Transformations of Confession: Secularism, Slavery, Sexuality

The confession is a paradoxical speech act. Confessors are supposed to reveal the inmost secrets of themselves, but at the same time they are known to be performing, according to an established script, for an audience endowed with the capacity to judge and punish them. This seminar takes up the genre of the public confession. We sketch its genealogy from ancient religious styles of truth-telling (The Confessions of St. Augustine) to modern forms of evidence in criminal justice (The Confessions of Nat Turner) while giving special attention to its literary adaptations (The Confessions of an English Opium-Eater). We then explore the transformation of the confession during the nineteenth century under the pressures of secularization, the slavery crisis, and the emerging science of sexuality. Readings may include works by Augustine, Rousseau, De Quincey, Hogg, Poe, Jacobs, Douglass, Plath, Lorde, and Nabokov. Critical and theoretical sources include Nietzsche, Freud, Foucault, Butler, Brooks, Hartman, and Felski. We pursue some of the themes introduced during the annual conference of the English Institute at Yale in 2018, on the theme of “truth-telling.”

Graduate Course #: 
T 9:25am-11:15am