Confession in a late age

Unseemly self-exposures, unpalatable betrayals, unavoidable mendacity, a soupcon of meretriciousness: memoir, for much of its modern history has been the black sheep of the literary family. – Daniel Mendelsohn

As I go on in this odd, late age, I find I’m more and more interested in understanding how our culture is changing, especially as it relates to time, speed, history, and memory. In two recent posts, I tried to grasp some of the “Roman circus” that makes up so much of our popular culture, and touched briefly on confession and memoir. But it wasn’t until yesterday, when I read a January 25 New Yorker article by Daniel Mendelsohn, that I began to understand what’s happened to us and a bit of why—though still not at all what’s next.

St. Augustine. Victorian window of St Augustine of Hippo. This window is in the former Dominican priory church of Hawkesyard. The arrow, piercing the heart, stands for divine love and illustrates St. Augustine's creed that "Our hearts are restless until they rest in God." Photo by Lawrence OP. Under a Creative Commons license.

Mendelsohn begins at the beginning, or close to it, with the fourth century Confessions of St. Augustine. Granted, there were years of autobiographies before this but they had been about the escapades, most of them military, of famous men. Augustine’s was an internal, spiritual adventure about abject spiritual emptiness and its redemption. Other similar memoirs followed, all about suffering and redemption (e.g. St. Theresa), until centuries later, as the culture became secular, they began to yield to another kind of confession – the confession as therapy and therapy as redemptive. Says Mendelsohn: Once the memoir stopped being about God and started being about Man, once “confession” came to mean nothing more than getting a shameful secret off your chest — and, maybe worse, once “redemption” came to mean nothing more than the cozy acceptance offered by other people, many of whom might well share the same secret…. then it also became the force behind our present day hunger for life stories of tragedy and redemption in dozens of memoirs and television shows, in short, in everything from Mommie Dearest to thousands of Oprah Winfrey interviews.

Of course, it’s all been more complicated than that — for example, books like the Education of Henry Adams and all the sad memoirs from the prison camps of World War II. I intend to push further into Mendelsohn’s article and into its implications for art and for older artists in my next post. And I hope a few after that.

However, as promised, I want to end with more of Sally Levy’s Roonbook of Wild Stuffs. They’re like a bit of seltzer water after a meal that’s too heavy, like fresh air after too much time in the library. Enjoy!

The Roonbook of Wild Stuff cont’d.

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