Augustine’s Pears

One of the advantages of taking the same kind of classes in college as you did in high school, and of teaching those same subjects again when you graduate, is that you cover the same ground several times. I commenting to some friends the other day that I’m enjoying Pilgrim’s Progress far more during my second round of teaching it–which is probably the third or fourth time I’ve read it through—than I did when I first flipped through its pages. This morning it occurred to me that something similar is going on with St. Augustine’s Confessions.

The Confessions are Augustine’s spiritual autobiography, something like a fourth century Surprised by Joy to those of us who read a lot of C. S. Lewis growing up. An evangelical might call it his testimony, and it certainly resembles the sort of thing you would hear on the Unshackled radio program, where people go through their life story, recount their sins and struggles, and then explain how they turned to Jesus and he changed them. In some ways, Augustine invented the genre.

I’ve read the Confessions three times in its entirety—once in junior high or high school, once in college, and once while teaching it. All three times one particular section stood out as particularly baffling: the pears. Augustine informs us that as a young man he was involved in every kind of debauchery, every kind of vanity or ambition. But rather than dwelling on his sexual misdeeds, his desire to be the world’s best rhetorician, or his obsession with dark or lewd poetry and drama, he spends almost an entire book of his work—what we could call a chapter—exploring this one time he stole some pears when he was a kid.

Listening to a discussion of the Confessions on the Mere Fidelity podcast, it struck me that there are three solid reasons for Augustine’s strange obsession with this apparently minor peccadillo.

First, human beings have a tendency to let our eye be drawn to interesting or fascinating sins. It’s the sordid adulteries or the bloody murders that catch our eye, or the vaunting ambition of the characters on House of Cards. We don’t particularly care about a kid’s temper tantrum, or a mom taking it out on her husband, or the husband spending his time elsewhere instead of helping out around the house. Minor sins are not interesting.

But sin is not meant to be interesting. Sin is fundamentally a tragedy, a flaw in our character, a flaw in the universe, that separates us from God. It is a thing that corrupts us, and corrupts society. It makes us low and petty, giving up great goods for minor, empty, fleeting pleasures. In focusing on the pears, Augustine draws our eye away from the salacious details of more fantastic sins, and asks us to examine what sin is in itself.

Second, Augustine draw our eye to this sin to draw out the motive behind it. Violence, lechery, gluttony—none of these are much of a mystery. But why did Augustine steal the pears? He was not hungry. It wasn’t because these pears were better than pears he could have gotten elsewhere. In fact, they were worse. He did not have a grudge against the owner of the pears. He suggests the possibility that it might have been to enjoy the fellowship of the friends he stole the pears with. But even then he doesn’t seem to be certain.

At the end of the day, it seems that he stole the pears mostly out of a perverse delight in doing something he knew to be evil. This says something profound about the state Augustine was in, and about human nature generally. We do not sin merely because we want what we cannot have. Sometimes we sin for the pleasure of sinning. We are, deep in our souls, beings that desire to do evil. The depths of this corruption are startling, and call for a truly profound kind of grace to purify us.

The last reason Augustine might dwell on the pears is less theological or philosophical, and more literary. Just as Adam and Eve stole the fruit from the tree in the midst of the garden, and that archetypal sin through the world into disarray, so Augustine steals pears from a forbidden tree, and this sheds light on the disorders of his own heart.

I should point out that none of these insights is entirely new. Each of these topics was something both my secondary school teachers and my college professors dwelt on, and something I tried to pass on to my students. What was new to me was the realization that these things could only have been highlighted by something like the theft of the pears, and not by other, grander sins whose sordid details which might distract us from the point. Augustine’s focus on this particular sin had been baffling before, but now it seems incredibly reasonable.

There is a mentality that sees some value in reading great books, but not in reading them again. It’s true that a first reading can give you a familiarity with the general themes, allow you to understand references made by others educated in the classics, and perhaps give you some sort of bragging rights.

But the value of great books is not merely in giving us access to a cultural conversation, but in teaching and shaping us. By spending time with great minds, great souls, and great imaginations, our own minds, souls, and imaginations are made greater. But in order to see the true measure of what these men have done, it often takes several readings, accumulated life experience, and repeated study. A truly great book should be read again and again, over the course of a lifetime.

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Millennial Monsters

When it became clear how momentous a change was going to follow in the wake of the internet, and after that, how much the widespread use of the smartphone was going to transform our lives, speculation immediately began as to how the generation raised with these things would differ from the generations that had seen them come into existence.

I recently had occasion to think about how horror stories in particular have changed in the new, online world. Over the last couple of years, I’ve spent enough time watching YouTube ARG’s, reading creepypasta, watching movies, and listening to the right podcasts to notice a few patterns emerging.

Before I point these out, let me give a few caveats: I’m way more of a general speculative fiction guy than a horror guy. I also remember broadcast TV and thinking dialup was cutting edge. I am therefore a bit of an outsider when it comes to both horror and the smartphone generation, so take this with a grain of salt. This is an essay in the old sense of the word—a casual attempt to think through a topic, rather the thoroughly researched and well-cited work of an expert.

That said, I’ve noticed three things that stand out about the ghosts and monsters conjured up by horror fans and writers since the rise of the internet. The first has to do with their character, and the next two with different aspects of their appearance.

First off, millennial monsters seem, by and large, to be loners. Slender Man, the hat man, the rake, most shadow people, many sightings of black-eyed kids—all of these are lonesome creatures, often dwelling in isolated locations. Before the internet, this was certainly a category of horror creature. However, zombie hordes, or large packs of werewolves, or massive cults, or covens of vampires and witches seemed to be a bigger part of the genre. On YouTube and in creepypasta, the creatures of our nightmares all seem to be individual, anti-social monsters.

Second, a major change seems to have occurred in the appearance of popular monsters. In the 80’s, it seemed like the majority of scary critters you might run into were big and hairy. They were often shaggy, wild-looking, and above all, physically imposing. Slender Man, the rake, and their relatives, on the other hand, are lean and hairless, and often pale. Their appearance is frightening not due to size or weight, not because they are bestial, but because they look wrong. They are unearthly, and unsettling. They are distorted.

Third, the way they appear unsettling is particularly interesting. I used the word “distorted” because I think it’s particularly apt. Slender Man is not too terribly unsettling, except that he’s been stretched like a piece of gum far beyond what is normal for any human being. The rake is bent until he can go onto all fours, and thin as well. Dear David, of recent Twitter fame, has a bent-in head. Werewolves are not distorted—they are often anatomically believable, as long as you don’t catch them mid-transformation. Zombies are rotten, but they’re not oddly shaped. If anything, vampires are often even more physically perfect than the rest of us.

Before I go on to speculate about these three trends, it would be good to make a qualification. Millennials can and do, of course, watch older horror movies and read Stephen King and dress up as zombies and vampires and werewolves. There is no unbreachable wall between pop culture before and after the internet. These are just tendencies, and that’s worth keeping in mind as I outline the truly speculative part of this below.

It has been observed of older generations that zombie movies do well during Republican presidencies, and vampires are more popular under Democrats. The thinking here is that the people are working out their fears of what they might become in the form of horror stories. Republicans are a mindlessly conformist mass of soulless corpses who want to eat your brains, and Democrats are parasitic sexual libertines out to exploit the working man. Or something like that.

Apply the same thinking to millennial monsters. In an age of smartphones and laptops we can all stay up to unreasonably late hours, living in a virtual world, without human contact. We isolate ourselves, from human contact and from sunlight. In the high-contrast world of bright screens in dark rooms, is it any wonder we see people in the shadows? Is it so strange that we fear pale, manlike creatures emerging from the darkness? The appearance of these creatures, and their isolation, matches things we fear about ourselves—what might we be becoming?

The world of social media adds another layer to this. In a time where so much of who we are is a performance, a cultivation of the right photos and the right statuses, the right comments and sharing the right posts, every bit of our identity is subject to technological manipulation. We distort our personality and our appearance to convey messages about where we belong and what we hold sacred, and do so far more consciously and constantly, and in a far more chaotically diverse context than ever before.

Slender Man is stretched and distorted because we are stretched and distorted. The rake is twisted as we are twisted, and the hat man is reducible to one distinct identifying marker just as we can easily become nothing more than a brand, hiding unknown intentions behind a meaningless profile pic or Twitter handle. Our monsters are no longer hairy and physically imposing because the most common threats to us today are not physical, but about identity and belonging. We no longer fear we or our neighbors will become beasts, but that they will become alien and unreadable and hostile.

There is undoubtedly a lot more to be said here. As I mentioned earlier, I’m no expert on horror, and there is no doubt that there is quite a lot of continuity between previous generations and this one. I did see the IT remake a week or two back, and seems at least as popular as the original. But I think these trends are noteworthy, and worth more exploration.

It also occurred to me, as I was considering these things a few days ago, that the things I’ve pointed out here—the appearance and isolated character of millennial monsters—is probably far more significant the technology through which our ghost stories are now communicated. Chat roulette monsters and found footage seem like little more than novelties, while the form of the monsters themselves carries actual weight.

At any rate, it will be fascinating to watch as the fears and folklore of the next generation develops.