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  • "Eternal, Slithery Penance":Graham Swift's Waterland and the Secularization of Confession
  • Ryan Siemers (bio)

"Your history teacher wishes to give you the complete and final version," the narrator of Graham Swift's Waterland, Tom Crick, tells his high school students (7–8). Crick refers to his personal and family history, his account of which constitutes the novel. Crick's avowed aim echoes auricular confession, which requires the complete recounting of a penitent's sins before he or she receives absolution. Like a religious confessant, Crick seeks absolution for past sins: he feels guilty about the abortion of his would-be son, the death of his childhood friend Freddie Parr, and the suicide of his brother. Indeed, Crick reveals his guilt over these deaths to the police: "I confess my responsibility, jointly with my wife, for the death of three people" (314).1 However, because he speaks to his students, to the police, and (implicitly) to the reader rather than to a father confessor with the purpose and authority to offer him absolution, Crick's secular self-examination and self-narration threaten to be endless. In a desperate and improvisational response to that problem, Crick universalizes his condition over the course of his narrative to assuage his feelings of guilt and bring his secular confession to a close. Crick's narrative should be read in the context of—and as a response to the problems posed by—the secularization of confession.

As I use the term here, "secularization" stands not for an inevitable decline of religious affiliation due to modernization (a once-prominent thesis that has undergone revision in sociology), but for an interminable historical [End Page 56] process by which religious concepts and practices are translated or transposed into the secular sphere and by which they continue to function in that sphere, often with unexpected consequences.2 Carl Schmitt and Karl Löwith provide examples of secularization understood as transposition: Schmitt claims that "all significant concepts of the modern theory of the state are secularized theological concepts" (37), and Löwith argues that the modern notion of progress and the associated conception of linear history are due to the secularization of Christian eschatology. As I use it here, secularization encompasses the kind of transposition proposed by Schmitt and Löwith, along with the continuing and unpredictable dynamism of once-religious contents following that transposition. Max Weber's analysis may provide an example of the latter: for Weber, the transposition of rational acquisitiveness from Protestantism (wherein wealth provides evidence of election) to modern capitalism (wherein wealth is an end in itself) conditions the modern laborer and makes the current economic order possible—which, of course, is not at all what Martin Luther or John Calvin had in mind.

Waterland's Tom Crick demonstrates the transposition of religious contents into the secular sphere, but his narrative also suggests that Weber's rationalization may reverse itself, that disenchantment may prompt re-enchantment. Crick transposes auricular confession into the relationship between himself and his students, but he then appeals to an enchanted circular history as a means to escape the psychological impasse produced by that transposition. Crick critiques progress and prefers cyclical history. Like Löwith, who opts for circular history because it comports with the notion of historical continuity (207), Crick desires historical continuity—especially regarding sexual generation, which in his case has been stymied. (His wife, Mary, is unable to bear children following an abortion.) More importantly, Crick prefers a re-enchanted form of that history—re-enchanted not by a return to ancient Greek paganism, as Löwith ultimately proposes, but through an idiosyncratic mythology of Crick's own making—because it assuages his sense of guilt by relating his individual experience to a universal pattern. Waterland thus illuminates a psychological dimension of Löwith's preferred alternative to linear history: for a subject suffering from a guilty conscience, circular history transforms personal guilt into a universal condition that is less psychologically burdensome due to its impersonality. [End Page 57]

Before we examine Crick's narrative in more detail, however, we should address an important objection to the basic premise that secularization entails the transposition of religious concepts and practices...


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