Sunday, January 07, 2007

Putting the "Literary" in "Secularism"

[Cross-posted on The Valve]

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 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 of a 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 nearly three 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 trajectory that led 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.


David Mazella said...

Amardeep, since I'm still thinking about your secularity issues, I decided to put up a post at the Long Eighteenth. Incidentally, I think the Taylor/Rawls connection to the overlapping consensus is highly appropriate historically, but Rawls doesn't explain adequately how such overlapping consensus can be produced. Best,
Dave Mazella

1:45 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home