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Drunk Tears on a Barren Sea: Augustinian Reflections on Desire

November 6th, 2023 | 20 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

Early in 2021, late in our great Covid pandemic, the sea-shanty took over Tik-Tok. The infectious tunes were introduced to a new generation by young Scottishman Nathan Evans, whose rendition of “Wellerman” was an instant hit. The sea shanty’s simple melody and repetitive choruses once served a practical function by fitting the cadences of work on seagoing vessels. Yet it also bound a crew together while they sang, forging a sense of togetherness and commonality that would be essential for the isolation of the seas. The songs are also perfectly formed for Tik-Tok’s layering effect, in which users remix other people’s videos. For one moment, the platform counteracted the isolating, divisive upheavals that Covid wrought.[1] The superficiality of the pleasure that brought people together was the point: if we could not agree on vaccines, we might at least all sing Wellerman.

The sea shanty enjoyed a revival, though, not only because it bound us together, but because The Tiktok Algorithm gave it to us. Wellerman is satisfying: its compact rhythm and tight harmonies are an explosion of auditory pleasure. Listeners’ joy led to shares and likes, sending it down through the feeds of others who had previously registered similar preferences. No social network is so finely-tuned to understand, and even anticipate, its users interests as Tik-Tok: its feed is calibrated to respond to the time we spend hovering over a video, before we decide to watch it, not only to our intentional choices to watch, like, and share. This time, The Algorithm was benevolent, blessing feeds with a newfound auditory joy. It is not always.

Tik-Tok is a social network built on concupiscence—on raw desire and curiosity, which are at work in the moments before we begin consciously reasoning about what we are up to. Sea shanties are a happy outcome of the algorithm, but it has led to more complicated developments as well. More than one young person has declared themselves to be queer after the algorithm began feeding them content that troubled traditional norms of sex or gender. The algorithm “knew” their sexual or gender identities before they did, showing them videos that others who had similarly hovered over and ended up enjoying. In these cases, raw desire has done more than supply momentary pleasures to break the monotony of isolation: it has driven self-discovery, or at least what some young people have taken as self-discovery. At bottom, the algorithm can only affirm and so intensify what we desire: it takes our primal curiosities and gives them back to us with similar “content,” often in more overt and extreme forms.

Perhaps the algorithm can be trusted, and the life it leads us into will be good. Journalist Rebecca Jennings thinks so: she proposed that Tik-Tok is “one of the best platforms for questioning people, who can allow their algorithm to take them on a journey that could eventually lead them to a more authentic and joyful place.” Perhaps. And yet: the moral quality of our desires is rarely transparent to us in the moment, which makes the algorithm exciting—and dangerous. The moment of indecision when we hover over a video doubtlessly signals interest—but interest of what kind? Of affirmation or revulsion, of acceptance or aversion? The algorithm is neutral, but our hovering might not be. If our desires are deformed, how can the algorithm know? And why should we trust those humans who built and moderate the algorithm, any more than we trust the writers of horoscopes?

How can we call upon God, if we do not know him? So asks Augustine at the outset of his Confessions. Yet the problem of desire runs even deeper than this: how can we know God, if we do not want to know Him? The worlds we make for ourselves reflect and reinforce our desires, trapping us in an endless cycle from which there is no escape. The pleasure that comes from the satisfaction of our desires binds us more closely to their objects, and subsequently blinds us to other goods. Robert Nozick once asked us to consider whether we would be willing to enter an ‘experience machine,’ which would allow us to enjoy the pleasures of various activities without undertaking them in reality, with all its attendant risks and dangers. Would we enter it? Why not? Once we are on the inside, we would no longer know the difference between the experience and the reality. And if all we know are pleasures, who cares whether they are real?

The self-reinforcing quality of pleasure means we cannot escape our desires once they are fixed, except by a miracle. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Shakespeare juxtaposes the farcical, “most lamentable comedy and most cruel death of Pyramus and Thisbe” with the happiness of a wedding. The play-within-a-play in Act Five recapitulates the double-suicide of Romeo and Juliet, which is a comically inappropriate theme for a wedding reception—except that two members of the wedding party only escaped engaging in double murder in Act Three through the miracle of “fairy grace,” and two other members of the wedding party are married only because one conquered the other in war. A shadow hangs over the wedding: desire is dangerous, as it is prone to cause deception and death. The prologue to the play-within-a-play is a warning to this effect, to the wedding party and to us, even if it is written so badly that the danger it sounds will only be heard by those who pay the most careful attention:

“We do not come as minding to content you,
Our true intent is,” the prologue says. “All for your delight
We are not here. That you should here repent you,
The actors are at hand and by their show
You shall know all that you are like to know.”

“You shall know all that you are like to know.” We shall know all we like to know, which means we are in danger of knowing only what we like to know. How can we come to know not only what we want to know, but what we need to know? Will the algorithm really lead us forward, into a more authentic self?  

Desires can be opaque. Their true objects are often hidden from us, covered over by a darkness impenetrable to the light of reason. This is one lesson from Augustine’s inquiry into his theft of the pears in Book 2 of the Confessions, which he leaves unresolved. Alone he would not have done it, he says, for the act itself had no intrinsic value, no good that the mind can conclusively settle on as an explanation. Under conditions of sin, the will turns away from the truth of being and embraces the deception and unreality of nothingness—and as Shakespeare will remind us in King Lear, “Nothing comes from nothing.” Reason cannot settle on a source of the evil it desires, for, properly speaking, there is none: “Nothing will be found” in the search for an explanation of Augustine’s theft, Paul Griffiths writes, “because nothing is sought.”

In a world dominated by sin, our wills are unstable, unmoored, incapable of finding rest because they lack the stability and permanence of God: they cannot rest until they find the real, but are trapped within the unreality and nothingness of sin. They float upon the sea, and are tossed hither and thither by waves of pleasure that are no more permanent than the fading trends of Tik-Tok. Trapped in the vicissitudes of time, the will attaches itself to one good—only to see it, too, fade away into impermanence. Augustine’s search in Confessions is an attempt to escape a world of intense and potent pleasures that lacks deep and permanent goods. “If Adam had not fallen from you,” Augustine writes in Book XIII, “there would not have flowed from his womb that salty sea-water, the human race—curious, like a sea in a stormy swell, unsteady and lax.”[2] The sea is marked by the barren faithlessness of a world that has renounced God, which cuts us off from the fruitful generativity and solidity of land. The bitterness of the waters has made them undrinkable, leaving us within what is effectively an unstable desert, void of the resources we need to live. “For the sea is a figure of this present age,” Augustine writes in his exposition of Psalm 69, “bitterness being signified by salt and turbulence by storms.”[3] 

How can we escape the upheavals of the sea and find our way to shore? Our hearts are restless until they rest in God—until they enjoy the tranquility of peace, the stability of a harmonious order, land beneath our feet. There is no path out of the sea that does not cross it by embracing the hot, salty tears that pour out our misshapen loves and enable us to grieve for the sins of others. We do not know what it is we love until we are confronted with its loss, which gives rise to either fear or grief. Augustine weeps for Dido’s death in Book I, but not for his own lack of love for God. He was thrown into the “river of custom” as a boy, which gave him tears for the wrong reasons. That river, with its misshapen loves, carried him along into “the great and fearful sea which can be crossed, with difficulty, only by those who have embarked on the Wood of the cross.”[4]

In Book III, his weeping for Dido descends farther into his captivity to the theatre, where his tears for fictional characters themselves become his objects of love. It is easy for us to think Augustine is being too scrupulous, too uptight. Yet at the heart of his critique lies a concern to preserve the integrity of compassion, or misericordia: the fictionality of the suffering depicted in the theater means our sorrow can be mingled with pleasure, which we would never permit if the suffering were real. Who would endorse feeling satisfied or content with weeping at the sorrow of another, like we do at the movies? The tears generated by the theater are thus false: the vision that gave rise to them is not real, our sorrow is not pure, and we cannot alleviate the wrong we grieve. By contrast, Book III ends with Monica’s vision that Augustine would convert—a true dream that consoles her sorrows and animates her to importune a bishop with tears of compassion to help Augustine.

The artificiality of Augustine’s tears cannot prepare him for the reality of loss. In Book IV, his unnamed friend dies—and the world dies with him, throwing Augustine into the depths of the sea. “I had become to myself a vast problem,” he writes: “Only tears were sweet to me, and in my ‘soul’s delights’ weeping had replaced my friend.” Augustine had poured out his soul “on the sand,” loving the temporal as though it were permanent. He does not petition to see his friend again, but gives himself over to a delight in tears for their own sake. Every soul that is improperly bound to mortal things is wretched, he writes: but only in their loss does the soul “become aware of the wretchedness which in reality it had even before it lost them.” Augustine becomes weary of the sea, as the world turns to ashes in his mouth: he becomes simultaneously tired of life and afraid of death. He wept “very bitterly and took rest in bitterness,” nihilistically accepting the sea because he can see no escape from it.            

Yet the infinite sea of God is deeper and broader than the tumult of this world. “Man is a vast deep,” he says, “whose hairs you, Lord, have numbered and in you none can be lost. Yet it is easier to count his hairs than the passions and emotions of his heart.”[5] Though we might turn from God toward nothingness, God does not depart from us: “You alone are always present even to those who have taken themselves far from you,” Augustine writes at the outset of Book V—a book in which he will himself cross the sea from Carthage to Milan, beginning his ascent back to God.  “You were there before me,” Augustine says, “But I had departed from myself. I could not even find myself, much less you.”[6] He leaves Monica crazed with grief on the shore (as Aeneas once did to Dido) in his journey toward Rome and Ambrose, whose teaching begins to open him to the Catholic faith.

Augustine’s next tears will flow in his conversion in the garden in Book VIII, where he is overcome by shame for his attachment to his concupiscence. His tears here are not unlike his tears for his dead friend—only “in the agony of death,” he says of his conversion, “I was coming to life.” Augustine’s entry into the faith is tumultuous and agitated: he is dissociated from himself, neither wholly willing nor wholly unwilling to embrace chastity. He flails his limbs in the manner of his infancy, demonstrating that his will to become chaste lacks the power to be so. His conflict of his self against his self is heightened by his vision of Lady Continence, who in her chastity is not barren like the seas “but is the fruitful mother of children.” She comes to Augustine not alone, but with the whole host children, adults, virgins and widows, each of whom embodies Continence herself. The truth of Augustine’s vision of crowds who have been liberated from concupiscence finally sets him free. “A vast storm bearing a massive downpour of tears” breaks upon him: “Rivers streamed from my eyes,” he writes, “a sacrifice acceptable to you”—a sacrifice of tears, we should note, like that which Monica had offered “day and night” for Augustine.[7] Augustine’s reception of the Word of the Lord to put on the Lord Jesus Christ completes the process, quelling his anxiety and dispelling his doubt.

Augustine is not done crying in the Confessions: he weeps during the hymns and songs during church in Book IX, and he weeps again for Monica after her death. He will not cry for her in public: he restrains his tears until, alone, he gladly cries before God “about her and for her, about myself and for myself.” He embraces his tears in the same manner that he had cried for his friend, yet without their nihilistic, edge: “My heart rested upon them,” he says, “and it reclined upon them, because it was your ears that were there, not those of some human critic who would put a proud interpretation on my weeping.” We think him proud to not cry more, but Augustine was concerned others would think him proud if he cried at all.

And then Augustine cries one more time, he tells us—as he is writing the Confessions and thinking of Monica. His heart, he says, is healed of his grief for her—but he pours out tears “from a spirit struck hard by considering the perils threatening every soul that ‘dies in Adam.” His tears are accompanied by petitions that the Lord would be lenient to Monica’s sins, embodying the truthful compassion that Monica had once shown toward him. Augustine’s tears at the unreality of the theater have finally been transformed into tears for his sin, and from there for the sins of others.

Augustine even invites us, his readers, into compassionate tears that animate prayer, exhorting us to weep for him if we object to his tears over Monica—or if we object to him only crying for fifteen minutes, as readers today are more likely to do. The “more people cry over [the things of this world], the less they are actually worth crying over; and the more they are worth crying over, the less people actually do,” Augustine writes in Book 10’s transition away from his biography. Let “hymns and weeping from brotherly hearts,” he goes on, “rise up” in the God’s sight. In that same book, Augustine again becomes a problem to himself as he considers the tears that worship music induced in him. Only he is no longer alone in them: his journey across the barren sea has been joined by us, the readers: “Weep with me and weep for me, you who have within yourselves a concern for the good, the springs from which good actions proceed.”

Augustine’s tears are not performative, nor are they a form of self-care: he is not practicing an emotional release, in which he dissipates the turbulent feelings that overwhelm him in order to get on with the business of his life. His tears are indicators of his misshapen loves, means of his repentance, and finally become the mode of his compassion. They make him acutely aware of the sea that holds him, and which he yet sails over on the wood of the cross. His tears are marks of his awareness of his fundamental incompetence to make the world right. He was incapable of willing the good and unable to make restitution for the wrongs he has done: the flowing river of time only goes one direction, which keeps him, and us all, from peacefully enjoying the harmony our sin disrupts. Death is both inevitable and irreversible, putting an end to even the most potent of pleasures. Augustine came to Jesus, but he has not escaped the sea: his tears for Monica reveal his, and our, deep need for the miracle of grace.

There is a lesson here, I think, about how we might come to want to know God, which I take it is our deepest and most profound problem. Misshapen desires are self-defeating, and so will eventually bring us to tears. The falsehood embedded in bad desires ensures we will not attain what we seek. In loving his friend as though he were immortal, Augustine embraces a mode of life that is inherently impotent, in which he is powerless to attain the thing desired. Augustine is caught within a practical contradiction: he tries to love his mortal friend as though he were immortal, which is a form of attempting to affirm both X and not-X at the same time. And matters are even worse than this for Augustine, and for us: his misshapen love produces the very condition he protests against, namely, the death that is the sting of sin. In sin, we do not get what we want (an immortal good), and we receive what we do not want (namely, mortality). In Dante’s image of the bitter irony of sin, Satan is trapped within a sea of ice that remains frozen by the flapping of his own wings. His perpetual rebellion is the source of his captivity. He cries, too, tears of frustration rather than of repentance.

Augustine is rescued out of the salty-brine of the sea by the clear waters of baptism, transforming his tears from tumultuous upheavals for a transient world into tranquil pleas for a sinful one. Augustine’s passion for his mother’s death and sins is temperate—yet the irony is that Augustine’s moderate tears are not a form of self-possession, but of self dis-possession. He is free to be overwhelmed by Monica’s death and sins, because he has himself been overwhelmed by God. Inebriated by him, we might say, made drunk with desire for God through the gift of the Spirit. “Who will enable me to find rest in you?” Augustine asks in the fifth paragraph of Book 1. “Who will grant me that you come to my heart and inebriate it, so that I forget my evils and embrace my one and only good, yourself?”[8] Wine maketh the heart glad, Psalm 104 says. Augustine does not love alcohol—he notes he is not a drunkard and vigorously protests that Monica was not one either. Instead, he learns to love the “sober intoxication” of God’s wine, which he says Ambrose preaches out of God’s word.

The intoxication that comes from God’s wine binds us to the world, sanctioning the tears we shed for its dissolution and deformation. The death of Nebridius in Book IX is mentioned in passing, yet Augustine uses it to signal God’s fundamental “Yes” to this world, and to prepare us for his tears at Monica’s death. “There he lives,” Augustine writes of Nebridius, in Abraham’s bosom, with God in his glory, “for what other place could hold so remarkable a soul?” Augustine has been displaced by God in Nebridius’s life: Nebridius no longer pricks up his ear when Augustine speaks, for he now in heaven drinks directly from the font of God’s wisdom. And then Augustine adds one of his most tender expressions of love in the Confessions, and one of his most profound affirmations of the goodness of this life: “I do not think [Nebridius] so inebriated by that as to forget me,” Augustine writes, “since you, Lord, whom he drinks, are mindful of us.” If the dead in heaven remember us, then surely we may remember the dead, and even do so with the occasional tears.

Safe journey across the barren sea involves participation in the life of God through the inebriation that comes from the wine of the Spirit, who unites us to Jesus Christ. Out of the perfection of God’s compassion, the Son of God walked on the sea of this world, making a way for us to cross it with Him. Christ has entered into the springs of the sea and searched out its recesses, as God tells Job, and has calmed its tempest with a word as a man. There is no guarantee the algorithm will lead us into a more authentic and truthful version of our self: the algorithm is a closed circle, which can only give back what we want—rather than what we should want. Only the God who has himself traversed the sea himself, and given us the ark of the cross, knows us well enough to gently lead us to himself and into the true satisfaction of our desires.    

We can conclude with this: Augustine cannot bring himself to do away with music in church because it moves him to tears of contrition and compassion, which together cleanse his eyes of the darkness of this world so that his whole body may be full of the light of God. Augustine still floats across the barren sea of this world—yet he now travels together with whole host of pilgrims who have embraced the infinite sea of God’s love, which transforms the sea of faithlessness into the wellspring of love and compassion. Through our drunk tears of the Spirit on this barren sea, we will have the strength to journey on together, singing our sea shanties and hymns of praise to God with one harmonious voice—until that great day when our Lord comes, a day on which Revelation 21 tells us that God will wipe every tear from our eye, and the sea itself will be no more.  

Matthew Lee Anderson founded Mere Orthodoxy and is the author, most recently, of Called into Questions: Cultivating the Love of Learning within the Life of Faith. Themes from this essay also appear in that book. He writes a newsletter and encourages you to subscribe. This was originally given as a talk at Messiah College.

Footnotes

[1] As Evans himself said, “if it wasn’t for TikTok, I would be so bored and claustrophobic. But it can give you a sense of having a group. You can collaborate with other people and make friends so easily.” So said Nathan Evans, the Scottish postal worker whose rendition of Wellerman went viral for the first time.

[2] This translation is my own. All other translations are taken from Henry Chadwick’s famous edition, unless otherwise noted. My reading here is influenced by Elizabeth Clark’s essay, “Adam’s Womb (Augustine, Confessions 13.28) and the Salty Sea,” Proceedings of the Cambridge Philological Society, No. 42 (1996), pp. 89-105.  

[3] Psalm 70:4.

[4] Confessions I.25.

[5] Confessions IV.22.

[6] Confessions II.2.

[7] Confessions V.7.

[8] Confessions I.5(5), Patricia Hampl translation.

Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is an Associate Professor of Ethics and Theology in Baylor University's Honors College. He has a D.Phil. in Christian Ethics from Oxford University, and is a Perpetual Member of Biola University's Torrey Honors College. In 2005, he founded Mere Orthodoxy.