(Some Notes On) Confession

Sam Levy, Double Figure, 64″ x 47″, Charcoal on Paper, 2021.

I wonder if there might not be . . . another human essence than self.

—Anne Carson, “The Gender of Sound”

ONE OF THE earliest books I can remember reading was a yellowed collection of children’s prayers, possibly something my Protestant-farmer grandparents had read to my mother in the 1950s. I don’t know the title; I only remember one line: Lord, if you find that I love thee only so that I may go to Heaven, then send me directly to Hell. I thought about this line when I lay awake in the dark with the worst thoughts my mind could produce: Hell, fire, torture, an infinity of bad vibes. How could I distinguish my desire to avoid eternal discomfort from my love of God for God’s sake? I could not distinguish; that was the point. Only God could see me clearly. I would never know my own heart.

Maybe back then I longed for someone to whom I could tell my bad thoughts. I could not tell God because God already knew. It was God’s knowledge of me I feared. Maybe what I wanted was the very thing my Protestant forebears had deemed unnecessary: a confessor, an intermediary between myself and the God whose gaze I could not bear.

The church we attended in that period met on Saturday evenings in an abandoned school gymnasium, where a rock band played and grown-ups prayed in tongues deep into the night, falling to their hands and knees, convulsing as the Holy Spirit hijacked their motor functions. Sometimes I lay down on the gym floor and flailed epileptically because I wanted to feel the Holy Spirit too. I wondered if I felt it. I wondered if everyone was pretending. I wondered if my wondering meant I was going to Hell.

I DON’T LIKE memoirs. I don’t want to be one of those boring people who only writes about myself, and yet myself is all I seem able to write about. I’m thirty-two and barely published and live alone in a room with an entire shelf of diaries. I don’t want to be a confessional writer. Horrible word, confessional, with its connotations of suicidal poets, girly desperation, millennial narcissism.

According to Foucault, confession is neither feminine nor hypercontemporary. Rather, it is the very thrust of Western culture. “Ours is a singularly confessing society,” he writes in The History of Sexuality, Vol. 1 (1976). “One confesses one’s crimes, one’s sins, one’s thoughts and desires, one’s illnesses and troubles; one goes about telling, with the greatest precision, whatever is most difficult to tell.” This is the organizing principle of Western literature and psychology: “the infinite task of extracting from the depths of oneself, in between the words, a truth which the very form of the confession holds out like a shimmering mirage.”

From whence this obsession? Like a lot of things in Western history, it has to do with the Catholic Church, so bear with me while I describe something called the Fourth Lateran Council, to which Foucault and other historians attribute great significance. The Council was a convocation of bishops called by Pope Innocent III in 1215, culminating in a series of papal decrees organized around three stated objectives: reconquering the Holy Land, reforming the Church, and combatting heresy. These decrees included a mandate requiring every person in Christendom to confess their sins to a priest at least once per year.

Confession wasn’t a new idea—the New Testament exhorts: “Confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed” (James 5:16)—but after 1215, the Church formalized mandatory confession as part of a larger machinery for consolidating its authority. Across thirteenth-century Europe—mostly rural, decentralized, uneducated—pockets of heterodoxy and residual paganism had flourished since Christianity’s inception. (Concurrent with the Lateran Council, for example, the Church was waging the Albigensian Crusade (1209–1229) against a particularly willful and stubborn enclave of heretics in southern France called the Cathars.) The new confessors’ manuals instructed parish priests not only in hearing confession but also in asking questions to discern whether their congregants’ beliefs or practices deviated from official Church doctrine, determine the source of these errors, and correct them through education and penance. This period also saw the rise of clerical bodies trained to question accused heretics—if the heresy was deemed willful, and if the accused refused to recant, they were burned at the stake. This was not a sudden lurch back toward barbarism; prior to these innovations, someone accused of heresy was likely to be burned by local secular authorities without any inquest or subjected to trial by ordeal (if they were innocent, their burns would heal!). But after 1215, the Church took control of this process and, for the first time, the intent, the psychology of one’s deviance became important. The Church wanted not just to control its subjects’ behaviors but to control their minds as well.

Jacques le Goff, one of the first historians who looked to the archives to discern the world views of regular medieval people, writes that the rise of mandatory confession resulted in a “decisive change in Western man’s mental structures.” Le Goff’s lens is economic. Thirteenth-century Europe was in the full swing of what historians call the Commercial Revolution, an expansion of markets at home and abroad which lay the foundation for capitalism. A new set of market-oriented values came up against sacred values. For example, a growing middle class of merchants, craftsmen, and academics (this period also gives us the first universities, the first lay scholars) found their material condition at odds with a theological concept called “usury”: the sin of selling what does not belong to you. Traditionally, both Time and Knowledge were conceived as sacred substances belonging to God. Now middle-class professionals carved these abstractions up into commodities: academics sold knowledge, journeymen sold time (in the form of a set period of labor), and merchants’ voyages required financing on which the interest was also considered usury. How was the Church to resolve this conflict between theology and inexorable market forces? Le Goff finds the answer in the confessors’ manuals written after 1215, in which sin becomes more about intention than behavior, reinscribing middle-class lives within orthodox belief. Now self-reflection was the goal. Maybe you unavoidably committed usury, but you could confess, examine your soul to affirm the error was unintentional, do the prescribed penance (some light prayer and fasting), and remain within the fold. The result, argued le Goff, was the “the unification of conscience,” the “feeling, or the wish, of wholeness,” and the beginnings of “modern psychology.”*

We are conditioned to see confession as inherently liberatory—the truth will set you free, etc.—but Foucault argues this conditioning obscures self-disclosure as a tool of surveillance and conformity. In later centuries, Protestants rejected the practice of ritualized confession in favor of direct conversation with God. But the Reformation did not eliminate confession so much as shift its mechanisms from the Church into other hierarchical institutions: the family, the school, the prison, the clinic. The psychiatrist replaced the priest. “The obligation to confess,” to have our inner contradictions absolved by an authoritative witness, “is now relayed through so many different points, it is so deeply ingrained in us, that we no longer perceive it as the effect of a power that constrains us; on the contrary, it seems to us that truth, lodged in our most secret nature, ‘demands’ only to surface.”

But what confession produces, according to Foucault, is not the truth. What it produces is the fiction of our own coherence. The fiction of selfhood.

I FIND MYSELF to be radically discontinuous with myself,” Zadie Smith writes in “Some Notes on Attunement” (2012). All her life, Smith viscerally hated Joni Mitchell’s music, until one day, she came suddenly to hear in the same “an almost intolerable beauty.” Whatever caused this rupture in her taste, Smith dubs “a sudden, unexpected attunement.” She takes the word attunement from the “Exordium” (“Attunement”) in Fear and Trembling, an introductory section in which Kierkegaard “is trying to get [the reader] into a state of readiness for a consideration of” the story of Abraham, who demonstrated to God his willingness to sacrifice his only and beloved son. Smith elaborates:

Who could have understood Abraham? He is discontinuous with himself . . . It’s the feeling we get sometimes when we find a diary we wrote, as teen-agers . . . It’s an everyday sensation for most of us, yet it proves a tricky sort of problem for those people who hope to make art. For though we know and recognize discontinuity in our own lives . . . how does one re-create this principle in fiction? What is a character if not a continuous, consistent personality? If you put Abraham in a novel, a lot of people would throw that novel across the room. What’s his motivation? How can he love his son and yet be prepared to kill him? Abraham is offensive to us. It is by reading and watching consistent people on the page, stage, and screen that we are reassured of our own consistency.

The story of Abraham was written down long before the emergence of a confessional paradigm in literature. I’m using “confessional” here in the sense that Foucault uses it: literature concerned with a unified individual consciousness. This concern defines modern genres like the novel, the essay, the memoir, the autobiography. But before the confessional paradigm, there was an epic paradigm, in which heroic personalities did stuff because it was symbolically potent rather than psychologically coherent. Abraham’s motives don’t matter any more than Gilgamesh’s or Zeus’s. (It’s worth noting that the story of Abraham dates from a period of history in which human sacrifice was relatively common. Perhaps humanity is radically discontinuous with humanity.)

What confession produces . . . is the fiction of our own coherence.

The rise of the confessional mode of consciousness is related to the mandatory confession described above. But in fact, the transition was long and nonlinear. One of the earliest autobiographies in the West was called Confessions. Its author, Augustine, was born in the fourth century, in the Roman province of North Africa. His father was pagan, but his mother had converted to Christianity, newly the state religion of Rome. He was educated in traditional Roman thought and polytheistic religion, and, in his twenties, became a scholar in Italy, where he converted to Christianity. The narrative movement of Confessions is toward a correct understanding of both God and self, and, in both cases, “correct” means Christian but also unified, coherent.

Augustine structures the telling of his life around the confession of his sins and past heretical beliefs. He does so to find wholeness, to “retrieve myself from the havoc of disruptions which tore me to pieces when I turned away from [God.]” This “disruption” is theological as well as psychological. In his pagan education, he learned “that Jupiter punishes the wicked with his thunderbolts and yet commits adultery himself.” This inconsistency is typical of epic narrative, but in scrutinizing Jupiter’s character, Augustine sees that “the two roles are quite incompatible.” Gradually, he comes to understand that God is not a material, contradictory being like humans or the pagan gods, but rather “a spirit, a being without bulk,” and in this way, he can “be everywhere entirely whole”; his “law itself is always and everywhere the same.”** Augustine articulated a theology which would define European culture for millennia: “In goodness there was unity, but in evil disunion.” To be divided in oneself is to be out of accord with God.

I EDIT A feminist magazine; I get tired of thinking about feminism. I get tired of limiting my thinking to that viewpoint, of limiting my public self to that identification. The other day, I walked into a bookstore intending to buy Sylvia Federici and bell hooks and came out with Kierkegaard and Augustine. At the Roe protests last year, it occurred to me how bad I am at protesting: I whisper the chants because I hate the sound of my voice raised almost as much as I hate slogans. As a child, I believed abortion was murder and sin meant Hell. Where does that belief go?

Sometimes I feel some secret, revanchist fantasy of leveraging what’s left of my youngish-thin-white womanhood into a partnership with a man who will give me babies and a home someplace I will be no longer accountable to the world. The fantasy’s allure is on account of its direct opposition to my current reality, in which I seem to be everything unto myself: partner, dependent, lover, housekeeper, cobbler-together of disparate, small incomes. Sometimes I feel that same dissociation I felt as a kid rolling around on the gym floor, pretending to be moved by the Holy Spirit. How can I know if I really love feminism or simply fear the feminist equivalent of hell? (What is the feminist equivalent of hell? I have two answers. One version of feminist hell is cancellation, to be recognized as a person whose outer and inner identities are discordant and, as a result, to be cast out of society. The other version of feminist hell is the dark underbelly of my revanchist fantasy: to be without power or autonomy. To be without feminism.)

I am not the first to struggle with these questions. In 2011, two recent Barnard alumni who had studied under prominent feminist mentors put together an art exhibition in an abandoned Chinatown retail space titled i am not a good enough feminist. In the introduction to the catalog, Kate Ryan (one of the Barnard alums) writes that this titular statement “seemed to resonate among our peers . . . many of whom may not have made feminist activism their life’s work, but who were . . . aware of their real indebtedness to feminist predecessors.” For the catalog, they interviewed women of different generations about this tension. Melanie Kress (the other alum) explains that the “quasi-religious mode that is confession” imbued the interviews with a profound freedom.

Ryan and Kress here conceive of confession as liberatory, but the goal of their project was not the achievement of  a unified self. It was almost the opposite: to explore “the possibility of a structured non-identification with feminism—the possibility of being . . . free to embrace a changing and imprecise relationship to . . . one’s identity.” In the introduction to the catalog, the printmaker Lane Sell locates the origin of “identity” in the classical Greek notion “that somehow the best man is the man whose character is unchanging . . . but no one is the same even minute to minute and to say identity, which literally means sameness, is something that applies to people drives me nuts.” In her interview, second-wave journalist Laura Flanders dismisses the very concept of feminism as identity. “Feminism is not about being ‘a’ something, or an object. It is about being open to and informed by a way of looking at the world . . . It’s a lens you apply to the world.” One useful lens among many.

IN THE FOREWORD to Feel Free (2018), Zadie Smith writes that the self is a “malleable and improvised” entity which navigates between two irreconcilable elements: the world, which we never quite know, and language, which never quite belongs to us. “I realize my somewhat ambivalent view of human selves is wholly out of fashion,” she wrote shortly after Trump’s election. “It is of course hardly possible to retain any feelings of ambivalence . . . in the face of what we now confront. Millions of more amorphous selves will now necessarily find themselves solidifying into protesters, activists, marchers . . . You can’t fight fire with air. But equally you can’t fight for a freedom you’ve forgotten how to identify.”

I wonder if a secondary tragedy of the rise of fascism is the orthodoxy it enforces on the Left, a fear of thinking honestly or experimentally about our contradictions and doubts. Because I possess a “self” in the sense that Smith proposes, an amorphous entity which mediates between language and the world, I sometimes have doubts about feminism, as I do about any system of belief, no matter how useful. A few examples: Sometimes I wonder if my pursuit of autonomy has only made me lonely, poor, and self-absorbed. Sometimes I wonder if there is an ethical way to be pro-life, not because I necessarily want to be but because I wonder. Sometimes I roll my eyes at slogans like “no means no” because I know that “no” can sometimes mean “yes” or “maybe,” because language and desire are both unwieldy. I feel scared as I confess this. Somehow the world twists the acknowledgment of psychological and ethical complexity into a tacit concession to fascism and patriarchy. The problem is not really with feminism, which need not be a dogma. The problem lies in the world, which wrings dogma even from the undogmatic.

I wonder if confession can be liberatory when it takes place among equals, in a context which emphasizes solidarity over judgment or orthodoxy. My childhood urge to confess my “evil” (contradictory) thoughts resulted from a fear of cosmic punishment, yes, but it was also an urge to escape my self, to escape aloneness. In fact, this is also a founding principle of feminism. The consciousness-raising groups of the second wave were predicated on the idea that, when we reveal the truth about our inner lives, we begin to see that what we construe as our own failures are actually failures of the system. We may never feel “good enough,” but feminism showed us we are not alone.

I AM INTERESTED in the way le Goff sees mandatory confession as the product of irreconcilable social forces in the thirteenth century. A conflict arose between two powerful institutions, two systems of value: the market and the Church. Rather than addressing this conflict overtly, which might have jeopardized its hegemony, the Church refashioned it into a moral conundrum to be resolved by the individual conscience.

Six hundred years earlier, Augustine lived in a world torn between Christianity and paganism. In the century in which he was born, Christianity began as a heretical faith for which you could be executed and became state religion, a tool for consolidating power over a crumbling empire. Violent crosscurrents of authority were the norm in Augustine’s world, and yet, in Confessions, he characterizes this multiplicity as his own internal error.

I wonder how we have all bought into this multimillennia con: that this lonely, ad hoc thing we call “self” is responsible for resolving the world’s enormous contradictions.


*See: Jacques le Goff, Time, Work, and Culture in the Middle Ages, trans. Arthur Goldhammer (University of Chicago Press, 1980), pp. 29-42.

**The theological drive toward “sameness” and “wholeness” was important in Augustine’s historical context. The form of Christianity he ultimately confessed was called Nicene Christianity, the superlative monotheism which still defines Christian orthodoxy. By this period, Nicene Christianity was Rome’s official doctrine, having trumped competing creeds such as Arian Christianity, which posited Christ as a sort of demigod, a separate entity from God the Father. The first Christian emperor, Constantine, had officially adopted Nicene Christianity (at the Council of Nicaea, 325) partly because he saw it as the most coherent tool for unifying the splintering Empire. Nicene Christianity harmonized with Neoplatonism, which stressed the oneness of the ideal realm and was fashionable in Augustine’s intellectual circles.

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