THAT SAME FLOWER: FLORIA AEMILIA'S LETTER TO SAINT AUGUSTINE
By Jostein Gaarder Translated from the Norwegian by Anne BornFarrar Straus & Giroux
180 pp., $21
A native of North Africa, which during his lifetime was part of a declining Roman Empire, Saint Augustine (354-430) became one of the most influential thinkers in the history of Christianity. He was largely responsible for formulating such important - and in some cases disturbing - doctrines as original sin and predestination.
Another prominent feature of his thought was the belief that physical love for any purpose other than procreation was sinful.
Augustine was not only a formidable thinker, but also a gifted and original writer. His greatest works, "Confessions" and "The City of God," continue to touch successive generations of readers. He has even been nominated by some literary historians as a kind of first romantic - and with good reason.
In his searingly self-revelatory spiritual autobiography, "Confessions," Augustine placed himself - including his most private thoughts and feelings - at the center of the book, in a way that few writers had done before him.
"He suffused the existing Christian system with a greater passion of love than it had known since the immediate influence of its founder," Rebecca West wrote in her brilliant and provocative biography of the man. Her "St. Augustine" (1933) remains one of the most magisterial and stimulating examinations of Augustine ever written: acutely critical of many aspects of his personality and beliefs, yet fully cognizant of the magnitude of his achievement.
Among the flaws West discerned in his character were the two that clearly inspired Norwegian author Jostein Gaarder to write a novel. She takes issue with Augustine's contempt for sexual love and with the saint's claim that the world of the senses was not merely inferior to the spiritual one, but downright sinful.
In "That Same Flower: Floria Aemilia's Letter to Saint Augustine," Gaarder gives Augustine's cast-off concubine a chance to tell her side of the story in the form of a letter written to him years after she was made to leave him. Based on what Augustine himself says, this had been a serious relationship lasting more than 12 years, faithful on both sides, and resulting in the birth of a son whom Augustine named Adeodatus, or given by God.
Augustine's interfering mother, Monica, apparently hoping to clear the way for Augustine to marry a rich girl, sent his beloved mistress back to her native Carthage, forcing the poor woman to leave her child as well as her common-law husband.
"My heart cleaving unto her was broken ... and wounded, yea, and blood drawn from it," wrote Augustine in what Rebecca West dryly remarked would have been a truly affecting moment "were it not that neither then nor at any other time does he utter one word of sympathy for the woman."
Floria Aemilia, as Gaarder imagines her, must have been a woman of some mettle to have won the love of a man like Augustine. In the long epistle that forms the core of this novel, Floria demonstrates her intelligence and her familiarity with classical texts, which she quotes in support of her arguments.
Like Augustine, she is a native of North Africa, where the two first met and fell in love in the city of Carthage. At the time, Floria reminds him, they talked of Dido, Carthage's legendary queen, who killed herself on being abandoned by Aeneas, who left her in order to fulfill his mission of founding Rome.
Floria felt that Augustine had assured her that he, unlike Aeneas, would not abandon his beloved, but would take her with him wherever he went. (And, indeed, Floria did travel with him to Italy, where they lived for some time.) But ultimately, he betrayed their love.
"Isn't it," demands Floria, "an intensified form of infidelity to desert one's beloved for the sake of saving one's own soul?"
Floria's letter not only reproaches Augustine for treating her so badly, but also expresses her general alarm over the kinds of doctrines he is formulating. She points out that his worship of "Abstinence" is far more severe and unrealistic than St. Paul's advice that it is better to marry than to burn.
"You think God loves eunuchs and castrati above those men who love women," she declares. She notes that his condemnations of other sensual pleasures, from the sound of music to the smell of a flower, show contempt for God's creation.
The same holds true, she says, for Augustine's dualistic opposition of body to soul. She fears for the future of the church, if such attitudes prevail.
Somewhat inconsistently, Floria's critique of Augustine and Augustinianism seems based on two different worldviews. Sometimes, she criticizes his asceticism as a sin against God's creation. Other times, she is more agnostic, and criticizes his extremist attitudes as deviations from the classical ideals of temperance and moderation. But her inconsistency reflects the struggle that has existed in most eras between faith and doubt.
Floria may also strike readers as a precursor of the medieval nun Heloise, who wrote passionate and erudite letters to her former lover Abelard, reproaching him for denying the worthiness of the love that they once shared.
When it comes to exposing Augustine's shortcomings and limitations, Gaarder's Floria is certainly no match for Rebecca West. But she makes a heartfelt and persuasive case nonetheless.
In creating a novel that gives this forgotten woman her say, Gaarder invites readers to take a fresh look at some enduring issues of faith and morality.
* Merle Rubin regularly reviews books for the Monitor.