Forwarded for your edification:
Subject: Re: Daily Telegraph
This letter was in the Daily Telegraph a couple of months ago, I missed
it until now. lovely. very lovely INDEED.
By Christopher Howse
A funny thing happened to me last week. Like a drama reviewer who makes a remark such as "hardly sparkling" and sees it on the billboard outside the theatre as "Sparkling", I discovered that two words had been pulled out of a book review I had written and displayed in lonely beauty.
The words were "refreshing originality", and they now appear on the cover of the paperback edition of an appallingly bad biography of St Augustine of Hippo by a militant anti-Christian called James J O'Donnell, of Georgetown University.
The context in which I used the words is the following:"The first big surprise is that he spells 'god' with a small 'g'. That is, he says, to 'remind readers' of the risk 'of assuming that we know just what Augustine meant' by the word. The exercise immediately leads to difficulties, for in English the word 'God' is used as if it were the proper name of God. So it does not take the definite article. We say 'the dog is in the yard', but 'God is in his temple'. Out of similar motives of refreshing originality, O'Donnell always translates 'dominus' (referring to God) as 'master'. So he retranslates 'I will confess my transgressions unto the Lord' (Psalm 32) as 'I shall declare against myself what I have sinned against my master god'."See? Professor O'Donnell's attempt at "refreshing originality" just made him come a cropper. I discovered that other reviewers had similar criticisms. "It is difficult to see why this book is called Augustine: Sinner and Saint," wrote Lucy Beckett in the Times Literary Supplement, "since it quickly becomes clear that neither word means anything to O'Donnell beyond their use as public relations signals, negative and positive.
"The word 'God' means even less to him, so he writes it as 'god' throughout. He says this is to 'remind readers' to avoid the danger of thinking they know what Augustine meant by 'God', but Augustine himself was acutely aware of this danger, and all 'god' does it to remind us constantly of O'Donnell's own perspective."
"It is to be hoped that no one will read O'Donnell as their first book on Augustine," Beckett concludes. "Towards the end, O'Donnell recommends 'the wisest' reader to 'go away from these pages to read Augustine unmediated', but presumably in the hope that confidence in him will have been sufficiently undermined for him to be regarded as no more than a historical and psychological curiosity. One would, however, back the Augustine of the Confessions roundly to defeat in a new reader's mind O'Donnell's preposterous claim that in that book Augustine 'undervalues the human personality'."
That is not all that Professor O'Donnell claims about that autobiographical classic, Augustine's Confessions. He claims they are intended to deceive, and he discounts them entirely in his own biography. Professor O'Donnell is not ignorant; he edited the Confessions in three volumes for the Oxford University Press. He just hates Augustine.
"Augustine was the first to admit his many shortcomings," noted G W Bowersock in a review in The New York Times, "most notoriously in the great chapter about his youthful arrival in Carthage, where he found himself in a cauldron of sex and loved nothing more than to be loved. O'Donnell's 'frying pan' for cauldron is a silly effort to be different. The real force of the Latin word 'sartago', normally rendered 'cauldron', is that it is a smart pun on the name of the city, Carthago." I can't see any publisher pulling out the words "silly effort to be different" for the dust jacket of the next edition.
"Sadly, O'Donnell rarely evinces the remotest sympathy for his subject's spiritual aspirations," wrote Murrough O'Brien in The Independent on Sunday. "In fact, he just doesn't seem to like him much. The title Saint and Sinner seems to hint that the 'saint' is going to get very little airtime. Augustine is seen as invariably self-serving. It can't be as simple as that."
No, it isn't. A recent unsilly view, from a scholar of North Africa in ancient times, is St Augustine by Serge Lancel (SCM, £25). I found parts badly translated from the French, but the odd linguistic hiccup is much to be preferred to constitutional perversity.