Trans Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 16. Nr. Juni 2006

9.6. Spreading the Word: Texts and the Text
Herausgeberin | Editor | Éditeur: Mihaela Irimia (University of Bucharest)

Dokumentation | Documentation | Documentation

Our Demotic Augustinianism, a Pattern Launched by the 18th-Century Novel

Mihaela Irimia (University of Bucharest)



"Augustan" remains serviceable largely because of its near-meaninglessness’.

Claude Rawson


However one defines the Age of Reason, however revolutionary and anti-authoritarian one estimates its spirit to have been, [it had] an Augustinian ethic (…). From the sixteenth to the eighteenth century Anglicanism (and Protestant Nonconformity) can be called Augustinianism’.

Donald Greene


The "Philosophes" demolished the Heavenly City of St. Augustine only to rebuild it with more up-to-date materials’.

Carl L. Becker

As a new genre, the novel establishes itself in the 18th-century collective (un)conscious through its amazing capacity of proliferation. It is, in more than one sense, the expansion of the text into texts, there for the taking. This is one of its overt signs of modern identity - its successful recourse to modern techniques and technologies: dialoguing as and with Mr. And Mrs. Average, pleasing their flat platitudes, landing on their coffee house, pub, or toilet tables in accessible printed copies, entertaining, while instructing them. It does this using the vehicle of prose, the view called comic, the narrative known as epic (Fielding, 1742).

As a new genre, it is sensitive to history, that small-scale measuring of time that has its footing in reality out there and is not shy of caring for the domesticspace - ‘the’ modern variant of interiority, acquired with the triumph of individual independence. By identifying its locale in the average habitat, the novel operates a ‘translatio imperii’ famously boasted as a translation of the Socratic philosophical disposition from the polis ‘out of closets and libraries, schools and colleges, to (…) clubs and assemblies, (…) tea-tables and coffee houses’ (Addison, 1710). This, its percolation in so many texts for ready consumption, is another obvious sign of modern identity.

As a new genre, it takes sustained interest in individual life/ves, which it valorizes as individual experience(s) in the collective space(s) of society. Opening, like the public sphere itself, to the light of rationality (Habermas, 1962), it favours exchange and encourages otherness, pulverizing itself into endless versions, to suit the expectations and tastes of its customers. It finds the latter in the intimacy of the very self and makes use of contemporaneous forms of expression in order to voice it, e.g. the letter, the diary, the personal account. A century later, Dickens declares out and loud that writing novels is a profession. There was no such thing before this second golden age of the novel, though its first witnessed a proliferation of texts unprecedented in the public arena.

Coextensive with the Western mind as such, these novelistic strategies and tactics can be identified in foundational documents and monuments (Foucault, 1966) of Western culture. They occur in some form or another in classic antiquity, are filtered through the medieval Christian lens, bathed in the Renaissance encounter with utmost cultural alterity, and are put to the test of doubt by the Scientific Revolution ‘crise de conscience’ (Hazard, 1935). More specifically, the histoires prodigieuses of the Renaissance show a hardly quenchable thirst for accumulating narratives of all kinds and fattening the bulk of the story, a Rabelaisian disposition legitimizing the author of Gargantua et Pantagruel himself.

The 17th-century ‘dissociation of sensibility’ (Eliot, 1921) works fissures in the isomorphic model that had held our world together. The ominous annunciation reverberates in the world of the professional as of the liberal arts. The year 1605 abounds in topical events of the kind. Cervantes publishes Don Quixote and Bacon TheAdvancement of Learning, Dutch still lifes start replacing Italian Biblical scenes, and Kepler puts the finishing touch to his Astronomia nova. Five years later, one Fabricius discovers spots on the face of the sun. Less confident and more apprehensive than the oecumenē founded by the Constantinian conversion, this brave new world brings in a new kind of text focusing on the individual with his daily worries and frustrations. Where the confessional note is not overtly struck, it is felt in collateral gestures. Quixote dies in his bed (Beer, 1970), like any novel hero with an accredited agenda, even though desperately, or, rather hopelessly, in love with the angelic world that, he remains assured, must have sent him his Dulcinea. From this to Rousseau’s Confessions it is one step. It is one step, a lesser one, to St. Augustine’s Confessions.

The liminal case of the Cervantean protagonist will shed light on our discussion of the 18th-century Weltanschauung. Like Heidegger’s Nietzsche, or Nietzsche’s Socrates, Cervantes’s Quixote is ‘the’ last Platonist. A more than longed-for status, this is also a far from closed case. Augustine, later bishop of Hippo, seems entitled to claim it as ‘the’ first last Platonist within written memory. Crucial in the foundation and spread of a thoroughly new vision of the world (Marou, 1983), St. Augustine stands at the head of a type of sensibility still living in us, despite the spectacular hiatus occurring between the 1600s and the 1700s (McKeon, 1987), and for which the Joachimite vision is only a further reinforcement of the foundational apocalyptic text.

The Augustinian contribution to Western culture is impressively varied, yet easy to synthesize. The literature accredits him as the ‘new man’ of wise learning, for whom scientia, the legacy of classic erudition, is not worth its true value unless accomplished in sapientia, the newly adopted Christian attitude (Dahlberg, 1988). Their tandem works much in his spirit, for Augustine is the tireless promoter of figural philosophy, ‘the’ one vision of the world from the Church Fathers to the 18th century (Auerbach, 1959). We owe him the sustained and systematically demonstrated providential view of history, an acute investigation of memory, the meticulous analogical method in theological and philological studies, the model of avid reading with subtle hermeneutic skills. No end of philosophical, historical, literary, and, indeed, theological texts irradiate from his oeuvre.

One of the current assumptions in our approaches to texts today is rooted in Augustine’s insistence that the Old Testament only proves its validity if understood as a prefiguration of the New Testament. Each and every episode in the one story is deemed as holding a relation of correspondence and fulfilment with its counterpart in the other story. Tables of correspondences may have functioned in other cultures or ages, and critics have not failed to draw them up in maps of mental geography. What is particularly relevant in the Augustinian project is his insistence that the Scripture be read in this systematic manner. As has been remarked, the Old Testament thus loses its ‘national history’ character and acquires a concrete dramatic actuality able to keep our awareness awake (Auerbach, 1959). As it reads into and through its other testamentary text, it spreads into so many texts in this our world.


Fielding orchestrates his Tom Jones, which is the ‘history of a foundling’, in such a way as to make its overall architecture redolent of the classic epic. The triptych-like structure of the books offering distinct yet interconnected narratives point to Christian religious painting, while the ‘history’ itself is the depiction of the ‘life and adventures’ of somebody only late in the day discovered to be of some noble descent. A prefiguration of Tom’s peripeteia on the highway, life in the country sets the type, of which the next cluster of episodes serve as antitype, to be fulfilled as veritas (Auerbach, 1959) in the London denouement. Likewise, Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe unfolds a prolonged story of exile and frustration to eventually bring in a happy ending with a promised follow-up. Robinson’s disciplined reading of the Bible had secured his safe issue at a time when no palpable outlet was at hand, other than the revealed text of God. Joseph Andrews follows his own erring path before he comes to a safe resolution and astutely combines scriptural wisdom, imparted by his clerical friend, with pragmatic savoir-faire, helped along by the same companion.

Another principle that has come down to us from St. Augustine is the one we know as analogy, which maintains that if something is lost of the spirit of the text in whatever individual part of its whole, it can be recuperated elsewhere. This holistic view is of the order of routine or commonsense for us, but it was not part of any coherent text study before Augustine. It follows that reading texts with adequate care is an endeavour both letter- and spirit-sensitive. Indeed, Augustine interprets the famous passage from II Corinthians, III, 6 figurally, by reading in the letter the old Jewish law and in the spirit the new Christian faith, appending to the latter the logic of historia-figura-veritas fulfilment and making of it the root of so many further texts.

The still heated battle of the books fed by ardent spirits in the previous decades advertises the moderns as victors over the ancients. Dryden’s praise of Shakespeare had sealed up a debate energetically resuscitated by 18th-century spirits. Pope may ‘trim’ Shakespeare to make him passable in the salons, and Fielding may prefer the Latin classics. Both, yet, find it normal to waste breath and ink on the perishable and detect in it worth that would have horrified the pompous classics. Particularly Fielding’s sympathy for the self-made type of ‘new man’ is an indication that creatural realism had not lost its force. It will be the salt of the earth in the immensely popular novelistic archive circulating as books, films or DVD’s in our daily existence.

We assume that the ‘secret’ between the lines of a text can be dug up with unabated patience. It is a strategy that the clerisy quite normally adopts, convinced that the apparent meaning of the text is not sufficient food for the spirit, that the letter, indeed, must be fulfilled in the spirit invisible to the bare eye. The critical spectacles needed for the correct and subtle look underneath the surface are in great measure an Augustinian invention. Perpetuated in the Middle Ages and theorized by Dante as operating at four distinct levels of reading, they are utensils of basic hermeneutic use today. Needless to say, the multiple readings thus entailed multiply the text for the taste, desire, and purpose of the particular reader. Suffice it to take Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose¸ at once a thriller, an aesthetic study, and a semiotic treatise, and an airport book.


Fielding’s systematic theoretical chapters, like his prefaces, point to undeniable professional rigour. Like Augustine checking the validity of the ‘old law’ against the vitality of the ‘new law’, Fielding gives his imaginary critical colleagues numberless reasons to feel confident. Writing ‘in the manner of Cervantes’, he claims, with his Spanish master, that ‘novelar’ is an enterprise ‘unattempted yet’ in his nation’s vernacular. Like him, he glibly accepts the challenge of multiplying the word of God in the demotic speech of the many and makes no bones to share their company. Anecdotal history has it that he used to read out chunks of freshly written novels to his chamber maid and cross out what the poor illiterate woman failed to understand. He knew the worth of catering for all tastes. Indeed, extensive culinary metaphors, parallelisms with ancient classics’ statements, and quotes set in context verify the ‘ancients’ against the ‘moderns’, the latter embodied by none but the theoretician-novelist himself. To the dusty book of prayers is added the book of nature, the latter a fulfilment and secular proliferation of the former, the way Tom is spirit that gives life, while Blifil is the dry letter that kills.

But the most important Augustinian legacy is the story of individual life perceived as a kind of writing in its own right and one raising to the height of unconditional dignity ordinary people of the day, engaging in ‘the good life’ down here. Bending over the Gospels with more excitement than when he had perused the Latin classics’ descriptions of great men, Augustine stabilizes the cult of the common individual as constitutive of our Western identity. Present in medieval and Renaissance Christian-creatural narratives, this is nowhere else more distinctly clear than in the 18th-century novel, in which rogues, thieves, servants, prostitutes and workmen share the focus of attention with aristocratic and wealthy middle-class masters. Mixture of styles reflecting this democratic view of the human condition (Auerbach, 1946) points to a new philosophy which for the bishop of Hippo had been part of a lifetime mission.

The novel rises in the context of growing secularization that classic modernity favours. As the genre of a ‘God-forsaken world’ (Lukács, 1920), it finds its home in the transcendental homelessness of the new world and resorts to irony, as a figure of speech and of thought. Identity shifts should be expected, and they do occur. Between the great epic and entertainment literature, if evolves in the low mode (Frye, 1957) introduced by the Gospel narratives that have been allotted pride of place among pre-novelistic writings. Bible reading protocols along the centuries, Bunyan’s puritanical rewriting of the scriptural text, and prayer book supplements of the revealed word of God had secured continuity of imagery, expression and vision. The ‘secular scripture’ (Frye, 1976) that the novel is offers the modern reader a demotically fulfilled text - at once food for thought and for pleasure, the modern fulfilment of the classic ‘utile dulci’. Its meliorism is the modern accomplishment of a solid Christian philosophy resounding in the Augustinian echo ‘bona… dona’. The eighteenth-century philosophes had ‘dismantled heaven somewhat prematurely [only] to retain their faith in the immortality of the soul (…) and the perfectibility of the human race’ (Becker, 1932). The set pattern of the happy-ending novel confirms a fashion that will percolate in pathos-geared Victorian fiction. To the ‘once upon a time’ of fairy-tale glory of the mythical origins is thus appended the apocalyptic ‘happily they lived hereafter’. Our modern and postmodern visions of accomplishment, from the communist dream to consumerist propaganda partake of this secular apocalypticism distributed in leaflets, posters and computer images.

From Biblical exegesis we have inherited the desire to look deep into the text for the ‘genesis of secrecy’ (Kermode, 1979) to become apparent. Applied equally to sacred and secular texts now, the method owes immensely to Augustine’s Gestalt rearrangement. We are all pleromatists seeking the last truth of the text, its spiritual rather than carnal meaning (Kermode, 1979). How else, philologically, could we do this, if not sticking to the text? Like Augustine finding new light where he had previously seen dim passages, we focus on those details that articulate words into lines, lines into paragraphs, and paragraphs into full texts. We look for illumination and illustration at the foot of the letter, but aiming to rise to the mind and heart of the spirit. Where the paratactic book of nature leaves room for the syntactic book of culture (McKeon, 1983), we look for those connectives that hold the narrative together. There are cases when, like the Church Fathers, we will read hina (ίνα) instead of hoti (ότι) (Kermode, 1979), operating a ‘post hoc, ergo propter hoc’ amendment. Urged, like Petronius, by cruel time (‘modo, modo’), we will proceed like Herodotus (‘καιεπεί’), desirous to fulfill our own narrative of the narrative. And we will resort to syntax, where paratactic language had left all possibilities open. This had been the way of eighteenth-century fiction. The choice we will have made will narrow these options considerably. It will also bear our mark. Such had been the one left by St. Augustine to the Augustan times of novelistic furor - a time of analogy and of fulfilment. [The novel as prothesis attached to the indifference of plain reality: e.g. Don Quixote hosts Don Quixote, who is ironically hosted or absorbed by Don Quixote reproduced in dozens or even hundreds of copies, in Part II of the book = modern serialization of onetime exemplary stories, like the novellas ejemplares narrated by a miserable ex-soldier left with only one arm and speaking with a stutter, the more so as ‘dichas por señas suelen ser entendidas’, words are customarily conveyed through gestures ] [ Miltons’s ‘things unattempted yet in prose or rhyme’ ~ Fielding’s comic romance ‘unattempted yet in the English language’ < Cervantes aware that he is ‘el primero que he novelado en lengua castellana’, so his exemplary novellas are the incipit of modern Spanish literature, ‘the’ first sample taken out of a pool of others, ‘the’ text standing out among texts, and proliferating into so many new texts = awareness that]


The novel is not a genre, but a hybrid. It is the ‘degenerate’ genre, if we think that 90% of what gets published is pulp. Kundera speaks about the ‘spirit of the novel’, but is this not the genre which was attacked from its very inception? From the Decameron to Moll Flanders, form Don Quixote to Gargantua, from Madame Bovary to Lady Chatterley’s Lover, from Ulysses to Satanic Verses, have we not seen it vilified on moral grounds? Have we not, since Plato’s indictment, witnessed literature’s incapacity to be ‘serious’, because given to amusement and pleasure? It has been said of the novel that it is the only genre that can be read in privacy, while you masturbate. Is not fiction unpardonable frivolity? Freud himself saw in reading a source of other pleasures.

The pleasures of the imagination, indeed, are the bane of the souls of the faithful, but they are also endowed with the power to titillate the senses and stir desires. A modern pharmakon par excellence, the novel stimulates fabulous extravagances and fuels immoral reactions, under the cover of what is becoming, because it has metabolized a lot from the Aristotelian lesson. In Renaissance Spain, England, France, and Italy, novellas of one kind or another push to the fore daily life, commoners, private individuality, operating an unprecedented opening. Here is a proof of the Morpheo-Proteic nature of narrative. Virginia Woolf observes that there is no such thing as a certain given substance of the novel, Cervantes, Marivaux, Fielding, Dickens, Flaubert or Joyce doing their best to set right the hectic stuff of current existence, making of its tragicomic a private cultic object.

There is also the reverse force in this wonderful mechanism preserving our memories. The novel induces a re-enchantment of grey reality bereft of the grand projects of the race. It finds the extraordinary in utterly ordinary individuals, in ordinary places, involved in ordinary business, snowed under ordinary circumstance and pursuing ordinary aims. It makes them nice and pleasant to us by giving their bents and proclivities a special height, raising their mean truths to the rank of truth, pushing the periphery to the centre of existence. It is the saving grace of the novel to turn the trivial into the important, just ‘as in novels’. The novel is militant Platonism, endlessly in search of new configurations in the contingency of the world. It uses the least apodictic discourse. This is the most realistic and down-to-earth discourse of our secularized Western culture. Owing to the written word, it diversifies communication and drags language into the meanders of the real. It is a wrestling rink and a democratic space, because it refuses all authority. In the track of Flaubert’s dictum, the novelist, like God, is present everywhere, visible nowhere.

As the full-to-the-brim that life is, and which is coextensive with itself, the novel is a genre of excess, which eighteenth-century fictional strategies fully confirm through tricks such as the manuscript found by mere chance, the letter rewritten in a wider context, the confession filtered for a potential reader, all these erase the boundary between fact and fiction. It is the latter that triumphs in an acknowledgement of the Baudrillardian model, acquiescing in the isomorphic model. A great great great great grandson of Plato and Parmenides, Baudrillard is also derived from Heraclitus, for simulacra do not claim access to verifiable truth. They are not cognition, but rather recognition, and the dynamics of the contingent only allows of approximations. What we are now we will not be the next minute. Hence also the wisdom of the novel, as Kundera suggests. The novel teaches us a few liberal principles, among which the pleasure of cultivating the garden of doubts, the refusal of taking things for granted, tolerance, flexibility, irreverent laughter. It teaches us freedom. Its spirit is Western by definition, because it is the spirit of ‘human rights’ - a question of identity in our new Europe.

© Mihaela Irimia (University of Bucharest)


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9.6. Spreading the Word: Texts and the Text

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Mihaela Irimia (University of Bucharest): Our Demotic Augustinianism, a Pattern Launched by the 18th
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