- Male Confessions: Intimate Revelations and the Religious Imagination
This intriguing work blends the fields of life writing, religious studies, and critical men’s studies. A “confessiography” is “a sincere attempt of a male confessant to investigate himself in an introspective and retrospective mode” (10). Björn Krondorfer focuses on Augustine’s Confessions, a memoir by a Jewish ghetto policeman during World War II, a conversion narrative by an imprisoned Nazi leader, and personal writings by contemporary American gay theologians. He offers briefer discussions of works by Rousseau, Michel Leiris, the desert fathers, and several Jewish and Christian writers, as well as many personal reflections, usually of two or three paragraphs. These autobiographical interludes often describe how a text elicits shame, irritation, envy, or moral self-examination because of events in Krondorfer’s life.
Religion can both facilitate and obstruct intimate self-disclosure. The belief in God’s forgiveness can free a writer to reveal faults, and faith can provide the [End Page 860] serenity and confidence to expose vulnerabilities. On the other hand, religious rhetoric sometimes functions as a script that masks genuine self-disclosure. A written confession is both an intimate revelation of secrets and a public performance, and assessments of its sincerity, honesty, and authenticity are controversial matters of judgment. Krondorfer often sees religious commitments as playing a positive role in helping writers transcend their self-imprisonment and render themselves open to the judgment of God and other people, but he is attentive to possibilities for self-deception, evasiveness, and hypocrisy.
The lens of “critical men’s studies” offers an innovative perspective on these confessions. Without claiming that men are all alike, Krondorfer analyses how gender influences these writers, usually in ways they are not aware of. Men assume that their intimate lives are interesting to others, and they make pronouncements about the human condition that reflect their own privilege and position. The women in their lives disappear or are misrepresented. Male confessants’ bodies are “non-absent” in these texts—that is, neither fully present nor absent. Krondorfer presents male confessions as attempts to redefine masculine identity when it has been called into question. A gender-conscious interpretation allows readers to appreciate the liberating insights of authors trying to break out of restrictive ideals of manhood, at the same time that readers discern these texts’ limitations. Religion and gendered rhetoric are intertwined in seductive ways to manipulate the reader. Looking for alternatives to “hegemonic masculinity and heteronormativity,” Krondorfer gives sustained attention to texts by gay authors. The danger he worries most about is mistaking a male perspective as universal. It may be more difficult than Krondorfer realizes to disentangle the liberating potential of these confessions from their ideological investment in ideas about the human condition. The Christian tradition makes normative claims about the nature of sin and how humans should live in accord with God’s will. Can we retain the insights of these texts without accepting their claims about the way things really are and ought to be for human beings?
Krondorfer’s analyses of texts are nuanced and compelling. He throws surprising new light on Augustine, and introduces readers to little-known works that deserve attention. He discerns the texts’ literary conventions and formal features, yet he sees his task as a critic as partly a matter of assessment in terms of values that he must explain and justify. Confessional narratives are usually ambiguous: both revealing and concealing, acts of vulnerability as well as power, sometimes reckless and usually calculating, and expressing both narcissistic self-absorption and a search for intimacy with other people and God. Much is inevitably left out of any confession, and the motives for this kind of writing are complex and confusing to authors and readers alike. Every confession is incomplete, an awkward attempt to name a new self into [End Page 861] being in a struggle with the limitations imposed by time, language, and self-knowledge. Because it is so public, a written confession can rarely reach “the same degree of self-effacing...