Graced bodies: Augustine, Cavell, and Malick
The great twentieth century philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein once said that Augustine’s Confessions is “possibly the most serious book ever written.” The operative word, of course, is “possibly,” but I have to say I’m inclined to agree. I have been reading the Confessions regularly since I was 16, and one of the great joys of my position at Villanova University is that I get to teach it each fall. As my teacher John Cavadini taught us, learning about Augustine is like learning about yourself. And I think my students see that. Many parts of Augustine’s story resonate with them: here is a person who also had questions about God, who got caught up with some strange groups of people, who both revered his mother and thought she was a little simple, who was caught up in lusts and didn’t always like his school studies, who mourned the death of friends, who was on the fast track to a bright career but gave it all up. He is so human that they are often surprised he is a saint.
I don’t know what exactly led Wittgenstein to say what he said, but I do know that he begins his magnum opus, the Philosophical Investigations with a quotation in Latin from the Confessions about how Augustine learned language. My guess is that Wittgenstein saw the deep humanity in Augustine and admired how Augustine struggled with perennial human questions. As one of the great readers of Wittgenstein, Stanley Cavell once wrote, “For Wittgenstein, philosophy comes to grief not in denying what we all know to be true, but in its effort to escape those human forms of life which alone provide the coherence of our expression. He wishes an acknowledgment of human limitation which does not leave us chafed by our own skin, by a sense of powerlessness to penetrate beyond the human conditions of knowledge.” The same could be said, I would argue, about the Confessions.
Cavell has written perceptively about Wittgenstein, Martin Heidegger, JL Austin, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Soren Kierkegaard, and Shakespeare. He addresses them all in his fine book Must we mean what we say? His writing tends to explore “an acknowledgment of human limitation which does not leave us chafed by our own skin.” I have not yet read his latest book, Little Did I Know: Excerpts from Memory, which in the manner of Augustine, Rousseau, and Emerson is an autobiography in the form of a series of philosophical journal entries. Cavell spent most of his academic career at Harvard, where he taught a future Rhodes scholar and translator of Martin Heidegger named Terrence Malick, whom we know today as the director of The Tree of Life. At Oxford, Malick began but did not finish a dissertation on Heidegger, Kierkegaard, and Wittgenstein.
The Tree of Life, like the Confessions and like the work of Wittgenstein and Cavell, helps us to contemplate two things worth contemplating: the wonder of creation (although I don’t know if Malick, Wittgenstein or Cavell would use that word) and the wonder of human embodiment. (Of course, here I am merely building on posts by Imbelli, Domestico, and Moreland.) The famously reclusive Malick will never tell us what exactly he was thinking when he made the film, but I am convinced The Tree of Life can helps us to come to a greater appreciation of the Confessions and vice versa. In both works, Biblical quotations suffuse the narrative; in both, the narrator continually address God as “You”; in both, the narrative plays out in the main character’s memory; in both, the main character’s mother plays a central role; in both, the main character mourns the dead. Both works share the hope of resurrection. And both works are importantly set against the backdrop of the universe. Malick shows us scenes of the depths of outer space and the depths of the oceans; in the last three books of the Confessions Augustine contemplates creation through an exegesis of the beginning of Genesis. Both works, we might say, are deeply incarnational. Bodies — human bodies, dinosaur bodies, or celestial bodies – matter. They matter because they depend on something beyond themselves. Such dependence, in Augustine and the Christian tradition, is one way to understand grace.
Whether set in Texas in the mid-twentieth century or the Mediterranean in the late-fourth and early-fifth century The Tree of Life and the Confessions celebrate “those human forms of life which alone provide the coherence of our expression.” They teach us that these forms of life are themselves a part of a cosmic order much bigger than we are. Not only do they not leave us chafed by our own skin, they allow us to wonder at that skin and the universe that contains it.
I’m anxious to see what my students think when we spend an evening watching the Tree of Life during the two weeks we spend on the Confessions. I hope they’ll end up agreeing with Wittgenstein.