauseum in the brutal third act of Our Town--is that we should live in the moment, appreciate each second for what it is, let go of the past, and not fixate on the future, which is of course imaginary. This clashes with the Southern Agrarians I've been reading this semester. Andrew Lytle specifically condemns the Wilder system, calling the human results of it "momentary man":
that man who no longer has location, who is forever on his way, speeding from one inn to another, to the same bed that is not the same bed, to poor cuisines served in the same false ornament of supposedly foreign architecture.
Lytle demands allegiance to the past, and in fact, out of the twelve I'll Take My Stand guys, he's the only one who could have a reasonable claim of actually living in the past, living on a farm and whatnot.

And then there's Faulkner, whose The Sound and the Fury posits three systems. Quentin Compson, the world's most famous suicidal neurotic, can live only in the past, both personal (watching his sister get her underpants dirty) and corporate (the antebellum chivalric system he can't let go); his brother Jason lives in the future, and is a monster for it. Only Benjy Compson lives in the present--and he's an idiot man-child, certainly no role model.

Faulkner's solution is to present us with Dilsey, the Compsons' black servant. Dilsey receives the final section of the novel, and her chapter is marked by its third-person narrator and its more or less coherent voice. There's no wild shifting back and forth between present-day and thirty years previous in Dilsey's section--we see things as God must see them, from above them. And so Dilsey comes off stable, happy, dependable--three words no one would ever use to describe Quentin, Jason, or Benjy.

And so I submit that Faulkner wants us to follow Dilsey's lead. In a book about the way the past, present, and future conspire to destroy your mind, only Dilsey escapes. I'm sure you could blame that on Faulkner's racism if you wanted to--perhaps Dilsey escapes because she lacks the mental capabilities to analyze time. But I don't think so. He has a real and obvious affection for her, and he gives her section the weight of the novel's structure (it closes the whole ugly story) and its themes (she receives Easter Sunday and the resurrection that day implies).

And Dilsey's secret is that she's too busy to think about time at all. She works non-stop taking care of Benjy, Jason, and Miss Quentin Compson--not to mention her own children and grandchildren--and has no time for the type of poisonous self-reflection that wrecks the Compson family. She's no idiot, but she's no intellectual, which is to say that she lives neither and simultaneously in the past, present, and future.

Wilder might agree, whatever Emily Webb screams from her grave at the end of Our Town. After all, his play--whatever else it does--collapses and twists time. First it invents an era that may never have really existed (at least the way he portrays it); further, he does so in a blatantly nostalgic move, writing the play on the cusp of World War II and setting it before World War I. But then he destroys that era. Death is all around his characters, and the Stage Manager alerts us to the eventual deaths of the people we meet nearly as soon as we meet them. So past and future have been collapsed into an amorphous blob.

And as far as the present goes, Wilder subverts himself. If the important thing is for us to live in the present, then why present a nostalgized past? And why bother talking about material progress (which is going to make us look ahead, even when the progress takes place in the past--that's what the Carousel of Progress is all about)? No, the present is not as simple as Emily Webb wants it to be, and Wilder is well aware of it. The present is important but not distinct--Our Town makes the audience into Dilsey; it collapses and combines past, present, and future and hands it to us in a ball.

Do whatever you can with it.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

The Hoax That Ate Itself

When T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land was first published in the October 1922 issue of The Criterion, it appeared without one of its most distinctive features: the author’s footnotes, which complicate and obfuscate--but only occasionally elucidate--the poem. Two months later, the poem was published in book form in the United States, this time with the footnotes attached. Eliot himself took a sly attitude toward the notes, saying famously in “The Frontiers of Criticism” that “I am, on one conspicuous occasion, not guiltless of having led critics into temptation”--a statement that suggests that the addendum to his most famous work is a type of scam or hoax.

Eliot's footnote scam was not without precedent. Edmund Spenser’s 1587 Shepheardes Calender features, amended to the main text, a series of introductions and footnotes by one “E.K.,” often considered to be a pseudonym for Spenser himself. E.K.’s gloss is inconsistent--sometimes it is insightful, sometimes ironic--but, as Theodore L. Steinberg points out, “the reader of the Calender can--and should--regard E.K.’s introductions and glosses as an integral part of the Calender, helping Spenser to develop his themes.”

As Steinberg points out, E.K. draws ironic attention toward Spenser’s ideas; when, for example, he disclaims the influence of John Skelton upon the name Colin Clout--an influence which Steinberg claims as “obvious"--the reader recognizes how far off the glosser must be and clings all the more strongly to Skeltonic influence. F.O. Matthiessen notes an additional motivation for the existence of E.K., Spenser’s “desire to have his poems rival the works of classical antiquity even to their appearance in a volume with annotations” by a third party, even if he had to invent that third party himself. The gloss on The Shepheardes Calender, therefore, ends up being ironic and fraudulent but still in the service of an important task.

Eliot was, of course, intimately acquainted with Spenser, as he appeared to be intimately acquainted with nearly every English poet. In his essay “What Is a Classic?” for example, he refers to “the genius of Spenser,” even if that genius seems to consist chiefly in preparing a way for John Milton. More to the point, Eliot quotes Spenser’s Prothalamion in line 176 of The Waste Land (“Sweet Thames, run softly, till I end my song”).

This awareness does not, of course, prove that Eliot was thinking specifically of the E.K. gloss when he was composing his notes for The Waste Land, but, in composing a semi-ironic commentary on his own text, The Shepheardes Calender must have at least crossed his mind. But that is not to say that he modeled his own footnotes on Spenser’s. Indeed, Matthiessen says that, since Eliot’s notes appear under his own name, they cannot be a cultivation of antiquity. Rather, Eliot’s notes “are simply a consequence of his desire to strip the form of his poem to its barest essentials in order to secure his concentrated effect.” In other words, the footnotes are an earnest attempt to nail down meaning, to direct readers to the sources for Eliot’s quotations and paraphrases.

Matthiessen’s explanation, however, ignores both Eliot’s wry sense of humor and the circumstances surrounding the creation of the notes. As Russell Elliott Murphy describes it, the monograph of The Waste Land would have had to include sixteen blank pages, due to the peculiarities of printing processes. So “Eliot was prevailed upon to provide some additional poetry to complete the volume. He opted, however, to provide the notes instead.” He thus--to some extent, anyway--included the notes under duress.

However, Jo Ellen Green Kaiser suggests that this story is at best only partially true (and perhaps a complete fiction), that in fact “Eliot had the notes in mind before he began serious negotiations with his eventual publisher . . . and that he had finished composing them several months before the poem first appeared in The Dial.” If Kaiser is correct, then the footnotes move from the earnest interpretation aid suggested by Matthiessen into a joke or hoax that “deflect[s] the cultural crisis represented in the poem onto the act of reading, suggesting that the disorder seemingly so evident in the poem is in fact the fault of the reader.” The notes, then, are meant to suggest a concrete meaning--or at least a structural order--that does not, strictly speaking, exist in the poem.

At any rate, the footnotes have to some extent benefited readers over the years, beginning with the Modernist critical powerhouse Edmund Wilson, who had access to the notes before their printing. Kaiser reports that “Before reading the notes . . . Wilson found the structurally fragmented poem representative of the ‘chaotic, irregular, fragmentary’ experiences that Eliot . . . had used to describe the ‘disassociated’ modern mind.”

But in a September 1922 letter to John Peale Bishop, Wilson says,
I am much excited about Eliot’s The Waste Land, which I have just read . . . it is certainly his masterpiece so far. He supplements it with a set of notes almost as long as the poem itself, explaining the literary, historic, anthropological, metaphysical, and religious significances to be found in it; but the poem, as it appears to me from two or three cursory readings, is nothing more or less than a most distressingly moving account of Eliot’s own agonized state of mind during the years which preceded his nervous breakdown.
The footnotes to the poem thus allow Edmund Wilson--and the thousands of readers who followed in his wake once the notes were published with the monograph--to transform something disturbing and chaotic into something understandable, something with structure and meaning. Further, the notes--contra, perhaps, to Matthiessen--make the poem something historical, as opposed to the modernist whirlwind, unconnected with history—that “dissociated” sensibility Wilson initially detected in the poem.

All of this sounds very fine and good, as though the notes do exactly what Eliot intended for them to--that is, they make sense of a poem that is at times nonsensical. But Eliot himself disdained and dismissed the notes in his “The Frontiers of Criticism,” calling them a “remarkable exposition of bogus scholarship.” Eliot is penitent in this essay. “My notes stimulated the wrong kind of interest among the seekers of sources,” he says. “I regret having sent so many enquirers off on a wild goose chase after Tarot cards and the Holy Grail.”

Eliot’s disavowal and repudiation of the notes thus makes any definitive remark on them difficult if not impossible, particularly since he propagates the old story that they were included because the poem was too short, which Kaiser disproves. But we can, perhaps, suggest that the notes were intended more or less as a hoax, but that they were received earnestly. And even after Eliot’s disavowal of them--even after the hoax was revealed as a hoax--the vast majority of readers (Kaiser and a few others excepted) continued to read them as an earnest and helpful addition to the poem. Eliot’s hoax on his readers, by the end of his lifetime, had been turned around and warped until it was a hoax on the poet himself, who is now destined to be (in his opinion) misread, his readers conducting “bogus scholarship” based on “the wrong kind of interest.” In the end, the footnotes to The Waste Land may be at their best a cautionary tale to authors who wish to pull a fast one on their readers.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

E.D. Hirsch and the Death of the Reader

In his seminal essay “The Death of the Author,” Roland Barthes radically redefines the traditional concepts of writing and reading. As the title suggests, Barthes takes all interpretive power away from the Author, opening the text up for all interpretation and granting the Reader a kind of authority heretofore unseen in literary theory. Once the author has been killed off--or at least reduced to a mere “scriptor” who “no longer bears within him passions, humours, feelings, impressions”--the text becomes free of fixed meaning, and the reader becomes “the space on which all the quotations that make up a writing are inscribed without any of them being lost”--the locus of interpretation shifts from the Author, past the text, and onto the Reader. In short, Barthes proposes an act of reading that borders on secular religion--the Author sacrifices him or herself in order to allow the Reader salvation, or in this case, ultimate sway over the text. Or, as the scriptor himself puts it, “the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author.”

Obviously, Barthes’ system is radical in its redistribution of power, and while it perhaps rescues the reader from many years of comparative impotence in interpretation, Barthes is, I feel, guilty of clustering power in a new source--in his destruction of the hegemony of the Author, he creates a new hegemony of the Reader, and the Author’s death leads in the end to not much at all.

A better system comes from E.D. Hirsch’s 1960 essay “Objectivity in Interpretation.” Writing in the brief space between the two biggest academic movements of the 20th-century--the New Criticism that ruled universities from the 1920s through the late ‘50s, and the Poststructuralism that would take hold in 1968, thanks in no small part to Barthes’ essay--Hirsch suggests a division of labor of sorts, between interpretation and criticism.

The former he defines as “the construction of textual meaning as such; it explicates . . . those meanings, and only those meanings, which the text explicitly or implicitly represents.” With his emphasis on the text here, he sounds like a New Critic, but he is not; contrary to the “text-only” approach, he says that “This permanent meaning is, and can be, nothing other than the author’s intention." Hirsch thus moves the locus of authority in interpretation away from the text and the reader and gives it back to the author, in a move that sounds quite old-fashioned to the post-1968 Academy.

The role of the interpreter, in this schema, is to “distinguish those meanings which belong to that verbal intention [of the author] from those which do not . . . the interpreter has to distinguish what a text implies from what it does not imply.” However, interpretation is not as constricting a task as it may sound; Hirsch acknowledges that, while there may be a strict meaning as determined by the author’s intentions, we will never really have access to it--and so interpretion ends up being open in its way, at least to the extent that we never know for sure if our interpretation is correct or not. After the act of interpretation is complete, the interpreter is free to become the critic. Criticism, according to Hirsch, is an act of application. It takes the interpretation of a text and views it “as a component within a larger context.” This act has essentially limitless possibilities and operates on a far more subjective basis; and Hirsch does not spend very much space in the essay discussing criticism, perhaps because he has far less to define.

In a way, “Objective Interpretation” opens the door wide for “The Death of the Author.” Barthes’ essay promotes what Hirsch calls criticism, but it does so by first ignoring or destroying what Hirsch calls interpretation. Further, Barthes takes delight in an idea that horrifies Hirsch: namely, that “As soon as the reader’s outlook is permitted to determine what a text means, we have not simply a changing meaning but quite possibly as many meanings as readers.” Barthes, far less concerned (if concerned at all) with upholding traditional concepts of meaning, is happy to “refus[e] to assign a ‘secret’, an ultimate meaning, to the text . . . to refuse to fix meaning is, in the end, to refuse God and his hypostases--reason, science, law.”

The death of the Author results in a chaos and an anarchy that exhilarates Barthes as much as it unsettles Hirsch. The concept of a “correct interpretation” is in the end tantamount to the Greek concept of logos, a “guiding idea” that holds the world together. Judgment is not possible without it, objectivity is not possible without it, and ultimately, literary study is not possible without it, since “No one would bother seriously to discuss such a protean object” as the meaningless text. (Indeed, a common complaint about the modern English department is that, freed from its responsibility to pass on Western culture--a task which is more or less dependent upon objective meaning--it has lost its function in the world and become obsolete.) Further, Hirsch, in his criticism of reader- and text-centered criticism, suggests that those theories “really [mask] the idea that the reader construes his own, new meaning instead of that represented by the text.” When a critic puts the locus of authority on him or herself, in other words, it is first and foremost an act of egotism.

And this indictment of Barthesian egotism points to the chief advantage of Hirsch’s system, as I see it: the humility it requires from the reader/interpreter/critic. (Interestingly, in requiring humility, Hirsch separates the reader from the interpreter and the interpreter from the critic, whereas in “The Death of the Author,” these roles are implicitly combined.) If the objective meaning of a text is bound up in an author’s intentions, then the interpreter, in order to discover that meaning, “must familiarize himself with the typical meanings of the author’s mental and experiential world.” He must, in other words, bend himself to the will of the author, as expressed through the text--the personality of the interpreter, does not matter nearly as much as it does for Barthes (who, after all, in The Pleasure of the Text, suggests a similarity between interpretation and masturbation). In fact, the interpreter must leave himself behind completely and try to recreate, as best he can, the mindset and viewpoint of the author.

In addition to humility before the author, Hirsch simultaneously requires humility before the other interpreters. He sensibly recognizes that we cannot reasonably expect to put ourselves in the position of the author; and because “the meaning represented by a text is that of another, the interpreter can never be certain that his reading is correct.” So, while there is an objective meaning to a text, the interpreter must take pains to remind him or herself that his or her interpretation is not coterminous with it.

I believe that this viewpoint paradoxically elevates the individual interpretation. If there is no such thing as an objective meaning to a text, then we have little reason to listen to and seriously consider another person’s interpretation. But if there is an objective meaning--if my interpretation of a text can be wrong in a real way--then it is my duty to pay attention to what other people say, to allow their interpretations to critique and correct my own. Hirsch’s system, built on a single meaning from a single mind, actually leads in the end to a communal effort at interpretation--and that community is a major advantage of his system.

That kind of community is, of course, on display in seminar classes (at least when the members of the class are talking with each other instead of at each other--which has, thankfully, been my experience for the most part); student or teacher will suggest a possible reading for a text, and the remaining members of the class will run that reading through the machine of interpretation or criticism. The operant question, however, is whether seminars operate on criticism or on interpretation.

Because of the nature of immediate discussion--as opposed to dialogue that takes place in print, which can take months and years--I would like to suggest that most classrooms operate in the realm of criticism. That is, students discuss associations rather than meaning; they connect assigned texts to unassigned texts, to philosophy and politics and other disciplines. This is not to say that interpretation never takes place in a classroom--obviously, we occasionally talk about what an author had in mind with a particular poem. But because of the necessity of research and specific knowledge in interpretation (Hirsch says that “The probability that I am right in the way I educe implications depends upon my familiarity with the type of meaning I consider”), I suspect that interpretation begins as a solitary act and becomes communal only once the individual interpreter has had time to formulate his or her impressions more or less fully--and I suspect that that formulation happens primarily in writing.

That classroom work primarily consists of criticism rather than interpretation brings up a weakness of Hirsch’s system: If interpretation takes place before criticism, and if interpretation requires enough research and knowledge as to be primarily private (at least, again, in its early stages), then what is the role of the literature class? How can we have a classroom discussion that consists primarily of application/criticism come before the research that characterizes interpretation? The undergraduate classroom--which usually contains more lectures by the professor than does the graduate seminar--fits rather nicely into Hirsch’s schema, but the graduate classroom does not, unless students are willing to immerse themselves into the life and times of the subject of that week’s readings (probably a tall order for most students).

The graduate literature class, then, must either radically change the way it operates or else face the “facts” that, according to Hirsch, it is putting the cart before the horse in conducting criticism without interpretation. I suspect the former will not happen, and while it is a weakness of Hirsch’s system that the graduate seminar almost necessarily breaks the rules, our awareness of our transgression may in the end be another way of approaching the text with Hirschian humility.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Election Results

You've read a thousand of these already, but I'll just say that the candidate I voted for won and that I cried when I realized that all of African-American history had been groaning for this moment.

I'll also say that I was nothing but impressed with John Mark Reynolds' post on the election over at Scriptorium Daily. I disagree with Reynolds on most political matters, but I could only hope to be so gracious and optimistic if McCain had won.

I am not starry-eyed enough to buy the myth of Obama as America's personal Lord and Savior, and I am by no means a dyed-in-the-wool democrat. (Indeed, I might have even voted for McCain if he'd picked a better running mate--and I'd probably have voted for him, Palin and all, over someone like John Edwards.) But I do believe he will be a change for the better and I, like Reynolds, will be praying that he make wise, brave, and prudent decisions during his time in office.

And here's hoping--against all hope, perhaps, that we'll lay aside our partisan differences and treat our political parties as being-with-one-another rather than being-against-one-another.

How's that for existential politics?

Dobson Underestimates Constituency

I'm glad to see that James Dobson's fear-mongering "Letter from 2012" (you know, the one that said Obama would molest our kindergartners, etc., etc.) didn't fly. Progressive Revival reports the reaction, some of it quite negative, by his supporters.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Burning Burning Burning Burning

When I introduced myself to my students my first semester of teaching, I mentioned that one of my academic interests was Christian existentialism. Most of them looked back at me like groupers in tank (as freshmen are wont to do), but I had one student follow me out of the classroom. "Christian existentialism?" he said. "I thought that was an oxymoron."

It's a common opinion, I suppose, and an understandable one, given existentialism's close association with the atheists Heidegger, Sartre, Camus, and Nietzsche. But it's (to say the least) a limited opinion, if not historically blind. Gabriel Marcel, a Catholic, gave the philosophical movement its name, and the philosophy itself is based heavily on the nonfiction of Soren Kierkegaard (a Lutheran) and the fiction of Fyodor Dostoevsky (an Orthodox Christian).

But existentialism, as Walter Kaufmann suggests in his introduction to the anthology Existentialism from Dostoevsky to Sartre, really stretches back to St. Augustine. I suppose this fact shouldn't be too surprising; existentialism developed out of theology, and there's no theological movement (at least in the Christian West) that hasn't been influenced by Augustine to some degree or another. But the prefiguring of the existentialists (Sartre in particular, but you hear Pascal, Heidegger, and Karl Barth, too) in Augustine is too frequent and too strong to ignore.

And so it is that Christian existentialism begins literally when the Confessions does, with Augustine's avowal of an emotional salvation. Here's the famous statement: "You stir man to take pleasure in praising you, because you have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you" (I.i.1). That's the popular concept of the "God-shaped hole" in its infancy. Humanity, the theory says, has an inborn religious impulse, but Adam's breach of the covenant between himself and Jehovah messed it up. (Barth deals with this quite extensively.)

The end result of that sin is a three-fold alienation: from oneself ("my heart had become gross . . . and I had no clear vision even of my own self” [VII.i.2]); from others (“I therefore polluted the spring water of friendship with the filth of concupiscence” [III.i.1]); and ultimately from one's Creator, which is why that God-shaped hole exists at all.

Because of this alienation, we live in a world marked by what Heidegger will later call being-against-one-another and curiosity (a word that Augustine himself frequently uses, and I'm curious as to whether Heidegger took it from him). In other words, we're at odds with one another (and, Augustine would add, with ourselves and with God), and we fear stability--we hate and fear the very thing we need for salvation.

Another interesting aspect of Confessions is Augustine's theory of sin. His famous rejection of Manichaeism (which states that good and evil are equal and opposed forces in eternal combat) results in a theory of evil in which "evil has no existence except as a privation of good, down to that level which is altogether without being" (III.vii.12). That sounds like a Christianized version of the Sartrean concept of being and nothingness, although of course it's more accurate to say that Sartre's philosophy is a de-Christianized version of Augustine's theology, at least on this point. Evil, strictly speaking, does not exist--it's a gaping hole of negation, something that threatens to suck us all into a black hole of nonexistence. Such are the pernicious effects of original sin and the alienation that follows it.

Augustine, however, offers us what Sartre, Heidegger, and even Kierkegaard do not: a solution to the problem of alienation, of angst, of the being-against-one-another. Filling that God-shaped hole--legitimately filling it, which is to say, with God and not with a Barthian Tower of Babel--heals us. Obviously, it allows for a renewed relationship with God, but it also allows genuine self-reflection (the kind it takes to write the world's first autobiography, for example), and it even allows for renewed relationships among human beings: "true friendship . . . is not possible unless you bond together those who cleave to one another by the love which is ‘poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit who is given to us’ (Rom. 5:5)” (IV.iv.7).

There are many other prefigurings of existentialism in the Confessions (and I'm sure they're also present in Augustine's vast catalogue, none of which I've read)--his personalized hermeneutic, for example, or his rejection of the science of Genesis 1. But I think his treatment of the three kinds of alienation makes the strongest case for his status as the grandfather of existentialism. It's wild to think that one man essentially created philosophies as diverse as Catholicism, existentialism, and Calvinism. I suppose it helps to be a genius.