Sunday, April 19, 2009

Sontag on Augustine and Montaigne

In my class, the most autobiographical writings we read are Augustine' Confessions and Montaigne's Essays. Their pioneering work of self-reflection, creating particular concepts of a self, of the invention of the "inner self" as the book by Philip Cary argues for Augustine, is where their similarities end. Augustine's vision of the self is quite contained, fixed; Montaigne's, fluid, in flux, always changing. The key, in my opinion, to the Augustinian sense of the self is memory; the key for Montaigne, imagination. One looks back over a life; one looks forward, or, more accurately, always seeks living, thinking, acting in the moment. Montaigne, it seems, in his act of writing tries to catch himself in the moment of thinking. I think I personally prefer Montaigne's vision of the unfinalizable self. Susan Sontag, in her essay "The death of tragedy," has a brief comparative moment, using the difference between Augustine and Montaigne as an analogue to the difference between Becket and Brecht:

Both the Confessions and the Essays are didactic autobiographies; but while the author of Confessions sees his life as a drama illustrating the linear movement of consciousness from egocentricity to theocentricity, the author of the Essays sees his life as a dispassionate, varied exploration of the innumerable styles of being a self.

I largely agree with this view of the Confessions, except that they culminate in these "timeless" reflections on memory, time, and creation. These latter reflections almost force you to reread Confessions with them in mind, and see them throughout. As such, while Confessions has the appearance of such linearity, it really becomes a feedback loop. I have to admit I need to read more of the Essays to get a much better sense of them: they are about 1000 pages or so. But the styles of being a self, as Sontag puts it, are not discretely separate styles. They are organically linked in multiple ongoing microscopic processes of physical and mental transformations of the self, the self in the processes of imaginative possibilities and inevitable decay.

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