Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Literary Secularism: A Short Abstract

Short Abstract

Though it has been fiercely debated in the social sciences in recent years, the topic of secularization has rarely been investigated in modern literature. Most modern writers are presumed to be straightforwardly secular – the interest in religion is either “personal” or it is absent entirely. In some cases the issue of secularism has been discussed, as one particular theme in single-author studies. Quite a number of critics have explored the interest of individual authors in religious textuality -- as in James Joyce and Judaism, for instance. But most of these studies are author-specific, religion-specific, or culture-specific. Moreover, they tend to suggest a secondary – merely thematic – status for the subject. Earlier generations of scholars did consider the issue on occasion, as in M.H. Abrams in Natural Surpernaturalism (1977), or T.S. Eliot, in his early essays on literary criticism. But these critics by and large limited themselves exclusively to English literature, and mainly poetry at that. Literary Secularism, by contrast, explores the theme of secularization as a general process at work in the modern novel, defined along cross-cultural and cross-religious lines. Secularization is often contradictory and ambiguous, especially as it is represented as an embodied problematic, but it is nevertheless a process that is centrally connected to the aims of several great modernist and postcolonial novels.

James Wood recently argued in The Broken Estate: Essays on Literature and Belief that the modern novel is the “enemy of superstition, the slayer of religions, the scrutineer of falsity,” a position that gives the novel clear marching orders. In my close readings of novels by writers like George Eliot, Rabindranath Tagore, James Joyce, V.S. Naipaul, and Salman Rushdie, I attempt to develop a more nuanced picture. To begin with, these novelists, insofar as their work is mimetic of existing social realities, represent a world in which religious communities and institutions continue to have great power and influence. It is no longer the determining or the only available world-view, but all of these writers suggest that religion is a force that is, in George Eliot's words (from Daniel Deronda), “still throbbing” in modern life. The second source of complication is more structural: the profound debate over secularism and religion inhabits the form of the narratives themselves. This need not be a straightforward matter of following (and deviating from) the shape of religious scriptures; in Eliot's Daniel Deronda, for instance, a seemingly conventional heterosexual marriage plot between Gwendolen Harleth and Daniel Deronda is diverted by the latter's discovery of his connection to Judaism. In contrast, the scriptural influence on the form of the novel is much more direct in Rushdie's Satanic Verses, in the “dream” chapters that emulate the episodic and visionary form of the Quran. The third point of interaction between the secular and the religious is essentially thematic: one sees the continued reference to religious scriptures, narratives, and metaphors in all of these works, even as the authors seem to be transforming classical religious icons (such as the Hindu image of “Sita,” the devoted wife) through modern recontextualizations. Of particular importance thematically are figurations of the religiously-marked body – as a site of identity, desire, and the unconscious – which figures centrally in all of my various close readings. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, through their assertion of creative will as literary authors, novelists assert a measure of power over religious scriptures, producing texts of human rather than divine provenance. To readers conversant with the logic of religious fundamentalism, the final point might seem obvious – imaginative works by named human authors are always in some sense “secular” by virtue of the fact that they are not divine. But the question of the location of authorship is a core problem, whose resolution is by no means obvious, in Rushdie's Satanic Verses, Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, or Orhan Pamuk’s Snow.

Modern writers engage secularism and secularization following a consistent set of representative strategies, despite their different experiences of religion as well as the ethno-linguistic and cultural differences one finds among the authors named. To a great extent the commonalities in the “literary secularism” of the authors in this study is a feature of the rapid exchanges of ideas and interests that is characteristic of the modern era in literature in general. But it is also a function of the global, universal appeal of the word “secularism” itself, which is currently in wide circulation around the world, even in societies like Iran, which does not accept it legally, or India, where the word itself ("secularism") is directly inscribed in the Indian constitution -- albeit under premises that differ from the western conception of the Separation of Church and State. Secularism in India in particular has proven to be a hotly contested problem, both in literature and in cultural politics; I explore some of the central issues in a chapter entitled “The Myriad Failures of Religious Law: The Uniform Civil Code Debate and Indian Feminism.” This chapter explores the controversy over laws pertaining to religious community norms regarding marriage, divorce, and human rights for women, with reference to novels by Taslima Nasrin (Shame) and Samina Ali (Madras on Rainy Days). Though the progressive wing of Indian politics has often favored laws that favor the Muslim community, feminists have sometimes found themselves in an uneasy alliance with conservative and nationalist political parties, who argue for the need for a “uniform civil code.” Despite its historical and contextual variations and the continuing contest over its precise social and political meaning, I argue that secularism remains a central part of the universal struggle for modernity.

Through my close readings of novels like Rabindranath Tagore's Gora, James Joyce's Ulysses, and V.S. Naipaul’s Finding the Center, I unpack the ambiguity of secularism in particular historical and cultural contexts. The ambiguity is expressed through the affective and embodied experience of the protagonists of these works, whose private subjectivity (which it is impossible to fully express publicly and symbolically) often conflicts with their public identities. For Daniel Deronda the site of this conflict is inscribed on his face, which Eliot defines as specifically ethnically unmarked (his nose is, in a strange novelistic joke, decidedly not Jewish), though at two important instances Deronda's face “speaks” his Jewish heritage through blushes that occur, involuntarily, of course, at moments where his ethno-religious identity is publicly challenged. Tagore’s troubled hero Gora faces a similar dilemma, as he struggles to reconcile the goals of an incipient anti-colonial nationalism with his religious commitments and unstable caste status. And Naipaul, for his part, struggles in a number semi-autobiographical writings with the implications of his strong sense of social (as opposed to theological) identity as a Hindu. While the particular experiences of the various narratives I encounter are somewhat different from one another, they all depict an image of secularity that no sociological or political formula can fully describe. Correspondingly, it is important to state that while works of literature are certainly artifacts expressing defining moments in the history of secularization, literature by itself doesn't produce secularism in either the cultural or the political context. In arguing for a limited social function for the literary, Literary Secularism differs from a book like Gauri Viswanathan's Outside the Fold, which is interested in scenes of religious conversion in literature as a mode of political subversion. In Literary Secularism: Religion and Modernity in Twentieth-Century Fiction, the issue of secularism in literature is not primarily a political point, but – as my title indicates – a literary one.


Shreeharsh said...

Hi Amardeep, is your book out?

As regular readers of your blog, I submit that you should give us the book for free... :-) Just kidding! (but it was worth the try...)

5:52 AM  
Amardeep said...

Shreeharsh, yes the book is out. And sadly, I'm not able to give it away for free...

2:03 PM  

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