some hasty thoughts about confession

Until the eighteenth century in Catholic countries, the predominant notion of confession was pre-eminently that of a sacrament. In the legal sense – that is, the sense ended up on trial, either in a ecclesiastical or secular court – the sacramental sense existed as a sort of sanctioning halo around the most direct witness to a crime – the witness of the perpetrator himself. The sacramental sense of confession lent itself to the justification of torture, that strange moment in the juridical process in which pain – usually associated with the punishment merited by the guilty – is used to give a proof of guilt. Punishment first, the sentence afterward – torture is by its nature an inversion of the course of justice, or at least its institutional logic. Torture can, of course, exist after the sentence – torture then merges with all the other punishments, and it loses its sacramental associations. Its diminishment becomes a purely humanitarian matter. It is through a connotation of sacrament that the torturer did not wholly undo the foundation of the law, its sanction, which, although making full use of fear, transcends fear in fairness, in proportion. The great cynics – for instance, De Sade – discerned in torture the true motive behind the law, the disorder of the libertine grin behind the solemn mask of the judge. The law, here, is wholly conformable to a certain desire in the hands of those who have the power to realize their desires, and who, in the process, take pleasure from their hypocritical pretense that they don’t.

In the Protestant countries, the sacramental sense of confession was outlawed, or at least banned in the Protestant church, and so it was taken out of the domain of the sacred into the domain of the autobiographical, the novelistic, the psychological, the criminal. Torture, then, is stripped of anything but utility. Still, even as confession is transferred from the sacramental to the secular domain, it is never fully disassociated from purgation and purification. The secular world may be one of different shames and rewards, but the old semiotic devils, the purges and purifications of the cult, retain a trailing, epiphenomenal insistence, like the shadow of a demon projected on the wall by a trick of the gesture of a hand.

It is in the form of confession that a truth other than the truth of experiment and scientific theory still holds on in a world of total utility. And yet, it is shoulder to shoulder with the world of total utility, just as the underground man is shoulder to shoulder with the stenographer – whose function is to be absolutely transparent. To be as if she isn’t there at all.

And yet of course she is. If the underground man hides, confession is his weapon, but it is not a weapon that he can employ without imagining the stenographer, the official representative of the desk, the typewriter, the office, the report. This should give us an idea of how odd it is to make confession a weapon. For it means the stripping away of the intervening structures that keep us – society, the state – from seeing the confessor, whose express desire is to find a mousehole. Or, like Rousseau, to retire to a remote and safe harbor. It is as if the motive that has produced so many underground labyrinths to confuse the seekers behind one, around one, is, in a gesture, vetoed. And yet, it is not hard to see the philosophical unity between this contradiction between the underground and the compulsion to exhibition. The pawnbroker in The Gentle Creature calls it pride, but what is that pride in? It is the pride of the non-identical.