Perambulating the Bounds

Saturday, March 07, 2009

What a metaphor

Slogging my way through Augustine's Confessions--I say slogging because I've got a short attention span--and getting towards the end I came across a metaphor that stopped me in my tracks. For those of you who haven't read it the Confessions has an odd structure--it starts out as autobiography, taking you through Augustine's whole life up to the point at which he becomes baptized as a Christian. This being the whole point of telling his life story, he promptly moves into discussions of philosophical and theological questions.

Towards the end of the book, in what in my translation (the translation is by John K. Ryan from 1960--I'm not sure it's very good, but let's hope it's not too far off) is Chapter 15 of Book 13, he describes the scriptures as a firmament of authority over our existence. "Who except you, our God, has made for us a firmament of authority over us in the form of your divine Scriptures? For 'the heavens shall be folded together like a book' and now they are stretched over us like a skin." It's actually a double metaphor, of the book (the Book) as sky and the book as skin. To me this seems the opposite of the more common metaphor, that the sky is a book upon which meaning has been inscribed. In this case, the book, the bearer of words and meaning is seen as doing what the sky does in its primary state--which would be something like envelope, enclose. What does the sky do functionally when seen from a human perspective--it brings down sun and rain, it defines the extent of the possible field of vision. Like I said, this seems a reversal of metaphorical position, and it forces new, strange questions about what Scripture does functionally.

But there's more. He goes on to say "Other waters there are above this firmament...immortal and kept free from earthly corruption." It is the realm of supercelestial beings who have in one instant, no need of reading, but also see God's face and "read upon it what your eternal will decrees." I really need to check this translation, but its fascinating to think that Augustine sees waters above the sky. And of course the sky here is Scripture, so what is the "water" that takes position above the scripture. The idea of angels or the blessed transcending the need for earthly language seems familiar enough, but this idea of an ocean above the sky is odd. Among other things it reverses the relationships on the horizon line.

I'm not sure I have that much to say about this, other than commenting on how striking this sequence of metaphors is. I have a sense that these metaphors--book as sky, book as skin--will prove useful in time to come. It also connects a little with Stellet Licht, which starts and ends with images of the night sky--the firmament for sure--and the sky figures prominently in many of the shots. Augustine's metaphor gives me another way to think of those skies--not as something to read and interpret, but as a reminder of the all-encompassing structures that envelope and define us.

Photo of night sky by Andew Crampton from Wikimedia Commons.


  • Dave,
    I know very little about scripture, but I seem to remember something "in the beginning" about God separates the waters of the heavens from the waters of the earth and calls the space "sky." If I'm remembering this correctly, then perhaps it's where the idea of waters above the sky comes from?

    By Blogger Jon Morris (Matis), at 1:11 PM  

  • You're right, and you got me to go back to Bible and I see that Genesis 1:7 refers to waters under the firmament and waters above the firmament. I still think it's an odd image, no matter where it comes from. More so if you decide this is a way of talking about scripture, about a/the book.

    By Blogger David Maddox, at 7:30 PM  

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