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sunt mihi multae curae: Self-Writing and the Emotional Reader

Catherine Conybeare

Bryn Mawr

Autobiography—perhaps better termed “self-narration” or “self-writing” to circumvent anachronistic genre conventions (Zak 2012)—lays a particular burden of engagement on the reader. The self within the text calls to the self, or selves, outside the text, expecting, commanding, pleading for a moment of encounter. Part of the point of constructing the text as a first-person narration is arguably to invite emotional identification of reader with writer (Cowley 2015). Commenting on the most famous of his own works of self-narration, Augustine of Hippo was quite explicit about his desire for affective impact:

The thirteen books of my confessions about both my failings and my virtues praise god, just and good, and rouse (excitant) human understanding and affection towards him. As far as I am concerned, they did this in me while they were being written, and they still do it when they are read. What other people feel about them, they should see for themselves… (retractationes2.6.1)

At least in the modern era (Augustine’s Confessionswere less popular in the middle ages), the project of “rous[ing] human understanding and affection” could hardly have been more successful—though the “him” that is the object of that affection is just as likely to be Augustine as his god (Conybeare 2016). Of all ancient works, at least in Latin, this may be the one with which readers identify most immediately and intensely (Vance 1973). The death of Augustine’s closest childhood friend (conf. 4.4.7-9.14), or the dismissal of his lover of many years (conf. 6.15.25), or the beatific moment that he achieves with his mother at Ostia (conf. 9.10.23-26): each of these episodes, and many more, are objects of passionate engagement.

I have spent much of my professional life working on, and often identifying with, Augustine. But the brief of this panel invites the question: what does it mean as a woman to identify with this man, however remarkable, however engaging? What strange occlusions and transpositions and re-identifications must take place in the reading process for that identification to be viable? To what degree must I indulge in the masculinization of the self that often seems to be the pre-condition for entry to a professional conversation? And what is lost in that process?

To begin to answer that question, in my contribution to this panel I would like to juxtapose Augustine’s Confessions with another, less well-known example of self-writing in Latin: the Liber Manualis of the Carolingian noblewoman Dhuoda (Jaffe 1997; Romig 2017). Composed between November 841 and February 843, the Liber Manualis was the result of a particular exigency: Dhuoda’s husband had sent her elder son, William, to serve in the household of a political rival, effectively as a hostage; he had then taken their baby (whose name she does not even know at the time of writing) and left her alone in Uzés. Dhuoda writes the Liber Manualis and dedicates it to William expressly as a stand-in for her own loving, guiding presence—“Norma ex me, Forma in te, Manualis tam ex me quam in te, ex me collectus, in te receptus.” She is defiantly, fiercely present in her own text. For all the divisions of place and time and social convention, the shock of unconditional recognition that I felt on reading this work—recognition of the anxious maternal desire to supply guidance and sustenance for her distant child, and above all, to remain present to him—made me realize how starved I was for Latin sources that spoke to my own maternal identity.  In this paper, I shall reflect on that reading experience and the passionate engagement that it evoked, juxtaposing it with the very different—though still powerful—affective experience of reading the Confessions.

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Readers and Reading: Current Debates

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