|Oct/Nov 1998 Book Reviews|
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1996 168pp
Norwegian-born, international bestselling novelist Jostein Gaarder splendidly exhibits the timelessness, the universality, and the agony of filial, but repudiated love in his book, That Same Flower. The book, Gaarder maintains, is a genuine reproduction of a personal letter composed for Saint Augustine, one of the Latin Fathers of the Christian Church and one of the greatest figures in Western philosophy, by his former lover Floria Aemilia.
How Gaarder came upon a manuscript of the letter is an anecdote worth mentioning. He unexpectedly discovered the letter in 1995 while shopping in an antique bookstore in Buenos Aires, Argentina. After a bit of haggling with the bookstore's owner, Gaarder agreed to pay slightly more than $12,000 for the transcript even though he was uncertain at the time about its authenticity. Following a closer examination of the style of the letter's grammar and terminology however, Gaarder eventually convinced himself that it was indeed of Medieval origins.
If we are to assume the validity of Gaarder's premise, that the letter (titled the Codex Floriae) is a legitimate transcription of an original medieval document, we can then be assured that he has stumbled onto a major historical find. Depressingly little information has been unearthed over the centuries about Saint Augustine's paramour, whom he resided with, along with their young son Adeodatus, for several years in North Africa and Italy prior to his fateful conversion into the Christian faith. What is known of the enigmatic Floria Aemilia is chiefly derived from what Augustine writes about her in his famous spiritual autobiography Confessions.
In That Same Flower, Floria Aemilia reveals herself to us by candidly responding to Augustine's observations in Confessions about her and about their semi-conjugal relationship. Some of what she writes commiserates with Augustine's emotions, which she portrays as being prone to attacks of anguish and confusion. But the better part of the letter's narrative is a denouncement of Augustine's decision to accept a permanent separation from his beloved Other. It was a choice based on a belief in a God that, as Aemilia writes, "desires above all that man should live in abstinence." In a rejoinder, she bluntly pronounces that "I have no faith in such a God."
Electing to immerse himself completely in God's wisdom, beneficence, and purity at the price of forsaking his earthly love for Aemilia was not an easy decision for Augustine it turns out. Deep sorrow accompanies his break with her as he laments in Confessions, "The woman I lived with was not permitted to stay at my side…My heart, which was deeply attached to her, was pierced, and wounded so that it bled…My wound, inflicted when my relationship with the woman I lived with was brought to an end, would not heal either." Augustine admits that this would cause him to grow "less sensitive to pain" over time.
While Augustine displays an appreciable amount of remorse in his prose, the depth of his grief pales in comparison to the level of emotion that surges forth from Aemilia's remonstrations. Her distress and indignation is far more convincing than anything Augustine has to offer, and what she writes is enough to compel the reader to identify with her suffering, to feel her pain in the name of pity and compassion. As the victim in this affair of the heart and soul, Aemilia expresses her pain eloquently as the words inscribed in the Codex Floriae become a cathartic salve for her heartbreak: "In your heart you cleaved to me, and your heart was wounded so that it bled. My heart suffered the same hurt…for we were two souls torn from each other…because you loved the salvation of your own soul more than you loved me."
One of the primary factors that led to the severing of Aemilia's relationship with Augustine was Augustine's mother, Monica. She is described by Aemilia as a willful and ambitious woman who from the very start, opposed her son's out-of-wedlock union with her. Monica, a devout Christian, banished her de facto daughter-in-law from the family household shortly after arranging Augustine's marital engagement to what she deemed to be a more palatable spouse, an eleven-year old virgin. Otherwise expecting Augustine to come to her defense, Aemilia was crushed by his meek acquiescence in the wake of her eviction and his engagement.
Never truly comfortable with the idea of marrying the adolescent girl, Augustine later withdrew from the engagement. This came as no surprise to Aemilia. Certain that he never wished to marry the girl in the first place, she accuses Augustine of using her to conceal his ulterior motive for abandoning the true love of his life: "You never wanted marriage; you wanted to save your soul from eternal annihilation." In Augustine's mind, staving off the damnation of his soul at the hands of the Almighty meant foregoing the pleasures of the body in their entirety. He followed this path of abstinence, secure in the faith that his sacrifice on earth would be amply rewarded in heaven.
It is almost impossible to imagine Aemilia drawing any consolation from Augustine's religious attitudes. On the contrary, she has nothing but contempt for Augustine's faith in a deity that in her view, places the existential and spiritual worth of a man over a woman's. Aemilia speaks volumes of the dichotomy between man, woman, and medieval Christianity, when she says "I don't believe in a God who lays waste to a woman's life in order to save a man's soul."
In the same vein, Aemilia talks of Augustine's rebirth in the clutches of the Church and the comprehensive shift in his worldview that arises out of it. She refers to the coalition of philosophical frameworks that informed his pious conversion. Aemilia writes of the medieval "theologians and Platonists" who were influential players in Augustine's intellectual and spiritual development. Their ideas, in particular the other-worldly philosophy of Neo-Platonism, fueled his transformation from a man of countless vices living a carefree existence into a God-fearing mortifier of the flesh. Aemilia has no kind words for these men. She believes that they rule within a "dark labyrinth" and that Augustine has been misguided by them. Here, her language runs in a manner resembling Dante as she chides Augustine for entering into an inescapable "maze of theology" where he turns into "one of those devourers of men" or possibly "a fisher of men."
That Same Flower is prominently scored over with the basic theme of Augustine's anti-materialism and aversion to bodily appetites. Continuing in the Platonic tradition, Augustine qualified as one of the "despisers of the body," as Nietzsche pejoratively labeled those who denied the gratification of the physical senses. Augustine carried this notion to incredulous extremes, regarding just about everything from eating more than what is nutritiously necessary to even something as innocent and wholesome as listening to a chord of music as a sin against God. Musing in Confessions with God as his intended audience, Augustine confesses that the sense of hearing "offers its perilous enticements" and that "I still find satisfaction in the melodies to which your words give life and soul when they are sung artistically by a fine voice…So I sin in this without noticing; but after I feel it is sin."
Augustine's self-righteous insensitivity to natural human desires is difficult to digest, especially when one considers how a mere mortal like himself, riddled with all of his weaknesses and imperfections, could possibly have gone on living day-to-day against the severe background of his religious convictions. Obviously, Aemilia thought along the same lines. Still, although Augustine's Christian transcendentalism failed to sell her on "despising this life, and about how good it is to die" into the utopia of the eternal afterlife, it did at least remind her of the priceless value she placed on the here-and-now. She concludes that "it must be human arrogance to reject this life-with all its earthly joys-in favor of an existence which is, perhaps, merely an abstraction…We must first live…then we can philosophize."
To embrace the fruits and beauty of our humanity and existence and to cherish them during our precious time on earth. That simple message is what Floria Aemilia goes to great length to nurture and preserve in That Same Flower.