ClassWrap 5: February 12


This week we moved from what Smith and Watson described as the exploratory or migratory subject in Cabeza de Vaca’s Narrative to a distinct version of what they called the dissenting self: the Puritans of early America.  These subjects dissented from the increasingly intolerant and ceremonial (read Catholic-leaning) tendencies of the Church of England.  But in a broader sense, they also dissented from a broader humanistic sanctity afforded to the self.  In the various genres of Puritan spiritual autobiography–our primary focus this week–the self sought to extinguish itself in the higher presence of the divine.  The mode of self-extinguishing they pursued, which was informed by Calvinist reformed theology, paradoxically involved intense self-examination and self-questioning.  In order to eliminate the self, one must scour the self for signs of sinful attachment, signs of fallenness–and, more importantly, signs if divine Grace.  This all seemed rather odd at first, but I think running through a simplified version of Calvinist theology with the help of the famous TULIP acronym–Total Depravity, Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, Irresistible Grace, Perseverance of the Saints–helped greatly. A brief run-down:

The Calvinist doctrine of total depravity led to a corollary counterpart in unconditional election.  If one is so utterly fallen that she cannot freely choose God, she can only be chosen.  And because of the doctrine of limited atonement–which states that Christ did not die for us all, but only for the “elect”–that chosenness is far from guaranteed.  This left Puritans constantly interpreting their memories and experiences for signs of election, for signs of God’s Grace.

Despite its distance from our contemporary worldview, there is something oddly endearing about this kind of autobiographical subject. In class, I recalled how we had struggled to come to terms with Cabeza de Vaca’s authenticity during the previous week, though I wasn’t entirely clear why that was.  I drew a quadrant on the board representing the different vectors of the autobiographical self: the narrated I, the narrating I, the ideological I and the historical I.  After I asked how one might begin using this model to discuss precisely why Cabeza de Vaca seemed so inauthentic, Katie made the excellent point that it seems like the narrating “I” was too controlling in such a way that the distance between the narrating “I” and the narrated “I” seemed kind of flat and collapsed.  With the Puritan self, however, the distance between the two “I”s seemed much more dynamic.  The narrating “I” was extremely unstable, always close to stepping into sin and always in need of reinvention through God’s grace.  In that sense, the narrated and narrating “I”s were constantly evolving, constantly revising and self-questioning.  Thinking through this difference, we discovered what we might call a grounding paradox of autobiographical truth: that it is perhaps precisely when an autobiographical self seems open to revision and change and self-questioning that they become most believable, most “authentic.” We write ourselves into the world most forcefully when our self-authorship comes into question not from the outside, but from within. Looking ahead to Franklin, this perhaps the power of qualification and equivocation that he learned was such a powerful persuasive tool.

If this sense of autobiographical truth drew us to the Puritans, the utter inflexibility of the cultural scripts which governed their various ideological “I”s felt more suffocating.  In our readings for both this past week and the next, it will help to keep one version of this scripts in mind (borrowed from here).  The typical confession/conversion narrative included the following:

  1. Agitations of the soul lead to the sinner’s deep sense of humiliation at his condition.
  2. The stricken sinner attempts to redress the wrongs he has done through “legal obedience” to the covenant of works. He turns to good works as a remedy, but this effort fails and he is brought to deeper despair.
  3. The sinner experiences abject despair and misery. He sees all his efforts as vain and  inconsequential before a perfect God.
  4. At the most abject moment of despair, the soul begins to understand God’s grace and is elevated to an appreciation of it.
  5. Gratitude causes the sinner to live a life of obedience and thanksgiving, although human nature and pride may cause the sinner to backslide and to rely on his own will and works once again.  Because of this temptation,  individuals must continually monitor their spiritual state and repeat the process of conversion if necessary.

This process was worked out variously in the many versions of Puritan spiritual autobiography that we read this week, from private diaries (Wigglesworth), to private poems (Taylor), to semi-private journals (Shepard), to more official autobiographical reflections (see, again, Shepard).

Crucially, in each reading from this week, something complicated this strict script, insinuating itself within an otherwise static autobiographical self:  in Wigglesworth it was pure desire; in Taylor it was an ornate poetic style and love of poetic conceit that contradicted Puritan plane style; in Shepard’s autobiography it is was a deep emotional residue that persists after the death of his beloved second wife; in Edwards it was a startling natural pantheism and almost mystically “sweet” connection with the divine that seemed everywhere to contradict his protestations that he was indeed a most fallen and depraved sinner.  I’m leaving  out an enormous amount of detail here, of course–I hope each of you can fill that in for yourself in relation to those texts that you feel most drawn to.  And perhaps those commenting this week can lend a hand!

Looking Ahead and Blogging:

Next week, we will continue with the Puritan self, but we will introduce the important complication of gender.  Women in Puritan society were under a kind of doubly binding cultural script.  In addition to the extreme constraints placed on the autobiographical self in Puritan society more generally,  women also bore the weight of a more worldly subjection to the male-dominated world of Puritan society.  Just as the male authors we read seemed to break through certain constraints of the Puritan self, we will see how women both suffered under and struggled to articulate a sense of self despite–and even in bold dismissal of–these severe constraints.

Near the end of the week, we will move beyond Puritanism and its revival in Edwards to the persistence of the confessional mode as we read what were in their time wildly popular criminal confessions. We will also look at the work of Phillis Wheatley who, as both a woman and former slave, deploys a powerful and insinuating sense of self constrained by the intersection of multiple cultural scripts including religion, race and gender.

As for the blog, I want to restore the options from last week (and you might also remember that creative options are cumulative–that is, you can author a creative post in response to any of the prior creative prompts).  Of course, things are not entirely the same: you will have more confessional/conversion models to reflect upon, such as the Shepard congregation confessions and the captivity narrative.  As you decide which option to pursue this week, remember to try and maintain some balance between your creative and critical responses.

Creative Option 1: Perhaps the most persistent trope of Puritan autobiography involves conversion and confession, which marks the journey of the soul from darkness to light, from sin to grace.  Thinking beyond the more limited religious context of confession and conversion that we see in Puritan spiritual writing, we begin to see how this narrative might take on numerous secular form ranging from the mundane (remembrance of a childhood transgression and one’s suffering through punishment to achieve parental grace) to the momentous (fundamentally altering your worldview via a process not unlike religious conversation).  Your creative blog option for this week is to compose a brief confession–earnest or facetious, religious or secular.  Any fans of the contemporary confessional lyric?  Poems are fair game!

Creative Option 2: Puritans were constantly “reading” their lives for signs that they were saved, that they were among the “elect” (those limited few predestined by God for salvation and Grace).   Thus, every event in their lives held potentially profound meaning for the state of their eternal soul.  Again, as earnestly or facetiously you want, interpret a life event and try do decipher its broader significance in your life and or your afterlives.

Critical Option: Turning once again to the “Tool Kit” and the more detailed explanation of key concepts in Smith and Watson’s Reading Autobiography (namely, their chapters on “Autobiographical Acts” and “Autobiographical Subjects”) discuss in detail how one concepts helps us understand early American spiritual autobiography. Remember to adequately define or frame that concept with reference to RA, and make sure you quote liberally from our reading for this week as well.

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