Enough about me

What makes all autobiographies worthless is their mendacity. Unseemly self-exposures, unpalatable betrayals, unavoidable insincerity, a soupçon of meretriciousness: memoir, for much of its modern history, has been the black sheep of the literary family.

The current deluge of confessional memoirs all started late one night in 371 A.D., in a dusty North African town miles from anywhere worth going, according to Daniel Mendelsohn in the New Yorker, when a rowdy sixteen-year-old—the offspring of an interfaith marriage, with a history of bad behaviour—stole some pears off a neighbour’s tree. To all appearances, it was a pointless misdemeanour. The thief, as he ruefully recalled some thirty years later, was neither poor nor hungry, and the pears weren’t all that appealing, anyway. He stole them, he realised, simply to be bad. “It was foul, and I loved it,” he wrote. “I loved my own undoing.”

However trivial the crime and perverse its motivations, this bit of petty larceny had enormous consequences: for the teen-ager’s future, for the history of Christianity and Western philosophy, and for the layout of your local Barnes & Noble superstore. For although the boy eventually straightened himself out, converted to Christianity, and even became a bishop, the man he became was tortured by the thought of this youthful peccadillo. His desire to seek a larger meaning in his troubled past ultimately moved him to write a starkly honest account of his dissolute early years (he is disarmingly frank about his prolific sex life) and his stumbling progress toward spiritual transcendence—to the climactic moment when, by looking inward with what he calls his “soul’s eye,” he “saw above that same eye of my soul the immutable light higher than my mind.” The man’s name was Aurelius Augustinus; we know him as St. Augustine. His book was called “Confessions.”

As Augustine, a teacher of rhetoric, well knew, there had long been a tradition of biographies of accomplished men—Plutarch’s Lives, say, written at the end of the first century A.D.—and of autobiographical accounts of daring military escapades and the like. (Xenophon’s Anabasis, for instance, written in the early third century B.C., recounts how he and his troops managed to make their way back to safety after getting trapped behind enemy lines deep in what is now Iraq.) But Augustine was the first Western author to make the accomplishment an invisible, internal one, and the journey to salvation a spiritual one. The arc from utter abjection to improbable redemption, at once deeply personal and appealingly universal, is one that writers have returned to—and readers have been insatiable for—ever since. Augustine of Hippo bequeathed to Augusten Burroughs more than just a name.

Read full essay in the New Yorker