Tag Archives: God

I ask you, my human mind…

The human intellect is full of its own emptiness, better at looking than at seeing. – Saint Augustine, Confessions (285)

IMG_1391It was necessary for me to weave several books in and out of Augustine’s Confessions. As long as we are in a confessional state of mind, I will say that I had to keep my foot, so to speak, in the door of my mind to make sure it stayed open, and the effort was fatiguing. I may have read ten or fifteen other books while reading this one.

Who, after all, made me? (139)

That is not to say that the words, ideas, struggles and sublime beauty of language are not all present in the telling.

I was loosened from error, but not fastened to truth (109).

Nor is it to say that I did not, rather generously, ignore the oft repeated insulting words directed at my inferior sex.

Do we remember happiness, then, as we remember mathematical truths? […] No, I ask simply if happiness is a thing remembered – for how could we love it if we could not recognize it? (230)

When Augustine exhausts his intellect considering, memory, time and the cosmos – it is a wonder to behold. His algorithmic approach is astonishing, and his language, the pure beauty of his language, is a marvel.

How could times pass before they were there for the passing? (266)

But I can not help returning again and again, as Augustine himself did, to the epic battle he created between the body and the spirit. Whywhywhy?

He gives up sex, he cannot give up food and drink without sacrificing his life, but he is determined not to enjoy it. And no smell, however sweet will tempt him  (there is something of the Mr. Darcy in Augustine: “she is tolerable, but not handsome enough to tempt me”). In the end he closes all of his senses, even (although he is a bit of a cheater here) to the one thing that really tricks him up: music.

A delicious physical sound should not melt our reason (241).

Ah, but it does. His and mine. As a friend of mine said to me recently, “Music is one of things we humans get right.” And I suppose this brings me to the heart of my confusion. Who, after all, made us? Why these bodies that touch, these smells, tastes, feelings, sounds? Why this moon, this sun, our stars, the mountains, the ocean? Why make something if only to demand a complete renunciation? Why are men so hell bent on religions of deprivation?

Grant this thing I love, since my loving it was your grant (273)

I probably did help matters by listening to Mozart’s Requiem while reading the bulk of this book. But, I am preparing to sing it with my Glee Club and I have no hope or wish to extinguish the awe I feel when singing or listening to such profoundly moving music.

*title from page 268. Penguin edition translated by Garry Wills

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Pears and Proletariats

‘What are you laughing for, Professor?’
‘What do you mean – laughing? I’m in absolute despair,’ shouted Philip Philipovich. ‘What’s going to become of the central heating now?’
‘Are you making fun of us, Professor Preobrazhensky?’ 

– Mikhail Bulgakov, The Heart of a Dog (28)

IMG_1271I am reading St. Augustine of Hippo’s Confessions. It’s the sort of book that sets my mind in fits and starts of questions and quagmires. Augustine’s subject is approached with such confident absolutism, that I begin to feel as though I have been thrown into some sort of alternate universe where everyone has agreed on a premise of possibly illogical terms.

‘You know how much work I did on the subject – an unbelievable amount. And now comes the crucial question – what for? So that one fine day a nice little dog could be transformed into a specimen of so-called humanity so revolting that he makes one’s hair stand on end.’ (108)

My first moment of pause came when Augustine lamented his theft of some pears from an orchard. He wrote, “there was no beauty in the pears I stole” hastily acknowledging that they were, of course, the beautiful creation of “you” – God (Penguin classics, 34). Nevertheless, they weren’t so hot as far as pears go. But that is not the point. The point is, he stole them just to steal them and he is a sinner.

Dog laughed, causing maid Zina to faint. Later pronounced the following 8 times in succession: ‘Nesseta-ciled’. […] The professor has deciphered the word ‘Nesseta-ciled’ by reversal: it is ‘delicatessen’…quite extraord…(61)

Now, hang on a minute, I said to myself. What does God have to do with ownership? Before we skip on down the lane of sin, can we stop a moment and ask why a “God given fruit” came to be “owned” by one over another in the first place? Good, bad, sin , God…who defines the terms?

You act just as if you were were on parade here,’  he said. ‘Put your napkin here, tie your tie there, “please”, ” thank you”, “excuse me” – why can’t you behave naturally? Honestly, you stuffed shirts act as if it was still the days of tsarism.’
‘What do you mean by “behave naturally”?’ (91)

Feeling depressed, I went to the library to get some lighter fare.  I spent some time searching for a book that had apparently gone missing and ended up with The Heart of a Dog, the Russian satirical novel by Mikhail Bulgakov set in the post revolution days of Moscow about a doctor who performs an operation switching out the pituitary gland of a (recently dead) human into a dog. A madcap, biting, and brisk tale in which the illogic of a dog’s move up in the world creates an absurdity of right question – why one man has seven rooms when others have just one….and wrong answer.

Doctor Bormenthal: ‘I shall personally throw Shvonder downstairs if he ever appears in Professor Preobrazhensky’s flat again.’
And Shvonder said: ‘Please enter that remark in the report.’
(128)

I told a friend that I was reading The Heart of a Dog as a sort of demented companion to Confessions. She said, “You know…Dog is God spelled backward…”

*The Heart of a Dog translated from the Russian by Michael Glenny
*Confessions translated from Latin by Garry Wills

**another Bulgakov: The Master and Margarita

The Tao of Augustus

The Philosopher is in

My nine year old son and I were sitting at the table doing homework. He asked me what I was reading,
“Philosophy” I answered.
“What’s that?”
“Metaphysics, questions about being, why are we here, what’s the meaning or purpose of life, is there a God, how can we be happy…”
“I can answer those questions. Ask me.” He eagerly offered.
“Okay. Does God exist?” I start with a big one.
“I can prove that God exists and I can prove that he does not.”
“Well, how can you prove God exists?”
“We all talk – that didn’t come from nowhere. We have a language, otherwise we couldn’t talk about God.”
“And that God doesn’t exist?”
“Well you can’t see him. You can’t say, ‘here’s God.'”
“So does God exist or not?”
“Likely.”
“Okay,” I say moving on, “What is our purpose, what is the meaning of life?”
“Love.”
I look at him expectantly, so he enunciates the words to make it simple for me,
“Have fun, be happy, live. l.o.v.e.”
“But Augie, what if something really sad happens and you are unhappy?”
“Kill yourself.” he says simply.
I wasn’t expecting that….“What if I’m really unhappy and I kill myself?”
He does not hesitate, “Then I’ll kill myself.”
I look at him quizzically, but he anticipates me,
“Don’t worry, there’s lots of people.” he adds reassuringly.
“Anything else?” he asks.
“What happens when we die?”
“Nothing. It’s over, we go back into the earth – Oh, mom: can I use a calculator to check my math answers?”
“Yes.”
“AWESOME!”