Confessional Writing: A Mini-Primer

Confessional Comics: Part 2 of 4

Widespread recognition for the graphic memoir first occurred with the publication of Maus I: A Survivor’s Tale. Maus I took centre stage on the front page of the New York Times Sunday Book Review, and was also awarded a Pulitzer Prize Letters Award in 1991. Largely due to the success of Maus, confessional comics now loom large in the public imagination.

In broad brushstrokes, the roots of western confessional writing are most often attributed to the respective Confessions of St. Augustine (397-398 CE) and Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1781). In the Introduction to Modern Confessional Writing (Routledge, 2006), Jo Gill describes the historical and literary significance of Augustine’s work. St. Augustine’s tripartite confession begins with an inventory of his past sins; he then concedes that temptations to the spirit continue to plague his conscience, and finally declares his unwavering faith in God, acknowledging God’s splendour and magnificence. The passage through these stages is one early example of a confessor-persona engaging in active dialogue with a separate and distinct other.

St. Augustine by Rubens (1636-1638)

Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Confessions is described by Gill as possessing a doubleness in which evasiveness and self-delusion are present in the authorial voice, a quality that is also seen in many recent confessional works (5).

Jean-Jacques Rousseau

In the Protestant tradition, emphasis was placed on the faithful practicing introspection to maintain an accurate sense of their relationship (or the absence thereof) with God. It is out of this exploration of the spiritual practitioner’s inner life that the roots of the novel are said to have emerged. The birth of the novel is often attributed to the works of Daniel Defoe and other authors of the day, whom Gill, citing Lawrence Stone, suggests led to the emergence of “secular individualism” and the rise of a “literature of self-exploration” (1990: 155, 154).

Gill also cites J. Bossy’s Christianity in the West 1400-1700 (Oxford University Press, 1985), which identifies the fourth Lateral Council (1215 AD) of the Christian Church as the first instance where confession was mandated by religious authorities. Church followers were to practice “prescribed annual confession and penance for the faithful, making it a condition for admission to Easter communion (5).”

The Roman Church instigated confession as one of the seven sacraments during the Council of Trent (1545-1563), and considered it of “divine origin and necessary for one’s spiritual salvation.” The trajectory of these events shows us that Binky Brown’s neurosis is not just his own, but contains the traces of a profound historical imprint branded into the hearts and minds of faithful subjects for hundreds of years.

In Michel Foucault’s The History of Sexuality. Volume One: An Introduction (Penguin, 1981, pp. 61-62), confession is defined thus:

The confession is a ritual of discourse in which the speaking subject is also the subject of the statement; it is also a ritual that unfolds within a power relationship, for one does not confess without the presence (or virtual presence) of a partner who is not simply the interlocuter but the authority who requires the confession, prescribes and appreciates it, and intervenes in order to judge, punish, forgive, console, and reconcile (quoted in Gill, 2006, p. 4).

In a substitutive act, the reader of “Binky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary” assumes the role of judge and jury and is witness to Binky’s confession. Who is Binky? Arguably Green’s protagonist is little more than a thinly veiled alter ego. Nowhere has Green suggested that Binky Brown is in any way differentiated from himself—perhaps the name change was psychologically necessary to create distance between the author and the subject matter being divulged. In Sophie Aline Kominksy Crumb’s Need More Love: A Graphic Memoir—a compilation of forty years’ worth of the artist’s work, boasting the moniker of the first woman’s autobiographical comic strip—our heroine is affectionately addressed as “The Bunch,” possibly for similar reasons.

What is the attraction of the confessional work? Elizabeth Gregory (2006) suggests that the allure of the literature may be that the construction of the self is made transparently obvious in confessional prose. There is reassurance for the reader in the fact that the self is an impermanent fixture, a constantly evolving process, since it promises the possibility of change. Conversely, we are perhaps attracted to the narrative voice in confessional works because the authors’ stories resemble those that we tell ourselves.

Fast forward to the 21st century. Enter the “graphic novel.” Whereas past confessional genres have been limited to textual representation, the graphic memoir is a dance between word and image. The language of comics, the sequential narrative, forces the reader to actively engage in the meaning-making process. Words may describe one series of events, while the images accompanying those words tell another story. Images may bring life to memories not only as they are told, but as they are seen in the mind’s eye. The problems associated with confessional narration will not disappear—however, graphic literature has introduced new terrain within which those problems, may thrive.

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