The act of confession in literature
“It is the confession, not the priest, that gives us absolution.”
Charles Darwin begins his famous On the Origin of Species with a confession. After relating some details of his early journey on the H.M.S. Beagle, he explains that questions he asked during his trip accumulated into “a sketch of the conclusions” that he now presents in this volume (95). He writes, “I hope that I may be excused for entering on these personal details, as I give them to show that I have not been hasty in coming to a decision” (95).
Darwin is not the only (relatively) recent writer to begin his work with a confession. As we will see, three other authors do as well: Daniel Dennett, a prominent modern philosopher; Walt Whitman, the great American poet, and Siri Hustvedt, a recent American novelist. How does the confession function? What is it about the confessional statement that makes it so attractive—if not downright necessary—in the modern literary mindset? How is our social need for confession both truthful and manipulative? How does an understanding of confession help us further understand ourselves and the discourses surrounding us?
Confession: Constative and Performative
Confession can be easily defined as the admission or acknowledgment of something. Confession does not always need to involve guilt; people confess, for example, a love of a genre of music or a sports team. The concept, however, is vastly more complex than it seems; in Western culture, the act of confession has become deeply entwined with our interpretation of identity.
Peter Brooks, a Princeton University professor, has written extensively about the role and the meaning of confession. According to Brooks, confession has become “a crucial mode of self-examination...one that bears special witness to personal truth” (p. 9). Although confession in the modern world was developed by the Catholic Church and was originally considered a wholly religious concept, the idea of confession has gradually leaked into our largely secularized world (Brooks, p. 9). As Brooks writes, “Truth of the self and to the self have become the markers of authenticity, and confession—written or spoken—has come to seem the necessary, though risky, act through which one lays bare one’s most intimate self, to know oneself and to make oneself known” (p. 9).
Using the terminology of J. L. Austin, Brooks argues that any confession contains both a “constative” and a “performative” aspect. The constative aspect is whatever a person confesses to; the performative aspect is the act of confession. According to Brooks, “The confessional performance of guilt always has this double aspect, and since it does, it opens the possibility that the performative aspect will produce the constative, create the sin or guilt that the act of confessing requires” (p. 21). Thus, we can construct confession as a performance that not only explains why a person is guilty but also creates more reason for the person to be so, a dynamic that Brooks describes as “practically infinite” (p. 22). Furthermore, a person’s identity is largely constructed by these performative confessions; in Brooks’ words, the self is “as much a product as a source of these fictions” (p. 51).
What motivates a person to confess? Confession as a “marker of authenticity” has become extremely important in Western literature. Paradoxically, the act of admitting guilt or fault does not weaken an author’s argument; rather, confession strengthens it by underlining the author’s sincerity and self-awareness (Brooks, p. 18). A confession, then, cannot be a simple and objective action, because it becomes essentially self-serving. I will analyze four distinct authors in hopes of creating a better understanding of the act of confession. As Brooks remarks, “Confession is never direct, simple, straightforward, but rather a discourse whose relation to the truth takes the shape of a tangent” (p. 51).
Charles Darwin and On the Origin of Species
As previously mentioned, Darwin begins his most famous work with the confession that he is including details of his personal history so that the reader can better understand his current argument. On this first page, Darwin’s primary concern is that the reader understand that his research is not yet completed: as he writes, “My work is now nearly finished...as my health is far from strong, I have been urged to publish this Abstract” (p. 95). Darwin continues by explaining that the publication of Alfred Russel Wallace’s evolutionary thought encouraged him to publish his own writings. He then describes his work in a clearly confessional manner:
“This Abstract, which I now publish, must necessarily be imperfect. I cannot here give references and authorities for my several statements; and I must trust to the reader reposing some confidence in my accuracy. No doubt errors will have crept in, though I hope I have always been cautious in trusting to good authorities alone. I can here give only the general conclusions at which I have arrived...No one can feel more sensible than I do of the necessity of hereafter publishing in detail all the facts, with references, on which my conclusions have been grounded” (p. 95).
Darwin admits the imperfection and incompletion of his own research. Furthermore, he asks the reader to “repose some confidence” in his research—a request that, in 2009, might be considered downright unprofessional. Darwin constructs this passage in a simple and honest way that simultaneously conceals and admits his rationale for doing so. Darwin is buying himself time: if he claims that the bulk of his evidence is as of yet unpublished, he has effectively dismissed all arguments against him. No one can dispute On the Origin of Species until Darwin makes another move. He continues to confess, admitting that “scarcely a single point is discussed in this volume on which facts cannot be adduced, often apparently leading to conclusions directly opposite to those at which I have arrived” (p. 96). This statement is almost outrageous—he is confessing that all of his arguments can be easily disputed!
Darwin completes the confessional segment of his introduction by stating that “A fair result can be obtained only by fully stating and balancing the facts and arguments on both sides of each question; and this cannot possibly be here done” (96). By making this declaration, Darwin has not so much destroyed his enemies as disarmed them; they cannot fairly criticize him until further research and a more balanced inquiry have been completed. His confession fully exemplifies both the constative and performative aspects: he admits fault in lacking sufficient data while simultaneously portraying himself as honest, open, and humble, characteristics that portray him as trustworthy.
Daniel Dennett and Darwin’s Dangerous Idea
Daniel Dennett is an author and Tufts University professor who, in 1996, published the book Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life, a sort of philosophical treatise on the significance of evolutionary theory in understanding the purpose and place of mankind. Dennett also begins his book with a confession: he describes a campfire song from his childhood, and how he still feels sentimental about the song and its belief system, despite his current understanding of the meaning of life (p. 18). In Dennett’s words, “This straightforward, sentimental declaration still brings a lump to my throat—so sweet, so innocent, so reassuring a vision of life!” (p. 18). Although Dennett no longer believes that people were fashioned by God, as the song goes, he still cherishes it. By beginning his book with this confession, Dennett is asserting that although he disagrees, he understands this point of view. It both admits that he once believed something that he no longer believes (and he has since successfully reformed) and that he understands those beliefs.
Near the end of the book, Dennett closes with the a discussion of the same song. “I began this book with a song which I myself cherish, and hope will survive ‘forever,’” he writes, “I hope my grandson learns it and passes it on to his grandson, but at the same time I do not myself believe, and do not really want my grandson to believe, the doctrines that are so movingly expressed in that song” (p. 514). Once again, Dennett shows that he, too, cherishes those traditional beliefs that he now determines are inaccurate.
Dennett makes various other confessional statements throughout his book. When he defends Richard Dawkin’s concept of the meme, he writes, “I have learned from my own embarrassing experience how easy it is to concoct remarkably persuasive Darwinian explanations that evaporate on closer inspection” (p. 521). His admission that he has made mistakes is a performative statement that gives Dennett power rather than taking it away. This strategy is one that Dennett employs often, but not always to his advantage; when discussing the role of language in intelligence, he proposes a theoretical framework and then admits, “It is an outrageously oversimplified structure, but idealization is the price one should often be willing to pay for synoptic insight” (p. 373). Here, Dennett confesses that his structure is oversimplified, but his confession contradicts itself by implying that oversimplification can lead to deep understanding. Perhaps this confession can serve as an example of how the performative can create the constative: Dennett’s confessions lead to more confessions, until, on page 448, he admits that one of his major theories may not hold water.
Walt Whitman and Leaves of Grass
Walt Whitman’s famous exaltation of life is both confessional and not confessional at all. After all, confession is usually associated with guilt, and if Whitman lacks anything, it is a guilty conscience. “Clear and sweet is my soul,” Whitman writes, “and clear and sweet is all that is not my soul” (1855, p. 22). Nevertheless, Whitman’s poetry is very much a confession: it is a confession of love for life, and it begins as such. The phrase “I celebrate myself” is not one that a priest expects to hear in a confessional, but it is a declaration of that which Whitman believes. The rest of his poetry in Leaves of Grass follows as such.
Perhaps the most exemplary confession written in the first version of Leaves of Grass is the famous, “Do I contradict myself?/Very well then...I contradict myself/I am large...I contain multitudes” (1855, p. 67). With these words, Whitman confesses that he contradicts himself but attests to his self-awareness and self-confidence. He acknowledges his “flaw,” but he goes much further than that; he states that his flaw is not a flaw at all, that it is natural and acceptable. In a similar passage near the very end of Leaves of Grass, he writes, “Great is wickedness...I find I often admire it just as much as I admire goodness/Do you call that a paradox? It certainly is a paradox” (1855, p. 112). In a way, Whitman’s confessions are the purest kind of confession: he makes no attempt to manipulate his audience, he simply states his point of view.
In a later edition of Leaves of Grass, Whitman published a poem called “O Bitter Sprig! Confession Sprig!” that speaks directly to the topic of hand. It reads, “I own that I have been sly, thievish, mean, a prevaricator, greedy, derelict/And I own that I remain so yet/What foul thought but I think it—or have in me the stuff out of which it is thought?/What in darkness in bed at night, alone or with a companion?” (1900, p. 296). This poem speaks to a more conventional definition of convention, in which Whitman admits his failures with a tone of guilt, rather than of acceptance.
Siri Hustvedt and The Sorrows of an American
Siri Hustvedt, a contemporary American novelist, published a recent novel called The Sorrows of an American , a book about a psychiatrist, his family, his love interests, and various aspects of his life directly after his father’s death. As the book’s major themes revolve around dreams, the subconscious, and psychoanalytic thought, the book is filled with confessions. As Brooks writes, psychoanalysis “offers a secular version of religious confession: it insists on the work of patient and analyst—comparable to confessant and confessor—toward the discovery of the most hidden truths about selfhood. (p. 9).
The novel begins with an implicit confession, that of the protagonist’s father Lars. Erik, the protagonist, and his sister Inga find a mysterious letter written to their father during his childhood that prompts them to search for the person who wrote it. Inga claims that their father must have “wanted us to find it...If not, he would have destroyed it...there were things Pappa kept from Mamma and us, especially about his childhood” (p. 5). This is an interesting example of confession because Inga is the person imposing a confession on someone else (her father); she assumes there can be no other logical explanation. The performative aspect of confession in this case is quite literally performative: Lars left a letter behind, written by someone else, rather than writing his own letter to explain the situation.
Inga is a writer and she has recently written a book that talks about confession. She complains that “‘Reality’ in America has become synonymous with the rank and sordid. We’ve fetishized the true story, the tell-all confession, reality TV, real people in their real lives, celebrity marriages, divorces, addictions, humiliation as entertainment—our version of public hanging” (p. 47). In this example lies another indirect confession, a sort of meta-confession: Inga’s book about confession in modern American society could be a confession of her disgust with the media treatment of her late husband, a famous writer, whose affairs and illicit personal history have recently been brought to light.
Erik is more directly involved with confession: as a psychiatrist, he adapts the role that Brooks discusses. Erik frequently records the interactions he has with his patients, documenting their confessions and his own reactions to them. It is perhaps Erik’s tendency toward self-confession that is more interesting; he carefully keeps track of his emotions and quietly confesses them throughout the book. When his friend Burton asks him to have dinner, Erik comments, “I told him that would be ‘great’ and then felt a little uncomfortable afterward because I understood it was true” (p. 68). When one of his patients is late for a session, he writes, “I noted my growing irritation with him” (p. 81). He even goes so far as to self-diagnose: “I knew that I had entered a period of what in medical jargon is called anhedonia: joylessness. I was aware, too, that my response to Miranda’s declaration couldn’t be extricated from my father’s death, a death I felt I had insufficiently mourned” (p. 122). As a trained psychiatrist, Erik assumes both the roles of confessant and confessor; or perhaps, the reader is used as the confessant.
The act of confession is subtly integrated into modern Western thought and literature. In this paper, I have briefly examined the ways in which confession is integrated into four very different books. In all cases, the author confesses to the reader, an act which superficially empowers the reader but in reality empowers the author by predetermining the reader’s reactions to and criticisms of their work. Confession is a “marker of authenticity” that convinces the reader of the author’s sincerity.
Brooks, Peter. Troubling Confessions: Speaking Guilt in Law & Literature. Chicago: University of Chicago P, 2001.
Darwin, Charles. On the Origin of Species. Ed. Joseph Carroll. Canada: Broadview Texts, 2003.
Dennett, Daniel C. Darwin's Dangerous Idea Evolution and the Meanings of Life. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996.
Hustvedt, Siri. The Sorrows of an American. New York: Picador, 2008.
Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass The Original 1855 Edition (Thrift Edition). Minneapolis: Dover Publications, 2007.
- - - . Leaves of Grass. Philadelphia: David McKay, [c1900]; Bartleby.com, 1999. www.bartleby.com/142/. [May 13, 2009].