Friday, October 21, 2011

Was Saint Augustine Bi-Sexual? Part 2

The plot thickens.

Whenever something novel occurs to me about a text I am reading, novel enough to pique my interest, one of the first things that I do is try to see if anyone else has ever thought the same thing, or researched the idea. When I read Gilgamesh, I noticed certain images that reminded me of the book of Daniel. When I researched this further, I found that many people had already explored the connection and written obscure papers and books about the subject. It turns out my insight wasn't unique or incredibly insightful.

Oh Well.

The possibility of Augustine having had same-sex affairs was thought-provoking, in large part because the idea was totally unexpected.  I had in my mind a rough sketch of Augustine's life and the purpose of Confessions through general exposure in my reading and miscellaneous passages which are frequently quoted, usually in theological discussions. I went into Confessions with pre-conceived ideas about what I was going to find. I decided to read it because it's one of those things that people use and refer to without actually having read the work, in full, for themselves.

So, what did I find out about this possible aspect of Augustine?

I discovered that very few people discussed this aspect of Augustine, or were even aware of the idea.  I found a few GLBT sites which listed him as one of their own on the basis of some of the passages I have already quoted, but some of these sites also tended to have an agenda, trying to claim prominent Christians from the past as fellow homosexuals or bi-sexuals. It doesn't mean they are wrong, but it does taint their assertions with a self-serving motive.

One paper kept coming up as a reference in several books and articles; Correcting Some Misconceptions about St. Augustine's Sex Life, by Alan Soble. Although it was frequently showing up as a reference, I had a difficult time finding the actual text of the paper. It was listed in bibliographies and footnotes, but no one ever quoted it and every link I followed had only the abstract available to the public. Eventually, my husband got access to it through his university in order for me to read the entire article.

I was hoping for something more informative than what I got. The article goes into a lot of detail about what other historians and biographers of Augustine have said and even addresses the issue of the GLBT community trying to co-opt Augustine, something I had already come across. Ultimately, the author concludes that it is silly to think that Augustine engaged in same-sex relationships.

The author is wrong as far as his reasoning goes.  His arguments rest on these points: that Augustine was an exaggerator, that Augustine expressed interest in women, and Augustine never clearly says that he has had same-sex relationships.

Claiming that Augustine was dramatic, and therefore we must take what he says about himself with a grain of salt, undermines any attempt at unearthing the truth from Augustine's own words. When Soble goes looking for evidence, he doesn't look for evidence in Confessions, he looks for evidence in what historians and biographers have said about Augustine and his sex life.  This is a misstep.  What do historians know about Augustine besides what he has said about himself in his own work?  Ignoring the tone of Confessions, and going to second-hand interpretation from other authors will muddy the water on the issue rather than add clarity to it.

Soble acknowledges that some historians intimate that Augustine did have same-sex affairs, but he rejects these intimations out of hand. He believes that people are reading bi-sexuality into the text for their own reasons.  I think Soble is reading Augustine's relatively chaste heterosexuality into the text.  When Soble addresses the texts in question, he just baldly asserts that they refer to women.  When Augustine talks about polluting friendships, Soble believes he's speaking about male-female friendship:
First, Augustine was looking for and talking about love with a woman for he immediately says that success in his search soon came and he was probably referring to the pact he made with his mistress. Second, Augustine speaks in this sentence only of desire, not behavior. Augustine knew Matthew 5:28 well, according to which Jesus said,"But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart." Augustine's taking  Matthew 5:28 seriously might very well explain his critical remark in Confessions 3.1 that he "polluted" friendship with sexual desire, for the point of Matthew 5:28 is that mere desire by itself, without sexual activity, is condemnable. (pp 554 Journal of the History of Sexuality, Volume 11, Number 4, October 2002)
Soble's first contention is simply assertion and circularity.  How does Augustine saying that he was successful in his search prove that he was looking of and talking about a woman? The text doesn't say that in any way.  Soble connects what Augustine wrote to Augustine's mistress, but the information about Augustine's mistress comes much later in the text and isn't connected to Augustine's elaborate descriptions of his lust and pollution of friendship. What Soble says simply doesn't follow.

Sobles' second contention is just more of the same.  There is no reason to assume that Augustine is speaking of desire and not actions.  How could Augustine consider himself "successful" in obtaining love and consummating lust if he is only speaking of desire? Augustine makes it clear when he is talking about desires and when he is talking about actions. While he may be vague about the specifics of his actions, he is clear that there were actions.

Soble is inserting his own assumptions onto the text. Because Augustine declares that he was monogamous with his mistress, not knowing any other woman during his time with her over the course of 15 years, Soble assumes that means Augustine didn't have any other sexual relationships, which is not exactly what Augustine says.  In fact, Augustine goes out of his way to say that he has not been with any other women, rather than saying that he has only had sexual relations with her.  It may seem rather pedantic and persnickety to note this difference, but I think it is relevant to the context of Augustine's cultural surroundings.  Same-sex relations were not viewed as unfaithfulness to wives and women.  They existed in an entirely different class.

I have continued to read further into Confessions, wondering if I would come across material that would either strengthen or weaken my intuition about Augustine, and so far I haven't found much to change my leaning towards Augustine's having had same-sex affairs.

Augustine's attitude towards women was wholly utilitarian.  Throughout Confessions, in the context of Augustine's lust, Augustine floats the possibility of marriage as a cure for his sexual wanderings. His parents don't want him to marry at a young age because they are trying to further his academic career and don't want him to be tied down, which is why his mother simply asks him not to commit adultery.  They leave his libido unchecked rather than have him take on a wife as a "cure" for his sexual appetites.

At one point in Confessions, when Augustine is older and leaning more towards conversion, he considers the benefits of finding a woman with money to marry as a way to advance his career, there is no mention of love or companionship.  When he considers creating a co-op with his closest male friends and colleagues, living together and sharing everything in common, the fly in the ointment is that several of his group have wives and this will ruin it:
6.14.24..But when we began to consider whether this life would be possible if our womenfolk were present (some of us already being married, and others, myself included, hoping to be), all our noble plans fell to pieces in our hands, and lay utterly shattered on the ground. (pp 129)
Just after this section Augustine refers to his mistress as his familiar bedfellow, certainly not a term of love or tenderness or friendship or any of the emotional connectedness that he relates with his male friends:
6.12.25...My familiar bedfellow was torn from my side as being an impediment to marriage; and my heart, to which she had fixed herself, was torn and wounded, and left a trail of blood. She returned to Africa, vowing to you that she would never know another man, and leaving behind the natural son she had borne me. But in my misery I could not even imitate her, a woman; although after two years I was to receive in marriage the girl for whom I had made my suit, and, being not a lover of marriage but a slave of lust, I got myself another--and not a wife--so as to maintain my soul's sickness as it was, or if possible to make it worse, and convey it, with an escort of enduring habit, into the realm of matrimony. Nor did I find any healing for the wound caused by the severance from my previous partner, but after the inflammation and the grievous pain, gangrene set in; it was as if the wound were numbed, but it was even more incredibly painful. (pp 130)
And, that's it. Notice how Augustine says that she had attached herself to his heart, placing the attachment  under her power, not his.  Also note his little jab that he couldn't do something that a woman could do.  While he is certainly pained to see her go, he doesn't say much about his love for her and in fact never uses the word love in relation to her.  He was also willing to dismiss her for the utilitarian marriage being secured for him. This is not a man losing the love of his life.  This is a man losing access to a regular sexual partner who has become a part of his life through habit and no more.

Augustine was heartless when it came to her. There was no prestige or advancement to be made in marrying her. He lost her because she wasn't useful to him in his academic, financial, or social life, and the loss he feels for her is not rooted in his love of her.

I'll continue more of this discussion later......

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