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Confession

William Gass’s The Tunnel is really too big to write about coherently in small chunks. It crosses genres (including drawing, history, memoir, diary, quotation, encomium, rant, fiction, doggerel, epic invocation, and others) and is, by design, a confusion of ideas and modes of thought and means of expression. It’s a maddening, ugly book but is at times also a true and lovely book so far. I’m about halfway through it. If you’re interested in longer and better analysis of the book, follow along over at Conversational Reading, where for the first week’s reading, the topic of truth comes up.

The topic I thought I’d write a few words about today is confession. The Tunnel is essentially a diary, and diaries are essentially confessions. This is not to say that they’re true confessions, though. I was recently reading back through some old journal entries from my college days, and although there was plenty of earnest yearning for meaning about the world and about what I was reading and writing, there was also plenty of posturing. After all, maybe I would grow up to be a famous writer one day, my scribbled journals carefully photographed for archival and then typeset and lent out so that the world might know whence my later genius sprang.

Even in more recent things I’ve written for myself, I think I pose more than I really ought, though not, I think, in quite so naively calculating a way, and I hope not with quite as much silliness and laughable gravitas. Still, now as when I was younger, there is a question of whom exactly I’m writing for and what I want from the effort. I write primarily about my reading and writing, for example. I don’t, as folks used to, catalogue my food intake and bowel movements. I don’t generally write about my family. So if I constrain my writing generally to the literary topics, even if I’m not consciously writing for an imagined future audience, there’s room for questions about why I stick to letters and what that says about what’s important to me and whether I don’t still quietly hope for a scholarly audience for these supposed private ramblings one day after all and why I see fit to scribble my thoughts in the first place.

Well, writing of course helps us work through our thoughts, and in my case — I’m dreadfully forgetful — it helps me have a way of getting back to elusive thoughts later. But writing, and especially diaristic writing, is also a sort of confession. Gass’s Kohler is surely a learned man, but he doesn’t stick to the literary in his diary. We learn about his affairs with younger women, about his being fondled by a young boy, about his pretty thorough dislike of his wife, and other things. So for Kohler, the diary’s undoubtedly a space for confession as much as for literary endeavor. He even addresses the topic head on in a couple of places. Take this bit from page 21:

Gide meant: could he confess upon the page; put into the writer’s pretty paper world some creatures whose troubled breathing would betray the fact they were not fictions; record a few feelings in an ink our blood would flow through like a vein? Sincerity — this Christmas wrap around a rascal — could he dispense with even its concealments and reach reality, expose himself to his own eye?

And this, also on 21:

[I]t is often easier to confess to a capital crime, so long as its sentences sing and its features rhyme, than to admit you like to fondle-off into a bottle (to cite an honest-sounding instance)… words nailed like shingles to the page, the earnest straightforward bite of the spike, is the one which suits sincerity; sincerity cannot gamble, cannot play, cannot hedge its bets, forswear a wager, bear to lose; sincerity is tidy; it shits in a paper sack to pretend it’s innocent of food…

In that one, he even suggests that the confession he writes about isn’t in fact a real one but sounds like the sort of thing one might confess, undermining our ability to believe that even the things he writes that seem honest in fact are.

Later, on 106, he confesses, “I would hate to have my wife see this.” In fact, he hides his diary among the pages of his long manuscript on Nazi Germany, which has a conveniently confessional title Guilt and Innocence in Hitler’s Germany. And he worries that his soft touch on the topic will be perceived as a sort of confession of Nazi sympathy (which, well, is he maybe a little sympathetic?).

He blends his concerns about both the personal and the historical writerly impulse on page 106:

When I write about the Third Reich, or now, when I write about myself, is it truly the truth I want? What do I want? to find out who I am? What is the good of that? I want to feel a little less uneasy.

He peppers his diary with limericks (mostly written by colleague Culp, I believe), overwhelmingly starting with variations on the formula “I once went to bed with a nun.” Well, nuns are Catholic, and Catholics dig confession. Moreover, the content of these limericks itself is framed as a sort of confession.

So, I’ve spent a lot of words here to say that this diaristic work seems to be full, as diaries are, of confession. Well duh. What’s more interesting within the context of the book is the nature of truth in confession. That is, is confession a sort of Heisenbergian act in that the fact of knowing that you’re saying or writing something that others will (or at least may) consume alters how you say it, so that confession is by its nature meta-confession, written here in Kohler’s singing sentences and altered subtly in the process? Which is to ask whether you can take confession at face value, ever. Can a trip to the confessional in which you admit “impure thoughts” but fail to mention an inclination toward pederasty really count for anything? Or, to go the other way, can over-confessing so that you make yourself out to be worse than you are as a sort of absolution through self-immolation really suffice? Is true confession really even possible? Or in confession, are we — as a commenter at Conversational Reading suggests more broadly and as becomes more and more important through this book about how we create and receive history — just fooling ourselves?

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