"I have become an enigma to myself," he says, "and herein lies my sickness and inner struggle."


Since his own questing mind is his closest companion, Augustine has the bright idea of using that mind to objectify and understand himself. In merging Augustine with the protagonist and Augustine the narrator, he will come to know himself.

- Will You Take Me as I Am: Joni Mitchell's Blue Period by Michelle Mercer

My new Joni Mitchell book has a really interesting chapter about Augustine's Confessions. I haven't read them (I've only read excerpts), but their use in talking about Joni's autobiographical period is fascinating.

Mercer talks about how Augustine basically invented autobiography in the Western world by being the first to define and exemplify the "practice of revealing the self and its history in words." His writing before Confessions was intended to be read communally to large audiences. He found that writing for a solo reader changed his focus. Patricia Hampl's introduction to his work states this: "The Confessions is startling because Augustine has found a way to reveal the profound intimacy of a mind thinking. This is the narrative engine that drives autobiography: consciousness, not experience, is the galvanizing core of a personal story."

Confession takes on two meanings for Augustine: to reveal his sins but also to reveal what he knows about God. Out of his own confession of sin, he feels justified in proclaiming "the origin and meaning of good and evil for everyone." He exegetes the 'original sin' of Adam and Eve, and from it the need for everyone to be baptized and cleansed of this sin, just as he has been. What do you think of this:

"The cost of Augstine's great literary leap, then, the price of his innovation of first putting consciousness onto the page, is shame. Something of the mystical Augustine does live on in certain often-quoted phrases: "Our whole business therefore in this life is to restore the health of the eye of the heart whereby God may be seen." But Augustine the mystic was no match for Augustine the architect of sin and salvation. "The confession of evil works is the first beginning of good works," he also wrote, much more influentially. After Augustine's Confessions, there was no closeness to God without the soul-cleansing redemption of owning up to sin. He made shame the only route to holiness."

Yikes! He made shame the only route to holiness. If you've read and studied Augustine, what do you make of this? Do you find the source of confession to be shame? When and where is shame a bad or good thing? I'm all for owning up to sin, but where should shame come in?

Here's some heavy theology for a Joni Mitchell music-appreciation book! Well, Joni hates Augustine.

"Mitchell blames Augustine for much that is wrongheaded in the Judeo-Christian tradition. By her account, he misattributed his own human failing of cowardice (not marrying the woman he loved [a concubine]) to original sin, and then had the chutzpah to turn the faulty notion of original sin into doctrine. Sure, Augustine finished off mysticism as a legitimate route to the Christian God, but her real grievance with him is that he's a "champion bullshitter"--that is, he regimented the act of confessing the truth and made it dogma without seeking the deeper truth about himself and his own messy motivations. He didn't know himself well enough to serve the inner reality of the human condition, which is what Mitchell believes anyone who puts pen to paper should do--and what she's striven to do throughout her life's work."

How much theology is impacted by personal motivations? Good grief, if I had written theology when I was younger (or even now, *ahem*), who knows what kind of crazy shit I would be slinging because of what it meant to my personal, private issues and how I related them to God? I remember in high school literally praying that God would take away my sexuality because I was so afraid of lust. Where did the messy motivations of the Scripture authors and all theologians come in to what they were expressing to be necessary for all Christians to do or believe? How can God deal with us individually on our own level that is unlike any other, and yet still try to be a kingdom working and living together?

This section of the book on confession kept reminding me of blogging. Much like publishing a memoir or writing personal songs, you allow yourself, good and bad (depending on how you censor things), to be known to anyone. Joni hates being called a 'confessional songwriter':

"When I think of confession, two things come to mind. The swinging light and the billy club, you know, trying to get a confession out of somebody that's been captured. Confess, confess! Or a witch hunt. Or trials. Confession is somebody trying to bet something out of you externally. You're imprisoned. You're captured. They're trying to get you to admit something. To humiliate and degrade yourself in a bad position. Then there's the voluntary confession of Catholicism. Where you go to this window and you talk to this priest and you tell him that you're having sexual fantasies and he's wanking on the other side of the window. Both of those things, that's confession. That's the only two kinds of confession I know--voluntary and under duress--and I am not confessing."

In relation to art, poetry or music, or what have you, the main issue that so many creators take with 'confession' is the implication that something needs to be cured or fixed, rather than expressed and shared. "She strives to find and express human truths, and in the process, she happens to reveal quite a bit about herself."

I know it's easy to write Joni off as just some jaded, egotistical artist, and I know my theological knowledge is beyond sparse, but I thought her opinion was interesting.


Kristen said...

I'm reading this with the TV blaring in the background so I'm not very focused (also, you are much more of a deep thinker than I am), but I have two thoughts.

1. I liked Confessions. I read it in college so I don't remember it very well, but I think the "shame as the only route to holiness" take is a little unfair. I'll have to go back to the book and re-acquaint myself.

2. My only (!) point of reference for Joni Mitchell is that tragic scene with a heartbroken Emma Thompson in Love Actually. That scene makes me so depressed that any Joni song instantly makes me sad.

Maryann said...

Two Emma Thompson comments in one day. EPIC WIN. And I agree, I should probably *read* the Confessions before I let Joni say mean things about them. And yes, that scene in Love Actually is killer. Bravo, Emma!

David said...

i usually try to hold off on commenting, but i've had a few ideas bouncing around in my head all day and since you asked what people thought, i decided to try to write down a few things.

first of all, it's very interesting to me that primarily, joni mitchell's explanation of why she doesn't like the idea of confession is, in a sense, a confession in and of itself. that is, it's more about her and her personal associations with the word rather than its given definition. it's more about the way the sacrament of reconciliation is celebrated in her imagination rather than in reality.

and in that sense, it works very well—it's a glimpse into her mind and its inner workings. but i think beyond that, it breaks down. her very specific definition of confession is formed based on her experiences and associations. so to try and go back and apply that definition universally to all usages of the word wouldn't shed any light onto the nature of confession so much as it would reveal the way joni mitchell would view them.

secondly, st. augustine, it seems, has become a popular figure to blame for the sexual prudishness of christianity and western civilization. it's essentially the same narrative that people apply to st. paul, too—jesus essentially taught peace, love, and understanding but then someone came along and turned everything into rules, turning a doctrine of love into a doctrine of condemnation. and while i think that's not entirely untrue, in a lot of ways, it's more of an interesting hook than it is an accurate picture of history.

for example, saying that augustine made shame the only route to holiness seems to me to be overstating things a bit. the concept of confessing one's sins and then performing some sort of penance—often quite extreme at the time—wasn't something augustine came up with. st. ambrose, augustine's mentor, wrote extensively about it. and, of course, st. james the less instructed christians to confess their sins one to another in his epistle. so to make augustine's confessions out to be this milestone in the christian conception of guilt, shame, and redemption makes sense as a literary move—a sort of shorthand for christianity's evolving sense of what it means to be a sinful human being and the negative way that manifested throughout western civilization. but in another sense, he's simply one point in a continuum—and maybe not that significant of one in the end.

finally, in my own experience—and i've found this to be true of many converts to catholicism—i was surprised and overwhelmed by what a positive experience celebrating the sacrament of reconciliation is. it's difficult to explain and i understand wholeheartedly the healthy skepticism non-catholics have because it's something i absolutely dreaded. and to be honest, it's something i still kind of dread—up until the point that i actually do it.

on the whole i think of it as a wonderfully liberating experience for a number of reasons. first of all, i'm someone who processes things verbally but doesn't necessarily have an outlet for everything. being honest about one's faults is difficult to do in our culture, i think, so for me, i've often experienced half-way through giving my confession this sense of relief that something i'd been kind of beating myself up over was still bad, but well within the realm of everyday human failing. also, having someone who knows in that context where i'm certainly not at my best then tell me that my sins are forgiven definitely makes it feel more real to me. i think of it as the difference between having parents who explicitly tell you that they love you versus parents who you know love you but let it go unsaid. and i also like that i'm immediately given things i can go out and do that can help me begin to make amends and make positive changes in my life.

so i suppose for that and a few other reasons, i have a very different association with the word 'confession'.

Maryann said...

David, I'm really glad you commented. I'm not very familiar with confession or the sacrament of reconciliation in the Catholic sense, but it's good to see a positive experience of it. I like how you said that it confirms that something you feel bad about really was bad, but it helped you recognize it as a part of everyday human failing, and are able to move on in real forgiveness.

I don't believe Joni had a particularly religious upbringing, so it is interesting to see why she associates such negative connotations with confession. I think you're right that it's easy to blame it all on Augustine when really confession is a part of other Christian doctrine and writings.

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