Monday, April 19, 2010

Collecting Nurse Jackie’s Patron Saint: The Urtext of Memoirs

Suddenly, It's St. Augustine!

That exclamation is neither a message from the Florida Board of Tourism nor the title of a wacky, new sit-com about a talking St. Bernard with identity issues.

It is, rather, notice that recently, within the space of three days, I was struck by a cluster of references to the man who wrote the first memoir extant, the father of all autobiographies, St. Augustine, Bishop of Hippo. 

First, I'm skimming through The Erotic Revolution by Lawrence Lipton (1965), "An Affirmative View of the New Morality," i.e. the sexual revolution of the Sixties, and my eye falls upon a single mention of St. Augustine on page 117.

Then, while rereading a fascinating phenomenological study of sexual arousal versus ordinary experience, Smut: Erotic Reality/Obscene Ideology by Murray S. Davis (University of Chicago, 1983), I'm struck by references to Augustine again (and again).

Next, I received, unsolicited, Collecting the Confessions: Selections from the William M. Klimon Collection of St. Augustine's Confessions, a check list of books with introduction by Klimon, published to accompany an exhibition, Oct. 9-20, 2006, held at the Jeanne M. Godschalx Gallery at St. Norbert's College in De Pere, Wisconsin.

Finally, via Netflix, I caught up to Nurse Jackie, the cable series starring Edie Falco as a nurse erratically driving, with dark detours, on the road to sainthood. Within the first two minutes of the show's first episode, Nurse Jackie, in voice-over narration, declares who she is by acknowledging by name and citing Augustine: "Please God, let me be good - but not yet," a neat paraphrase from Book Eight, Chapter Five of the Confessions of Saint Augustine.

I happen to know whence Nurse Jackie's citation because I, too, like William Klimon, have an attraction to Augustine, having read the Confessions and City of God, as well as the works of Thomas Aquinas during a sojourn in the wilderness when I was reading all manner of religious texts - Christian, Judaic, Hindu, Buddhist, Shinto, pagan, you name it - in an effort to read my way out of the jungle I then found myself in. I've also, over the years, studied Western sexuality and mores, and you cannot do that without coming to terms with St. Augustine, who, whether you agree with him or not, has been the primary influence in Western culture upon sexuality and how we think about it. Reject with all your might Augustine's thoughts on sex and you still are influenced by them; the stronger the aversion, the more powerful the grip - which sort of sums up Augustine's personal struggle before his final, full acceptance and embrace of Catholicism.

That wresting match - "the impulses of nature and the impulses of the spirit are at war with one another" (B. 8, Ch. 5) - popularly centers around sin and the "the lower self." In other words, those parts of the Confessions that contain hot-parts, specifically discussion of the human hot-parts, which behave independently from will and desire, i.e. the mystery and wonder of a man's penis rising and falling beyond conscious control. Grossly simplified, from this observation evolved Augustine's philosophy of free-will and original sin.

I interpreted these references as signs to be obeyed but not as a call to conversion. Rather, as an omen to write about William Klimon and how a collector can focus upon collecting one specific book in as many editions as can be found, and by so doing provide an important contribution to our understanding of the book.

"As a longtime student of and collector of the literature of Catholic conversion, it is natural that I should have been attracted to St. Augustine's Confessions. It is, of course, the Urtext of that particular genre. I've known about the book for as long as I can remember but my bibliographic interest in the work was limited until the fall of 1990 when I participated in a reading seminar with the classicist Danuta Shanzer at Cornell University...Coincident with that seminar was the publication of a new English translation of the Confessions...The fact that a fresh translation of such an established work...was possible interested me greatly, and from that point on I kept my eyes open to watch for other translations" (Introduction to Collecting the Confessions).

Intrigued by the translation tradition but frustrated that the scholastic community appeared to ignore study of the translations of the Confessions, Klimon made it his business.

"Why is any of this important? Because the work of bibliographers and book historians during the last several decades has helped clarify the notion that our understanding of texts cannot be divorced from the questions of editions and translations, or even from the physical elements of the books themselves. If we want to understand Augustine, and particularly if we want to understand his effect on Christian thought and culture for the next millennium and a half, we have to investigate not just the texts in isolation, but how and what people actually read. And to do that, we've got to have access to the various editions and translations - but first someone has to collect them" (Introduction).

And there, in his last sentence, is the reason why book collectors, particularly those with a passion in an untilled area of scholastic inquiry, have been and remain key contributors to the study of books and the world from which they emerged.

So, what can happen when a person reaches their book collecting goal?

"As of the end of last year," Mr. Klimon responded to me, "I have given the entire collection to St. Norbert College. There were approximately 144 different editions, probably about 50 different translators or editors--plus works of scholarship, bibliographies and readers' guides, and one LP record of Louis Andriessen's De Tijd (Time) [Amsterdam: Donemus, 1981. LP and liner notes. Performed by Ensemble of the Royal Conservatory of The Hague, conducted by Reinbert de Leeuw]. Notable in one of the later tranches were a 1589 Latin edition from Rome and the second edition of the first printed (anonymous) German translation (Frankfurt, 1760).

"Although I never bought one, during my time as an Augustine collector I was offered or had the opportunity to buy 3 different copies of incunable editions (there were 4 incunable editions of the Confessions altogether, which I assume makes it a pretty popular 15/c printed text). I do wish I had pulled the trigger on at least one." (The collectors' and rare book dealers' common lament)

And so this collection, which grew from one man's passion to amass the only collection of Augustine's Confessions in translation in the world, will now be available to scholars.

Collecting a single book is not unusual at all. Five years ago, I examined a collection of every edition of Uncle Tom's Cabin the collector could track down, including translations into just about every language you can think of (and some you can't). One collector I know has amassed every edition of De Quincey's Confessions of an English Opium Eater, including an edition/copy presented to Ulysses S. Grant by the publisher. Love Alice in Wonderland? Then collect every edition you can lay your hands on; most will be relatively inexpensive and you'll have a lot of fun.

Rare book dealers are often asked by neophyte collectors, "What should I collect?" The question presupposes that there are "right" books and there are "wrong" books to concentrate on. There are no wrong books. The right books to collect are, quite simply and always, the ones that are meaningful to you regardless of collecting trends. Follow your book-bliss.

Here's an area of book collection that no one that I am aware of has yet to focus upon: Collecting the modern memoir, arguably the most popular genre in non-fiction today, a form seemingly irresistible to writers, publishers, and readers, and one that tells as much about us as consumers of such and the culture that spawns so many by so varied a group of memoirists, as it does about the people who write them. We are enthralled by tales of overcoming odds, and of fall and redemption; they are routine best-sellers. Following the Augustinian formula, it helps to have erotic bats in the belfry that screw-up one's life, if not enjoyment (deliver me from evil but not until I'm completely fed up with it). All too often, alas, it's the memoirist dancing the Limbo - "How low can you go?" Pretty low, it turns out but not so low: Soon, another memoirist will raise the ante with a "top this!" tale of rock-bottom. And that memoir will be topped, again.

A modern memoirist at work.

At it's purest, the memoir provides its writer with a means toward self-understanding that, ideally, informs the reader to a similar end; the best are unburdening prayers leading to a satisfying amen by the reader. All too often, however, the modern memoir is a flag staked into the ground simply asserting, I am here!, and it may be that, in a culture that celebrates individuality and freedom yet actually affords less and less (an endless array of consumer choices is not a means to genuine self-expression and individuality), the assertion becomes a rallying cry, the memoirist's story a declaration that we are each unique human beings, dammit, not blank faces in a formless crowd; we are individuals with stories to tell that must be told, even if they're bogus (think James Frey's A Million Little Slices of Baloney). In this sense, even the worst are political statements.

But for honest, profoundly in-depth, sincere self-examination and prayer within which emerged a moral philosophy that has influenced every single person in the Western world ever since, look no further than than this book, No memoir/autobiography is as important and consequential as the Confessions of St. Augustine.

The first English translation of St. Augustine's Confessions was done by Sir Tobie Matthew, a Catholic convert and secret Jesuit priest, and published in 1620. The 1631 translation by Anglican priest, William Watts, his answer to Matthews, remained the standard English Protestant edition until Edward Bouverie Pusey's revision of 1838, and is still in print as the English version in the Loeb Classical Library's bilingual edition.

[MATTHEW, Sir Tobie, trans.]. The confessions of the incomparable doctour S. Augustine, translated into English. Togeather with a large preface, which it will much import to be read ouer first; that so the book it selfe may both profit, and please, the reader, more. [Saint Omer: English College Press] Permissu superiorum, 1620.

[WATTS, William, trans.]. Saint Augustine's Confessions translated: and with some marginall notes illustrated. Wherein, divers antiquitites are explayned and the marginall notes of former Popish translation answered by William Watts...London: Printed by John Norton, for John Partridge..., 1631.

I am the proud possessor of a copy of the now scarce yet always worthless 29th printing of the Penguin Classics paperback edition, this 1961 English translation of the Confessions by the deadly translator and bibliographer, R. S. Pine-Coffin, whose other claim to fame is as author of the Bibliography of British and American Travel in Italy to 1860 (Florence: 1974-1981), a key reference you'll never use - until you have to. Then, you'll scream if you can't access it.

Thank you to William M. Klimon.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Subscribe to BOOKTRYST by Email