Novel Ideas

Voyeurism and TMI


In an effort to populate Novel Ideas with new material after a fallow period, I’ve adapted the following remarks from a doctoral seminar that I took during the 2011 Fall quarter. Previous “Reason & Romanticism” entries use current films as a way of accessing historically distant literature and ideas, but I don’t want that to become schtick.

Going through the same popular medium over and over again can also be a problem because readers may infer that a validating mechanism is needed to make the material culturally relevant. We should approach older texts that are seemingly alien or obsolete on their own terms, and I don’t want to condescend by assuming an audience of hayseeds who can’t appreciate older texts without cheap incentives like the mythical ice cream prophesied after the great spiritual trial of a grocery store trip.

Okay, next on the list...medieval scholasticism in the works of...JIMMY WILL YOU PLEASE SHUT UP

The topic of this entry is confession, which also was the topic of my seminar. As I mentioned in my “Small Man Trapped in a Box” entry, Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” is one of the most widely read and referenced Romantic poems in popular culture today. It’s responsible for the metaphorical figure of the albatross (memorably invoked by Nathan Fillion in harem drag—à la Don Juan of Don Juan fame—during a scene in Serenity) and the perennially cited line “water, water everywhere, but not a drop to drink.”

I also mentioned that the “Rime” was regarded as one of Coleridge’s great failures during his lifetime, mostly because people thought that it didn’t make much sense. Regardless, the poem is basically a long confession by the ancient mariner of the title. It begins by telling us as much:

It is an ancient Mariner,
And he stoppeth one of three.
`By thy long grey beard and glittering eye,
Now wherefore stopp’st thou me?

The bridegroom’s doors are opened wide,
And I am next of kin;
The guests are met, the feast is set:
Mayst hear the merry din.’

He holds him with his skinny hand,
“There was a ship,” quoth he.
`Hold off! unhand me, grey-beard loon!’
Eftsoons his hand dropped he.

He holds him with his glittering eye –
The Wedding-Guest stood still,
And listens like a three years’ child:
The Mariner hath his will.

I mean, how would you react to a crazy hobo suddenly grabbing you and telling you his crazy hobo story? This might happen all the time, depending on what parts of town you have to walk through, but let’s assume that it typically didn’t happen at quaint British weddings in the 1790s.

The scene bears striking resemblance to grandpa cornering you with another one of his racist stories

What I wonder is what happens to this poor wedding guest’s so-called “friends.” They high-tail it like the rest of the people you were talking with at a party when that sloppy-drunk guy stumbled up, started slurring on about his screenplay and ex-girlfriend, and kept asking you about “Steve” even though you insisted that you don’t know who he’s talking about.

But I digress. The point is that the mariner forces his confession upon the wedding guest and doesn’t relinquish his vice-like hypnotism until the entire weird tale has been told, and the wedding guest “went like one that hath been stunned, / And is of sense forlorn: / A sadder and a wiser man / He rose the morrow morn.” This is Coleridge’s way of saying that the guest is pretty bummed out, not in the least because the bridesmaid he’d been eyeing went home with another groomsman.

Another Romantic poem, Robert Southey’s “The Sailor, Who Had Served In The Slave Trade,” also takes a confession as its primary subject matter. Southey appends an explanatory note to the poem:

In September, 1798, a Dissenting Minister of Bristol, discovered a Sailor in the neighbourhood of that City, groaning and praying in a hovel. The circumstance that occasioned his agony of mind is detailed in the annexed Ballad, without the slightest addition or alteration. By presenting it as a Poem the story is made more public, and such stories ought to be made as public as possible.

The wedding guest of the “Rime” has no choice but to hear the mariner, while the “He” in Southey’s “Sailor” seems driven by curiosity. In fact, the repentant sailor’s confession begins and continues only after the listener’s questions.

We might even divide the sailor’s confession into two distinct stages. After the initial question in line 21 the sailor delivers an abstract confession that dwells on the affect of guilt and the knowledge of forthcoming damnation. This isn’t enough for “the Stranger,” though. He wants specifics, the juicy details. He even uses a little of the art of persuasion on the sailor, promising that if the “crime” is explained “haply [he] may comfort give / to one that grieves for sin.” The sailor then launches into a second confession that is more recognizable as a narrative of specific events.

Once the tale has been told, the stranger is prompted to deliver on his end of the bargain:

O give me comfort if you can—
O tell me where to fly—
And bid me hope, if there be hope,
For one so lost as I.

However, I don’t know what to make of the stranger’s advice to “Put thou thy trust in heaven, / And call on him for whose dear sake / All sins shall be forgiven.” Isn’t this what the sailor has been doing already? How helpful—how consolatory—is this advice? Is the stranger simply saying, “well, keep doing what you’re doing, sport”? Or, even worse, is the stranger saying, “well, sucks to be you”? In the final stanza he urges the sailor to “seek the house of prayer,” which I would guess is the local church, but it still seems underwhelming as the comfort that the stranger promised.

What strikes me the most is the stranger’s voyeurism of the sailor’s private pain, coupled with Southey’s declaration that “such stories ought to be made as public as possible.” In “Scripted Subjectivity,” Suzanne Diamond reports the discomfort that confession can impart, otherwise known as TMI or “I didn’t want to know that about you.”

Coleridge’s wedding guest is clearly uncomfortable about the confession that has been forced upon him, but in Southey’s “Sailor,” the situation is reversed. The audience almost pries the confession from the confessant, and I’d like to imagine that he does so because he gets some sort of voyeuristic kick out of the whole thing, à la Ceiling Cat.

If you don't know the NSFW caption that goes with this, you've obviously never heard of the Internet

The discomfort of “The Sailor,” then, is that the poem implicates us as voyeurs of something that should be private, and we feel a little dirty as a result. Think about the current craze for procedural crime dramas on television—you know, any arrangement of letters and locations like CSI Miami, NCIS Los Angeles, Law & Order SVU, etc. I’m not linking to any of these because I don’t want to give their websites hits.

These shows parade testimonies of disposable characters as the recurring sleuths search for the truth of what really happened. These are more than testimonies, though. They’re confessions. And they are often horrible, yet we watch the show blankly, waiting for the next cookie-cutter figure (the muscle-clad thug with tattoos? the weasel-like young executive? the disillusioned, nihilistic ex-cop? the succubus divorcée?) to spill their guts.

He's Captain Kirk and Chuck Norris put in a blender and mixed with an extra shot of badass, with a garnish of sunglasses

We also have a craze for tell-all memoirs, but that’s a topic for another discussion. Suffice it to say that to overhear a confession is an odd, somewhat creepy position, and when confession went secular and literary during the Romantic period, this discomfort wasn’t lost on the writers who explored the situation. Now we’re shoulder-deep in everyone’s personal divulgences (Facebook, anyone?). Water, water everywhere, but not a drop to drink, unless you’re okay with drinking out of someone else’s glass, which looks more than a little gross.

—Trey Conatser