Your chance to tell me what to do


I recently declared that I was planning to turn my comparison of Coates and Augustine into a proper article. A few days ago, however, I received an e-mail from a reader who went to hear Coates speak and had the opportunity to ask him if he had read Augustine’s Confessions. Reportedly Coates repeated much the same thing he said in his blog response to people who were hassling him about not having read Augustine.

Basically, he feels no obligation to spend his finite time on earth reading some particular text just because it’s “important” or “influential,” and he’s right of course. But what about me? I think there’s still a case to be made that the correspondences between Coates’ and Augustine’s texts are non-coincidental on a deeper level — they’re both memoirs centering on an intellectual problem, they both have a second-person addressee who radically changed the author’s perspective on life, etc. — but it seems like it would be more of a slam dunk if I could at least leave open the possibility that Coates had read Confessions. Shifting my strategy to address the “inner necessity” of the kinds of correspondences I have found seems like it would expand the scope of the project, perhaps unmanageably so.

I think it’s something that could still work well for a talk, or as a discussion in the context of a course — but I’m not sure I have enough ground to stand on for a proper article.

What do you think? Should I cut my losses, or press on?

13 thoughts on “Your chance to tell me what to do

  1. I think this thought experiment is worth trying in a classroom setting, chapter or a talk, especially considering the role that matters of creation and destruction take preponderance towards the end of each text. Augustine goes on to read Genesis once his life narrative concludes and Coates goes on discussing climate change as a potential cataclysm that could enact change (he parses this point a bit more in a conversation with Robin Kelley ( Also, having James Baldwin in conversation would be helpful in a classroom setting: his text is a clear companion piece to Coates and its religious overtones are manifest and makes the Augustinian link operate even if Coates claims to not have read it.

  2. The man is paid something around $150,000 a talk plus travel expenses (we looked into bringing him here, but that’s three religion faculty salaries for a year). He can handle the reminder that he hasn’t read one book in an infinite sea of books… Honestly, I don’t think he’s that worried about what a few academics say when they creatively engage with his work. He is one of the most successful non-fiction writiers in recent history, so I don’t think this should be part of your calculus.

    But, I guess I would ask what it is you’re trying to do with the comparison if you’re not making a Meillassoux-conspiracy-theory-about-the-Truth-of-Text. Do you have clarity on that?

  3. Although! I have had a vague idea for the last few years for something like an essay collection on questions of continuity, inertia of tradition, etc. So something like this could eventually make its way into that.

  4. I think the notion that it might be disrespectful to insist on a connection is a thought-provoking one. I have been spending some time with Derrida’s Beast and Sovereign II lectures where he works through Robinson Crusoe and Heidegger in a productive way, where it doesn’t matter whether Heidegger read Defoe or not. What’s important there is that reading them together is illuminating. Sounds to me like you could say the same thing without insisting that whether he knew it or not, Coates was drawing on Augustine.

  5. I mean, the question that can always be asked is whether memoirs tend to follow a general trend in Europe and the United States? I am willing to bet that an argument can be made that Augustine’s model is diffused throughout Europe and the US. As someone who is in a Comparative Literature department, there is less issue with comparing two things that aren’t related genealogically in some way (either by allusion or influence, etc.). So I guess the question is: why is it imperative that you prove that Coates is implicitly (or explicitly) using Augustine here? It seems to me that influence isn’t necessary to make an argument that the structure, themes, and motifs in both works are comparable.

  6. Right, claiming an unconscious Augustinian heritage is not the direction I want to go. I liked my theory from the original post that he had encoded it purposefully as a “fuck you” to the snobs who wanted to humiliate him, but I don’t want to turn around and say that he’s dependent on or subordinate to Augustine, regardless of what he says.

    Were I to do this, I would have to say that both Augustine and Coates are grappling with a similar problem or task and hence they independently arrive at similar solutions. There’s something inherent in the phenomenology of explaining one’s own intellectual development that pushes you in similar directions.

  7. I feel like there’s still plenty of room to do something interesting with the approach you describe in your last comment. And I think you may be uniquely situated to do it in a way that is insightful while remaining respectful of TNC.

  8. >But, I guess I would ask what it is you’re trying to do with the comparison if you’re not making a Meillassoux-conspiracy-theory-about-the-Truth-of-Text.

    Off topic, but what does this mean?

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