“What We’re Reading”

Three of my recent reads seem to converge on the themes of time, memory, and narrative.

First, Augustine’s Confessions, which I am teaching this semester both in a course for First-year undergraduates and in an elective for Masters students. I first read Confessions as an undergraduate myself and it made a profound impression on me. It has been a number of years since I have taught it, so this time around I read Henry Chadwick’s translation (which I was using for class) alongside James O’Donnell’s edition of the Latin and the accompanying commentary (helpfully online here). Though I like Chadwick’s translation very much, it pales in comparison to the genius of Augustine’s Latin, which is (as Latin can be) amazingly terse, yet at the same time poetic and even playful. What Chadwick must render as, “So I was confused with shame. I was being turned around” is in  Augustine’s original simply: “Itaque confundebar et convertebar” (Bk. 6, iv.6). Or what in Chadwick is a rather prosaic statement—“But while the former course was pleasant to think about and had my notional assent, the latter was more pleasant and overcame me”—is in the original a tightly woven nest of wordplay: “Sed illud placebat et vincebat, hoc libebat et vinciebat (Bk 8, v.12).

One of the great themes of Confession—indeed, perhaps the great theme—is time and memory. Time, for Augustine, is both the medium in which we must live our lives, and a raging torrent that threatens to dismember our very self. The only reality is the present: the future is not yet and the past is no longer. Yet the present is but an infinitesimally small moment, squeezed between a future that is unknown and causes us anxiety, and a past that we know all too well, a past that is filled with sins and sufferings that we are helpless to repair or redeem. Memory is the means by which we patch together a self, because by memory we can bring that past into the present, where it can be subject to redemption. In memory, “I meet myself and recall what I am, what I have done, and when and where and how I was affected when I did it… and on this basis I reason about future actions and events and hopes” (Bk. 10, viii.14). This is the great project of Confession: the narrative construction of a self that can stand before God in penitence and adoration.

Of course, for Augustine, no human work can save us, not even so magnificent a work as Confessions. Human memory is itself dismembered by time, and the stories of ourselves that we tell to other people, even if they are truthful stories, are destined to be forgotten. Our hope lies not in our narrative construction of a self, but in God, for whom the present is not squeezed between past and future, but expands into an eternal “now.” God re-members the dismembered self in a present that is not subject to the terrors of time:

You, Lord, are my consolation. You are my eternal Father, but I am scattered in times whose order I do not understand. The storms of incoherent events tear to pieces my thoughts, the innermost entrails of my soul, until that day when, purified and molten by the fire of your love, I flow together to merge into you (Bk. 11 xxix.39).

Providentially, while reading Augustine, I’ve also read two novels that deal with time, memory, and the self. First, is S. J. Watson’s, Before I Go to Sleep (now a major motion picture!), which tells the story of a woman who suffers from a form of amnesia that causes her to lose most of her memories every time she goes to sleep. The plot set-up is somewhat similar to Christopher Nolan’s great film Momento, though the character’s ability to retain memories for an entire day (as opposed to Nolan’s protagonist, who can retain them for only about 15 minutes) opens up the possibility of her trying to construct a self through keeping a journal of what she discovers about herself each day. The story is a page-turning thriller, as the main character rereads her journal each day and tries to figure out who is telling her the truth and who is not, but it also raises interesting questions about what it means to remember (if you write something down, forget it, and then read what you have written, does this count as remembering?) and offers what seems to me an ultimately hopeful and positive assessment of the possibility of constructing a truthful and coherent narrative of the self through writing. The novel is a story of redemption through storytelling, a witness to the power of narrative.

Richard Flanagan’s Booker Prize winning novel The Long Road to the Deep North is not, I think, so optimistic. Whereas Watson’s novel is set up by a tragic event that robs his character of her memory, Flanagan’s novel deals with an event so horrific in scope and intensity that it defeats the powers of narrative and memory: the construction of the Thai-Burma railway by the Japanese in 1943, for which they used POWs and slave laborers, over 100,000 of whom died. Primarily the story of Dorrigo Evans, an Australian medical officer who is widely hailed after the war as a hero for saving as many of his men as possible, it is a novel that offers a fragmented narrative that shifts between the horrors of the jungle (unflinchingly recounted), Evans’s memories of a lost (and illicit) love, and post-war years that follow Evans and others: both Australian and Japanese.

Like Watson, Flanagan proposes narrative and memory as instruments that might somehow redeem the losses of the past, but unlike Watson his novel is pervaded by deep doubts as to whether narrative and memory can deliver the goods. Given the unredeemable evils perpetrated in the jungles, many characters prefer forgetting to remembering, and some, particularly the Japanese, construct fictional narratives that justify their actions. Dorrigo Evans stands out because he can neither make himself forget—though he often would like to—nor make himself believe in the heroic account of himself that he and others have constructed. He is all too aware of his own betrayals and infidelities. In this way, he is not unlike Augustine: a man haunted by a past he cannot change and caught up in the midst of events he cannot place in any convincingly coherent order. But, unlike Augustine, Flanagan’s Evans will not take refuge in the hope of an eternal present that can redeem past and future. God is absent from the jungles of Burma, or so hidden and silent as to offer no comfort. The Narrow Road to the Deep North is perhaps a kind of godless Confessions, giving an idea of what an Augustinian account of the human condition would look life if there were no God to redeem it by re-membering the self.

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4 comments

  1. Watson’s novel is indeed brilliant, and haunted me for days after reading it. What would it mean to have one’s life erased, daily? Renewing commitments long-forgotten, and being at the mercy of persons one did not know.

  2. Flanagan’s title is taken from, and is possibly as play on Matsuo Bassho’s haiku collection of the same name. Though Bassho’s journey while physically demanding in that era pales with comparison besides the journey that is the backdrop to Flanagan’s novel.

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