Qui s’accuse, s’excuse

Terry Eagleton

  • Troubling Confessions: Speaking Guilt in Law and Literature by Peter Brooks
    Chicago, 207 pp, £17.00, May 2000, ISBN 0 226 07585 0

In the wake of the Second Vatican Council, some progressively minded Catholics began to reintroduce into the Mass the ancient practice of public confession. Individuals would rise from their pews and accuse themselves in comfortably imprecise terms of various moral lapses, begging forgiveness of their brethren. At one such Mass, a young woman rose and proclaimed to the piously suppressed excitement of the congregation that she had committed adultery. ‘With that man over there,’ she added, pointing a finger at a young man with a baby on his lap who was turning a slow crimson. Then she added, ‘In thought,’ and sat down again.

‘In thought’ is a nice Papistical touch. It betrays the Cartesian bias of much modern Catholicism, the belief that what matters is what goes on in your head. It is all right to possess nuclear weapons as long as you don’t intend to use them. The practice of confession raises all sorts of slippery issues about truth, self-deception, intentionality and the like, most of them subtly dissected in Peter Brooks’s rich, stodgily written new study. The fact that Brooks is an American is not accidental in this respect, since after Stalinist Russia the US is surely the most neurotically confessional culture in modern history. When Brooks speaks of the modern demand for a ‘generalised transparency’, he has a point; but he is also mistaking his own neck of the woods for some grander entity called Western culture. It was not the inhabitants of Franche Comté who invented TV shows in which people fess up to having sex with an alligator. The belief that whatever is not instantly externalised is inauthentic belongs more to California than Calabria. And though this blend of puritanism and consumerism now increasingly permeates Europe, too, it is still hard for some Europeans to get by in a United States which seems not to value reticence or obliquity. The country is awash with witness, therapy, victimage, public self-exculpations, lowlier-than-thou protestations.

One of several troubled passages between the private and the public, the act of confession links the most private – sin, sexuality and the like – to the most dauntingly public (law courts, police stations). And this is bound to be of interest in a society like the United States, whose citizens, like people elsewhere only more so, are at once cloistered in their own private space and remorselessly on public show. The connection between these spheres was once known as republicanism or civic humanism: it is now known as selling your sex life to the papers.

Both puritanism and consumerism make a fetish of transparency; but a little more transparency in Western culture, even so, might not come amiss. For the other side of the phoney immediacy of the chat show is the deception and skulduggery by which some people reap a profit from such spectacles, not to speak of the lying politics which prop up that acquisitive system. While some chatter artlessly away about incest and aliens, others huddle conspiratorially together in smoke-free rooms. The more private lives are conducted in a glasshouse, the more sinisterly inscrutable grows the public realm. Capitalist culture’s hunger for transparency is, among other things, an excessive reaction to excessive opacity, just as the mandarin jargon of academia is in part a resistance to the over-consumable speech of the marketplace. For every post-structuralist fastidiously sceptical of truth, there are millions of ordinary folk out there for whom seeing is believing.

This, no doubt, is one reason for the success of post-structuralist theory in the United States, well past its sell-by date though it now is. Another reason is the American fetish of personal responsibility. With the possible exception of ‘Blessed are the losers,’ few statements are less permissible in the US than ‘It wasn’t my fault.’ It is a fanatically voluntaristic society, in which appeals to the social determinants of selfhood are seen as a moral cop-out almost everywhere except in literary theory seminars. The legal notion of confession depends, as Peter Brooks points out, on the assumption of a free, rational will, so that to cast doubt on the concept is more ideologically subversive in the States than it is in stoical, deterministic, history-ridden Europe. Hence the US origins of Post-Modernism, which overreacts to a hubristic American affirmation of the self by undoing or dissolving it.

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