- The Art of Confession: The Performance of Self from Robert Lowell to Reality TV by Christopher Grobe
New York UP, 2017, 320 pp. ISBN 978-1479882083, $30.
I read Christopher Grobe's The Art of the Confession last summer against the backdrop of the binge-worthy and Emmy Award-winning series, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, about a Jewish divorcée who forges a new identity for herself through stand-up comedy, and a widely reported speech by Attorney General Jeff Sessions in which he railed against "sanctimonious, sensitive, supercilious snowflakes" on college campuses. Grobe, whose examination of performative confession begins mid-century with the poetry of Robert Lowell and Anne Sexton and ends with a coda on student protests against microaggressions at Amherst College, would no doubt appreciate the frisson of my reading experience. The arc of his study from 1950s poetry readings through 1970s feminist performance art and 1980s monologues to MTV's millennium-crossing "Real World" might strike some readers as odd or disjointed, given the diversity of genres. However, the throughline of argument is quite strong, as it traces what he claims in the preface is "a shared belief" uniting these varied subjects: "that private selves can be captured through public performance—and that capturing them this way matters" (vii). What follows is a cogent and often entertaining demonstration of what the confessional self looks like as it unfolds over his subjects' cross-media careers during decades rife with cultural and political significance.
For Grobe, confession as an American art form breaks into and through a postwar "psycho-pop" zeitgeist of framed selves in standup comedy, Beat poetry, and unreliably narrated sexual predilections in Lolita to a more authentic, performative, and iterative self. Situated in theoretical discourse with José Muñoz and Peggy Phelan, Grobe's roughly historical contribution to the study of performative identity posits that "[c]onfessionalism . . . amounts to a living critique of autobiography" (23), which becomes an authentic self publicly unspooled over time. And it is in Robert Lowell's Life Studies (1959) and Anne Sexton's To Bedlam and Part Way Back (1960) and All My Pretty Ones (1962) that Grobe first finds this authenticity, but not in the texts alone. Rather, it is in the "interplay of text, voice, and body," in the ephemeral "breath of a poem" (61) heard in the Caedmon recordings each made, as well as in their writings about their performances at public readings, that the self is spoken into lived experience. Much as contemporaneous theatrical approaches (Stanislavsky and Happenings) and considerations of the presentation of the self (Goffman 1956) fostered a cultural understanding of the interplay between performance and experience, Grobe argues that Lowell's and Sexton's confessional poems functioned as "performative rituals of identity-formation" (77) immediately onstage for themselves and their audiences.
This emphasis on the present and presence of the confessional self-in-the-making becomes by the 1970s imbricated with the consciousness-raising (CR) [End Page 407] movement of second-wave feminism. In his rich and close readings of Linda Montano's and Eleanor Antin's autobiographical bodies of work (or at least as much as has been documented), Grobe encourages us to see how each ritualizes the performance of consciousness-raising and the performance of the female gendered body to unmask the more stultifying aspects of CR as it came to define and delimit feminist politics. Nowhere is this deconstructionist tendency of their performances more apparent than in drag, which he posits is not simply the campy counterweight to the sincerity of confession but, citing Quentin Crisp and Philip Core, a queer styling of a "Core self [as] a fundamental truth that reveals itself only in ephemeral ways" (108). For performance artists like Montano and Antin, self-documenting their camp autobiographical confessions of self is a means of making the self conscious of itself, of becoming "hypermediate, visible only at times (and in parts) as it flashes across a complex media array" (117) that can only be read by audiences in its canonical aggregate.
Another sort of reading is the...