That Same Flower

Gaarder claims that while browsing in an old bookstore, he found a letter to St. Augustine from Floria Aemilia, his mistress and the mother of Augustine’s only son. They lived together for over a decade, first in Carthage (Tunisia) and then in Italy. Augustine banished Floria to move on to a socially advantageous marriage. He never got married but chose the path of abstinence and ascetism instead. From her exile, years later, Floria writes the letter. She has read Augustine’s Confessions, and studied philosophy herself. She reminds him of their history together, and defends the pleasures of the senses.

Were you and I not as two sides of a body that was fused – as a bridge joins two sides of a river into a body? Then a mighty divinity suddenly rises up from the river – or an abstract principle of Abstinence – that seems to sever the connection between one riverbank and the other? No, I do not believe in such a God, Your Grace… Can you still remember how you stroked me all over and seemed to tighten every bud before it opened? How you enjoyed plucking me! How you were intoxicated by my perfumes! How you nourished yourself on my juices! And then you went away and sold me for the sake of your soul’s salvation. What infidelity, Aurel, what guilt! No, I don’t believe in a God who demands human sacrifices. I don’t believe in a God who lays waste to a woman’s life in order to save a man’s soul.

This missive questions the Church’s view of women and love. The one thing that was not clear at the end was whether Gaarder really did find the Codex Floriae, as he claims, or if he has used the device of an epistoliary novel to bring to life the intellectual debates of another time. The latter seems more plausible because the narrative goes on more or less chronologically, and a personal missive is more likely to have been haphazard.

Don’t want to stir a hornet’s nest here, but I would not take dear old Floria’s explanations of her relationship with St. Augustine at face value. She makes him the absolute Other of her life, the twin-half, the soulmate, and all that. She feels that because of their great love, his conversion is too much a betrayal, and therefore “false” to himself. Now, I feel that’s putting on too much a strain upon an old flame. But then, most women do that. They just look at the world with a different shade of spectacles, and that is not necessarily wrong. It is an equally valid way of looking at the world, an equally good point of view, just… slightly warped.

For Floria and many women, I suspect that love becomes their entire history. For Augustine and men in general, it may well be just an episode. Men seem to find fulfilment in many other things besides love, and do not – in my limited knowledge – seek that One Person, their Severed Twin, the yin to their yang, their Missing Rib, so to speak. I may be wrong. I probably am. Hope so, anyways.

Floria does raise a good point or two. That, gratification of the senses is not immoral, because God gave us those senses in the first place. It is right and moral to enjoy food, art, music, sex, all the pleasures of the world that God has bestowed. Indeed, self-mortification is wrong and shows ingratitude to God. “May God have mercy on your folly, Aurel” she says.

Perhaps the most important thing that Floria represents is the question of the position of women in Christianity and the Church. To look at religious dogma, the Church (dare I say, the Bible?) would have us consider the female as some kind of sub-species – whereas the male is the fully-developed, fully-realized creation of God.This begins from the moment they assert that Eve caused the fall from Eden and Grace. Like Adam would never have tried the forbidden fruit if Eve didn’t say “yum”. Assuming she even did. That’s one of the great whodunnits of religion as far as I’m concerned. Was Eve framed? Someone elses’ gender studies dissertation.Then the Bible says something to that the effect that the woman is a honeyed trap laid by Satan, an instrument of the devil for men to fall into sin and temptation.

And then, there is the idea that ascetism / abstinence is the desired goal of a saintly Christian life. I mean, just look at Augustine – it’s all self-righteous rejection of human desires – he doesn’t want to listen to hymns, because “the sense of hearing offers perilous enticements”; he doesn’t even want to eat, barely “enough to sustain life”. Floria rages at him, oh, go do an Oedipus and put your eyes out, and while you are about it, go and cut your tongue, nose and everything out, and for good measure, castrate yourself too, because everything you do, look at, hear, feel – everything is a sin! As well may Floria say, “I’m afraid. I fear what the men of the Church might one day do to women like me,” mistresses to powerful religious figures, unwed mothers to illegitimate children, intelligent women, women who are loved by these powerful men.

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One Response to “That Same Flower”

  1. I read the book, it is well written, and very interesting. But it is obviously historical fiction. The author does not give any proof of the existence of the Codex, and his arguments to “believe” in its authenticiy are not cientific.
    If one, I think, would find some document like this one and be sure of its authenticiy, Why not to show it to the world as a historical finding instead of writing an epistolary novel? Also, there are some cues in the writing that let the reader to know that the author is from our times (Gardner). The arguments of Floria are ok, but the portraying of Agustine as having an incestuous and insane love for his mother, or acussing him of hiting Floria, or even a slight insinuation of having left his son die, are pure gossip, and…FICTION. Also, from my point of view, it is not such a great issue if this man was true or not in his choice of leaving his mistress to face a new form of life. Many men or women in history had made similar decisions in order to devote theirselves to what they think is the Truth: their nations, a scientific research, etc. The book is good in terms of a critic of ideas, but that is all.

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