- Two Confessions by María Zambrano and Rosa Chacel
Noël Valis and Carol Maier’s translation of Two Confessions into English introduces the works of two great women of Spanish letters to a wider public. Rosa Chacel (1898-1994) and María Zambrano (1904-1991) were part of Spain’s thriving intellectual and artistic vanguard of the 1920s, supported the Second Republic, and challenged the traditional Spanish gender roles of the time. The title of this volume might be misleading for the uninitiated; the translation consists of two independent essays: Zambrano’s La confesión: género literario y método [Confession: A literary genre and method], published in two parts in 1941 and 1943, and Chacel’s Confesión [Confession] from 1971, although written between 1964 and 1968. Valis provocatively opens the introduction by asking, “What is a confession if not an admission of failure?” and she approaches the text as such (p. 1). Written in exile, the texts abound with resonances of the Spanish Civil War and the trauma it entailed as well as despair at the failure of literature and politics alike. Both authors thus take confession as a starting point for an exploration of “human inadequacy, human incompleteness” (p. 2). Rather than providing the reader with autobiographical introspections, these authors offer up their literary and philosophical reflections on the topic of confession, even though Chacel declares that hers is not a work of “literary criticism” (p. 172).
Chacel and Zambrano knew each other well and associated with the same circles—both were influenced by José Ortega y Gasset—but a difference of opinion during the war and the ensuing long exile led to a loss of direct contact, which resumed only after many decades. Even though the essays were written independently, it is useful to see them in close dialogue with each other. Zambrano sees confession as a tool for achieving truth that is not opposed to life but rather imbued with it, thinking that is much in line with her famous concept of poetic reason. Zambrano rejects a focus purely on rational means of accessing truth—one that relies on reason alone rather than lived experience and revelation. Zambrano therefore examines confession as a central means of achieving truth and traces the development of confession chronologically, considering the biblical Job its earliest proponent before moving on to St. Augustine, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and the Surrealists. Zambrano also interprets the confessional method as an ethical tool: “Confession always begins with a flight from self. It comes out of desperation and rests, like every departure, on both hope and despair—despair over what is and hope that something one does not yet have might appear” (p. 24). [End Page 298]
No analysis of confession in Western culture could avoid touching on St. Augustine and Rousseau, who are also discussed by Chacel alongside Søren Kierkegaard, Miguel de Cervantes, Benito Pérez Galdós, and Miguel de Unamuno. Chacel takes as her premise Ortega y Gasset’s contention that Spanish literature is less given to the confessional tone (p. 66). Chacel’s emphasis on a psychological point of view with eros as love and the pleasure principle at its center leads to an original critique of the depiction of masculinity and paternity in the writings of the authors Chacel and Zambrano reference (p. 97). Chacel also refers to the understudied role of the serf woman as the sexual initiator of the sons of the middle and upper classes and how this is either brushed over in silence or misrepresented by male writers. She concludes that it is the glaring absences that point to that which is ultimately unconfessable. She holds that
man confesses when the enormous weight of which he wants to unburden himself is not an act that he’s committed, nor even a considerable number of acts, but a persistent conflict that led to all of them, a mystery that not even he himself understands and...