- “A Church of Himself”:Liberal Skepticism and Consistent Character in Bishop Blougram's Apology
What or who is it that is "out," made manifest and fully disclosed, when and if I reveal myself as lesbian? What is it that is now known, anything? What remains permanently concealed by the very linguistic act that offers up the promise of a transparent revelation of sexuality?———Judith Butler, "Imitation and Gender Insubordination"
It is thus a misleading common sense that finds the necessity of secrecy in the "special" nature of the contents concealed, when all that revelation usually reveals is a widely diffused cultural prescription, a cliché.———D. A. Miller, The Novel and the Police
When a prominent theorist of gender and sexuality is asked about her sexual orientation, she responds that she likes to have sex with people of both genders and then asks in turn, "Now that you know that, what do you think you know about me?" The response provides information and takes away knowledge—it answers the question, but questions in turn the means by which we presume to know our contemporaries. Such a troubling response is, I think, similar to Robert Browning's dramatic monologue Bishop Blougram's Apology in the mid-nineteenth-century furor over Catholicism. The Bishop volunteers clear explanations for his behavior, the thoroughness of which calls into question what the reader thinks is necessary and sufficient for knowing character. Now that we know that Blougram can justify his choice of profession wholly in terms of rational self-interest, what do we know about his moral character?
The clarity and consistency of Blougram's thorough justification paradoxically creates a deeply unknowable self, whose obscurity continually attracts [End Page 29] more scrutiny. The mystery of religious persuasion in the nineteenth century (like the mystery of sexual orientation in the twentieth) is what we want to know about the inner life of a public figure; what we think we can know through verbal testimony; but what, in the process of going public, shapes itself into the conventional form needed to register its authenticity. Gay or straight? Protestant or Catholic? The poverty of choices necessarily flattens the rich experience that constitutes sexual desire or religious conviction.
Sexual orientation and religious persuasion may create different kinds of "identity," but both authorize public movements and organizations through evidence about the most intimate, inchoate feelings and desires. These identities yoke the fate of the subject to that of the social institution: discrediting an institution debases its members, while a prominent member's disgrace similarly troubles an institution's authority. Nothing reveals this sensitive association between public and private, institution and individual, more clearly than the Catholic Church. And in the mid-century debate surrounding Catholicism and Anglo-Catholicism, liberal critics attacked institutionalized religion through the characters of its prominent advocates.
The allusions within Bishop Blougram's Apology mark Cardinal Nicholas Wiseman, head of the Catholic Church after the Establishment, as Browning's model for the poem's speaker.1 Wiseman became notorious in 1850, during the controversy surrounding "papal aggression," five years before the poem was published. Since, however, the monologue is so insistently shaped to meet the liberal skeptic Gigadibs, Blougram's silent auditor, the speaker might be almost any proponent of institutionalized religion. One scholar, C. R. Tracy, has argued that Bishop Blougram's Apology echoes John Henry Newman's Apologia Pro Vita Sua and that its speaker resembles Newman. While the date of Newman's Apologia, 1864, presents difficulties for Tracy's argument, I believe that the similarity he identifies is real and can be traced to the poem's orientation. Newman and Wiseman were both attacked by Broad Church and liberal skeptics and Browning's interest, as I will argue below, lay not so much in the particular Cardinal, but rather in their common enemies. The first section of this essay considers contemporary responses to mid-century proponents of institutionalized religion, like the fictional Bishop Blougram; the second section shows how those responses are anticipated and disabled by Browning's poem. The poem, like Judith Butler's theoretical work, reflects on the process of reading character and (unlike Butler) its pleasures. Finally, a reception...