God and Self in the Confessional Novel

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John D. Sykes, Jr.
  • London, England: 
    Palgrave Macmillan
    , July
     2018.
     157 pages.
     $75.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9783319913216.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

What is the role of confession in an increasingly secular world? Can one completely and authentically confess their guilt if there is no God to confess to? Furthermore, and perhaps more importantly, if there is no God, who is there to provide absolution? In his book, God & Self in the Confessional Novel, John D. Sykes, Jr.challenges the notion of “secular confession” within the context of the modern novel (3). What Sykes attempts to do—and, I would argue, succeeds in doing—is to trace how confession functions within the modern novel, with Augustine’s Confessions and Rousseau’s Confessions as models. Ultimately, Sykes leads us to “the novel’s confessional limit,” where the confessing self and the atoning God converge in one character (115). As a project of theology and literature, Sykes explores theological notions of guilt and confession in literature in a way that makes his readers want to read, or return to, the four novels on which he relies. Yet, Sykes could have expanded upon the theo-ethical turns he begins to make, especially in the last two chapters.

Sykes builds his project on Augustine’s exemplar confessional autobiography, written in the 5th century, and Rousseau’s imitative Confessions fully situated in modernity. Sykes unpacks Augustine’s conviction that the self could not be trusted to give a true account of its guilt. Only in relationship to God, and in the presence of a Christian community, could true confession—both confessio laudis (praise) and confessio peccatorum (admission of sin)take place for Augustine. Sykes calls this the triadic self, a self only known through God and community. By contrast, the modern Rousseau saw the self as fully knowable apart from God and community, therefore “becoming its own healer and the object of its own praise”—the monadic self (26). Sykes draws his attention to confessant first-person narrators as they reflect something of the monadic or triadic self.

Sykes is careful in his choice of novels, spending several pages of his introduction justifying why he chose these four novels—Johann Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther, Fyoder Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground, Walker Percy’s Lancelot, and Ian McEwan’s Atonement. Ultimately, these books work well for Sykes, each revealing a more complex understanding of the self as confessant; though all harken back to the models set by Augustine and Rousseau. For example, Werther, in Goethe’s epistolary novel, practices a kind of confessio laudis—not to God but to the sublime of nature—and a confessio peccatorum to an internalized God who cannot bring absolution. Sykes writes, “[a] God who cannot be separated from the self is easily made into an idol unworthy of praise and powerless to heal” (58-59). While solipsism is revealed as the “major flaw” in Goethe’s work, Dostoyevsky challenges the vision of Rousseau’s monadic self through dialogical confession (61). In chapter 5, Percy attempts a triadic self, though not as near to Augustine’s vision as the name implies.

In chapter 6, Sykes turns to the ethics of literature in McEwan’s Atonement. He wonders with narrator Briony, “[h]ow can a novelist [or narrator] achieve atonement when, with her absolute power of deciding outcomes, she is also God?” (Atonement, Anchor Books, [2001] 2003, 350). Sykes explores how, for both Briony and the reader, “[l]iterary art fills, at least partially, the space left by God” (117). This statement itself leaves much for Sykes’s readers to contemplate, as the reader’s relationship to the novel reflects that of a priest to the narrator’s confessant. 

Small steps toward the ethical, beyond the inner workings of the novel, are given in the concluding chapter. Sykes explores the communal dimension of confession beyond the novel, especially within the sacrament of the Eucharist. But rather than providing his readers moral practices for confession in our secular or post-secular world, he returns to examples of contemporary modes of confession within Christian communities. Here Sykes looks to film. A departure from the thrust of his work, Sykes attends to John Michael McDonagh’s 2014 film Calvary, suggesting there is more to tease out of this project beyond the four modern novels.

Sykes’s God & Self in the Confessional Novel is a useful resource for those interested in the religious dimensions of the modern confessional novel or who have an interest in the lasting legacy of Augustine’s or Rousseau’s Confessions. Even with the missed opportunities of exploring the ethical implications of confession beyond the novel, this book gives scholars and students of theology and literature much to ponder.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Lauren D. Sawyer is a doctoral student in Christian Social Ethics at Drew Theological School in Madison, NJ.

Date of Review: 
January 5, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

John D. Sykes, Jr. is the Mary and Harry Brown Professor of English and Religion at Wingate University.  He is the author of Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy, and the Aesthetic of Revelation (2007) and has published widely in the field of theology and literature.

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