The Flight of the Sorceress

The Flight of the Sorceress
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Thursday, April 28, 2011


“St. Augustine the Blessed," he is called.  This saint and pre-eminent Doctor of the Church, lived between 354 and 430 A.D.  Though he is almost entirely off-stage in its pages, his theology and the influence he wielded over the cultural landscape of the times drives the plot of The Flight of the Sorceress. But unlike the effusive official accounts of Augustinian iconography, the Augustine in my The Flight of the Sorceress is anything but a positive force. For me, Augustine represents a lurking ominous evil spreading a black, diabolical cloud over hope and curiosity, over learning and freedom. It is Augustinian thought and deed that move the story, bringing on a horrific darkness. It is his influence that altered the benign feminist-tolerant Celtic culture and the intellectually vibrant Greek civilization sewing the seeds for the rough misogynist, fear-based landscape of repression and ignorance that would be reaped for the next millennium.

It would be all but impossible to write a serious historical novel set in (410-415 A.D.) yet fail to address the impact that St. Augustine made upon those times. This was a period of intense religious and political conflict and Bishop Augustine of Hippo was at the epicenter of the temblor. His two big works, Confessions and City of God were critical to justifying the consolidation of the Christian Church into a State-enforced operation. But rather than rave about these works, as do his myriad of admirers, I find them indicting. I am a contrarian and my The Flight of the Sorceress is a contrarian novel. I have no doubt that Augustine would gladly cosign me to hell.

But here’s my case, and I will make no bones about it, I am a critic and a skeptic when it comes to this man. I wouldn’t buy real estate from him. I wouldn’t believe him if he told me it was daytime. I wouldn’t grant him parole on the grounds that he has rehabilitated himself. I have spent most of my professional life uncovering fraud, identifying dissembling and observing human behavior in its rawest forms. I’ve come across his MO many times.

Let me begin with my own confession. I haven’t read most of Confessions. Confessions has been called the first modern memoir and I have an aversion to memoirs. When I think of memoirs, I think of James Frey’s phony memoir A Million Little Pieces, of Herman Rosenblat's hoax: Angel at the Fence: The True Story of a Love that Survived and now Greg Mortenson’s Three Cups of Tea. I find them self-serving and unreliable, except to the extent that they contain damaging admissions. I have no reason to believe that Augustine was any more reliable with his memoir than his progeny. Augustine wrote Confessions in 398-9 A.D, just ten years after he was baptized and two years after he was consecrated a bishop (which he claims, was forced on him by his admiring congregants.) This theme of newly-minted modesty, of having greatness thrust upon one’s self upon conversion is so common, it’s become cliché. Confessions, it seems to me, is nearly a template for most of the best selling memoirs that have followed, even to this day. We get the youthful bad boy (or girl) who ultimately sees the light and is redeemed —a comforting, inspiring morality tale that century after century, never fails to take in the gullible.

So how did this fellow, who by his own account, claimed that there were few, if any Carthaginians with whom he could hold an intelligent conversation, rise so fast in the Catholic hierarchy? The answer is he created a winning business plan for his company — “Original Sin” —a marketing miracle.  Let’s say you’re in the business of selling tickets to Heaven. Well, you want to make the product desirable. You want everyone to need it.  So you start with dogma: no one is born free of sin, but you need to be free of sin to get into heaven. Then you tell them they have to qualify.

How does one get rid of that sin, so that they qualify? Absolution. Can you do it yourself? Nope. What about just being a good person all your life? Can you do good things? Work your butt off to help people? Nope. Won’t work. Sorry, God won’t accept just being a good person. You’ve got to be baptized.

Where can you get that? Only one place —the Roman Catholic Church — by an authorized service representative, an ordained priest. Using any other type of priest voids the warranty. But what if you died immediately upon your birth?  What if there’s no Catholic Church in your neighborhood? What if you died before there was a Catholic Church? Tough luck. Lodge your complaint with God, we’re only doing his work here — following orders. Augustine becomes a Roman Catholic and cooks up original sin, the world’s first franchise operation, selling genuine, officially licensed, brand-name absolution. He gets promoted to the top. It makes me a skeptic.

But to me Confessions reveals an even more insidious side of Augustine’s human nature than clever marketing strategies.  Augustine had a wife of at least eleven years. Though he apparently created a family with her, he wouldn’t marry her formally because she was beneath his station in life. He ultimately ditched her in an effort to find himself a suitable trophy wife, meanwhile continuing to browse the herd. He also had a son who, after being baptized at Augustine’s insistence, is lost to history. Like many people who find themselves with an inconvenient spouse, getting religion is a pretty neat cover. You go into the repentance mode, discover God, and you come out clean and moral. There’s nothing like being “born again” to get you over your moral lapses. Confessions seems to be a “How To” book that just about every celebrity and politician can benefit from.

After his conversion, one must look in vain for any “good works.” Rather, upon being elevated to bishop he chose the role of moral arbiter, devoting his energies into a series of repressive campaigns against divergent theological positions. His father was a pagan. He attacked pagans. His benefactors for more than a decade were Manicheans. He skewered them. Though he dabbled in neo-Platonism, he went after this group of former friends with a vengeance. He joined a religion that was half Donatist at the time. A sect that had stood firm against the corruption of Roman state interests the Donatists put loyalty to faith over temporal concerns and paid for their resistance in the lion’s den. In 411 A.D. Augustine instigated their purge and used the power of the Roman legions to crush them. When Pelagius and Caelestius challenged him on the dogma of original sin, he had them declared heretics and Pelagius soon disappeared. He was on to the Arian Christians when he died. Augustine indeed could not tolerate dissent. Everyone was stupid but him. God was on his side and his alone.

In Confessions, Augustine recounts his membership in what we’d call today a street gang. He was a petty criminal, by his own admission. I don’t believe that tigers change their stripes. I think recidivism is the more common behavior and that people who grow up to thuggery, lying and stealing (as Augustine admits he did) will not shrink from using such behavior in service of a new set of beliefs. Whether you do it for the street gang, as he did in his youth or for the gang in the Vatican, I don’t see a lot of difference, except that you get way better PR all the way down through the Ages if you do it for an outfit that has staying power. As far as I’m concerned, it was Augustine’s good fortune to move up from the minors and get a shot with the Yankees.

This brings me to Augustine the misogynist, the man who went out for a pack of smokes, so to speak, and never returned to his wife of eleven years. I think of misogyny as the canary in the mine of civilization. Misogyny and general intolerance, leading to the destruction of knowledge, go hand in hand. If you can shut up one half of humanity, you can shut up the other half as well.

For me the original “original sin” begins when some nefarious human being(s) put stylus to sheepskin and cooked up a creation myth where the supposed first man (Adam) “bore” the supposed first female (Eve.) Okay, it was a rib. Not a vaginal birth. But then, Eve gets seduced by the snake and uses her wiles to entice Adam into taking a bite of the forbidden fruit. From here on out, every human being is born vaginally, through sex (leaving aside the Christ story.) Accordingly, it makes sex the original sin and women the original sinners, the font of all sin.

From there you get portraiture of women like Jezebel, Helen of Troy, Cleopatra, all schemers and connivers, all women who used their sexual prowess to confound and seduce men and thus justify retaliatory, oppressive behavior against women. So it comes as no surprise that the great philosopher/theologian, the premier pundit of the late fourth and early fifth centuries, Augustine, a man admittedly fixated on lust and the sins of the flesh, would glom on to original sin.   

Let’s take a look what he said about the victims of rape during the sack of Rome in 410 A.D in his great work, City of God- Cidade de Deus (quoted in italics):

No one can dispute that if a woman remains firmly opposed to the act upon her, no violation of a woman is her fault as long as she cannot avoid it without sinning. But because, a woman’s lust may be gratified during such and act, the woman will experience shame, even though she is pure of spirit and truly modest because such an act cannot be experienced without some sensual pleasure, and people will believe that she gave her consent.”

In Augustine’s view, all sexual conduct is a sin committed by each participant because they each must receive pleasure from it — pleasure is sinful. Women receive pleasure while being raped. A woman’s lust is gratified during a rape because it is cannot be anything other than an act of sensual pleasure. And likewise, women provide pleasure so therefore they must be sinful.

On the subject of hypocrisy, here, again from City of God,) he says:

Many pagans appear to forget that they would now be unable to denounce our Church had they not escaped from the enemy by finding safety within our sanctuaries. Our holy places bear witness that during the sack they were sanctuaries for all, whether Christian or Pagan. Thus the ones who today are now able attack our religion, and blame Christ for the sack, ignore the fact that it was Christ who saved them rather than mere good luck.”

What Augustine refers to is that the Visigoths who sacked Rome respected the Christian sanctuaries and spared the many people took refuge there. Implicit in this rebuke is the dire admission that though Christ would save a Pagan, Augustine would not. He all but admits, had he been in charge, he’d have locked out of his church pagans to face annihilation at the hands of barbaric hoards. What I find amazing is that Augustine brandishes this veiled threat without apparent recognition of his playing God. He goes on to sit in judgment.

“Those Romans who now so viciously attack the servants of Christ would not be alive today had they not fraudulently pretended that they were Christians.”

The interesting thing about this pronouncement is that by 410 A.D. Augustine held the position that only those adherents of his Church were Christians. He’d already been more than a decade at rooting out all manner of heresies. Indeed the invading Visigoths thought of themselves as Christian, but Augustine though of them as heretical barbarians. They were frauds only because they believed in a different Christianity than him. Beyond that, what kind of “servant of Christ” administers a loyalty oath to save another human being from slaughter at the hands of a ruthless invader?

“Christians must reflect on the excesses of wicked, immoral, and ungodly men, those very sins which provoked God. Every man, however laudably he lives, yields in some points to the lust of the flesh.”

Where are we going here?  The lust of the flesh is the reason that the Visigoths sacked Rome? It had nothing to do with the blood feud caused when Emperor Honorius slaughtered 30,000 of his own soldiers and that their kin wanted revenge? Somehow God was provoked because the sexual appetites he bestowed on all fauna actually worked! And the upshot of that provocation was to decide in 410 A.D. that one sorry city in an entire world deserved indiscriminate havoc? Augustine’s God just gets pissed off and has a tantrum.

“It seems to me the good had to suffer along with the wicked not because they spent an equally corrupt life, but because we all love life, when instead they ought to have held it cheap.”

But let’s look at whether Augustine himself held life cheap? As Possidius, his contemporary biographer describes his end of life, even as the “barbarian armies” (Arian Christians) were laying siege to Hippo, he died happily in his sleep, well-nourished in good old age. Tell me that Augustine held his own life cheap. How come he didn’t have to suffer?

It makes me wonder how Augustine could even get away with calling himself a Christian. I find it very hard to discern a confluence between Augustine’s deeds and the teachings of Sermon on the Mount. This was not a man who cared one whit about judging not, or the turning of cheeks. He, unlike Christ, would impose a loyalty oath on admission to sanctuary. Though he repeatedly admits to being a sinner, he never shirks casting the first stone.

In sum, the youthful Augustine was a gangster and thief. He led a lascivious life. He thought he was smarter than everybody else in Carthage. He had a spouse he wouldn’t marry because she wasn’t upscale enough for him. He dumped her after eleven years in search of a trophy wife. While he was thus engaged, he had other affairs. He received financial support from Manichean friends then turned on them. He cooked up a business model for his new cronies, the Church. In this model, original sin, he gleefully consigned new born babies, the un-baptized since time immemorial, including the likes of Moses and Abraham, not to mention his own father, to eternal damnation. He asserted that the victims of brutal rape were really sinners because they must have enjoyed it. He would gladly have turned out of sanctuary to certain death anyone who disagreed with his dogma. He willingly used military might to enforce conformity with his theological opinions. He never performed any demonstrable good works; rather he devoted his life to rooting out differing opinions within the Church, never shrinking from the persecution of those with whom he disagreed. Though he railed mightily against the sins of the flesh, he knew those “sins” intimately and there is no reason to think that he became celibate before old age caught up with him. Indeed, it is often the case that such pontificators are precisely the ones who indulge. In a Church that espoused poverty, Augustine died in wealth and comfort, wanting for nothing.

When Augustine was born, there was a functioning library in Alexandria. There were numerous and diverse religious sects, including many species of Christianity. By the time Augustine died in 430 A.D. there was no longer a functioning library in Alexandria. Jews had experienced a pogrom in that city. Teaching was becoming perilous, especially when it came to knowledge imparted by pagans. Books were being burned. Many Christian dissenting sects had been eradicated or were forced underground. Constantine’s Edict of Toleration that allowed Christians to live openly had been shredded and Roman legions were actively involved in enforcing Catholic religious dogma. Heretics were disappearing or being burned. Women’s traditional occupations, particularly in Celtic lands were becoming circumscribed and often described as sorcery, punishable by death. Europe was quickly descending into a millennium of darkness. That was Augustine’s legacy and it was enough to inspire me into making Augustine the villainous, antagonistic force in The Flight of the Sorceress.

1 comment:

  1. Well, Wow... An eye opening account of St. Augustine. Being a catholic convert many years ago, I am sadly ignorant of the history of the church's beginnings. Thank you for sharing. I am looking forward to reading your book, and stimulated to research further on my own.