Alfred C. Goodson
Confession, in Theory: Self-Reckoning in Rousseau’s Wake

A Genevese plebeian (J. J. Rousseau), Protestant and solitary, whom religion, education, poverty, and genius had led more quickly and further than others, spoke out the public secret aloud; and it was thought that he had discovered or rediscovered the country, conscience, religion, the rights of man, and natural sentiments.
Hippolyte Taine

This scandalous volume is a great reflection upon the society which admitted & admired it.
(pencil note in period English hand, inscribed in Julie, ou la Nouvelle Heloise, 1830)

Exasperation with Rousseau is an old story, as antique as his passionate following among English readers. Scandal, opprobrium, high-handed dismissiveness—how to bury this inconvenient writer and his awkward celebrity? Moralists from Edmund Burke to Irving Babbitt, T. S. Eliot’s orienting informant at Harvard, made him the whipping boy for romantic idealism and revolutionary impulsiveness. Returning to Rousseau now involves assessing this durable legacy. Unresolved ambivalence is the key note: we are heir to his reflection on civilization and its discontents, society and solitude, even as we are troubled by the narcissistic persona, as his contemporaries mostly were. The shock effectof this voice reaches a pitch in the Confessions, Rousseau’s posthumous succès de scandale, which flaunts the personality in ways we now think of as modern. Rousseau’s modernity is the point of the wide-spread revival of his work now under way among transatlantic readers committed to a longer view of the modernist turn in literature.

It was the provocation of the Confessions that kept the flame burning in England and abroad in puritanical America. The first part, his most deliberately scandalous work, was translated immediately after first French publication in 1782, attracting a cohort of interested readers among the romantics and their Victorian inheritors. It was hardly less influential in England than in Paris, Rousseau’s adopted home. Here he found a receptive audience among David Hume’s antinomian compatriots. Like Nietzsche, who famously predicted that he would be understood in England before he was taken seriously by his compatriots, Rousseau became an English writer by adoption. His skeptical temper is more British than Cartesian, and I hope to show how the example of the Confessions belongs to emergent Europe and its US outpost as much as to the marmoreal precincts of the Pléiades. It remains a living instance for writers like William Boyd, whose inventive New Confessions (1991) incorporates the figure of Rousseau in a narrative epitome of the twentieth century. Two intervening centuries have diluted cultural memory, but the power of his example persists in the literature of the narrating subject, and in critical reflection on it from Bakhtin’s earliest essays to Lyotard’s unfinished last.

Rousseau’s Confessions struck a chord among an influential set of English readers and writers, and among Americans like Charles Brockden Brown, purveyor of popular fictions to the new nation. Confessional discourse, reverting to Augustine of Hippo, was out of season in the enlightened political culture of Edmund Burke and Benjamin Franklin, whose autobiography represents a fundamentally different model of self-assertion despite some interesting notes of correspondence with Rousseau’s example. Ralph Bauer’s essay on Brown’s Wieland (1798) draws attention to the formal devices tried out by period writers, beginning from William Godwin, to deflect the burden of direct confession. The prototype of the new line of confessional fiction is usually out of play, for reasons having to do with its author’s reputation among the reading audiences concerned. There are compelling reasons to reinscribe this discursive horizon, as I shall argue, in the arena of convergent national literary traditions, and in search of a deeper reckoning with the crossings of literature and philosophy. A recent study by Richard L. Velkley shows how Rousseau’s project subtends philosophical modernity. By his account, Rousseau’s wide-ranging exploration of the relation of philosophy to culture set the table for the mainstream of German reflection extending from Kant via Schelling to Nietzsche and Heidegger. Kant’s conversion »to a fundamentally new view of philosophy and of philosophy’s human significance« (49) through his early reading of Rousseau figures in this genealogy as the primal scene of the long march to the clear light of human freedom. Against the skeptical grain of this widely recognized moment of transition, Rousseau’s recurrence to Augustine’s discursive example would appear strange, even paradoxical, a nostalgic gesture to an exhausted ethical tradition. Yet Derrida’s late essay on Augustine’s instance in the text of Rousseau restores this vital link, performing a postmodern turn on the settled pieties of philosophical modernity. The publication of Jean-François Lyotard’s fragmentary meditation on Augustine confirms the postmodern return to confessio, in the spirit of discovery and inquiry.

The literary legacy of the Confessions is suggestive for the modern novel in particular, as I shall be suggesting in reopening the case for the enduring significance of this illustrious and often reviled text. Its field of force extends beyond the romantic period into a line of first-person narratives culminating in Lolita, as James O’Rourke argues in a recent study. Nabokov’s satire on American life is presented by its fictive editor, one John Ray, Jr., Ph.D., as a clinical redaction of Humbert Humbert’s manuscript account, titled »Lolita, or the Confession of a White Widowed Male.« The ironic treatment of psychiatric authority, and of an American judiciary that sanctions and relies on it like an oracle, situates confessional discourse in an abyss of modern relativism. In so ethically troubled a setting, confession can only sound belated, the black hole of an exploded moral galaxy. Yet Nabokov’s send-up of such self-reckoning is not quite the end of the line for confessional discourse. The roiling controversy surrounding Günter Grass’s revelation of his past in the Nazi Waffen-SS, little followed outside Germany, should be seen as a sort of return of the repressed in postmodern letters, in the spirit of Lyotard’s recovery of the Augustinian ethic. For both, confession serves as a vehicle of self-assertion. What is confession if not a leap into the void? It amounts to an arrogation of the power of judgment, and a theory of social reckoning. The confessing subject is justified in both by appeal to a court of his own devising.

Rousseau in/and romanticism is an old story, but this bridge to the continent was burned at the very moment of the triumph of French theory in the academy. Displacing the fondateur des sciences humaines, as Lévi-Strauss called Rousseau, with latter-day adepts of his linguistic notions like Derrida, and of his contrarian turn like Foucault, has meant losing a flashpoint. Rousseau is vital for theory of every sort. He is the prototype, the very figure of the expansive line of anthropological reflection that we lump under that grandiose title. Burke was already considering him derisively as a theorist; Coleridge adopted this line in essays contrasting his approach with Burke’s clairvoyant Reflections. We do without Rousseau by reading compulsively in texts from later hands inspired by his provocations, his theoretic example. We lose something essential by obliterating this voice, I would suggest, not because precedence confers a sort of spectral dignity but because postmodern reflection invites a double-take on the relation of present to past. While Rousseau has long appeared as a precursor, viewing him in the rear-view mirror of our theoretic condition brings his very modern agitation into focus. His is the disturbing voice of the solitary, the outrider, the misfit in the ominously homogenizing monoculture envisioned by Lévi-Strauss in Tristes Tropiques (1955) − a Rousseauian return in a typically melancholy register (Goodson 1979). Giorgio Agamben’s affiliated conception of bare life translates this monoculture for a postmodern cohort at odds with a monochromatic New World Order: civilization by the yard. The career of theory at large might be said to revolve around Rousseau’s characterization of the precarious figure of Man, usually in the absence of its illustrious agent provocateur.

Later approaches to the Confessions signal its return to a stage from which its scandalous aroma has never been entirely absent. William C. Spengemann’s study of The Forms of Autobiography considers it in the company of Augustine of Hippo as well as American self-fashioning from Franklin to Hawthorne. The US content is distinctive, while Spengemann’s treatments of English writing from Wordsworth to Dickens remain undeveloped. More suggestive is an essay of 1985 from the hand of Tzvetan Todorov, who follows Jean Starobinski, Rousseau’s exemplary modern exegete, in taking the later, autobiographical writings to be central to his larger philosophical project. Considerations of generic difference underwrite Todorov’s take on the clarion voice of the Confessions. The novelistic turn in Rousseau’s writing, exemplified by Julie, ou la nouvelle Heloise and Emile, ou de l’éducation, was superseded because the solitary [individual] will not write novels. His works should share certain traits with the novel: private individuals, and not the collectivity or personified abstract notion, will be taken as heroes. Events will be recounted not in order to draw a lesson but in order to savor them in their singularity. And here, the two other restrictions on communication come to help us: the solitary will choose a genre in which ‘others’ are present only to the degree that they are necessary to the subject who speaks and who narrates, and their deficiency will be supplemented by the description of nature. It is now clear: the genre in question is autobiography, whose modern form was invented by Rousseau (42). Modern autobiography presumes an autonomous subject, usually fashioned as the solitary, or at least a voice contrived to project such autonomy. It is confessional in ethic, if we trace it in this way to Rousseau’s example. Confessional discourse as he practices it would become the formal expression of choice for the odd man out. Thomas De Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium-Eater would domesticate and sensationalize this subject position, confirming its aptitude for English cultural purposes. Rousseau’s confessional text transformed the discretion of the memoirists, giving rise to crass imitators like Giacomo Casanova, whose sensationalistic Histoire de ma vie (1824) styled itself confessional, while settling for incidental chatter. If such serial recounting is autobiography, Rousseau’s informing example is something else and something more: an apology in the Socratic sense, a public vindication. Rousseau’s difference takes flight at the outset of his Confession. The confessing subject presents himself as both a man among men and as singular, one off: »I am undertaking a work which as no example, and whose execution will have no imitator. I mean to lay open to my fellow-mortals a man just as nature wrought him; and this man is myself. I alone. I know my heart, and am acquainted with mankind. I am not made like anyone I have seen; I dare believe I am not made like anyone existing. If I am not better, at least I am quite different. Whether Nature has done well or ill in breaking the mould she cast me in, can be determined only after having read me.« (1783 revised) What interest can a voice professing to be unlike all others have for this suppositious, ideal mankind? What could such a freak of nature mean for philosophical anthropology? For this voice has left anthropology behind, turned against »the proper study of mankind«, in Pope’s didactic phrase. It is self-interested, against the grain of any ideal construction of human experience. Yet its autobiography can only be enacted differentially, in the context of an understanding of society at large and in general. Its singularity is a footnote to an enlightenment ideal; it cannot escape confinement in a network immanent in its very tongue. This much was already apparent to the earliest English reviewer (Monthly Review 67 [1782], 227) of the original, Geneva (French language) edition of Part I.

The difficulty of the position is perhaps best indicated by reference to Augustine of Hippo’s proto-confessional text, which is already engaged with the personal instance in the antique context of Christian soteriology. Rousseau’s suppression of this discursive model is essential to his own claim of singularity. Though undermined by figurative resemblances to this text (Fleischman) and also deliberate inversions of traditional topoi like expulsion from the garden of Eden, such a claim would become the stock in trade of Rousseau’s many imitators. The turn away from essential human identity lies at the heart of modern confessional discourse. Personal difference is its characteristic note. The trophy of such self-exposure is romantic originality, as writers came to think of it in Rousseau’s wake. The original thus becomes an origin in his own right, a prototype and model as Rousseau did as far away as Bohemia, Scotland, and Philadelphia.

The living experience of the singular individual has an exemplary value, as the English reception of the anonymous early translation shows. The first six books, apparently composed in England at a safe distance from the scene of the fray, were published posthumously in 1782, in English translation the next year. These books are quite different from the second part as translated in 1789, concluding what the author thought of as the story of »the errors and faults of my youth« (245) to age thirty. Duffy’s reception study shows how the English magazine critics first damned, then praised the Confessions, only to turn back against the volume when the revolutionary National Assembly declared its author (32-7) immortel. The reception tracks the difficult course of English attitudes to France and the French in this incendiary moment. But it also tells a story of fascinated revulsion with »the honest man«, as an early English reviewer of the Geneva edition of Part II (1784) calls him (Analytical Review 6 [1790] 385).

Honest is a complex word in its older employments, as William Empson’s famous discussion of its catastrophic orbit in Othello showed. »Honest Iago« is the very figure of calculating policy. Rousseau’s Confessions, Part I, seemed to its earliest English commentator a testament to singularity (Monthly Review 66 [1782] 531) with »a certain touch of insanity« (Monthly Review 67 [1782] 229). Paranoia is this reader’s diagnosis of its illustrious author: »Poor Rousseau imagined, that all men were leagued against him. Here I am, says he, alone upon the earth, without brother, friend, neighbor, or society. The most loving and sociable of men has been banished from the society of his fellow creatures, by a unanimous agreement. Their hatred has been ingenious in inventing those methods of tormenting me, that could prove the most painful to my feeling heart, and they have burst asunder, with violence, all the bonds that connected me with them« (228).

Such pathetic singularity leads the reviewer to conclude that sacramental confession might have alleviated the author’s distress more effectively than this egregious public display of his mental traveling (233). Literature makes a poor substitute for ventilating paranoia. Solitary confinement is a prison-house to the ordinarily sociable person that Rousseau certainly was.  

The defensive note of his Confessions is dissimulated by its opening claim of its author’s natural singularity. The appeal to the whole truth of nature (toute la vérité de la nature) involves a claim of certitude, one that remains to be demonstrated. His confessio will thus take the form of demonstratio in the discourse to follow. This will amount to a proof of hypothesis: not that the author is better, only that he is distinctive, singular. He stakes his reputation on his discourse, as if presenting it to sovereign authority: »Let the trumpet of the day of judgement sound when it will, I shall appear with this book in my hand before the Sovereign Judge, and cry with a loud voice, This is my work, these were my thoughts, and thus was I. I have freely told both the good and the bad, have hid nothing wicked, added nothing good« (3). Such a mise en scène would dramatize the test of his character, for better and worse. An imaginary trial in which the writer plays both defendant and attorney for the defense, the drama would be Calvinist in its searching intensity, befitting this prodigal son of Geneva. The offense very evidently taken in these lines – its high dudgeon – is meant as a riposte to his distinguished critics. His peremptory insistence on veracity sounds a refutation in advance of other accounts of his behavior. These are hallmarks of modern confessional discourse, an idiom more than a genre, distinct from autobiography, and associated with the rise of first-person narrative in the novel, as Mikhail Bakhtin’s study of Dostoevsky intimates.

The vindictive tone of Rousseau’s opening lines is familiar to English readers in texts from Godwin’s Caleb Williams (1794) to its popular narrative offspring − Charles Brockton Brown’s gothic romances and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1817), with its death-bed rehearsal of life on the run. These texts feature haunted narrators driven to the sort of intimate exhibitionism displayed by Rousseau. What is their compulsion to spill their stories? What impels them to melodramatic scenes of disclosure? Why did confession break out like a sort of narrative rash at this time? Confessional discourse has attracted sustained attention from Bakhtin (on novelistic dialogism), Foucault (on the history of sexuality), Derrida (on apologetics) and Lyotard (on Augustine’s performance), to give some idea of its allure for the modern and postmodern imagination. I will be tracing the hermeneutics of confessional discourse in theory and practice, from literary inception to critical accommodation, in transatlantic writing in Rousseau’s wake.

Bakhtin stands foremost in devising a dialogic approach to the confessional idiom, albeit in the guise of the novel. The confessional concept grows from his earliest published essays, especially »Author and Hero in Aesthetic Activity« (1990 [ca. 1920-23]). Its characterization of confessional »self-accounting« extends a familiar ethic of transgression, remorse, repentance and redemption. Confessional self-accounting, associated with the example of Augustine (145), is the primal scene of Bakhtin’s imagination of the dialogical: Pure, solitary self-accounting is impossible; the nearer a self-accounting comes to this ultimate limit, the clearer becomes the other ultimate limit, the action of the other ultimate limit; the deeper the solitude (value-related solitude) with oneself, and, consequently, the deeper the repentance and the passing-beyond-oneself, the clearer and more essential is one’s referredness to God. (144)

Confession is a form of relation with another, and ultimately with a transcendent Other. This »solitude with oneself« is the ground of a coming to consciousness, of the possibility of expression, though it is not yet a form of expression. Discovering confession is the birth of the dialogical.

Confessional self-accounting is an essential moment in the development of relationship with the something beyond such »solitude with oneself«, as Bakhtin sketches it. The contexts of his argument are entirely theological until he recurs to Dostoevsky, and to a certain »Romanticism« in which »the positioning of otherness (of the possible other, of the auditor or the reader) is anthropomachic in character« (146). In the English writing of the period, Caleb Williams, eponymous narrator of Godwin’s popular narrative, might be described as anthropomachic, taking Rousseau’s vindictive voice into Things as They Are (1794), as his book was originally titled: the social arrangements of later Georgian England. Bakhtin’s fleeting association of Dostoevsky’s heroes with Romanticism is revealing in this context, as it would identify them as contrarian types in the grip of psychic emergence from solitude into public self-accounting. That this is not novelistic in the usual constructions of the form is worth adding, in connection with later, Russian critiques of Bakhtin’s dialogical grasp of novelistic discourse (Wellek). His early preoccupation with the scene of confession leads him to value Dostoevsky because of his Byronic »hero of his own dark mind«, the savage Underground Man. Bakhtin’s interest lies in the writer’s characterization of confessional self-realization: of the possibility of expression, of articulation from within this solitary subject position. 

Such an understanding recalls the rise of first-person narratives of a kind familiar to modern readers. In such ›novels‹ as we still call them − Great Expectations is a prime example − the reader becomes the significant other to whom the confessing narrator appeals. Bakhtin takes some trouble over the identity and role of the reader (147-50) of narratives of self-realization through public self-exposure, and he goes on to distinguish confessional discourse in these terms from other narrative types, especially autobiography. In the opening of Dickens’ narrative of self-realization, Pip’s earliest memories draw readers into the perilous condition of the orphan as he learns to speak his own name, imperfectly yet with a sense of its aptitude to his childish condition. The pathos of his self-conjuring draws readers into relation with a protagonist who is no conventional hero, whose struggle to find a voice for his solitude and despair dramatizes the child’s exposure to the cold air of the world. In the course of his story, this inaugural invocation of his name becomes the foundation of Pip’s secure relation with his audience. He figures himself out through the life-line provided by the reader, whose role Bakhtin characterizes as participatory. The direct appeal of the confessional voice is compelling: »Confessional self-accounting informs and teaches about God, for, as we see, by way of solitary self-accounting one gains cognizance about God and becomes aware of the faith that is already living within life itself« (149). Like the Wedding Guest in the Rime of the Ancient Mariner, the reader cannot choose but hear. With its narrative self-accounting and its representation of compelling voice at work on the Wedding Guest, this powerful poem is paradigmatic of confessional discourse in the romantic moment. The difficulty of its reception in the period speaks volumes of the challenges of the type for conventional readers, with a straitened standard of realism lurking in the background.

The novel emerges in Bakhtin’s early essay as a late-comer to the story of author and hero in aesthetic activity, but the figure of Dostoevsky already counts for something through the association with confessional discourse. This comes prominently into play in his later study of what he calls Dostoevsky’s poetics. »Whether the Dostoevskian narrative is conducted in the first person, or in the form of a confession«, he supposes, »in all cases we see that the writer proceeds from an assumption of equal rights for simultaneously existing, experiencing persons« (Bahktin 1984, 37). The implied standard of social realism is important for understanding modern confessional discourse as it emanates from Rousseau’s example. His appeal to an established social habitus, observed from the bolt-hole of David Hume’s Britannia, brings into play the modern sense of an object-world within which the literary subject will find himself to be a problem − strange, and estranged. His alienation is inscribed as an article of faith in the opening moments of the Confessions, as it would be in the opening line of Caleb Williams − »My life has for several years been a theatre of calamity.« The provocation involved in such a narrative premise is true to Rousseau’s example. The celebrity of Godwin’s novel at its first appearance in 1794 attests to the vitality of this confessional idiom in its originating moment.

Bakhtin mentions Rousseau’s text in passing in connection with the »style-shaping significance of internal polemic« (197) yet its exemplary status as the proto- modern confessional text goes missing in his discussion, for reasons to do with his typically synchronic attention. It is subsumed in this context to »Ich-Erzählung forms of the confessional type«, with Augustine in mind (cf. 117). Where Bakhtin begins to describe the dialogic construction of the voice of Dostoevsky’s Underground Man, he might have been characterizing Rousseau’s confessional voice: »What the Underground Man thinks about most of all is what others think or might think about him; he tries to keep one step ahead of every other consciousness, every other thought about him, every other point of view on him« (52). Such intensive self-consciousness has usually been considered proto-romantic. But it always looked paranoid, and Bakhtin’s portrait of the Underground Man puts a dialogic face on it: »At all the critical moments of his confession he tries to anticipate the possible definition or evaluation others might make of him, to guess the sense and tone of that evaluation, and tries painstakingly to formulate these possible words about himself by others, interrupting his own speech with the imagined rejoinders of others« (52). The polemical cast of the Confessions, as noticed by Bakhtin, raises this discursive attention to the voices of others to a method of narrative construction. The »style-shaping significance« of polemic is already at work in the apodictic certitude of Rousseau’s voice. It is a literary device that underwrites his innovative practice of public self-reckoning.

Such a contrivance is the expression of a hyper-vigilant social imagination, a reflex of the intense self-consciousness that Bakhtin ascribes to the Underground Man: The hero from the underground eavesdrops on every word someone else says about him, he looks at himself, as it were, in all the mirrors of other people’s consciousness, he knows all the possible refractions of his image in those mirrors. And he also knows his own objective definition, neutral both to the other’s consciousness and to his own self-consciousness, and he takes into account the point of view of a »third person«. But he also knows that all these definitions, prejudiced as well as objective, rest in his hands and he cannot finalize them precisely because he himself perceives them; he can go beyond their limits and can thus make them inadequate. He knows that he has the final word, and he seeks at whatever cost to retain for himself this final word about himself, the word of his self-consciousness, in order to become in it that which he is not. His consciousness of self lives by its unfinalizability, by its unclosedness and its indeterminancy. (53)

The posthumous publication of Rousseau’s Confessions represents a deliberate tactic for containing rejoinder in order to have the final word, in Bakhtin’s parlance, on a character whose consummate expression was to be this confessional voice. In it he found a medium to contain doubts about himself that would be shared with his readers only after they could ask questions. His appeal to their judgment affirms the indeterminacy at work in his self-conception. For it would involve him in an open-ended negotiation with his readership − a trial without conclusion of the person characterized so deliberately and defended so openly in the court of public opinion. The long literary trail of his exhibition of the evidence suggests just how this confessional contrivance appeals to the modern imagination in its self-regarding omnipotence.

As Bakhtin characterizes it, Dostoevsky’s practice of literary confession realizes the potential for self-exploration and self-display inherent in Rousseau’s text. But the problem of authorial attitude arises in connection with the novel in ways that it does not in Confessions. The long contention over the establishment of a standard French text is suggestive of the instability of its authorial subject. Rousseau’s endless fiddling with his front matter makes it a work in progress, once and for all, not a conclusive demonstration of the case. Unlike the unselfconscious »direct, unmediated discourse directed exclusively toward its referential object, as an expression of the speaker’s ultimate semantic authority«, as Bakhtin propounds his discursive typology, the text of Confessions openly conjures with the voices of others. As an Ich-Erzählung it falls under the heading of »discourse with an orientation toward someone else’s discourse (double-voiced discourse)« (199). Such is its dialogic constitution, distinct but related by Bakhtin under his heading (Type III) to novelistic dialogism with its »vari-directional double-voiced discourse« as in parody, or, more typically, with the »reflected discourse of another«. Yet the distinctions break down in application to Dostoevsky, as where Bakhtin refers to »polemically colored confession« as »vari-directional« (203), and the same might be said of Rousseau’s text, with its concern to establish facts by reference to times, places, and dates, as though establishing credibility in response to charges of mendacity, while conducting running quarrels with his critics. In attempting to have the conclusive word, Rousseau provoked a fire-storm of controversy. His dialogic approach to self-justification, far from answering the critics, became an issue, and an incentive to repetition compulsion among English writers from Wordsworth to Arthur Symons.

Dostoevky’s Notes from Underground provides Bakhtin with the specimen case of fictive confession: Originally the work was entitled »A Confession«. And it is in fact an authentic confession. Of course, ›confession‹ is understood here not in the personal sense. The author’s intention is refracted here, as in any Ich-Erzählung; this is not a personal document but a work of art. In the confession of the Underground Man what strikes us first of all is its extreme and acute dialogization: there is literally not a single monologically firm, undissociated word. From the very first sentence the hero’s speech has already begun to cringe and break under the influence of the anticipated words of another, with whom the hero, from the very first step, enters into the most internal polemic. (228)

What does it mean to write of such literary confessional discourse as authentic? If this is not a personal document, of course it is a narrative contrivance. Rousseau’s Confessions makes a similar claim on authenticity, without the qualification introduced here. For this is a personal document by profession, as well as a narrative whose contingency is plainly confirmed by its author’s refabrications of his preamble. The Ich-Erzählung category silently elides the distinction introduced by Bakhtin here; postmodern reading reckons this a distinction without a difference, insisting there is no final truth in narrative, only varieties of fiction. That is one way of characterizing the modernity of Rousseau’s confessional discourse. Its author turns again and again in the effort to tell a truth that cannot finally be told in this form. He is increasingly anxious, uncomfortable in his own narrative skin. The fear and trembling culminate in the vituperative Part II, where the dialogical voice gives way to open polemic.

Bakhtin’s demonstration of the way this voice operates in Dostoevsky applies to Rousseau’s text, as I have been suggesting, despite its documentary intention. Confessio can hardly do otherwise, as its author appears to have realized. His effort to disfigure himself before his critics can do it follows the narrative logic pursued by Dostoevsky: The destruction of one’s own image in another’s eyes, the sullying of that image in another’s eyes as an ultimate desperate effort to free oneself from the power of the other’s consciousness and to break through to one’s self for the self alone—this, in fact, is the orientation of the Underground Man’s entire confession. For this reason he makes his discourse about himself deliberately ugly. He wants to kill in himself any desire to appear the hero in others’ eyes (and in his own). »I am no longer the hero to you now that I tried to appear before, but simply a nasty person, a scoundrel. . .« (232)

Jean-Jacques, as the character of the author in the text will be known, begins as a pitiful orphan whose mother died giving birth to him. He takes her place in the family and bears the burden of her passing. His father embraces him with her image on his mind − the lost love that can never be effaced, whose name he has on his lips when he finally passes. »My birth was the first of my misfortunes« (5) and Jean-Jacques will forever after cut the figure of the Man of Sorrows, a type well-known to English romantic writers. Coleridge would compose early lines on the Man of Ross in this mold, identifying him with Christian charity and chronic misfortune. Such is the image Rousseau would disfigure in the character of Jean-Jacques, a little rascal whose childish transgressions set him up as a victim of life.

Book I is devoted to this iconoclastic agenda. The »first step and the most painful in the obscure and dirty maze of my Confessions« (15) occurs at the very outset as Rousseau recounts an affective trend in Jean-Jacques’ erotic response to discipline administered by the sympathetic Mlle. Lambercier − a ridiculous disfigurement of the mature writer’s character. This he has already called effeminate (11); the incipient masculinity of Jean-Jacques is at issue. His attachment to maternal surrogates like Mlle. Lambercier and especially Mme. de Warens, the mistress-protector whom he calls Mama, confirms his subservience. The anti-heroic note is familiar to English readers from Byron’s Don Juan, with its mock-heroic protagonist enlisted in escapades with women from Donna Julia, his mother’s friend, to the Turkish seraglio from which he escapes by cross-dressing. But anti-heroic turns ugly in Confessions, to echo Bakhtin, in the incident of the purloined ribbon, a dancing-place of postmodern theory. For Rousseau writes vividly of the obstinacy of Jean-Jacques when confronted by misdeeds ranging from his breaking of Mme. Lambercier’s comb to his complicity in the dismissal of an innocent servant girl accused of having stolen the ribbon. The writer as confessant is affirmed at the expense of Jean-Jacques, as though disfiguring him in this way would restore his narrator’s moral stature with his confidential public.

It should be evident that the dialogic principle as articulated by Bakhtin through his Dostevsky essay is grounded in the confessional voice. Rousseau’s text is proto-modern in its deployment of this voice, the medium par excellence of modern writing from Baudelaire to Joyce, Proust and Grass. His Confessions must be considered the exemplary construction site of the dialogic imagination as Bakhtin pursues it. The novel as he discusses it amounts to a development of the dialogic principle from its inception in confessional discourse, meaning Rousseau’s with the romantic trail pursuant contributing to the novel’s sense of purpose. The rise of the novel, as this has usually been treated by literary critics working from the eighteenth century antecedents, ignores the significance of Rousseau’s example, perhaps because it appears to be off-shore, out of the flight path of the English practitioners of the art. Such an assumption is at odds with the real habit of English reading in the period. Not only Rousseau but also Goethe, who picked up something from his example while deploring the confessional manner, counted for the development of the novel in England, and also in the US. Bakhtin represents English novelistic heroines such as Clarissa as sentimental stick figures in the development of the Romantic from the Classical character type (1990, 181) in his rather primitive typology. Yet it is confessional discourse that counts for his portrait of the emergence of the novel as a public display of the infirmities of the private person in the period because the confessing subject is the prototype of discursive escape from the confinement of self-consciousness.

Todorov’s essay on Rousseau would make him »a principal spokesman for humanism« (vii) and explorer of the contradictions of the subject position of the individual considered under the heading of Man. It points to autobiography as the genre that Rousseau arrives at in his quest for a narrative form apt to his sense of the affective climate of modern experience. Todorov’s generic approach is in the spirit of Bakhtin’s early inquiry into the confessional roots of dialogism, but it takes a turn away from the novel in recognizing the distinctiveness of this kind of writing. In fact Todorov’s destination is not so much generic as moral, with an ideal of moral self-consciousness as the hallmark of the individual who would escape solipsism to live in society with others. That he takes dialogue to be the medium of personal transcendence confirms his affiliation to Bakhtin’s way of thinking about the vocation of language. A sense of the urgency of mediation is at work in the discovery of the dialogical principle as in the confessional idiom in which, as I have proposed, it is rooted. Yet confessional discourse is more than, other than autobiography, it is vindication in the face of an imaginary imposition. The subject is highly motivated because he is under surveillance and under suspicion, like Caleb Williams and Victor Frankenstein. His paranoia, as Rousseau’s earliest English reviewer noticed it, drives him to tell his story.

For Bakhtin, confessional discourse is inscribed in a sacramental exchange underwritten by the example of Augustine of Hippo. Foucault’s Histoire de la sexualité is all about the Enlightenment and its discontents, including the inconvenient facts of the flesh, la racine de tous les péchés—root of all sins (1976, 28). Against the background of more tolerant and complicit attitudes to sexuality, the introduction of an exacting regimen of sacramental confession signals the arrival of an age of hypocrisy. This Victorian regime, as Foucault calls it at the outset, was intended to channel personal behavior into detailed confessions of sins of the flesh in particular. As he tells it, the new pastoral regimen led directly to the emergence of that literature of scandal (30) within which Rousseau’s Confessions would be inscribed. French commentators count several sorts of writing as its precursors. Cardinal de Retz mixed public with private memoirs; Mme. de Lafayette turned such open reflection to narrative ends in La Princesse de Clèves, whose ingenious narrative would be revived for modern purposes by Roger Shattuck. Its author referred to her succès de scandale as »memoirs, properly speaking« (Perrin 20). The line dividing fact and fiction is occluded in this narrative idiom; »emotion recollected in tranquility«, in a Wordsworthian nutshell, is its focus − »the intimate, involuntary movements of the heart . . . the succession of states of sensibility replacing the tether of facts . . . refusing to be limited by the outside of life . . . attaining the truth of feelings is the main object« (31). Perrin cites Rousseau’s text to demonstrate its alignment with such writing. Yet Rousseau lays stress on the factuality of his confessions, recognizing that inevitable slips of memory will compromise his intention of telling the whole truth. For his purposes, confessional discourse meant running the public risks involved in relentless self-exposure.

Foucault’s account of the proliferation of discourses of sexuality in this period remains important for understanding why Rousseau’s text scandalized his readership. Recovering the story of the body for philosophy, under the heading of the history of sexuality, was Foucault’s culminating contribution to the refabrication of modern understanding. Rousseau’s deliberate self-exposure is significant in this context. His early French reviewers were bothered by the recounting, in his opening book, of his childhood particulars. English reviewers were scandalized by Mme. de Warens, the mistress he called Mama, and by the ejaculation of a cleric in Turin. The childhood of sexuality lies at the heart of the opening pages of the Confessions, and Part I concludes with an idyllic restoration to Mme. de Warens’ love nest in the Alps where Jean-Jacques would recover from his peripatetic early adventures. Rousseau was not the first writer to attend to the formative experience of childhood (Perrin 25-31), but the way that he joins unwitting youth with adult sexuality is provocative. The narrative of his sensual awakening under the brush of Mlle. Lambercier restores the experience of the child faced with the discovery of his responsive body. Confessing to childhood’s misadventures as Rousseau does amounts to a first step in recuperating the suppressed history of sexuality that Foucault is concerned to provide.

Rousseau’s narrative provocation participates in this way in that immense prolixity (46), as Foucault calls it, which inspired modern understanding with an open recognition of the fruits of the tree of knowledge. From what had been, in the middle ages, a compact discursive field centering on sins of the flesh and practices of penitence, concupiscence would loom large in the formation in disciplines from psychiatry and medicine to demography, pedagogy, political critique. The rise of such interrelated discursive arenas is a flashing sign of the arrival of modernity, for Foucault. Painting with so broad a brush risks truism; his penchant for reductive paradigms is too well-known to deserve rehearsal here. Yet he is surely right to call attention to a highway of feeling that would restore libido to the sense of self from which it had been abstracted by theological principle and the rationalism of the Lumiéres. »It must not be forgotten«, as he concludes his opening moment, »that the new pastoral regime, by making sex what, par excellence, had to be confessed [avoué] made of it a disquieting enigma« (1976, 48). This is a minimal claim, apt to confessional self-reckoning as Rousseau practiced it. Trying to tell the truth in print would involve him in taking account of a range of experiences once considered out of bounds in polite letters.

What about impolite letters? »In his own Confessions, Rousseau compares himself to the author of a libertine confession, his friend Duclos,« O’Rourke points out (18) in the course of inscribing the text in Foucault’s account of the history of sexuality. Readers of the English literature of the period know that literary pornography had emerged some time before with Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure (1748-9), familiar under the title of Fanny Hill. In the guise of a memoir, it is narrated in the voice of an innocent girl sent off to London by her family in the country. Her erotic adventures commence at the hands of her new mistress, a woman whose professional attentions begin in bed. The reader explores Fanny’s discovery of sexuality in her narrative reckoning with it. The book circulated widely in pirated versions that included masculine homoerotic interpolations, leading to public censorship, trials of author and publisher, and a wide if uncomfortable celebrity. John Cleland cultivated literary company, including that of Boswell, a man of the world and a sort of model reader of impolite letters. Scott Juengel’s recent essay on Cleland’s famous book would save Fanny for philosophy »in anticipation of a theory of speech acts that it already stages«, and in connection with the author’s pursuit of words, in the orbit of Horne Tooke’s etymological fundamentalism. For Cleland’s text »understands a deep and enabling correspondence between pleasure and signification, between the potency of words and the possibility of thought«, inviting us »to revisit the enthrallment between figure and body, language and action« (3). The oddity of this antique grammar of copulation lies in its obsessive »logic of combination and accretion« which »ultimately structures Cleland’s history of linguistic practices, catalyzing the relationships between words and things« (6). The last phrase echoes the French title of Foucault’s work on the epistemic construction of signification, Les Mots et les choses, associating it with later his history of sexuality. 

»The Foucaultian incitement to discourse«, as Juengel calls the motive force of the public discovery of sexuality in the period, is thus related to the emergence of modernity in the trace of his familiar epistemic paradigm. Cleland’s narrative is construed, in this context, as an overture to J. L. Austin, trading »on a similar kind of radical nominalism, where illocutionary force constitutes the truth of pornography, which aims to collapse the distance between body and knowledge, sign and signified« (10). Juengel’s ingenious reading of Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure takes pornography out of the bedroom and into the study of the amateur etymologist that Cleland was, returning us to the widespread quest for meaning in words so characteristic of the period. (The institution of Cambridge English by I. A. Richards, working off of Coleridge’s scattered notes on signification, would represent a late rewind of this proto-philological quest). His inaugural effort at literary pornography would become a model, as Juengel suggests in conclusion, though his subsequent efforts at erotic incitement would fall flat, as if in confirmation that it was the energetic display of how to do things with words that had made his first shot so suggestive.

Yet the domestication of pornography can hardly be considered a horizon of modernity, as O’Rourke’s study would intimate. Fredric Jamison’s accumulation of predicates of modernity includes nothing of the kind, while his critique of Foucault’s epistemic modeling has implications for any explanatory paradigm of the kind (61-4). Elsewhere in A Singular Modernity (100) Jamison refers to Rousseau’s coining, with Swift, of the word modernist. The new word is indicative of a sense of difference stirring in the period, as foundational indeed for considering this transitional moment as a period. But »the concept of modernity« under that title Jamison finds first in »the founding fathers of sociology« (7). For his purposes, capitalism and its discontents constitute the real horizon of modernity; the discursive practices of Rousseau are only superstructure, a knock-on effect of this efficient cause, to simplify Jamison’s complex and elegant case. Such recognition involves a sense of horizon, at least—of his singular modernity as a stage of an emergent economic and social dialectic.

Reviving Weber’s linkage of the protestant ethic to capitalism and its attendant cultural reform is indisputably important for making sense of the protean figure of the modern. What it leaves out of the story is suggestive of the limits of an explanatory model with its roots in Hegelian Marxism, and any sociology of culture pursuant—of Pierre Bourdieu’s, for instance. Without presenting a full reckoning with Jamison’s episodic account of the singularity of the modern, I would like to restore a note of plurality, or dialectical complexity, to the horizon of modernity. If Cleland’s Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure evidences subliminal reflection on the nature of signification, it is perhaps because this represents an early moment in the protracted discovery of meaning of the modern − of what it means to think about experience in terms of the forms of language. Confessional discourse as it emerges in Rousseau’s text, nearly contemporary with Cleland’s in composition, might be characterized as an effort to get real, in the context of an epochal reform of literary habit. Collapsing »the distance between body and knowledge«, in Juengel’s phrase, involves Rousseau in effacing the line between public and private discourse, challenging prevailing decorum. Recognizing the body meant more than simply exposing it as Cleland did in low comic ways. It meant inaugurating a public conversation about the life of the body, with the aim of reintegrating modern understanding. As the instigator of this inquisition Rousseau became what Foucault elsewhere calls a master of discursivity; he may be said to have premiered the role better known to postmodern readers in the voices of Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud. For he opened the long-running conversation about foundations of sociality pursued by Weber and Lévi-Strauss, Lévinas and Derrida, and in the social science in which Jamison grounds his own sense of the horizon of the modern.

The privilege of linguistics in the moment of French theory involved a tacit recognition of language as the foundational social institution. Language and culture are two sides of the same coin; national identity has been attendant on an exclusive idea of language since Rousseau’s time. The institution of language, monitored by English writers from Bacon to Austin, is a primal scene of the discovery of modernity. The very conception of language is deeply rooted in socio-economic processes reverting to the English revolution, as Locke’s drafts of his famous Essay Concerning Human Understanding plainly show. The problems involved in forming stable ideas and related words were reflective of epistemic uncertainty. The challenges involved cannot preclude working with large historical models of the kind that Foucault tries for, where the sense of difference from within the period concerned proves durable. To conceive of Rousseau’s Confessions as indicative of something momentous in its discursive constitution—to conceive of it at the horizon of modernity—means accepting the kinds of risks that Foucault runs in trying to devise a developmental framework that would include a sense of the integrity of the epistemic practices of a period. Language and literature remain formative for any such conception, whatever the limitations of the kind of epistemic modeling performed by Foucault. The literature is attendant on the tongue in ways articulated clearly by Slavic and French commentators, including Derrida, in the case of Rousseau’s linguistics.

This was the starting point of his deconstructive turn in De la Grammatologie,
in which Rousseau’s name signifies something more than the singular voice of a fixture of philosophical reflection. »Why accord exemplary value to the epoch of Rousseau? What is the privilege of Jean-Jacques Rousseau in the history of logocentrism? What is indicated by this proper name? And what are the connections between the proper name and the texts to which it was affixed in this form?« (145) The answer comes quickly: »Within this epoch of a metaphysics [of presence in the voice], between Descartes and Hegel [neither of whom got to grips with the problem posed by writing], Rousseau is doubtless the only or the first to thematize and systematize the reduction of writing [to a secondary effect of speech] as this would be engaged by the whole epoch.« His discovery of the »self-presence of the subject in conscience or in sentiment« (147) marks the limit of the Cartesian cogito as the unique index of epistemic value. In this period which we call romantic, with Rousseau leading the way, the return of the affective self amounts to a refusal of the privilege of rationality as the measure of human being. To put it so baldly is to beg many questions, about for instance the subliminal algebra of thinking and feeling, a matter that Freud would make much of. Derrida begins here; he has miles to go before he finishes the story. But his formula is surely true to the case for the Confessions at the horizon of modernity. For it is in this conclusive text that Rousseau takes to the limit his pursuit of himself as his exemplary discursive subject. The drama of Romantic self-consciousness first goes into full-dress rehearsal just here.

Derrida’s deep affiliation in the moment of Rousseau culminates in a late lecture, transformed into an essay against Paul de Man’s reading of Confessions (2002, 71-160). The complexity of this powerful rejoinder to de Man’s effacement of the instance of Augustine is of more than passing bearing on the case I am developing here. Its interest lies in its characterization of confessional discourse in Austin’s performative terms, as »always, already, an apologetic mode« (110); for »every confessional text is already apologetic. Every avowal begins by offering apologies or by excusing itself.« Certainly this is true of Rousseau’s text, as of Augustine’s before him. Derrida draws attention to the coincidence of youthful theft exemplified by both as occasions of transgression, and also of what he calls in a modern register »psychic repercussions on their whole lives« (80). The drama of the purloined letter as enacted in Book 2 of Confessions follows the example of Augustine’s stolen pears in Book 2 of his Confessions. Both are »paradigmatic« − they perform culpability, indicating the essential nature of these discourses as »textual events«. Representing what really happened is subsumed to the performative motive involved in both. In fact »what really happened« must be considered conjectural, beside the point of the demonstration of personal fallibility at the apologetic heart of the matter. Derrida’s identification of Rousseau’s performance with that of Augustine amounts to a recovery of the primordial motive of confessional discourse.

What was this »determining event, a structuring theft, a wound, a trauma, an endless scarring, the repeated access to the experience of guilt and to the writing of Confessions« (82)? »I have, perhaps, murdered with ignominy and misery an amiable, honest, and estimable girl, who was assuredly much better than I« (76). But in the lines that follow it becomes clear that murder is not the issue, at all. In fact the petty theft of a worn silk ribbon, for no good reason, hardly amounts to gross criminality. The real issue is the truthfulness of Jean-Jacques, age sixteen, faced with the discovery of the missing item on his person. He blames his possession of it on Marion, a young cook in the household of Madame de Vercellis, whom he accuses of having given it him. She is turned out of the house along with her accuser, who supposes that she will have trouble finding another such position, given the calumny on her character. For all of Rousseau’s guilty conscience on this discreditable incident, the conclusion he arrives at in Book 2 has more to tell about his performative motive than about his guilt: »It has even done me this good, of keeping me, for the rest of my life, from every act which tends towards crime, by the terrible impression I still retain of the only one I was every guilty of; and I think I feel my aversion to falsehood grow in a great measure from the regret of having been able to commit so black a one« (78). Can this falsehood really be the one transgression of a life of truth-telling? In the confessional self-reckoning involved in the performance of his apology, what is at stake is not the corrupt human nature displayed by Augustine, on vivid exhibit at every turn of Rousseau’s text. It is the problem of the modern subject as Derrida sets it out in his essay.

The purloined ribbon is hardly Jean-Jacques’s first transgression of the kind. As Derrida presents the case, Rousseau had already stolen forbidden fruit, just as Augustine had done. More orthodox than Augustine, he had already stolen apples, rather than pears. He confesses it with delight, lightheartedness, and abundance in Book 1 of the Confessions. What is more, he stole constantly in his early youth: first asparagus, then apples. He’s inexhaustible on the subject, and he insists on his good conscience, up until the theft of the ribbon. Since he was punished for all these earlier thefts, he began »to thieve with an easier conscience than before, saying to myself, Well, what will happen? I shall be beaten. All right, that’s what I was made for.« As if corporal punishment, physical injury, the automatic and justly repaid sanction exonerated him from any guilt, thus from any remorse. He steals more and more, and not only things to eat but also tools, which confirms him in his feeling of innocence. Rousseau, as you know, will have spent his life protesting his innocence and thus excusing himself rather than seeking to be forgiven. (83)

The serial larcenist discovers his conscience only when he bears false witness against poor Marion. His infraction against sovereign truth is personified through her injury, and he judges himself guilty as sin of it. Derrida situates such moral complexity against the background of Augustine’s example, suppressed by de Man in accord with Rousseau’s own disavowal of influence, yet very much alive to the conscience of his text: ›Repentence‹, ›regret‹, ›remorse‹ (repentir, regret, remord) are Rousseau’s words, on the same page, when he speaks of what he himself calls an »incredible contradiction« between his infinite guilt and the absence of any guilty conscience. It is as if he still had to confess the guilt that there is, and that remains, in not feeling guilty, or better yet, in saying he is innocent, in swearing his innocence in the very place where he confesses the worst. As if Rousseau still had to ask forgiveness for feeling innocent. This little drama recalls the scene where Hamlet asks his mother to forgive him his own virtue, to forgive him in sum, for having nothing to forgive him for, to forgive Hamlet for the fact that he has nothing to be forgiven for. Pardon me my virtue, he says, in sum, to Gertrude: ›Confess yourself to heaven; Repent what’s past. . . Forgive me this my virtue‹ (III,iv). (88)

Such an analogy would make Rousseau true to the type of the melancholy Dane, full of himself, excruciatingly self-conscious in the romantic way. Melancholia is very apt to the paranoia profiled by his contemporaries and early reviewers. The character of the melancholy Jacques in As You Like It, with his solitary habit and sylvan scribbling, bears a passing resemblance to that of Rousseau in his confessional weeds.

Such a character is hardly unique, against the background of English literature as Derrida invokes it in his essay. In fact the association would undermine Rousseau’s apodictic claim to singularity, in ways that the early English reviewers already recognize. »Rousseau is mistaken, when he says, at setting out, that he has formed an enterprise without example«, as the Monthly Review commentator on the original 1782 French edition of Part I observed (531). The same writer attacks the notional singularity of this self-professing prodigy on proleptically Derridean grounds: »how could he KNOW himself such, if he did not KNOW all others as well« (MR 67, 227). His megalomania invites suspicion of »a certain touch of insanity« (229). To this character as he appears in Part II, in the 1784 French original, the Analytical Review commentator ascribes genius: Rousseau’s fate is typical, not singular (Analytical Review 6, 385). The figure of mad genius understudies the case, even as the reviewer turns on »cold critics« who »have termed them [›the former volumes of the confessions‹] the ravings of a madman.« Yet in the same breath he can write of »the foundation of his singular character«. What is very clear from these English responses is that Rousseau was being domesticated, with his notional singularity attributed to a type familiar to English readers. The interest of the case lay not in its strangeness but in its exploration of a subject position known from Shakespeare, and from Burton’s ever-popular Anatomy of Melancholy, with its litany of the peculiarities of the type spread out to include every corner of human experience.

Romantic period writers would adopt the profile in their own explorations of the melancholy personality, as Godwin did in the figure of Caleb Williams. But the story is larger than Rousseau and romanticism; it subtends modernity and modernism in some interesting ways. To characterize Rousseau’s literary melancholy as the affective horizon of modernity − the rictus to which later writers would revert, or against which they would react, in the case of Eliot − is to confirm the special significance of his Confessions. Derrida’s rather didactic essay recuperates the Augustinian power of Rousseau’s self-display, insisting on its apologetic urgency. Confessional discourse, as he would restore its lost authority, is fundamentally defensive. It responds to an imaginary imposition on the writer’s integrity. Such an imposition might begin in social experience, as Jean-Jacques’ does in the matter of the purloined ribbon, but it is internalized as a challenge to his very existence, as Bakhtin’s discussion of Dostoevsky’s Underground Man shows. Confessional discourse in the Augustinian line is a matter of Christian self-reckoning. De Man’s case would sublate this motive, cutting Rousseau’s confessional text off from the real sources of its power, as Derrida demonstrates. Vindication is the personal motive of apology, its proximate source, and this is what literature since Rousseau has very often channeled. The rise of first-person narrative in the modern period owes everything to such a motive. It typically involves a search for a reality principle against the background of self-delusion and social difficulty.

At the end of his life Jean-François Lyotard composed an episodic meditation on Augustine’s Confessions that involves him in a kind of confessional self-reckoning. Though unfinished at his death it bears comparison with Derrida’s exploration of the subject position of the confessional writer. »Of whom are the Confessions the work, the opus? To put it differently, what are they working at, what are they setting into work, and what are they opening up, to what do they open the work?« (65). This line of inquiry leads off sheets titled »work« [oeuvre, 1992], evidently associated with the fragmentary essay at its inception (vii). Here Lyotard explores the dialogical constitution of confessional discourse through his response to Augustine’s example. »My work of confession, of narration and meditation, is only my work because it is yours.« Such a recognition of the other person amounts to an »invocatio, the voice through which I call upon your voice to speak within mine«. Invocatio identifies the special nature of the work of confession: channeling the voice of the other in an act of audition, recognition, and praise of »the Absolute« (67) in »the chord of death and that of true life«. The confessional act is identified by Lyotard as psalmic, proceeding through narrative moments and philosophical moments in a hymn of recurring invocation and praise.  Significantly for a philosopher writing in French, it is not Rousseau who will be the muse of this overture to mortality but his source sous rature, as Derrida would go on to demonstrate. Lyotard’s La Confession d’Augustin (1998) represents the vital moment of return to the wellsprings of the confessional act that Rousseau would dissimulate as radically original, his own device.

If the sense of an ending characterizes the postmodern turn on modernity, Lyotard’s recovery of the meaning of confessional discourse might be said to exemplify postmodern ethical reflection. Yet this is not simply an Augustinian obeisance to the absolute. Rousseau lurks under the skin of it, performing confessio in a skeptical key: »But is the poem of the five torments a psalm? Or the blazon of a body in ecstasy? The flesh tempers fright, cushions the shattering visit that converts it into its truth. Does the flesh have an idea of this shedding of skin, an idea that this shedding reveals its true being? It has no means to think; it feels. It feels, in one, agony and joy. The most repugnant and the sweetest Christian mystery, infinity made flesh, bread and wine, is accomplished without the concept, next to the flesh, in a convulsion. This spasm is the sole witness of grace. It cannot be submitted as evidence to the tribunal of ideas, which declines comment: confession does not come under its jurisdiction.« (4)

Thus would Lyotard engage Augustine’s text in conversation about the true nature of confession, rather as Rousseau does, sotto voce, in his own confessional text. Is it really a kind of strip-tease masquerading as self-abnegation? Giving voice to the cry of the mute flesh, which feels without thinking, the confessant performs a ritual exposure of his true nature. The sense of human duality in this form is certainly a Rousseauvian note: »I felt before I thought«, as Book I of his Confessions puts it simply, in what sounds like a proposition. Lyotard’s turn on the formula would make such feeling the locus of something more.

Is confession an organic phenomenon, an emanation of the flesh in the grip of mortality? Lyotard’s address to the body in its refractory estrangement from the life of spirit points this way, for he would associate confession with communion in its sacramental nature. There is strong feeling for it as an event, something that takes place − that happens or has happened, as in Augustine. Performing the event is the point of such literary confessio: it is performance art, not arid recollection, playing to an audience of kindred spirits for whom the life of the body is strange, a problem to be reckoned with even if it cannot be solved. In Lyotard’s phrase, »[the inner human] does not give testimony, it is testimony«, and this inner human is »the only witness of the presence of the Other, of the other of presence« − »a wound, an ecchymosis, a scar [that] attests to the fact that a blow has been received, they are its mechanical effect« (7).  We are in the domain of what Coleridge was already calling psychosomatic, joining body to the life of spirit. There »the soul-flesh passes into a phantom state«, as Lyotard would put it, adding that »it invites a fairy-story, a fable, not a discourse« (6). The Ancient Mariner lies down this line, in his »phantom ship upon a phantom ocean«. The strangeness of his tale has everything to do with its confessional motive, consumed as he is with personal transgression and the urgency of repentance. Rousseau’s Confessions would respond to performative possibilities opened by Augustine’s example as apt for rehearsal before the Paris salons he frequented. In these precincts − secular, proto-modern − what counted was the art of self-display. The sense of personal transgression on show in the opening part of Rousseau’s text is debased to salon gossip in the second part. Much of it amounts to vindictive score-settling with Montesquieu, Diderot and others.

Mortality is evidently the occasion of Lyotard’s performance in this key. The testimony of the soul-flesh is the tocsin of mortality: »The confessing I look for words and, contrary to all expectation, those that come to him are those that make physiology work to the point of pushing the body’s sensorial and hence sensual powers to the infinite. The inhibition that naturally overtakes him is lifted, it is metamorphosed into generosity. To deliver the soul from its misery and death, grace does not demand a humiliated, mortified body; rather, it increases the faculties of the flesh beyond their limits, and without end. The ability to feel and to take pleasure unencumbered, pushed to an unknown power—this is saintly joy.« (11-12)

Such an observation would vindicate the indulgences of the flesh in Augustine’s youth, and of course in Rousseau’s, under the sign of amazing grace. Yet the exaltation of the senses does not secure the liberation of the body from its mortal coil, quite the opposite. Lyotard sees the rake’s progress as irreversible − »he has aged in vain, the young master, the brilliant seducer, old in matters of devotion« (15). The canker at the heart of the matter is »the sexual − for it is it − turns out to be of such stamina that, next to it, the small change of chance encounters of ecstasy, the parsimony of secret meetings with the Other count for nothing«. Again, as in the case of the sovereignty of feeling in the life of the flesh, the commentator’s attention is mediated by Rousseau’s example. Such a notion of grace − »flesh bestowed with grace fulfills its desire, in innocence« (12)—belongs to the world of Bildung, of sentimental education through personal development. This is the world of Rousseau’s Jean-Jacques, the school of experience through feeling.

If Rousseau can only confess his transgressions by suppressing Augustine’s exemplary abjection, a like motive might be said to be at work in Lyotard’s performance. Reverting to Augustine without taking on Rousseau directly involves circumventing the modern model of confessional discourse. But the intimations of mortality in Lyotard’s meditation on Augustine not only reflect Rousseau’s example, as I have been suggesting, they reflect on it. Consider the bearing of this observation on the perambulatory manner of Augustine’s discourse, as it would apply to Rousseau: »Is the confessing I innocent in all this? − Is there not a little pleasure afforded in deferring, in squandering, in diverting urgency into childish pursuits? The great wealth of style deployed in petitions and celebrations, the courtly figures of speech dispensed in abundance with the pretext of persuading a judge who has no need of persuasion (since he already knows all there is to know), the flowers of poetry sampled here and there, the falsely wise arguments aiming to give substance to a metaphysics that is, after all, nothing but a hazardous and allegoric one, what is more, that is lax in its interpretation − one is led to suspect that such decorous language, a language so full of pathos, is yielding to the pleasure of length, to its being drawn out, t the languor found in the very avowal of the sin of languor.« (29)

Augustine’s confessio is finally rhetorical, as the very name of it would confess. And so, more openly and from its inception, is Rousseau’s. His »confessing I« is engaged is a noisy display. The pleasure of castigating the course of life that brought him to the point of confession is evident in every turn of the screw on Jean-Jacques’s behavior. This is not a voice of outraged innocence, it is a voice of experience − witting, complaisant if not quite complacent. It is sorry for the injuries that Jean-Jacques has inflicted in his career, but it takes pleasure in the relation of them, and so does the audience that it presumes on. Behind the troubled reception lies fascination with the construction of such a voice.

As a literary device, the confessional voice represented a kind of breakthrough. Presuming on its engaging power, as the Ancient Mariner does with his Wedding Guest in tow, this voice speaks volubly of the terrors of the world of experience. It involved period English readers in owning up publicly to the naked, native dignity of the body, with notes of embarrassment but also of self-acceptance, as in De Quincey’s celebrated confessions of opium eating and cohabitation. At the same time its cultivation of the absolute, in the form of an impending Other before which self-reckoning would have to be performed, brought confessional discourse into the public sphere as an exercise in moral normalization. The Caleb Williams’s would have their day in the court of public opinion and not just in a court of law, with its attendant uses, customs, and habits of judgment. Wordsworth’s indirect confession of his youthful affair in France could be represented in his autobiographical poem to Coleridge in the guise of the tale of Julia and Vaudracour, with winks all around. The trace of Rousseau’s confessional discourse is everywhere and nowhere in the English literature of the period, effaced out of embarrassment with its proximate source yet perdurable as a means of taking private experience into publication on terms favorable to an emergent secular consensus about human nature.