Confessions of a man easily embarrassed by confessions

The phrase ''confessional journalism'' is heard less and less these days, and it must be confessed: Who's complaining? Not to worry. The well-battered capital ''I'' is not about to be retired from the keyboard of the typewriter or word-processor.

Certainly no Hollywood celebrity, wringing her sequins and sobbing into the spotlight, ''What have I done with my life?'' will be told by her publisher, ''Who cares?'' At least, not yet.

The third-person singular is going to take a while to come back in style after 10 or 15 years when a Me-writer could make a very good living from spilling the details of his or her searching-exploring-caring-sharing life.

Still, there are signs that the awful solemnity of Telling All has begun to strike a lot of readers - and even some writers - as a bore.

Charlie Haas has done his part to put a cap on the gusher with a nice little parody on the revelations of the self-that-wasn't-quite-there - in Mother Jones magazine.

Even better, Tolstoy's ''Confession'' has just be reissued by Norton, helping us all to understand what serious confessional writing is, and what it is not.

A digression on the literary history of confession may put Tolstoy, and the rest of us, in perspective.

If a reader goes back to the fourth century and Augustine, the confession is less a literary than a religious act. ''Accept the sacrifice of my confessions, '' Augustine wrote, as if he were submitting a burnt offering - as, in fact, he was.

Nowadays the Me-writers confess to what Augustine would have called their sins - and the bigger the better, according to the law of the bestseller. But the only burning is the scorching the confessor gives to former husbands or former wives or former friends.

A prologue may contain a hasty hint that what follows is meant as a cautionary tale. But this ancient moral reflex is soon abandoned for the juicy particulars.

A kind of naive pride defiantly glows through, as if personal confusion were a gutsy game at which an autobiographer competes to join similar books on a shelf labeled: ''More messed-up than thou.''

The sobering conclusion forced upon a reader by our elitist confessors of disarray is this: The more intently, the more exclusively one digs into one's self, the hollower that self seems to become.

Before returning to Tolstoy, a time-traveler among confessions ought to sample the French. Those aristocrats of frankness - the Duc de Saint-Simon is the favorite example - understood what they were doing. For them, confession was a terrible look in the mirror where the confessor saw folly and failure - mocking eyes staring back with elegant self-contempt.

In a new paperback from Seaver, ''Drawn and Quartered,'' the philosopher E.M. Cioran implies in his essay on ''The Addict of Memoirs'' that confession is an involuntary act of self-impose - an attack on the self by the self, willy-nilly.

We are, at last, back to Tolstoy.

Like Augustine, like Cioran, Tolstoy believed that confession, paradoxically, is an exercise recognizing that the ego can never be the center of life.

At the time he happened to write his ''Confession,'' Tolstoy had arrived at what would be known today as his mid-life crisis, the pretext for many a confession.

In 1884, Tolstoy had already seen through ''the superstition of progress,'' with its notion that sufficiently determined human beings could perfect the race. The author of ''War and Peace'' was rich and famous and steeped in the rewards of family life - and suddenly it all appeared pointless to him. ''Life is meaningless,'' he concluded - ''stupid . . . despairing . . . a joke.'' He asked himself at every turn: ''Why? What for?'' He had no answer; only his sense of mortality.

This Tolstoy, looking for God among the peasants and ending up 25 years later in a railroad station - a pilgrim to he-knew-not-where - is a bit of an embarrassment to the admirers of ''Anna Karenina.'' In his ''Confession'' there could be no polished symbolism, no adroit climax - only the raw, stammering event. Only the question; only the need.

An element of self-dramatization creeps into all confessions. Memoirists tend to admit to the more interesting faults. Who accuses himself excuses himself, the French say. Tolstoy was no exception.

Yet what a vast distance lies between his search and a latter day ego-trip! Tolstoy's ''Confession'' is what writers are driven to, not what they plunge into with gleeful self-indulgence.

It is odd that under one heading - confession - we have perhaps the best and the worst uses of literature.

Let's hope that at last we're learning to tell the difference between moral courage and the cheap thrills of phony candor.

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