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Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

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Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

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Sunday, January 07, 2007

Putting the “Literary” in “Secularism” (and a little on James Wood)

Posted by Amardeep Singh on 01/07/07 at 04:36 PM

So – my book is for sale in cloth in the UK. I’ve created an informational mini-blog about it here, and also posted the text of Chapter One, on which I would be happy to answer questions if any readers have the time or inclination. 

* * *
Getting my dissertation to book form was a tortuously difficult process. I had been given some suggestions from my committee at the time of my defense, but in various ways it seemed impossible to follow their advice for one reason or another. It didn’t help that my topic was secularism in modern fiction, an unconventional subject where there aren’t really many preexisting critical templates.

There has been a great deal of interesting social theory on the topic of secularism in particular published in recent years – Talal Asad, Jose Casanova, William Connelly, Charles Taylor, Bruce Robbins, Edward Said, and Gauri Viswanathan have all had interesting things to say about secularism and secularization in their work.  But even people who teach literature (Said, Viswanathan, Robbins), when they address secularism, are addressing a broader concept of secularity – one that is oriented more to the idea of the intellectual in society than it is to literary form. Said’s famous idea of “secular criticism,” for instance, is an ethic of critical detachment, not in itself a critique of religious orthodoxies or institutions per se (that critique is left as presumed—too obvious to bother with, perhaps).

My dissertation consisted series of thematic readings and historical contexts I had worked hard on, but the conceptual rubric that tied those readings together had always seemed weak. I had never been able to satisfactorily answer a basic, and therefore glaring, question: why secularism in literature? What is it about the idea of literature (and the novel in particular) that makes it a unique space in which to chart the transition from an experience of the world shaped by religious belief to one in which human-derived concepts are central? The question of the role of literary form was the most urgent one I had to address as I reworked the dissertation, and for several years I was effectively stalled.

Then, sometime in the summer of 2004, I came across James Wood’s book The Broken Estate: Essays on Literature and Belief, and while the various essays in the book weren’t historically grounded enough to offer a comprehensive answer (most of the essays were initially published as book reviews), Wood gave me the conceptual jump-start I needed to reframe the project and identify a course that would lead to a more finished text. 

One key passage for me was the following:

Nevertheless, the reality of fiction must also draw its power from the reality of the world. The real, in fiction, is always a matter of belief, and is therefore a kind of discretionary magic: it is a magic whose existence it is up to us, as readers, to validate and confirm. It is for this reason that many readers dislike actual magic or fantasy in novels. . . . Fiction demands belief from us, and that is demanding partly because we can choose not to believe. However, magic – improbably occurrences, ghosts, coincidences—dismantles belief, forcing on us miracles which, because they are beyond belief, we cannot choose not to believe. This is why almost all fiction is not magical, and why the great writers of magical tales are so densely realistic.

(As a quick aside, that last assertion seems quite arguable if not wrong, but it’s in keeping with Wood’s strong dislike for magic realism. He goes after Toni Morrison, but remains silent on Salman Rushdie.) To continue:

The gentle request to believe is what makes fiction so moving. Joyce requests that we believe that Mick Lacy could sing the tune better than Stephen’s father. Joseph Roth requests that we believe him when he remarks that Onufrij was a real person, not the character in a bad book. It is a belief that is requested, that we can refuse at any time, that is under our constant surveillance. This is surely the true secularism of fiction—why, despite its being a kind of magic, it is actually the enemy of superstition, the slayer of religions, the scrutineer of falsity. Fiction moves in the shadow of doubt, knows itself to be a true lie, knows that at any moment it might fail to make its case. Belief in fiction is always belief “as if.” Our belief is itself metaphorical—it only resembles actual belief, and is therefore never wholly belief. (xi-xii)

The directness of Wood’s claim makes it quite helpful, even if upon close inspection much of what he says turns out to be arguable. 

The claim that modern fiction is the “enemy of superstition, the slayer of religions, the scrutineer of falsity” sounds grand, but does it hold up? Even if we discount avowedly religious novelists (like C.S. Lewis), and crypto-religious writers (like Lewis’s friend, J.R.R. Tolkien), there are still many works of serious literature written in the realist mode that leave the reader in a state of ambiguity about the value of religion and spirituality, and some that actively argue the positive value of the religious life (an example of the latter kind of novel might be Iris Murdoch’s The Bell). Still, it remains surprisingly consistent that the kinds of people who take up careers as novelists, producing “literary” fiction oriented to adults, tend to be highly secular in outlook. It could be a simple matter of cultural expectations about writing as a vocation, or it could be that the novel itself – both as a cultural-historical artifact and as a form (with a given array of internal properties and structural limitations) is normatively secular, as Wood says.

The more directly applicable claim here is more exclusively formal: the status of the reader’s belief in the world of a realistic novel has a certain innate refusability. It is helpful, specifically, as a way of seeing the interaction between the text and the reader. The novelist is in control of the world she or he has created in the text, but not absolutely, and the limitations there are extremely important. (Rushdie comments on this a number of times via meta-narrative asides in The Satanic Verses, and the novelist’s struggle with control is a commonplace in other postmodernist metafiction.) It might also be that the ubiquity of doubt and the prerogative of refusal is in some sense infectious: because the reader need not believe, it might be that characters within a novel can’t sustain absolute beliefs (religious or ideological) either. Even Daniel Deronda, a novel about the discovery of a belief-system, doesn’t consider religious belief a viable end in itself; rather, Daniel Deronda’s goal, after he discovers his Jewish lineage and commits himself to publicly identify himself as a Jew, is to go out and build a nation for the Jews.

I want to be clear that I’m not trying to argue that the novel by itself produces a culture of secularization. That would be another variation of what Amanda Anderson calls “aggrandized agency.” In fact, it seems better to suggest that the novel’s secularity is a rough correlative to the general rise of secularism as a legible concept within a given society (the concept need not necessarily be universally embraced to be legible). Some postcolonial critics have actually argued that the concept of “secularism” can’t really be applied to societies outside of Europe and North America because of its Christian/Protestant provenance, but the presence of a body of fiction in which secularism is hotly contested can help to refute those arguments. Insofar as Rabindranath Tagore’s novels are mimetic of a certain secularized cultural milieu in Bengali society in the early 20th century, they show that society translating, adapting, and assimilating the “foreign” concept of secularism. It’s an available discourse in Indian society, though far from a hegemonic one, in Tagore’s time or even today.

One other thing: Wood’s strong statements on the “true secularism of fiction” are belied in many ways by his own novel, The Book Against God, which is very much structured as a dysfunctional atheist’s painful discovery that he actually believes in God. It’s not quite that simple, of course, but the point is that the ambiguities of Wood’s own fiction seem to cloud the directness of his central argument in The Broken Estate. And such ambiguities are widely seen, even in the novels of publicly committed atheists like Joyce and Rushdie. The discourse of theology continues to have a powerful pull for their main characters; Stephen Dedalus’s rejection of the Priesthood is so intense that the “vocation” seems to define him even as he rejects it.

In the end, the “-ism” in my title (Literary Secularism) is still probably a bit misleading. There is a secular ethic in modern literature, but it’s not quite as strong or forthright as an –ism would suggest. A fundamental quality of the literary in the modern era is ambiguity, and literature that thematizes the struggle for secularization is no different. So “literary secularism” is perhaps better understood as indicating my exploration of a historical phenomenon via close reading rather than as the advocacy of a polemically “secularist” mode of reading. 


Comments

In the end, the “-ism” in my title (Literary Secularism) is still probably a bit misleading.

Secularism defines itself in relation to religion. Following your observation, certainly that’s what Joyce was doing, insofar as he wasn’t abandoning priesthood but rather constructing an alternate one. It’s rather late by this point, but perhaps we can coin another category:* “secularity,” which I might define as a standpoint that’s utterly indifferent to theism and magical thinking more generally. Secularity just doesn’t give a damn, and would find religion, if it tried to intrude, an embarrassment, gauche. An indifference that can’t even be bothered with contempt, something, say, akin to how I feel about Ptolomaic astronomy or, uh, Christian hiphop, can hardly be called an “-ism.” I would think such a stance would be the final goal of secularist writers. It’s certainly where I want things to end up.

* Assuming I’m actually coining something here. This is pretty much the first time I’ve given any of this any thought.

By on 01/07/07 at 09:47 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Karl, thanks for your comment.

I’m happy with the word secularity to describe a writer’s outlook (and in fact, I use that term fairly often in the book, though it didn’t quite sound right in the title).

One fairly common way to use the word “secular” that’s similar to what you’re describing is as a synonym for “worldly”—as in, broad-minded, of the world, plugged in. It doesn’t have to be contemptuous of religion, but I do think it’s possible to be secular in sort of an ontological way.

In my book I’m interested in the more dialectical use of the term—where secular is defined by its relationship (not quite opposition) to religion or religiosity. And the writers I work with are all people who are still in some sense writing in the shadow of religious orthodoxy.

Out of curiosity—aren’t you a midievalist? I often wonder whether people are talking about some of these issues in the late medieval period—where there certainly wasn’t anything like our modern idea of secularism, but still a sense of “high” and “low” writing, where “low” could mean heterodox or simply folksy… But it’s well outside my period, so I’m not really sure how it’s being talked about.

By Amardeep Singh on 01/07/07 at 10:29 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Thanks for your comment. It clears things up.

It’s funny about me being a medievalist (I am), because when I said “this is pretty much the first time I’ve given any of this any thought,” I thought: damn, I should know something about this. A medievalist should have something to say about the divide between secular and religious literature! I’ll fake it for a bit. First off, there’s the question of whether there is one. Well, sure, it’s hard to think of, say, the twelfth-century (?) ‘Lament of the Roast Swan’ (a swan wishes it had ended some other way) as engaging with religion at all. Then there’s the question of how you draw the lines. When frankly sexual--or at least ludicrous--sculpture appears in the architecture of church buildings, it’s hard to know what the line is between sacred and secular, and I’m disinclined, as I think any medievalist is now, to say that it all teaches charity.

However, I don’t think the divisions line up as low v. high, folksy v. erudite, or even hetero- v. orthodox (since that interest in doxa, of whatever sort, is still a battle over different ways of being religious). On folksiness, for instance, I think of something like the Book of Margery Kempe, where, during one of Jesus’s appearances to Margery, he warns her that when she gives herself over to her devotion, “Thow schalt ben etyn and knawyn of the pepul of the world as any raton knawyth the stokfysch” (you shall be eaten and gnawed by the people of the world [i.e., worldly people] as any rat gnaws on dried fish). Pretty, in fact, notoriously folksy (and I should say that some of these so-called “worldly” gnawing people are folksy orthodox types convinced she’s a heretic, and others are church prelates). Yet the Book engages in a very sophisticated deployment of hagiographic narremes to bolster the reputation of its star, Margery. And given the folksiness of Jesus in the Synoptic Gospels, strikes me that Margery’s imagined dialog for Jesus is pretty apt. Confounds high v. low in relation to religiosity or indeed in relation to anything!

So, having muddled it all, I don’t know how I would line things up! If I weren’t procrastinating on a job talk (!) I’d track something down. Would that there were another medievalist in the room. Is there another? For now, I’ll admit the possibility of secularity in medieval literature by people with a Christian cultural background (’Roast Swan,’ above, for example), but not secularism.

By on 01/07/07 at 11:37 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Amardeep,

Interesting questions.

From the perspective of the early modern/long eighteenth century specialist, your question might be treated less psychologistically (i.e., matters of individual belief or non-belief) and more institutionally (i.e., what happened to the various churches in Europe after the Reformation?) or epistemologically (what kinds of truth-claims were possible for religious believers after Hobbes, Locke, and Hume?)

Did you use C. John Sommerville’s Secularization of Early Modern England: From Religious Culture to Religious Faith?  The title should give you some indication of his argument.  That’s the post-Weberean approach he uses, while talking about things like the development of a secularized notion of regular calendar-time through developments like daily newspapers.

Sommerville’s argument, which I’d endorse for the 17th and 18th centuries, is that secularism is a conceptual category that is unavailable in the closely-knit religious “culture” of early modern England (where superstition sits in very close proximity to official religion--think Keith Thomas), but gradually becomes available with the social and scientific developments that whittle away at the unquestioned force of the sacred throughout the period. 

In CJS’s argument, religious “faith"--individualistic, intellectual, maintained against the incursions of a “materialistic” culture (think Coleridge or Woods) is the only survival of what had once been a viable collective, culture-wide experience (think Donne). 

So eighteenth century specialists take it for granted that a) their period is a period of widespread secularization in English/British culture b) that this development coincides with the disciplinary differentiation of literature in the late eigheenth century and c) that these forces combine slightly later to give us the realist novel of someone like Austen, notoriously unwilling to represent the sacred in her hallowed pages.

I’m seriously caricaturing people’s positions to fit this into a tiny comment window, but you get the idea.

Best wishes,

Dave Mazella

By David Mazella on 01/08/07 at 02:13 AM | Permanent link to this comment

A fundamental quality of the literary in the modern era is ambiguity, and literature that thematizes the struggle for secularization is no different.

I think subjectivity covers the bases a little better.  Or rather, that it’s more fundamental.  Poets like Eliot and Hoelderlin are undeniably religious in outlook, but what their poetry shows, in contrast to that of earlier eras, (and in common with the novelists you mention) is an especially subjective view of the world--the imagination of one peculiar poet, shoring fragments against his ruin.  This new subjectivity had something to do with the decline of old, received orders of meaning--of what Taylor calls an ‘ontic logos’--but I think the process was in train well before the writers adopted any attitude toward secularity in general.

By on 01/08/07 at 03:21 AM | Permanent link to this comment

There’s a discussion going on over at Bérubé’s joint that’s oblique to this one. It’s not about the novel nor even literature, but—down in the comments section—touches on sacred and secular and how one discusses such things without going ballistic.

By Bill Benzon on 01/08/07 at 07:27 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Dave,

I do talk about institutional secularization in particular chapters, though I don’t venture back as far as the “long 18th” very much. I do think that Locke’s “Letter Concerning Toleration” (1689) is in many ways the key starting point to the English discourse of individual rights. In contrast to the more radical French Enlightenment, Locke seems to advocate a separation of Church and State in the interest of a better Church.

I generally tend to believe that the institutional and individual (imaginative) experiences of secularization can run in tandem, though it would be a mistake to see them as identical. In Locke’s case, institutional events might be the Restoration and the Glorious Revolution (1688)... though as I say, it was too far back for me to feel confident writing about it in the book.

Where I pick up the story, the watershed institutional moment is the Repeal of the Test Acts (1828) and the subsequent enfranchisement of Dissenters, Catholics, and Jews (1856). And there’s a kind of echo of this moment when English society finds itself with a Jewish (by birth) Prime Minister in the 1870s—Benjamin Disraeli. Both Trollope’s “The Prime Minister” and Eliot’s “Daniel Deronda” seem to have been written in the shadow of Disraeli’s unprecedented rise to power. 

I would be curious to know more about what Sommerville says about Coleridge (I haven’t read Sommerville’s book). One of the surprises I found in my various readings was that Coleridge was actually an anti-secularist—in 1830 he published a book called “On the Constitution of Church and State,” where he argued in favor of the Established Church. From my (cursory) reading of that book, it seemed like Coleridge was arguing less for “faith” and more for a kind of paternalistic, “this is the way it should be” approach to the “Clerisy.” His argument seems to anticipate Matthew Arnold’s later defense of the Establishment, though the idea of an organic English culture based in Anglicanism starts to seem quite hollow by the mid-19th century.

By Amardeep Singh on 01/08/07 at 08:21 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I’m sure it seemed hollow long before that, depending on how you look at it.

Wade: in re: ‘new subjectivity’: new since when? What you describe—the imagination of one peculiar poet, shoring fragments against his ruin—might well describe the Old English “Wanderer.” Or even Piers Plowman. Or moments in the autobiographical/historiographical works of Guibert of Nogent (11th c.) or Gerald of Wales (12th c.).

D. Mazella: do 18th-c. people argue that there’s no clear differentiation of literature prior to the 18th c.?

By on 01/08/07 at 10:13 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Amardeep,

For my own book, I used similar kinds of historical and institutional benchmarks (English revolution and Glorious Revolution as desacralization of royal authority; mid-17c print (and esp. pamphlet) culture as further signs of the relativization of inherited authorities of all kinds in Anglo-British culture.  These are all fairly standard debates within the historiography of an Anglophone Enlightenment distinct from the continental manifestations.  So Locke and the factors you adduce would fit comfortably within
such narratives.

I don’t recall now if Sommerville actually discussed Coleridge, or if that was my own example.  I would see him as personally anti-secularist, even if he represented CJS’s prime example of the break-up of an organic religious culture.  I see what you mean about the instrumental aspect of his clerisy, except that I think they represent an attempt to restore the broken unity of that collective culture through the subjective belief of elites like himself.  But it’s been years since I’ve gone through that stuff.  But one way to trace the secularization issue at the disciplinary level is to look at the status of theological debate and controversy throughout the period.

Karl, the last two books we’ve reviewed on the Long Eighteenth offered in one way or another versions of this “invention of literature” thesis: Michael McKeon’s Secret History of Domesticity and Blanford Parker’s Triumph of Augustan Poetics.  If you’re curious, check out our collective readings. 

Because of our investment in seeing the Long 18th as the staging ground for an Anglo-British Enlightenment, most people date the differentiation of literature as as a distinct form of “imaginative” writing from the late 18c, with the institutionalization of literary criticism and the new-found literary respectability of self-consciously modern forms like the novel (e.g., Richardson’s Clarissa) or critical terms like “originality.” But most people consider R. Williams’ brief semantic history of “literature” in Keywords pretty convincing, where “literature” in its strong sense only gets hooked up with the vernacular languages and literary histories of nations at a fairly late point in the late 18c, having replaced notions like slightly earlier notions like “polite literature” or “belles lettres.”

DM

By David Mazella on 01/08/07 at 12:03 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Amardeep, this sounds like a great book.  I audited a grad seminar at Rutgers with John McClure called “Postmodern/Postsecular,” in which we discussed the ways a literary return to religious can be seen as a political counter-modernity in the face of commodification, instrumentalization, and so on. 

One question I found myself wondering after reading the Wood’s quotations concerns the differences between Wood’s perspective on realism and a more Russian formalist or Brechtian vantage.  I’m thinking of Charles Bernstein’s long poem essay in *A/Poetics* entitled, I believe, “The Poetics of Absorption.” Wood’s sees the belief inspired by realism as secular in its self-consciousness as a “true lie.” But Brecht or Bernstein might argue that the absorption of the reader’s attention in the realist narrative is not about reflexivity but on an ideological absorption as well.  So that writers of magical realism or anti-realism are the truly reflexive writers, reminding readers that they are reading something made-up—what we call, after Brecht, alienation effects. 

This is the typical avant-garde way of looking at these matters.  Realism or lyricism are absorptive modes, and absorption is ideological suspect.  Anti-realist and anti-lyrical writing help establish a critical distance between text and reader.

I’m not saying that’s a flawless model of what’s going on, but Amardeep, I was just wondering what you thought about it.

By on 01/08/07 at 12:58 PM | Permanent link to this comment

This topic might tie in well with Salon’s interview with Chris Hedges, author of *American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America*.  Hedges makes some interesting observations about the causes of the new fascist religious movements, which have less to do with a rejection of modernity than with the pain of being marginalized from the benefits of and full participation in it.

By on 01/08/07 at 02:54 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Karl:
The change I’m talking about coincides more or less with the beginning of Romanticism (at least, in poetry.) The line from ‘The Wasteland’ wasn’t exactly apropos, I suppose.  What I do mean is that the poet of the Romantic and later periods can no longer rely on an established gamut of references--Christian eschatology, the Great Chain of Being, the doctrine of correspondences, etc.  The ideas themselves still mean something, obviously, and one can still draw on them for poetic effects of some kind, but they’ve lost the broad authority they used to have, and in place of them the Romantic or post-Romantic poet has to develop an original idiom.

That’s as best as I can explain myself; Earl Wasserman’s The Subtler Language goes into this sort of thing in detail, via close readings of several 18th century poems.

By on 01/08/07 at 03:03 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Luther, it’s interesting that you mention John McClure and the “postsecular.” I myself was using my own variation of that word in the dissertation (the title of the diss. was actually “Post-Secular Subjects"), but I threw it out as it became apparent to me that many people I talked to thought the “post” meant I was opposed to secularism. As I continued to rework and rethink, I didn’t reconsider my interest in “postmodern” fiction (still like it), though I’ve become increasingly doubtful of what might be called, a bit paradoxically, “strong postmodernism”—postmodernism that attempts to take aspects of avant-garde aesthetics and apply those directly to an understanding of contemporary society. I’ve also grown more and more frustrated with critiques of secularism (like Talal Asad’s) that use Foucault to argue that secularism doesn’t exist because modernity never happened, and/or liberalism is a lie. 

I’m more of the “modernity is an incomplete project” school.

Given that, perhaps it’s not a surprise that Avant-Garde writing doesn’t play a huge part in my project. Rushdie and Pamuk ("Snow") are the only writers I work with who use magic realist type narrative devices, but both of them use those devices specifically to call attention to the way in which the act of writing fiction distances the writer from religious orthodoxy. In “Snow,” the novelist is understood by everyone to be an emissary of the West, recording and reporting in a quasi-journalistic way on what he finds in Kars. And in “The Satanic Verses,” the novelist is a kind of humanist incarnation of Lucifer.

So I do disagree with Wood in that I don’t think magic realism or fantasy are inimical to what he thinks of as fiction’s true purpose. But I also think he has a point in insisting on putting realism (perhaps a broad concept of realism) at the center of his reading practice. Despite the avant-garde and despite postmodernism, it seems to me that an engagement with realism is still very much alive, even in today’s literary metafictions.

* * *
On Bernstein and alienation (which almost seems like a separate topic). I don’t believe what Bernstein calls absorption to be ideologically coercive, and I think alienation for the sake of alienation can be pretty deadening (like “resistance” for the sake of resistance). It’s true that “absorptive” (?=Barthes’s “readerly") texts can be too comfortable, and perhaps someone could argue (I wouldn’t) that the world created in realistic fiction is a kind of substitute for religious narrative.

But it’s worth considering that for the most part (the exceptions might be Dianetics/Scientology and maybe the “Fountainhead” cult) very few religious movements or religion-like movements have come out of even the most maximally absorptive novels. (Interestingly, neither Ayn Rand nor L. Ron Hubbard’s novels are “realist” fiction)

Readers are rarely quite that passive (the readerly and the writerly can happily and dialectically coexist), and realism is rarely quite that dogmatic.

By Amardeep Singh on 01/08/07 at 03:09 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"So I do disagree with Wood in that I don’t think magic realism or fantasy are inimical to what he thinks of as fiction’s true purpose. But I also think he has a point in insisting on putting realism (perhaps a broad concept of realism) at the center of his reading practice. Despite the avant-garde and despite postmodernism, it seems to me that an engagement with realism is still very much alive, even in today’s literary metafictions.”

It seems to me that one can say less with realism and only realism. It’s one thing in realism to show a fictive Bush administration slaughtering countless Iraqis and others, and it is quite a bit more, and far from only quantitatively, to transfigure that as, say, Bush personally blowing the heads off Iraqi babies and pouring blood from their necks for virtually all the members of the US Congress to lap up greedily.

This isn’t “realism,” as the notion is commonly used, though in my view it’s a provocative and insightful fantastic representation of reality. So there is realism in fiction and then there is all of life in fiction. The latter to me seems likely to be often fuller, more insightful, more powerful, more lively, more moving, more useful, and in many ways more real than realism can often hope to be. More potent and effective for social change, etc.

(That said, moments of realism can of course achieve things that moments of fantasy can’t, and vice versa.)

One should not be surprised then that establishment circles would foster, consciously and not, an emphasis on realism, or at least an impoverished notion of realism, even a sort of deification of it. It’s probably easier to control. But of course all sorts of ideologically palatable fantasy is greenlighted too.

An interesting, insightful scholarly monograph (or edited anthology) on reality and illusion or realism and fantasy might feature the ostensible fictive author(s) (and setting and circumstance ranging from the fantastic to the “realistic") undertaking traditional and nontraditional research and analysis.

By Tony Christini on 01/09/07 at 02:11 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Interesting piece! The book sounds like a worthy read. A side-note on Wood’s rhetorical impressionism, which is usually hidden (or redeemed) in his erudition:

In a conversation with Robert Birnbaum (from 2004), Wood uses ‘bestiality jokes’ as an analog for ‘hysterical realism’ in his defense of his attack on the latter; he comes to the conclusion that bestiality jokes ‘aren’t funny’ because they aren’t ‘realistic’ and that ‘hysterical realism’ fails for the same reason. He says:

“...and the joke by the way was something like this: A man goes into a Scottish bar—I mean it’s not an unfunny joke—there is a guy in a kilt who is drinking heavily at the bar. And he is clearly distressed. The stranger says to the man in the kilt, ‘Why are you drinking so many whiskeys? What’s wrong?’ And he says, ‘See that pier out there? I built that. I built that pier with my own hands, and they don’t call me McKenzie the Pier Builder. See that boat out there? I built that boat with my own hands. They don’t call me McKenzie the Boat Builder. And this very inn that we are sitting in, this tavern, I built it, stone by stone. But they don’t call me McKenzie the Tavern Builder. And yet you mess around once with a sheep and….’ It’s not unfunny. It’s pretty funny. But I said to my wife, ‘Why aren’t bestiality jokes, I mean, they are not really funny?’ And she rightly said, ‘They pretend to be realistic but they are not actually realistic. And that’s because no one has every actually met anyone who fucked a sheep.’ So they are actually fantastical. In a way this feeds into the hysterical realism thing.”

The amusing (and illuminating) bit is how A) Wood flubs the joke and B) the joke is funny anyway and he *admits this* while at the same time he persists in holding up the ‘unfunniness’ of the joke as support for his argument against ‘hysterical realism’.

By Steven Augustine on 01/09/07 at 08:01 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Amardeep, I really respect where you’re coming from on this, because you seem to be holding (with good reason and justification) to the old antagonism between the imaginative possibilities of fiction, and the assiduous practice of religion.

The only way for a movement to really be “post-secular” is for it to be non-secular—i.e., to involve a belief in the supernatural. Most of the “post-secular” thinking being done in the academy is either a pragmatic approach to the faiths of others, or a merely philosophical dialogue with the rhetoric and philosophical positions of religious figures like Paul.

Karl, I like your mention of the Book of Margery Kempe because I think her text is decisive in two senses. First, Margery’s inability to believe that differences of dogma overwhelm God’s grace and mercy lead her to borrow from a variety of different traditions (even Lollardy), and to assume a position hedging close to deism or perspectivism. At the same time as she’s mixing religious traditions, she’s mixing high and low culture in her language and the narrative of her own election. So her pioneering openness of thought is also an occasion for the aesthetic innovation of intermixture.

All of which is to say that she may be a cause of these tangled interrelations, as well as a product of it.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 01/11/07 at 09:02 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Joseph, I don’t think we can assume Margery herself had any complete authorial control over the discourse of her *Book*.  The mix of languages might be the result of the mixed authorship of the book.

By on 01/12/07 at 11:50 AM | Permanent link to this comment

That’s a good point, Luther. What do you make of the fact that it was nonetheless packaged as one aesthetic whole? It seems arguable that that could still have been both a barometer of the times, and a nudge towards ideological hybridity, even if the reasons for the mixture were purely practical ones of authorship.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 01/13/07 at 03:07 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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