The Need for a Religious Literary Criticism
religion and the arts
A great critical need of our time is for ways of discussing religious or spiritual dimensions in works of literature. We live in an age of critical discourses that are expert in discussing the dimensions of class, gender, textuality, and historical context. Yet an important part of the literature we read goes untouched by our discourses, or is deconstructed, historicized, sexualized, or made symptomatic of covert power relationships. The negative hermeneutic of such reductive discourse has been thorough and successful. Attempts at a more positive non-reductive hermeneutic tend to be soft discourses, appealing to general unexamined values and a preconverted audience. There is a need in our time for religious interpretations that are substantial enough to enter into a productive and competitive relation with the reigning critical discourses. The answer to the dilemma of skepticism and softness may simply be a sense of the intricacy of the subject. The need for a religious literary criticism is not only reflective of a present scholarly void, but also comes out of a spiritual hunger, felt by many teachers and students, for a way of discussing the intersections of their own spiritual lives with what they read. These two needs, scholarly and spiritual, reflect the extreme difficulty of the subject which invites intellectual short-circuiting and collapse at a number of points.
To say there is a great vacuum in discussions of spirituality in literature is, of course, unfair to those who have long been working in this field, and whose work might be associated with journals like Religion and Literature, Christianity and Literature, Literature and Theology, Renascence, and others. But even the editors and writers of these journals would probably agree that their discourse is not yet one of the major discourses of the academy.
In this essay, I attempt to point to some examples of moments in literature that cry out for a sophisticated critical treatment that has been lacking in recent decades. I list seven such moments, and with them allude to some relevant contemporary work that may contain the seeds of the discourses that we seek.
(1) Yeats's "The Man who dreamed of Faeryland" begins:
He stood among a crowd at Dromahair;
His heart hung all upon a silken dress,
And he had known at last some tenderness,
Before earth took him to her stony care;
But when a man poured fish into a pile,
It seemed they raised their little silver heads,
And sang what gold morning or evening sheds
Upon a woven world-forgotten isle
Where people love beside the ravelled seas;
That Time can never mar a lover's vows
Under that woven changeless roof of boughs:
The singing shook him out of his new ease.
The poem continues through three more stanzas, each of these stanzas representing a stage in the man's life: young love, prosperous middle age, rancorous old age, and death. And each stage is interrupted by a strange intrusion: a fish singing about a land of faithful love, a lug-worm singing about a gay exulting race, a knot-grass singing about a rich silence where lover next to lover is at peace, a worm proclaiming that God has laid his fingers on the sky. I am not concerned to interpret this interesting and layered poem, but simply to point to some elements we need to find critical languages for. One element is the development of a person's life. There is an industry of psychological study on development; "character development" used to be a major category in literary criticism, but no longer. Our current discourses can do interesting things with Yeats's "Man who dreamed of Faeryland." Feminism can see the distortions of a patriar-chal system controlling the man's life, Marxist analysis can see the bour-geois economic structures, new historicists can see Yeats controlled by a romantic consciousness that displaces the reality of Yeats's own placement in the power system.
But what is left-over is a nagging spiritual question about the man, about the worth of his life as we see it, and as he sees it. There is the question of where he is going, what stages he arrives at, and what is his life's meaning, in a sense of "meaning" too intellectually murky to be of much interest to the semioticians. (Ogden and Richards's treatment of the "meaning of meaning" is typical of that tradition.) Even our current developmental sciences have missed some of the spiritual richness we might still find in the 19th century romantic Bildungsroman, in 18th century no-tions of gained wisdom, in ancient Christian notions of spiritual pruning. We no longer know how to discuss wrong turnings and right turnings, achieved insights, persistent blindnesses, breakthrough moments. We shrink from defining the rich possibilities of human development.
Meanwhile, Yeats's man's life, however we define its development, is cut athwart by another dimension. At each moment when the shape of his life seems to have taken a final satisfactory shape, he experiences an inter-ruption that perplexes and confounds. What interrupts is not another system but something that challenges all systems, something as questioning and unsettling as the best deconstructive scalpels of our critics, but suggesting something unconditioned, all-demanding, and ultimately un-evadable. The grotesque triviality of the images suggests the fragile yet persistent nature of these revelations. We need to talk about the experience of a person's developing life and these odd turnings to which it is subject, as rendered in intricate detail in the literary work. What is this intimation that comes crashing into a life and upsetting its carefully constructed schemes?
To find modes of criticism that address these issues, we might look in different places. Of course, there are the developmental theorists, Erikson with his life stages and his followers with their discussions of mid-life crises, William Perry with his description of intellectual stages, Lawrence Kohlberg with his description of moral stages, James Fowler with his description of faith stages. But their schemes are necessarily abstract next to the extreme intricacy of an accomplished literary work. (The "Enneagram" system of character types may be something literary critics need to consider.) Secondly, there are the phenomenological and historical critics who simply trace the ways in which writers struggle with religious or spiritual issues: J. Hillis Miller in The Disappearance of God: Five Nineteenth-Century Writers, Geoffrey Hartman in Wordsworth's Poetry 1787-1814, Robert Ryan in Keats: The Religious Sense. Ryan, for example, watches the play of Keats's mind with and within certain defined Christian positionsrejecting, accommodating, developing those positions. Ryan gives his account with no sense that he (Ryan) has a vested interest for or against the Christian positions. At the same time, there is a passionate interest at the heart of the bookwhich gives the discussion vitality and drama. This combination of interest and detachment is probably necessary for the kind of criticism we seek. Miller's position is certainly detachedbut in The Disappearance of God he carefully charts the systoles and diastoles of his writers' spiritual struggles. Hartman's theme, which focuses on Wordsworth's apocalyptic imagination and his attempt to naturalize it, may be allegorical of something else, unnamed, but is explored with a thorough sense of the scholarly contexts so necessary to a successful religious criticism. For the field we seek, these books by Hartman and Miller were among their best. Ryan has not published a book since (but another is about to appear). Religious literary discourses cannot develop if there is no critical culture to receive and develop them.
The terms "religious," "spiritual," to which we can add the word "eth-ical," slide over a wide range of literary material and overlap in ways difficult to sort out. The spiritual seems to reside at the place where the religious collides with the ethical, the place where "the singing shook him out of his new ease." We need critical languages that can make these discriminations.
(2) Wallace Stevens's "The House Was Quiet and the World Was Calm" reads:
The house was quiet and the world was calm.
The reader became the book; and summer night
Was like the conscious being of the book.
The house was quiet and the world was calm.
The words were spoken as if there was no book,
Except that the reader leaned above the page,
Wanted to lean, wanted much most to be
The scholar to whom his book is true, to whom
The summer night is like a perfection of thought.
The house was quiet because it had to be.
The quiet was part of the meaning, part of the mind:
The access of perfection to the page.
And the world was calm. The truth in a calm world,
In which there is no other meaning, itself
Is calm, itself is summer and night, itself
Is the reader leaning late and reading there.
Frank Lentricchia, an accomplished post-modern critic with Marxist sym-pathies, has been undergoing a strange pilgrimage of late. Something, he says, has been happening to him: "thesewhat?had always the same prelude: solitude, perfect quiet in the late morning, the end of a period of work on the writing of the day, an empty house with not even the two cats around, and me gazing aimlessly through the rear windows into the backyard, a dense enclosure of trees and bushes," and an extraordinary sense of a kind happiness comes over him. I am interested in these moments of insight that occur in the quiet, a quiet of the mind, a quiet of the world. What is this rich quiet, and how does one account for its richness? At the English Institute, 1994, where the language of Cultural Studies dominates, Barbara Johnson gave a paper entitled "Muteness Envy," on Keats's "Ode on a Grecian Urn." The paper argued (among other things) that the celebration of quietness in Keats was a male celebration of female silence, a symptom therefore of male oppression which is then projected as an ideal form upon a female object, the silent poem or urn. Cultural Studies is very good, here in its feminist mode, at symptomological readings of high cultural artifacts. But I am left with a question: is there an idea of muteness that is still a value to be sought, and to be distinguished from the gagging of women? Can Lentricchia's moment be described in a way that resists easy reduction (he is a white male well paid professor). "Quiet time" is one of our precious domestic categories; and high culture talks about moments of being, the still point of the turning world. Cannot we distinguish (a) the stillness that nourishes us, from (b) the stillness that is a symptom of inflicting silence on the oppressed?so perhaps we can see both these things operating in Keats? Or are these two readings simply at war, never to be adjudicated?
"It," the moment of spiritual quiet, in its many kinds and versions, is often narrated with a full sense of the moment's ironic context, all that challenges its spiritual claims. Thus Yeats in "Vacillation" describes such a moment, the source of so much meditative energy in the poem:
My fiftieth year had come and gone,
I sat, a solitary man,
In a crowded London shop,
An open book and empty cup
On the marble table-top.
While on the shop and street I gazed
My body of a sudden blazed;
And twenty minutes more or less
It seemed, so great my happiness,
That I was blessèd and could bless.
A sudden moment of digestion, like a baby's burp which produces a smile? Or something more? What are these moments of happiness? "Happiness" is both a soft and an ultimate word, which with words like "joy," "sadness," "despair," "ennui," etc. is avoided by our current rig-orous criticism. But the rigor avoids questions of ultimate import, of primary interest to many readers. What is an eternal moment that lasts for twenty minutes?
Some of our criticism helps us to approach the topic, for example, discussions of the structure of the meditative lyric moment, as in Louis Martz's The Poetry of Meditation and Meyer Abrams's adaptation of this to romantic poetry in "Structure and Style in the Greater Romantic Lyric." Recently, Henry Weinfield (in The Poet without a Name) has followed the ins and outs of Gray's meditation in the "Elegy." I would contrast Weinfield's approach with the more telling but simplistic eloquence of Roland Barthes's in "The Great Family of Man" (a classic postmodern attack on the sentimentalism of humanism). Like Barthes, Gray (and Weinfield) knows that meditation about the universal problems of death and blight can be evasions for seeing the role of social injustice; but Gray knows that social progress does not, in turn, solve the universal pro-blems. One can be concerned with both kinds of problems.
What makes a lyric meditation successful? What are its distractions? Where does it get one? In a meditative moment, one may come to a pro-found insight into gender relations which might lead to a paper on the gender distortions of Keats. But what about the meditation itself, its structure, the phenomenon of its outcome, the sheer quality of its insight? These questions applied to the lyric meditation are like the questions we posed for the individual life in discussing Yeats's "The Man who dreamed of Faeryland." The (old) new criticism of Brooks and Warren and com-pany was expert at detailing the paradoxical nature of such meditations, their ironic contexts, and often drew upon religious notions of earned visions, as in Robert Penn Warren's famous essay, "Pure and Impure Poetry":
Poetry wants to be pure, but poems do not . . . . They mar themselves with cacophonies, jagged rhythms, ugly words and ugly thoughts, colloquialisms, clichés, sterile technical terms, head work and argument, self-contradictions, clevernesses, irony, realismall things which call us back to the world of prose and imperfection . . . . The saint proves his vision by stepping cheerfully into the fires. The poet, somewhat less spectacularly, proves his vision by submitting it to the fires of irony to the drama of his structure in the hope that the fires will refine it. In other words, the poet wishes to indicate that his vision has been earned, that it can survive reference to the complexities and contradictions of experience. (229-30, 252)
For a number of reasons, this formulation lost respect, as the newer historicist criticisms developed sociological insights into the "complexities and contradictions of experience" and of texts. But once criticism has entirely eliminated the vision, or reduced it to compromising historical forces, what is left? At the end of Renaissance Self-Fashioning, Stephen Greenblatt describes a process of conversion when he perceived the power and necessity of new historical criticism (256-57). He "perceived" it, but what is this seeing, this vision? Is it entirely lost in the object seen? We need to stay longer with Lentricchia's puzzlement about the sheer experience of the spiritual moment. And we may need to wonder what other disciplines, represented for example in Lonergan's Insight, Urs von Balthasar's The Glory of the Lord: A Theological Aesthetics, and other texts, say about such moments.
What strange creatures we are: strings of biology that come up with insights. Our criticism needs to ponder such oddities more.
(3) In Flannery O'Connor's "The River," the following scene occurs:
"'If I Baptize you," the preacher said, "you'll be able to go to the Kingdom of Christ. You'll be washed in the river of suffering, son, and you'll go by the deep river of life. Do you want that?"
"Yes," the child said, and thought, I won't go back to the apartment then, I'll go under the river.
"You won't be the same again," the preacher said. "You'll count." (168)
Well, there it is; the southern Baptist language. How can such language be penetrated? We may think of it as language to be accepted as gospel, or dismissed as rant, depending on where we are on the religious spectrum. But our responses are often much more complicated than our stereotyping allows; and it would be interesting to discriminate how various religious types and non-religious types respond to such language. Admittedly, to one group, such discrimination might seem impious, to another group it might seem bad taste. We know of at least one person who penetrated such language: O'Connor herself, a Catholic fascinated by Baptist rhetoric, who rendered it in all its grotesqueness (as she saw it) and yet with great respect. Respect for what? What content does a word like "salvation" have in our critical language, except as a term of sectarian narrowness and religious club membership? In the Baptist's speech, there is a sliding between traditional religious language and the language of psychology ("You'll count"). Is the latter something the Baptist preacher would actually say? Is it O'Connor's intrusion into the language to make it more weighty for urbane readers? (Or is it technical Calvinist terminology about the "elect"?) In any event, are there places in which traditional religious language intersects with secular language in mutually invigorating ways? And what would such invigoration mean? Do we have a way of discussing any of these questions? Admittedly, the religious/secular relation has been much discussed in relation to British romantic poetry, and the American renaissance. Abrams's Natural Supernaturalism for one side of the ocean, Matthiessen's American Renaissance for the other are magisterial accounts. But are the issues of much importance in our contemporary criticism? It is curious that Tolstoy's "Christian" tracts seem so narrowly ideological next to his major novels; yet does the vitality of these novels have some connection with the remarkable religious development he was undergoing?
Some criticism relevant to this topic of religious/secular intersections would be criticism concerned with competing voices in a society. The problem of the religious voice is that it used to be the hegemonic standard, and now is occluded by the current standard. But a criticism that simply traces the interaction of voices in a text, in the manner of Bakhtin, helps reinstate the interest of these once dominant and now despised languages. One promising result of our current discourses is to make us suspicious of the hegemony of mainstream secular discourse, and seek its cracks and flaws, and also the places where other kinds of language may have been suppressed, distorted, and dismissed, as has religious language increasing-ly, at least since Nietzsche. Sociolinguistic examination of the Arnoldian standard, mainstream urbanity, is an example of such suspicion. Two examples of recent criticism unearth an occluded "Catholic" voice in scholarly and powerful ways. One is Eric Griffiths's The Printed Voice of Victorian Poetry, chapter 4, which traces how Hopkins manages the relation between establishment "Leavisian" English and the alien voice of Roman Catholicism. Another is the work of Paul Giles and Jenny Franchot tracing the Catholic "other" in the culture of Protestant Emersonian America. There is, of course, an enormous body of work in medieval, Renaissance, and Victorian literature which carefully constructs the religious contexts. Nevertheless this criticism does not tend to enter into the major discourses of our time, or at most is used as a material to be retooled in the higher criticism of Cultural Studies. Again, there is an enormous body of American studies exploring the complex religious influences on the politics of the founding fathers. Liberty may in fact be a religious notion. The point is made, and then left to lie.
I have not yet mentioned the more important part of O'Connor's story, the world of the little boy, the conflict of the worldly parents and the evangelical baby sitter, the effect on the boy of his experience at the healing service, his transformation, and his drowning. For one of my students, the boy experiences salvation; for another, he is a cult-induced suicide. How do we get these two camps talking to each other?
There are other features in O'Connor's passage which our criticism is no longer able to discuss. For example, the theme of the "apartment" which we can call the "Waste Land" theme. Eliot mesmerized the century with his diagnosis in the most influential poem of the century. "The Waste Land" is a poem whose morality (and form) has been fiercely resisted. Its claim to make universal moral judgments has been attacked. Curiously, we live in what is probably the most judgmental era of literary criticism and yet an era in which the right to make judgments is ritually denied. Current literary discourse takes on a multitude of social oppressions and social distortions, but in a curiously narrow way, with a single focus, say, on patriarchalism, on homophobia, on racial prejudice, on child abuse. But there is a curious fanaticism and diffidence in such focuses, as though the critic declines to be pressed on his or her ultimate belief about the nature of the whole mess. Traditional religious discourse, which Eliot relied on, took on the whole mess; but this discourse is now seen as a narrow discourse of its own, based on fundamentalist religious assumptions. We have no way now of talking about widespread social ill, moral decline, anomie, lovelessness. The best lack all conviction, the worst are full of passionate intensity. A great challenge to the discourse we seek is how to avoid the puritanism and intolerance and religious violence of the past, and regain some of the scope and power of older discourses.
Of course some of our criticism, feminist, Marxist, does attempt a global overarching diagnosis of an entire civilization. But what these movements decline to consider is: what would it be like to exist in Utopia? Once the genders are made equal, and the classes eliminated, what might then happen? Ancient religious traditions are expert in treating what can happen to a promised land experience, and how it can fall prey to the seven devils of the well fed mind. Indeed, we need an entire recon-sideration of the tendencies of the mind which lead to patriarchalism, homophobia, racial prejudice, child abuse, and the rest of it. Mill's "A Crisis in My Mental History, One Stage Onward," chapter 5 of his Autobiography, may stand for the point where the well-balanced reasonable mind collapses into something else:
In this frame of mind it occurred to me to put the question directly to myself, "Suppose that all your objects in life were realized; that all the changes in institutions and opinions which you are looking forward to, could be completely effected at this very instant: would this be a great joy and happiness to you?" And an irrepressible self-consciousness distinctly answered, "No!" At this my heart sank within me: the whole foundation on which my life was constructed fell down. All my happiness was to have been found in the continual pursuit of this end. The end had ceased to charm, and how could there ever again be any interest in the means? I seemed to have nothing left to live for. (81)
Juxtapose this for example with a passage from Frederic Jameson's The Political Unconscious, a passage admirable for taking the risk it does, but which does not take into account the elements which constituted Mill's crisis:
For Marxism, indeed, only the emergence of a post-individualistic social world, only the reinvention of the collective and the associative, can concretely achieve the "decentering" of the individual subject called for by such diagnoses; only a new and original form of collective social life can overcome the isolation and monadic autonomy of the older bourgeois subjects in such a way that individual consciousness can be livedand not merely theorized as an "effect of structure" (Lacan). (125)
No wonder that our critics rarely risk such "positive" passages, all too easily subject to the postmodernist knife. A positive hermeneutic must engage all the things that make mockery of it and threaten to make it null and void. Mill's attempt to recover from his crisis by using Marmontel and Carlyle and Wordsworth, is less interesting than his posing the question that knocks his world into a vacuum. We need ways of talking about these ultimate dissatisfactions. Jameson probably cannot "see" Mill's point because for Jameson the point is immediate suspect as a wrong diagnosis, a false consciousness controlled by an unreflected bourgeois mentality. Even the question, "what if?" (all your objects in life were realized), is assumed to be out of court. But questions like this have a way of recurring.
(4) One of Ingmar Bergman's darkest films, Through a Glass Darkly, ends:
Minus (full of anxiety): Give me some proof of God.
Minus: You can't.
David: Yes, I can. But you must listen very carefully to what I'm saying, Minus.
Minus: That's just what I need, to listen.
David: It is written: God is love.
Minus: For me that's just words and nonsense.
David: Wait a moment and don't interrupt.
The moment is a delicate one; the language labors not to break down into cliché and inadequacy. David walks a tightrope with his son, and tries to find some way to speak of the love he believes in, in order to give his son a reason for living. The father succeeds for the moment.
Do we have a language to talk about the delicacy of a spiritual conver-sation, its perils, its successes, its implications? Going on, do we have a language to talk about spiritual quest? Do we have a language to talk about love, to parse Maggie's intricate apologia, "For love," in The Golden Bowl? One of the difficulties of the topic is untangling the relation of the religious and the spiritual; or better perhaps, the religious and the ethical, with the spiritual some kind of linking category. Can we discriminate these dimensions at work in a literary passage in the way Kierkegaard recom-mended. If we can't, what happens to such passages?
Often, literature has these climactic spiritual moments. The penultimate paragraph of O'Connor's "The Artificial Nigger" is a preeminent example, yet often attacked as religious pabulum. The last sentence of Carver's "Cathedral" is another, though no one attempts to explain it. The narrator has simply drawn a building on a paper bag, with his eyes closed. His conclusion is simply: "'It's really something,' I said," and yet the story explodes with some immense illumination in that last line. The end of My Dinner with André is another, though Wally's transformation is so minimalist it might not be noticed; and it is keyed by André's final question: "A wife. A husband. A son. A baby holds your hands, and then suddenly there's this huge man lifting you off the ground, and then he's gone. Where's that son?" What kind of questions are these? Because we cannot talk about any such moments, we cannot discriminate more difficult ones, like that experienced by Charles Ryder in Brideshead Revisited. When he finds himself praying that Lord Brideshead make the sign of the cross on his deathbed, if only out of courtesy to the family, how do we assess such a moment, which arouses such intensely opposed readings, as a religious breakthrough or a religious breakdown? The end of Babette's Feast is another, though the tipsy general's toast ("that which we have chosen is given us, and that which we have refused is, also and at the same time, granted us") is so laced with irony and humor that it has resisted negative commentary. But what does it mean? Some mystical nonsense, best left untouched? Or some deep paradox needing to be explored?
The (old) New Critics were expert in paradoxes, and they were expert in dealing with body/spirit dichotomies, virtue/corruption dichotomies, heaven/earth dichotomies. With the New Critics' decline in reputation, these dichotomies were theorized as the surface tensions produced by the hidden conflicts of a bourgeois capital economy, a sort of fiddling with paradoxes while the poor burned. But the paradoxes may not have been destroyed, simply moved and rehidden. The positive terms in the new critical paradoxes, spirit, virtue, heaven, have now no positive content. ("What, on the level of the ideologeme, remains a conceptual antinomy, must now be grasped, on the level of the social and historical subtext, as a contradiction"Jameson 117). Yet the old terms have powerful content for many people. The problem afflicts the artist as well as the reader. Bergman originally hoped that the end of Through a Glass Darkly would be a near-Paradiso moment in secular terms; but looking back he recanted the ending (a sort of reverse Chaucerian recantation). It is curious how such terms sometimes have great vitality, and at other times fall flat. The whole question of how such terms are used in literature, the question of tone, is one of the great questions for religious literary analysis; but where is such analysis to be had? What would it mean to say "Love is real. You must listen very carefully" so that it had a full and rich content, to be explicated by a sophisticated criticism.
But simply careful analysis, and debate, about the way in which spiri-tual terms are used in literature, is what our criticism needs. Here the multiple new historicist conversions, Miltonists seeing through Milton at last, Wordsworthians seeing through Wordsworth at last, are helpful, if only in highlighting language that now needs to be re-debated. Kierke-gaard's mode of talking about marriage rhetoric in the second volume of Either/Or may be worth returning to, if we can get round Nietzsche. And then perhaps we can get further to Kierkegaard's recantation of "Or," his teleological suspension of the ethical, in Fear and Trembling.
(5) Sandra Cisneros's story, "Little Miracles, Kept Promises," is simply a list of prayer notes left at a shrine, for example:
Dear Niño Fidencio,
I would like for you to help me get a job with good pay, benefits, and a retirement plan . . . . Many thanks.César Escandón
Pharr, Tejas . . . .
Teach me to love my husband again. Forgive me.s.
Corpus Christi . . . .
Virgencita de Guadalupe. For a long time I wouldn't let you in my house. I couldn't see you without seeing my ma each time my father came home drunk and yelling, blaming everything that ever went wrong in his life on her . . . .Rosario (Chayo) De Leon
Cisneros's story is a rich example of how a writer's interest in religious language and objects can bypass negative hermeneutics, and simply rest fascinated in the spectacle of the religious details and behaviors of a mainstream religion, here a Spanish American community in the southwest United States. Also, this minority religious culture, complete with its prayers, devotions, religious formulas, superstitions and idolatries (can we distinguish the last two from the first two?) is then connected in the last example with the type of heroine we expect in a New Yorker short story, a self-motivated average sensuous woman, who uses the language of her peo-ple to express her own desires.
The remarkable quality of the last prayer is a sort of feminist appro-priation of traditional religious language, but without doing great violence to that language, and without subsiding into the comfortable formulas we might associate with New Age and modern goddess religion. (One difficulty with our language, or lack thereof, is that it invites stereotypical phrases like "New Age," when in fact the interior dynamics of New Age, and its complicated contact with traditional religion, is of extreme interest.) Some-how Cisneros leaves both sides invigorated, the language of piety, and the language of personally appropriated piety. What is this life which both sides have? How does such language lead to personal enrichment, when supposedly it should suppress? "Personal enrichment," of course, is a phrase belonging to another language, that of psychology and pop psychology. We need a tough critical language that can trace the issues and nature of personal enrichment in the complex embodiment of a work of literature. This leads to a number of themes that our critical languages need to explore.
First, the great difficulty in writing about religious language, or in religious language, is that no language is more subject to parody. It is extremely difficult to scalpel through the parodic distortions of a religious language to seek the right tone which Bergman, with controversial success, sought in Through a Glass Darkly. Our examples so far have struggled with distortions of sectarian points of view: the Southern Baptist rhetoric of O'Connor, the Dutch Reform rhetoric of Dinesen, the secular European piety of Bergman, the Spanish Catholic language of Cisneros; and all four suggest a truth of some sort in these languages. What is this truth? Is it a universal truth that cuts across all four, some lowest common denomi-nator (with all the perils, as a result, of being bland)? Or is it a truth only to be found in that particular denomination, as it seeks to articulate its own religious language (and thus only an ideology)?
Second, one of the promising areas of critical religious research is the way in which religious traditions, until recently considered as supporting colonialist and capitalist structures, in fact have supported the aspirations of minority cultures and races and genders. Some of the most exciting work now may well be in explorations of the use of religion by enslaved Negroes, by inhabitants of ghettos, by poor frontier women or by women generally. Thus Jameson again: "the work of Eugene Genovese on black religion restores the vitality of these utterances by reading them, not as the replication of imposed beliefs, but rather as a process whereby the hege-monic Christianity of the slave-owners is appropriated, secretly emptied of its content and subverted to the transmission of quite different opposi-tional and coded messages" (86). Completely subverted? Maybe. In "The Little Black Boy," to take a different example, does Blake entirely subvert Christian doctrines? But the point about appropriation is a very good one, and accounts for one of the vital parts of current Cultural Studies. As to the depth and nature of the subversion, I would say that the issue is worth discussing.
In Cisneros we smile at the religious language, but the satire is not destructive, but rather part of a complex exploratory presentation of human desire and anguish. The religious objects are simply presented as an integral part of the experience. Cultural Studies is often focused on the material objects of culture; and "materialism" is a term often put forth as though it refuted something. One discovery of Giles's book is that of a Catholic communal materialism which reminds us that our reverence for material practices can derive from both religious and anti-religious sources. In the current work of art historians, the role of icons is being discussed without being tied to the old Protestant/Catholic, or Christian/Pagan, controversies. There is a freshness in the air, a willingness simply to see how religious objects work.
Other interesting ways of assimilating religious language include Kathryn Stockton's God Between the Lips, where the lesbian agenda does not replace but in fact reopens for us the intrinsic interest of Victorian religious language. John Maynard brings together the competing but also cooperating discourses of Victorian erotics and Victorian religion, to their mutual invigoration. Philippe Sollers's novel Women is one of the more notable examples of novels fascinated by the vitality of Catholic religious language, and the way it intersects with one's own sensual life. Etty Hillesum's An Interrupted Life, the journal of a holocaust victim, even-tually integrates her experience with an eclectic religious language composed of Jewish, Christian, and other elements.
(6) In The Brothers Karamazov, Alyosha is with Grushenka, and Dostoyevsky writes:
This woman, this "dreadful" woman, had no terror for him now, none of that terror that had stirred in his soul at any passing thought of woman. On the contrary, this woman, dreaded above all women, sitting now on his knee, holding him in her arms, aroused in him now a quite different, unexpected, peculiar feeling, a feeling of the intensest and purest interest without a trace of fear, of his former terror. (III. vii, pp. 419-20)
We glimpse briefly and it is surprising how brief such glimpses are in such a long novel written to expand on such glimpsesthe point where a personality experiences an upheaval that leads to spiritual growth. When we think of narrative and story, "spiritual growth" is a central issue. Yet nowhere is the limitation of our current discourses more visible when it comes to thinking about this notion. The Victorian novel is more or less organized around moments of spiritual growth, or spiritual failure, mo-ments in which a character breaks through, or doesn't, into a new level of generosity, understanding, compassion, honesty, remorse, forgiveness. He Knew He Was Right, Can You Forgive Her?, are titles pointedly designed by Trollope to highlight this tradition. Thomas Hardy rejected the religious argument that suffering is somehow worth it if it leads to spiritual growth. But he found the topic of central importance. Our current discourse does not. What is spiritual growth? What impedes it? What furthers it? Does it have beginning points and end points? Is individual spiritual growth part of a larger system of some sort? What is its importance, if meanwhile thousands are being bombed? What is the relation between spiritual growth and social justice? We need languages to discuss these things.
As to hints and directions, the new ethical criticism (from Wayne Booth to Hillis Miller) may provide one kind of model. But there can be something potentially static and resented in ethical criticism: "such sinister and silent collusion between particular, concrete arrangements of power and an abstract and 'universal' style of representation seemed to many to be the peculiar specialty of ethics" (Harpham 388). Political criticism has shown how the humanistic "subject" of ethics is constructed by discourses which often exclude others. We need a more dynamic notion of the spiritual subject in its many varieties. We need a way to place ethical placing, to place the ethical view within a larger structure, like that of developing spiritual lives. Another productive model is Rosemary Haughton's The Transformation of Man, the most interesting part of which is its four stories, the first about two siblings who have a fight but as a result "get somewhere." Haughton represents a number of theologians who have become interested in the role of "story" in religious experience, the story we tell of ourselves to others, the story a society tells about itself, a story with parts and implications. The idea of "story" brings together the individual and the social, as in Levi-Strauss's account of the way myths finesse contradictions in social life; new historicism, like Jameson's, is expert at unearthing hidden contradictions, but not so good at discussing how these are negotiated by the individual, and to what effect. Is there a right story for the individual, a story as "seen by God," however changeable moment by moment and adaptable to new circumstances? "Getting somewhere" is a notion explored in Etty Hillesum's An Inter-rupted Life, the most articulated interior account of a spiritual journey and transformation since St. Thérèse's Story of a Soul. (When has that book been discussed in our criticism, or how could it be, except, as it has, in an eerily fascinated Freudian manner?) Is there such a thing as getting somewhere into greater goodness, greater truth, greater beauty, greater justice, a getting somewhere, for the individual and society, that is not prescriptive and universalist in a bad sense? Are some stories more clarifying than others? Cultural Studies is expert at unearthing cultural stories, but is unable to discriminate better from worse. What we need for spiritual growth is the kind of criticism we saw at its best in Miller's The Disappearance of God and Hartman's Wordsworth's Poetry, books not particularly concerned with the concept of spiritual growth, but showing careful phenomenological tracings of the spiritual life; yet these works seem to exist in a late new critical time warp of little relevance to today. Alyosha's breakthrough when he recovers his religion is described in terms very similar to Stephen Dedalus's breakthrough when he rejects his religion, and both are rooted in Pauline and Augustinian moments of conversion. How do we render such moments to ourselves in our own terms?
The great obstacle to much of these considerations may be the claims of Cultural Studies for an extreme relativism and particularism. If in many current religious articles, positive terms like "transcendental," "spiritual," "divine," "numinous," "mystical," are coded words with little content, the same applies to the negative terms common in Cultural Studies: "essentialism," "totalizing," "humanism," "universalism," etc. An in-formed religious criticism can help clarify the conceptual blur in both these negative and positive terms. "Universalism," for example, may be attacked on social or epistemological grounds: on social grounds, when a narrow class value (Arnoldian culture) is promoted as universal. On epistemological grounds, when any concept is shielded from decon-struction. The religious answer to both "universalisms" (which confus-ingly appeal to each other) is that social universals have continually to be reexamined to get to the real universals associated with the poor; and that epistemological universals have continually to be questioned in the light of a religious challenge suspicious of intellectual substitutes for God. Several "religion and literature" essays are currently exploring the "mystical" dimension of Derrida, with his sense of how terms take over, dissolve, recombine, and tie a religious experience to an endlessly receding horizon.
There are also interesting intersections now occurring among the various discourses that try to reinstate "presence" against the Derridean deconstruction or, better, by means of the pruning first demanded by such deconstruction. Some critics are converging on a material presence called "the body," Joyce's poor dogsbody, the body of the poor, the tortured body. In some orthodox Christian sense, Christ is material man. Conrad's Heart of Darkness pursues its deconstructive sense of lost metaphysical presence, but for all its horrific rhetoric may miss a more concrete presence, the persons of the natives: how much of this blindness is Marlow's and how much Conrad's? And a treatise could be written on the curious intersection between Christian pragmatism and Rortyan pragma-tism, each oddly distrustful of universalisms: how can you love God whom you cannot see if you cannot love your neighbor whom you can see?
Finally, what is the relation between religious notions of personal growth and psychological notions? In Natural Supernaturalism, Abrams says something so familiar that it constitutes current orthodoxy:
The Christian theodicy of the private life, in the long lineage of Augustine's Confessions, transfers the locus of the primary concern with evil from the providential history of mankind to the providential history of the individual self, and justifies the experience of wrongdoing, suffering, and loss as a necessary means toward the greater good of personal redemption. But Wordsworth's is a secular theodicya theodicy without an operative theos -- which retains the form of the ancient reasoning, but translates controlling Providence into an immanent teleology, makes the process coterminous with our life in this world, and justifies suffering as the necessary means toward the end of a greater good which is nothing other than the stage of achieved maturity.
Such Wordsworthian theodicy "translates the painful process of Christian conversion and redemption into a painful process of self-formation, crisis, and self-recognition, which culminates in a stage of self-coherence, self-awareness, and assured power that is its own reward" (95-96). The distinction is familiar, but because of it, the old religious theodicy seems flat and conventional, the new secular theodicy seems bland and aimless. In any event, New Historicism has hatcheted Wordsworth's "self-discovery" into a thing of shreds and patches. In fact, might there be a way of reinvigorating both religious and psychological traditions by bringing them into new forms of contact with each other?
Whose spirit is this? we said, because we knew
It was the spirit that we sought and knew
That we should ask this often as she sang.-- Wallace Stevens, "The Idea of Order at Key West"
This phrase has been ringing in my ears for several weeks: you need courage to put that into words. God's name. S. [Spier] once said to me that it took quite a long time before he dared to say "God", without feeling that there was something ridiculous about it. Even though he was a believer. And he said he prayed every night, prayed for others. And, shameless and brazen as always, wanting to know everything there is to know, I asked, "What exactly do you say when you pray?" And he was suddenly overcome with embarrassment, this man who always has clear, glass-bright answers to all my most searching and intimate questions, and he said shyly: "That I cannot tell you. Not yet. Later"-- Etty Hillesum, An Interrupted Life
This enterprise of seeking a religious critical language may come tumbling down around this topic. We have no way of talking about God in literary criticism. Yet the lesser terms we use, "meaning of life," "getting somewhere," "spiritual development," if we use them at all, tend inex-orably to raise the God question. And if they don't, they tend to revert to reductive modes of discourse. And because God comes tumbling in behind these questions, literary criticism avoids thembut to its cost, the result often being an evasive Pyrrhonian skepticism. Of course our literary historians can talk about writer's conceptions of God, and can do so in very distinguished and helpful ways, usually by avoiding the God term and replacing it with "religion." "God" is the place in the discourse when scholarly neutrality slips into something else, negative, positive, evasive. It is the place where historical scholarship meets a major issue, and steps back so that the historical structure will not be endangered (often a good move). It is the place where the critic, like Spier the Jungian analyst who is Etty's mentor in An Interrupted Life, is most embarrassed, most exposed, most naked. It demands talk about ultimate questions, indeed the ultimate question. Yet if such talk is excluded, we miss the pith and core and "Ahnung" of the literary drive in many cases. From Ingmar Bergman to Woody Allen, from James Joyce to John Updike, the God question haunts and perplexes and burns, as much as it did for Augustine. But we are unable to talk about the essential thing. Why?
For the historical critic, the question of the existence of God evokes various responses: (a) rejection, which reveals itself in the hostility of the critic and shows up as anti-religious agenda, in many new historicist works, (b) acceptance, which reveals itself in bland acceptance as in the high Victorian mode, and marginal religious "criticism" today, (c) suspension of the question, as in the best of historical scholarship cited above. "C" usually leaves us with a haunted feeling and at the edge of questions like: what do we really think of this God business, or of Keats's, or Fitzgerald's, or Emerson's ultimate view? The question is thought to be best avoided, but lack of reflection can partially vitiate the scholarship. For example, E. P. Thompson's interpretation of the working movement and its attendant literature in The Making of the Working Class is hurt by his excessive hostility to the Methodist theology and theology itself. Walter Haughton's magisterial Victorian Frame of Mind is flawed by its identification of Christianity with Puritan Christianity, and so misses the com-plexity of religious history. Cultural Studies and its attendant disciplines are hard edged with ultimate evaluation, though evaluation of a "this goes without saying" nature. We need to bring up from the depths the ghosts of what we are evaluating, and evaluate them in the open. The biggest ghost is God. And here Edward Said's anger (at that "religious" veering toward "the private and hermetic over the public and social") and Jonathan Culler's dismay (that religious criticism is undermining the energetic de-mythologizing of comparative literature) become relevant. At least these critics are willing to talk about the question, and demand that we talk about a subject politely excluded from serious conversation. Paradoxically many religious critics are not ready to talk, except to the already converted.
Etty's Spier is afraid to talk about prayer, because it would require him to talk about God. How can one use the word, "God," in a sentence in a literary critical work. We can at least be aware of the number of quotation marks we use, as in the case of the Victorian congregation, some of whom heard the preacher speak literally (without quotation marks), others who heard single quotations marks, and others who heard double quotation marks. The believer's God, the questioner's 'God', the skeptic's "God" all represent voices needing to be heard. (Imagine Newman, Arnold, and Mill sitting in the same congregation.) The intricacy and brilliance of a modern religious poem like Geoffrey Hill's "The Mystery of the Charity of Charles Péguy" is partly due to its management of these various voices.
One of the many reasons for avoidance is that the God issue introduces an enormous host of problems (and suddenly makes relevant two thou-sand years of theologizingwhat an immense load to add to our already over-loaded graduate students.) If there is no God, everything is permitted, says Ivan Karamazov. But if there is a God, everything goes crazy. Also all the worst bogies seem to be reintroduced, resignation, superstition, religious wars, questions of old morality. Also, a critic's entire life is sud-denly at stake, his or her whole long often painful relation to a religious tradition which may have penetrated at vulnerable times, often via parents, into one's deepest sense of self, of sex, or life vision.
We seem in a terrible dilemma: we cannot talk about it, but if we don't, we ignore something fundamental at the heart of the work. So our powerful critical languages go on poking at what seem to be edges, until we decide (as in a common new historicist conversion) that the edge is the center. But like Melville's whale, the God question rises up from the displaced edge and threatens to overwhelm us.
Of all the topics in my laundry list, this is the most important and the most difficult. I cannot imagine what such a language would look like in our culture. But we could at least talk about remnants of God, or hungers for God, or "experiences" of God, as they occur in literary works and in our experience of literary works; and in fact this is what my seven examples do. If religious language is a language of desire, what is the desire for? For a lost womb, for a classless society, for no death, for God? When is the desire misshapen? How is the desire fulfilled? How does the language of desire become distorted, and religious phrasing a distortion? A form of literary criticism I find interesting is Kierkegaard's Fear and Trembling which manages to talk, not about God, but about Abraham's faith, in a witty and circumambient manner, circling the fort, trying out theories of the case, coming up with paradoxical formulations, and in the end at least opening up to us the fascination and the mystery and the power of Abraham. Perhaps there are ways of talking about things we really cannot talk about very well. Deconstructive criticism is notorious for a sometimes frolicky consciousness about itself, because of its self-consciousness about its own vulnerability to deconstruction. And in talk about God, self-consciousness is put to its most intense test.
Religious critical discourse, when it is "God-talk," may be some personal form of musing as in a Lentricchia; it may be reinvesting marginalized religious discourse as in Cisneros; it may be playing with the edges of religious and secular discourse like Bergman and O'Connor; it may be some further kind of history writing that finesses passionate interest into objective reporting. Harold Bloom's The American Religion is an interesting case for its historical insight into some of our least fashionable religions, and its odd agenda. Bloom's own theology of God as a version of the autonomous imagination is strongly engaged and thus strongly subject to exposure. Another place to look is to our recent "literary" biblical criticism, as practiced by Frye and Kermode, Alter and Hartman, Girard and Bloom. The oddest of these, again, is Bloom with his theory of the J writer and "her" version of the uncanny pre-priestly Yahweh who creates and murders. Bloom's strong "misreading" represents at least an engaged criticism which dares to frame the fearful symmetry of the issue. Whatever an adequate discourse might be, we need a mode of analysis, a tough and critical mode of proceeding, which takes into account all sides of the case, which is neither dismissive nor gullible, which seeks to "explore" in Eliot's sense and in a manner that is of interest to feminists, new historicists, politically engaged writers, and to all who have a pressing interest in the culture of our time.
The above seven passages make little sense if the God question is put aside. Yeats's dream is illusion, Stevens's quiet is non-noise, O'Connor's preacher man is a con, Bergman's David is playing word games, Cisneros's prayers are superstitions, Alyosha's change of heart is a mood-swing, and Stevens's "spirit" honorific rhetoric. Etty's Spier should be ashamed of himself for lending an otherwise honest mind to ancient hocus-pocus. Of course, a theological approach to these moments can flatten them out as fully as the non-theological approach; and a non-theological approach then leads to other ways to make the passages interesting, through deconstruction, through political interpretation, through a feminist analysis, etc. But my argument is that if we are not able somehow to keep the God question open, we are poor readers, because the question is open for the writers we study.
Another interesting hint for such discussion is the controversial ending of Jameson's The Political Unconscious. Jameson's final question has similarities to the question behind this essay:
[H]ow is it possible for a cultural text which fulfills a demonstrably ideological function, as a hegemonic work whose formal categories as well as its content secure the legitimation of this or that form of class dominationhow is it possible for such a text to embody a properly Utopian impulse, or to resonate a universal value inconsistent with the narrower limits of class privilege which inform its more immediate ideological vocation? (288)
Or more positively:
The achieved collectivity or organic group of whatever kindoppressors fully as much as oppressedis Utopian not in itself, but only insofar as all such collectivities are themselves figures for the ultimate concrete collective life of an achieved Utopian or classless society. (291)
I like Jameson's interest in the Utopian glints in nasty bourgeois literature. His suspicions of its distortions, and his interest in its leavening role, is not unlike what I would imagine in a religious literary criticism. In an astonishing act of generosity, Jameson allows: "The preceding analysis entitles us to conclude that all class consciousness of whatever type is Utopian insofar as it expresses the unity of a collectivity" (290-91),which presumably applies to Irish revivalists and Gaelic peasants, monks and professors, Baptist preachers and their audiences, Swedish film companies, Catholic cults, and literary critics. Jameson warns us that his Utopian glints allude "to the as yet untheorized objectthe collectiveto which they make imperfect allusion" (294). A religious literary criticism might agree and substitute a God term for "the collective." In any event, the object is as yet untheorized.
Interestingly, Jameson's gap between the ideological distortion and Utopian depth of literary works is rather like Wayne Booth's gap between the conventional surface and humane depths of an Austen text. On the surface, Austen argues that a woman's happiness consists in a perfect marriage; underneath, she shows the inadequacy of any such simplistic ideal and the norm of a much richer human ideal. Similarly, David Parker's distinguished Ethics, Theory and the Novel reinvokes D.H. Lawrence's notion of the ways in which novels ethically "question the moral systems they might superficially be taken to be supporting" (147). How we reconcile such "prophetic" insights with our equally passionate commitments to pluralism and multiculturalism is one of the great ques-tions for a religious literary criticism.
For an adequate reading of the religious dimensions of literary texts, we need languages that are critical and passionate, ecumenical and committed, detached and empathic. Such languages need to enter into productive dialogue with our reigning discourses. They need to appeal not only to the converted, but also to those with no pronounced commitments, and also be helpful to those who are hostile to religion. The problem with many of the offhand attacks on religious criticism is that they have little to attack except fundamentalist simplicities, which makes their own attacks seem simplistic. The subject of religious experience, and of course religion itself, is a profoundly divisive and disturbing subject, and for that reason famously avoided. Nevertheless, we need to take on these dark currents, and begin to talk about them. As Jonathan Culler says:
The political and intellectual health of our nation requires, I submit, that the religious justifications of political positions and thus religious discourse be as much a subject of debate and critique as other ideological formations and discourses.
A thousand years seems to separate Culler from Lentricchia's odd recovery at the end of "En Route to Retreat. Revisiting Mepkin Abbey":
I run across this passage in Merton: "When a man enters a monastery he has to stand before the community, and formally respond to a ritual question: Quod petis? 'What do you ask?' His answer is not that he seeks a happy life, or escape from anxiety, or freedom from sin, or moral perfection, or the summit of contemplation. The answer is that he seeks mercy." I try to, but cannot imagine what the secular world would have to become for that ritual to obtain, for it to be one of ours.
The conversation between Culler and Lentricchia is indeed unimaginable; for that matter the conversation between Lentricchia and traditional faith is almost unimaginable. And yet some conversation must begin if we are to be adequate readers of Yeats's man who dreamed of faeryland, of Stevens's quiet, of O'Connor's preacher, of Bergman's rhetoric, of Cisneros's mila-grito girl, of Alyosha on Grushenka's lap, of Stevens's untheorized object.
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