There is no more condensed symbol of our wayward desire than our heads bowed and buried in the screen of a modern (de)vice, the “ghost machine” of our time.

Jesus once asked two disciples of John the Baptist who were following him, “What are you looking for?”

No idea. Maybe, we just want to watch?

Augustine opens Confessions book 3 in Carthage. He begins his tale with lines no translator can fail to enjoy working with: ueni Carthaginem, et circumstrepebat me undique sartago flagitiosorum amorumĀ (Conf. 3.1.1).

The Latin hisses and sizzles. From all sides it hits him – the roar, the clamor, the sights, the sounds, the smells. It overwhelms and enchants him, delights and sears him – ouch! And yet, how dare he pull back. How dare he not desire this branding of the flesh.

Translators have some choices to make in the next sentence. Boulding has him chastising himself for the “sluggishness” of his desires, Chadwick for being “less inwardly destitute,” Ruden for not having a “need…greater” than the one he (thought he) had.

The Latin is indigentem. The word appears twice in the same line. There is (apparently) a secretiore indigentia, a more secret or latent “need,” that rests below the surface of Augustine’s more evident indigentem. The latter was a poverty Augustine considered less than, minus, not destitute enough, for all that called out to him in Carthage at the time. But deep calls out to deep. This desire to desire more, to be filled with a sense of lack, mockingly mimics the more inward poverty of Augustine’s wandering soul. Scanning the horizon for anything and nothing, Augustine is – well…he just wants to feel, he just wants to watch. Bring on the circus, the theater. Heck, bring on TikTok!

Watching ourselves watch others watch themselves – there’s the ghost machine. And then the pathetic question, hardly a whisper today: “What are you looking for?”

To become spectators and tourists of our own lives, our own desires (Roberto Calasso), surely brings about a profound change in our experience of the world, reality, ourselves, the divine. This change is not easy to capture in words. Augustine tries to capture it, calling out the theater for exacerbating his vicious curiosity and microwaved emotions. He “blundered headlong into the love which I hoped would hold me captive…” But he also wanted this captivity mirrored back to him, for the theater to show himself to himself, not to heal and rescue him, and definitely not to force a reckoning with himself, but to help him revel in it – to be on the outside looking in on himself. As if all this was just happening to him. As if he were a thing to be watched.

His concluding question is supposed to answer itself: “Was that life I led any life at all, my God?”

To live in one’s own sight – is not, for Augustine, simply to be one’s own captain, to call the shots, to decide what’s what, to steer the ship. It’s to watch yourself doing it. You’re a part of the audience now, comfortably settling into your seat. Who, you ask, is that tragic person on stage? What is he looking for? What is she on about? You may just have to watch and see.