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.

In a society obsessed with discourse, the subject of confession is bound to prove alluring. There is the question – deftly examined by this book – of whether a ‘free confession’ can ever be more than an oxymoron; and this is especially relevant in a culture much preoccupied with issues of free v. oppressive or coercive speech. And if the act of confession seems to blur the line between the free and the involuntary, so it obscures the distinction between the natural and the artful. It is thus of particular relevance to that running battle between puritanism and Post-Modernism, the spontaneous and the constructed self, which we know as the United States. Qui s’accuse, s’excuse: there is usually an element of crafty self-exculpation about coughing up, which for Brooks is one reason why it is an inherently duplicitous, unreliable speech act. The force of this case is somewhat diminished by the fact that, for some of the theories from which it springs, every speech act from promising to shouting ‘Fire!’ is unstable and unreliable. Even so, he shows with admirable resourcefulness how confession can involve power, propitiation, dependency, self-humiliation; how it can pleasurably generate the very guilt it seeks to assuage; how it may be a way of provoking as well as avoiding punishment, or of vaunting the self in the act of abnegating it. There is also, if one recalls the young woman at Mass, confession as come-on.

All this is alarming stuff for a society which believes that what you see is what you get. The idea that our selfhood spontaneously seeks its naked self-disclosure can withstand the news that there are forces around to stop this happening, but not that being oneself is a form of play-acting. That sincerity involves artifice, just as the immediacy of the TV image involves fabrication, is not what either puritan or avid consumer wants to hear. Even so, Brooks’s view of confession reflects the very liberal values he wants in some ways to challenge. The book revolves on some intricate parallels between confessions to priest, psychoanalyst and police interrogator, while acknowledging vital distinctions between them. Unlike priests, for example, psychoanalysts are more interested in their confessees’ involuntary rather than voluntary disclosures, in their resistances rather than their confidences; and unlike lawyers or police interrogators, psychoanalysts make no direct use of the material they elicit. Brooks might have added that religious confessors don’t either: the point of the ‘seal of confession’ and the closed, private nature of the confessional, which the book views at times as mildly sinister, is to protect the confessee. What Brooks reads as obscurantist mystery is in part enlightened policy.

The most obvious difference between religious and legal acts of confession is that the former is about forgiveness while the latter is about punishment. Penance is not the point of confession, even if it is still its official theological name; and this is something that Troubling Confessions, which scarcely uses the word ‘forgiveness’, fails almost entirely to see. In reach-me-down Foucauldian style, Brooks views the Catholic confessional as little more than a blend of consolation, moral cleansing, self-discipline and spiritual policing, in which the authoritarian role of the confessor is to pluck the truth of a suitably ‘abjected’ confessing subject from the depths of his tormented inwardness. In fact, this is hardly true to the empirical experience of the Catholic confessional, which is usually as perfunctory an affair as buying a pound of carrots. It is clear from his work that Michel Foucault was never in the box himself, though some might think he needed it. ‘Confessional’, in the Oprah Winfrey sense of the word, is the last thing that confession is. Indeed Brooks himself perceptively notes the parallel between the impersonality of the confessional, where the priest sits behind a screen or with face averted, and the impersonality of the scene of analysis, where the analyst usually sits out of sight of the recumbent analysand. Had Brooks a little more theological expertise, he might have added that the impersonality of the confessional has much to do with the fact that the priest is present as a representative of the Christian community rather than as an individual in his own right. This is why it doesn’t matter if he is even more sinful than you.

Through this normalising apparatus, in Brooks’s view, the hapless confessee is reintegrated into the community and ‘subjected to a regimen of orthodoxy in behaviour and belief’. As a good liberal, Brooks is fashionably suspicious of orthodoxies, just as he seems not to relish the law overmuch. It does not seem to occur to him that being ‘subjected’ to an orthodoxy of humane belief and behaviour is rather preferable to being a heterodox thug. Feminism is not an orthodoxy in Nepal, and more’s the pity. Nor does he seem to appreciate in his piously liberal way that the law can be emancipatory as well as oppressive, nurturing and protective as well as injurious; or that to be accepted back into a community one has offended may be more than some darkly incorporative device. To complete his liberal orthodoxy, Brooks uses words like ‘guilt’ and ‘shame’ somewhat distastefully, as though there were not a great deal for us to feel guilty and ashamed about. The fact that guilt has become a thriving cottage industry in the United States should not blind us to this fact.

It is true that the Catholic confessional has probably served as much to oppress as to emancipate, and Brooks shrewdly points out that it emerges in the Middle Ages at about the same time as Inquisitorial hunts for heresy. But this legalistic model of religious confession, for which confessing one’s sins to a priest is like coughing to a cop, will hardly stand up against, say, the theology of William Blake. The name ‘Satan’ in the Old Testament means something like ‘accuser’, and represents the demonic image of God of those who insist on regarding him as an avenging judge. Part of the point in seeing God in this hostile, Nobodaddy fashion is to make one’s own acts of trying to appease him seem meaningful. If God is a judge, then there would seem to be some point in trying to keep in his good books, bargaining our way to salvation by being remarkably well-behaved. This is the kind of behaviour commonly known as ‘Pharisaical’, though the term is something of an insult to the historical Pharisees, a much more interesting and creditable bunch than the gospel-writers saw fit for their own political reasons to make out.

What the devotees of this Satanic, patriarchal image of God find scandalous is the idea that he does not need to be appeased because he has always already forgiven us. To add insult to injury, he accepts us just as we are, in all of our squalor and disagreeableness, and there is no point in trying to impress him by embarking on some 12-step self-improvement programme. For Christian faith, as Blake understood, this alternative way of imaging God is known as Jesus. Jesus is God in the shape of human frailty, no longer the judge on the bench but the political criminal who becomes an advocate alongside us in the dock. To be open to one’s own weakness in this way is known as repentance, and involves metanoia or ‘radical transformation’. It is of this that confession is a signifier or, as the theological jargon has it, sacrament. It is properly part of the communal Mass, not a privatised, hole-in-the-corner affair, as it has been since the 16th century witnessed the invention of the confessional. It takes its cue from the scriptural injunction that if you arrive at the altar with your offering to find that you have a quarrel with your brother, you should first be reconciled to him before going ahead. Human righteousness is more important than religious ritual, as the Old Testament Yahweh keeps irritably reminding his tiresomely cultic people.

Nobody is being asked to believe all this; but to write about confession untheologically, as Peter Brooks does, is rather like writing about the electoral booth as though it were merely a device for manipulating the public, ignoring the fact that it is also a key part of democratic philosophy. Secular liberals may dislike the idea of confession because it smacks of secrecy and autocracy, but they may also dislike it because quaintly old-fashioned words like repentance are no part of their lexicon. They smack instead of some bone-headed Evangelicalism. But when Brooks speaks sceptically of the notion that redemption may depend on confession, one might ask him what else he thinks it might depend on. An acceptance of one’s frailty and failure is the only sure basis for any more enduring achievement, as the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission (passed over rather too casually by this book) might suggest. They are not busy simply consoling, therapising and disciplining themselves down there in Pretoria.

Brooks sometimes writes as though humility were merely some sort of unpleasant grovelling, offensive to human dignity, rather than a necessary acknowledgment that, despite all one’s fancy attainments, one remains something of a worm. One of the founding narratives of the United States is George Washington’s confession to having committed an offence, but its point is to show that he is man enough to acknowledge his trespass. The self is thus amplified in the very act of being abnegated, rather as in the wrong kinds of martyrdom. In a more minor key, you can now get by in US literary academia as a professional confessant, winning promotion by writing critical essays which mention your impending divorce or how you visited the lavatory after finishing the preceding paragraph. This is confession as therapy rather than repentance, quite different from what is afoot in Chile or Northern Ireland. This book’s conception of confession, like that of any study, is limited by its social context.

Not that forgiveness is without its problems, as Measure for Measure would suggest. It must not, for example, be allowed to make a mockery of justice. Mercy or forgiveness breaks the vicious circle of vengeance, overriding its tit-for-tat or exchange value in an act of creative superfluity. As Portia remarks in The Merchant of Venice, its quality is not ‘strained’ (constrained). But this gratuitousness also risks devaluing its object, just like the commodity form. Mercy must not become a form of blithe indifference; it must pay for its lavishness by reckoning the cost and feeling the pain of the injury it has endured. And there are always those like the psychopathic Barnadine in Shakespeare’s play who cannot be redeemed not because they are too wicked, but because they cannot see any meaning in moral language at all, any more than a squirrel could make sense of algebraic topology. In this sense, oddly, they resemble the innocent, who, as William Golding observes in Free Fall, cannot forgive because they do not understand that they have been offended.

Troubling Confessions is a radical book with a liberal one struggling to get out. What the wilder, more Foucauldian Brooks gives with one hand, the tamer liberal humanist takes back with the other. Sometimes he seems hostile to the whole notion of police confessions, while at other times he is content to suggest rather feebly that they should be handled with care. There is a sense of theoretical overkill here, as a lot of big conceptual guns are wheeled up to fire off such a mild conclusion. His prose style is nervously subjunctive, full of self-protective ‘mays’ and ‘mights’. Whereas the liberal in him wants to defend the right to silence, the radical suspects that such privacy is yet another cunning construct of power. At times he flirts with the flamboyant thesis that confession created the modern private self in the first place (capitalism might be a more plausible candidate), and displays a modish Post-Modern aversion to subjective depth and inwardness. At other times the cautious liberal takes over to remind us that legal confessions have their place and that individual responsibility is more than just a fiction.

Troubling Confessions, which dexterously weaves together Rousseau, Dostoevsky, Church history, Freud, US case law and a host of other sources, reflects a growing American interest in the relations between law and literature. This is partly because law can serve as a mediation between literature and society, as politics did in a more hopeful age. The most exact, rigorous language is thus being brought together with the most figurative; and one effect of this, as Brooks remarks, is to show up legal discourse as more fuzzy, more dependent on the vagaries of interpretation, than some have considered. It is a pity that the interchange has not been more two-way, and critical language infused with something of the precision of the juridical. The book is entirely convincing on just how central to Western culture the idea of confession has been – how natural the narrating of the self appears to be. It is not a modern phenomenon: Charles Taylor has fingered St Augustine as the first great apologist for personal inwardness. Nor is it, as Brooks sometimes implies, just a way of fashioning a subjective space within which we can be all the more cravenly subjected to power. If inwardness is a prison, it is also a set of capacities; if the narrative of the self is vital for subjection, it is equally crucial to emancipation. It is perhaps not surprising that, in the world of Oprah Winfrey, this book should so often lose grasp of that doubled truth.