Sunday, March 05, 2017

Augustine on figure

Right at the beginning of On The Trinity Augustine sets forth a theory of the mode of the Bible. It is made for little people, even children. It has not avoided words from any class or level of speech or style; it runs the gamut from humble materiality to transcendent divinity, and it speaks of both corporeality and spirituality. 

Augustine is essentially describing the Biblical mode of speaking as unlimited in range, capable of speaking of anything -- much as Erich Auerbach has noted, particularly in the first chapter of Mimesis. Th Bible's books, unlike the stately aristocratic artifice of Homer, Pindar, or the Greek tragedians, does not impose any linguistic policing upon style or content. It depicts God, man, creation and history without suppression or privilege.
In order, therefore, that the human mind might be purged from falsities of this kind, Holy Scripture, which suits itself to babes has not avoided words drawn from any class of things really existing, through which, as by nourishment, our understanding might rise gradually to things divine and transcendent. For, in speaking of God, it has both used words taken from things corporeal, as when it says, "Hide me under the shadow of Your wings;" and it has borrowed many things from the spiritual creature, whereby to signify that which indeed is not so, but must needs so be said: as, for instance, "I the Lord your God am a jealous God;" and, "It repents me that I have made man."
Vt ergo ab huiusmodi falsitatibus humanus animus purgaretur, sancta scriptura paruulis congruens nullius generis rerum uerba uitauit ex quibus quasi gradatim ad diuina atque sublimia noster intellectus uelut nutritus assurgeret. Nam et uerbis ex rebus corporalibus sumptis usa est cum de deo loqueretur, uelut cum ait: Sub umbraculo alarum tuarum protege me. Et de spiritali creatura multa transtulit quibus significaret illud quod ita non esset sed ita dici opus esset, sicuti est: Ego sum deus zelans, et: Poenitet me hominem fecisse. (De Trinitate 1.2)
There is, however, one thing -- or order of things -- that's off limits:
But it has drawn no words whatever, whereby to frame either figures of speech or enigmatic sayings, from things which do not exist at all.   
De rebus autem quae omnino non sunt non traxit aliqua uocabula quibus uel figuraret locutiones uel sirparet aenigmata. 
Note that what is translated as "frame" is the verb figurare -- to form, fashion, shape -- which happens to be cognate with the Italian verb figurar that Dante uses in speaking of his own modes of representation. Upon reaching the stars, having made a leap beyond the spatio-temporal bounds of realism, naturalism, historical mimesis, the poem states that it now cannot speak except in figure -- there is no possibility of literal, or proper, representation, except in the sole instance of this precise metapoetic, or metalinguistic statement. To say "all is figure" is a proper, literal description of the condition and predicament of being unable to speak properly or literally.

One philological sidenote: Augustine says that the Bible uses no words, whether as locutions or enigmas, drawn from things that have no reality whatsoever. There is no Chimera, for example. Curiously, the manuscript uses a word that has puzzled commentators: sirparet (or scirparet) is not, as far as anyone seems to find, an actual Latin word. One suggestion that has been accepted by some is that the text is corrupt, and that Augustine meant to write spissaret -- literally, to thicken or condense, which could here be used figuratively to describe the semantic opacity of enigmatic expressions.

The Bible, says Augustine, would not use enigma where the actual sense or referent of the enigma does not in fact exist. This would appear not to rule out enigmas concerning things that do exist. Of course, given that either way it's enigma, the difficulty of ascertaining whether the ontological status of the mystery hidden beneath a given enigmatic speech can properly be decided might at times be problematic.

To be sure, the author of a 15-book treatise on the Trinity -- surely one of the greatest enigmas of the Judeo-Christian tradition -- would understand the importance of being able to tell the difference between a real enigma and a Chimera. The status of his own text in fact requires him to be rigorously clear about it. The point of this brief post is not to unravel that complexity in Augustine, but rather to suggest that Augustine's precept about the representational, figural, and allegorical range of Biblical language does appear a worthy description of the robust vernacular Dante chose as the vehicle for his own journey. As we proceed from the stars to realms even further from Nature, we should be prepared for locutions, figures and perhaps enigmas that go beyond what the Commedia has hitherto employed.

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