Six months after the death of JD Salinger in 2010, the toilet from his former home in Cornish, New Hampshire, went up for sale on eBay for one million American dollars. The advertisement claimed that the toilet was ‘uncleaned and in its original condition’. It also speculated that Salinger might have dreamed up and even written some of his unpublished work while sitting on this ‘throne’.
As one of his biographers, Ian Hamilton, puts it, Salinger was ‘famous for not wanting to be famous’. At the time of his death, he had lived as a recluse for over fifty years. When embarking on his biography of Salinger in the early 1980s, Hamilton wrote to the author asking for his co-operation. Not surprisingly, Salinger refused to give it. Unmoved by Salinger’s protestations that he had suffered too many intrusions on his privacy, Hamilton insisted that The Catcher in the Rye encouraged readers to feel that they were being confided in. In return, Salinger’s readers had rewarded him with money and fame. Having entered into this pact, how could he then refuse to play the game?
But Salinger did. And he paid the price of being hounded by the media, curious fans and would-be biographers on and off for much of his life. After 1965, Salinger refused to publish his work and repelled almost all attempts to draw him out of himself.
The case of Salinger’s toilet is one of the more bizarre indicators of how far modern confessional culture has progressed in its assumptions about the public’s right to know everything about the private lives of others. It’s hard to think of a more private space outside the skull – at least in the West – than the toilet. The ad for Salinger’s loo would have us believe that to possess this unlikely throne is to have access to his seat of inspiration. The toilet, it is implied, is the place where the writer metaphorically as well as literally spills his guts. (Hence the symbolic importance of it being uncleaned.)
In The Encyclopedia of Privacy (edited by William G Staples), Juliet Williams argues that ‘at the heart of confessional culture lies a will to countenance disclosures that infects everything from casual encounters between strangers to popular television programs that revolve around intimate revelations’. Reality TV, the ‘sharing’ of private information on social media and the media phone-hacking scandal in Britain are all manifestations of this ‘will’ to disclose or expose. The pursuit of Salinger is a reminder of how difficult it has become to escape the logic of confessional culture. To be famous and to spurn attention is to automatically raise suspicions that either you have something to hide or that your withdrawal is a publicity stunt designed to arouse further interest (an accusation levelled at Salinger).
We tend to think of confessional culture as a recent phenomenon because the technology of mass communication has made it possible to instantly and globally broadcast our secrets and those of others through YouTube, Facebook, blogs, tweets, confessional chat shows, interviews with the media or tell-all memoirs. Yet as the French social theorist Michel Foucault – who is credited with giving currency to the term ‘confessional culture’ – argues in The History of Sexuality, Western society has been fundamentally shaped by the act of confession since the Middle Ages, when the practice of religious confession became a compulsory feature of life in Catholic countries: ‘We have since become a singularly confessing society. The confession has spread its effects far and wide. It plays a part in justice, medicine, education, family relationships, and love relations, in the most ordinary affairs of everyday life, and in the most solemn rites; one confesses one’s crime, one’s sins, one’s thoughts and desire, one’s illnesses and troubles; one goes about telling, with the greatest precision, whatever is most difficult to tell.’
Central to the act of Catholic confession, Foucault points out, was the monitoring of sexual acts and thoughts right down to the vaguest flickerings of desire or daydreams. Meticulous rules for self-examination enforced an obligation to ‘tell everything’. He quotes the eighteenth-century Roman Catholic moralist and author of confession manuals, Alfonso de Liguori, urging the faithful to tell ‘not only consummated acts, but sensual touchings, all impure gazes, all obscene remarks, all consenting thoughts’. Far from consigning sex to the shadows, says Foucault, modern society has since been ‘dedicated to speaking of it ad infinitum, while exploiting it as the secret’. So ingrained is the obligation to confess that we are not conscious of it. Instead, we think that when confessing we are giving voice to a ‘truth lodged in our most secret nature’.
Up until the late Middle Ages, there was a strict division between what could be written for public consumption – universal concerns – and what couldn’t – the particularities of individual experience. Private feeling was not readily displayed in literature, at least not in the ways that we now take for granted. With the Enlightenment, autobiography emerged as a popular literary genre, fuelled by a growing interest in the lives of ordinary people and in personal testimony. Even as new value was placed on exploring the inner life, alarm was expressed that this introspection could be spiritually unhealthy. Centuries before contemporary critics of confessional culture attacked internet genres such as blogging and social media for fostering narcissism, the philosopher Blaise Pascal rebuked the sixteenth-century essayist Michel de Montaigne for his ‘foolish project of painting himself’, fearing that it encouraged a level of self-absorption that would estrange people from God. Montaigne’s essays were considered provocative and challenging because, as he put it in his essay on the art of discussion, ‘I dare not only to speak of myself but to speak only of myself.’ It should be added that Montaigne wasn’t simply navel-gazing. His approach was radical because rather than arguing from general philosophical principles, he mined his own experience for insights about the human condition in all its contradictions and uncertainty.
The philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau took the art of speaking of oneself to new heights (some of his critics would have said ‘depths’) in the eighteenth century with his autobiography, The Confessions, in which, as critic Geordie Williamson puts it, ‘he climbed the unconquered mountain of the human self and planted a flag at its peak’. A great succès de scandale of its day – admired by some for its candour and reviled by others for its alleged hypocrisy and exhibitionism – it paved the way for the uninhibited self-exposure that distinguishes much contemporary life-writing, glossy magazine exposes, blogging and social networking self-profiles.
Rousseau was born into a Swiss Protestant family but converted to Catholicism as a young man. The injunction of the Catholic confessional to ‘tell all’ is the hallmark of this twelve-book tome.
The Confessions opens with Rousseau inviting the reader to take up the role of confessor: ‘I have unveiled my inmost self even as Thou has seen it, O Eternal Being. Gather round me the countless host of my fellow-men; let them hear my confessions, lament for my unworthiness, and blush for my imperfections.’ Throughout, Rousseau repeatedly insists that, for his tale to be a true confession, he can leave nothing ‘obscure or hidden’. Just as a penitent receives absolution from God by confessing all to a priest, so too does Rousseau seek absolution from his readers. His problem is that his readers are not all-forgiving like God, and he knows it. Hence his constant self-justifications and his grating insistence on the virtuousness of laying oneself bare.
At sixteen, the naive Rousseau left his home in Geneva and took to the road. While his revelations about his sexual awakening contributed to the scandalised reception of The Confessions, much of it is told with wide-eyed earnestness and an unprecedented desire to understand how, as Wordsworth later put it, ‘the child is the father of the man’. Rousseau’s innocence regarding the mechanics of sex meant that he was utterly shocked when a fellow neophyte at the hospice where he converted to Catholicism made sexual advances and then masturbated in front him: ‘I saw something white, like glue, shoot towards the fireplace and fall upon the ground, which turned my stomach … I believed that he was attacked by epilepsy, or some other madness even more terrible.’ It was during this time on the road that he met, and later began a long and intensely devoted affair with an older woman called Madame de Warens, whom he called ‘mamma’. This became one of the most important relationships in his life and there is poignancy in Rousseau’s account of it, especially in light of her precarious social standing and the fact that Rousseau’s mother died giving birth to him.
While the now popular phrase ‘too much information’ does come to mind when reading The Confessions, Romanticism and psychoanalysis have since validated introspection and reflection on the formation of the self to such a degree that Rousseau’s egocentricity no longer seems particularly shocking. The great irony, however, of this formative autobiography – and of much confessional writing – is that, although driven by the imperative ‘know thyself’, Rousseau’s self-absorption, his increasing paranoia about a conspiracy hatched against him by fellow intellectuals and his constant bids for our approval reveal just how fraught, delusory and self-serving such an enterprise can be.
In the twentieth century, psychoanalysis, with its concepts of repression, the unconscious and slips of the tongue, took over from the religious confessional as the model for popular confessional culture: from Oprah Winfrey and game shows like The Moment of Truth (where contestants are tested on how honest their confessions are) to talkback radio and personal diaries posted on the internet.
On Winfrey’s internet ‘life classes’, for example, she takes the biblical injunction from John’s gospel that ‘the truth will set you free’ – which refers to the truth of Christ’s word – and turns it into a confessional proposition. ‘What secret are you sick of keeping? When are you going to free yourself by telling it?’ she asks. All this doesn’t mean that the appeal of the traditional confessional – the promise of absolution and the comfort of being known intimately by an omniscient God – has disappeared but simply that it is more commonly expressed in terms of self-knowledge and the need for transparency in human affairs.
Even as the pop-psychology of ‘self-discovery’ and ‘self-affirmation’ shapes our public confessions, psychoanalysis as a form of therapy operates on the assumption that it is only in the privacy of the consulting room that we are able to overhear or discover what we really think or want – what British psychoanalyst Adam Phillips describes as ‘our most intimately alien thoughts’. Phillips believes it is not incidental that Freud developed the analytic relationship against the rise of fascism. As the public sphere began to swallow up the private sphere, the practice of free association on which analysis is based came to represent ‘a private language, a language of desire’.
The head of the Nazi Labour Office, Robert Ley, reportedly said that the only private individual was someone asleep. Although we are hardly witnessing invasions of privacy comparable to those perpetrated by the Nazis, the intrusions which our confessional culture sanctions (not to mention the intrusions of government and business into our affairs through CCTV surveillance, the centralised collation of medical, financial and other personal records, etc.) have become disturbingly all-pervasive. When the novelist Zadie Smith wrote in the New York Review of Books about her decision to quit Facebook, she pointed to the way social networking reduced people to a set of data: ‘Everything shrinks. Individual character. Friendships. Language. Sensibility … Our denuded, networked selves don’t look more free, they just look more owned.’ What she found herself longing for was a web that ‘caters for a kind of person who no longer exists. A private person, a person who is a mystery, to the world and – which is more important – to herself.’
Smith is not alone in her disenchantment with the values and apparent inescapableness of confessional culture; the illusion it presents of offering total freedom to speak one’s mind and heart while denying the importance of mystery, reticence, the ineffable or a dimension of human experience that cannot be reduced to words or images. To be unsettled by confessional culture’s disregard for silence and discretion is not to seek the reimposition of taboos but to recognise the limitations of all forms of representation. When reviewing Joan Didion’s Blue Nights, a memoir about the death of her daughter, critic Andrew Reimer expressed his unease about how the book made him feel like ‘an intruder into very private sorrow … To my mind, grief is essentially mute. Didion should have heeded Wittgenstein’s advice to stay silent about those things that words cannot adequately capture.’
It is telling that this growing uneasiness with the excesses of confessional culture is finding its way into the practice of autobiography itself. In Summertime, the third volume of his novelised autobiography, Scenes from Provincial Life, JM Coetzee creates a fictional alter ego who is dead and a biographer who is collecting material about the dead author from people who knew him. While we do get fractured glimpses of the young Coetzee, the biographical subject is largely sidelined by the presence and the personal stories of the interviewees, and their limited knowledge of him. What we are left with are other people’s imperfect memories and opinions, and fragments of the author’s own diary. Not only does this kaleidoscopic approach liberate Coetzee, as Geordie Williamson observes, from ‘the self-deceptions practised by Rousseau’ but it forces us as readers to rethink our expectations of autobiography as a form of ‘tell-all’ confession and, more crucially, our inherited ideas about what constitutes ‘the self’.
It may be that the growing popularity of Buddhism in the West is part of this backlash against the compulsive, almost desperate search for the self that our confessional culture reflects. Buddhism radically challenges the Western conception of the self as a coherent, fixed entity. The aim of meditation is to help us become aware of the stories we tell ourselves about who we are, and to see the self as an illusion, as something we are constantly cobbling together out of our memories, desires, fears and hopes. In The Server, the latest novel of British writer Tim Parks, a wild young woman who is haunted by the tragic consequences of her reckless behaviour flees to a Buddhist retreat. A larger-than-life character, Beth longs to be free of guilt and regret, and yet can’t help sabotaging herself and manipulating others. In many ways, she is the epitome of the excesses of twenty-first century confession culture in her constant craving for attention. As she struggles with her demons, Beth attempts to tell the woman who runs the retreat about the awful events that brought her there. The woman stops her, saying: ‘I am not your confessor, Elisabeth. There is no God seeking to punish you. There is no priest to absolve you.’ According to Buddhist philosophy, Beth must learn that there is nothing to be gained from endlessly raking over the past, trying to rewrite it, or searching for absolution outside herself.
Perhaps Salinger, whose thinking and writing was influenced by Zen Buddhism, is, in fact, having the last laugh about what’s left of his shit being fetishised as if it were solid gold. ‘What a bunch of phonies!’ the narrator of The Catcher in the Rye, Holden Caulfield, would say. While the young Salinger was seriously ambitious and longed for literary recognition, when fame found him, he realised it was the last thing he wanted. Didn’t he warn his readers right from the outset of The Catcher in the Rye that he wasn’t going to give them the traditional, autobiographical stuff, that he would tell his story on his terms? ‘If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all the David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.’