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Recherche littéraire / Literary Research

Automne / Fall 2020

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Julie K. Allen, Eugene L. Arva, Jean Bessière, Helena Carválho Buescu, Vanessa Byrnes, Chloé Chaudet, Yves Clavaron, Christophe Den Tandt, Catherine Depretto., Theo D’haen, Caius Dobrescu, Dong Yang, Brahim El Guabli, Nikki Fogle, Gerald Gillespie, Kathleen Gyssels, Oliver Harris, Sándor Hites, Michelle Keown, S Satish Kumar, Jacques Marx, Jessica Maufort, Marc Maufort, Jopi Nyman, David O'Donnell, Liedeke Plate, Judith Rauscher, Haun Saussy, Karen-Margrethe Simonsen, Chris Thurman, Anne Williams, Janet M. Wilson, Chantal Zabus, Gang Zhou

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Kitty Millet and Dorothy Figueira, eds. Fault Lines of Modernity: The Fractures and Repairs of Religion, Ethics, and Literature. New York: Bloomsbury, 2019. Pp. viii + 258. ISBN: 9781501316654. (Jenny Webb)

Kitty Millet and Dorothy Figueira, eds. Fault Lines of Modernity: The Fractures and Repairs of Religion, Ethics, and Literature. New York: Bloomsbury, 2019. Pp. viii + 258. ISBN: 9781501316654.

Jenny Webb

jennywebb37@gmail.com

Bangor University

The project undertaken in Fault Lines of Modernity: The Fractures and Repairs of Religion, Ethics, and Literature is, by nature of its subject, large, complex, and at times contradictory. It is also fascinating, compelling, and thought provoking. Dorothy Figueira and Kitty Millet have assembled a collection of papers all centered around exploring the relationships between literature, ethics, and religion and drawn from the work of scholars who participated in the 2013 ICLA conference in Paris and a subsequent conference on “Fault Lines of Modernity” held in 2014 in San Francisco. These conferences led to the founding of the ICLA Research Committee on Religions, Ethics, and Literature, and this volume represents the Committee’s first publication. Given the wide range of topics under consideration here in this volume, it is clear that the work of the Committee has been fruitful.

The concept of the “fault line” is utilized to frame the volume’s particular understanding of its subjects: “This collection maps religion as a modern fault line, whose social fissures have split the earth into separate and permanently disconnected sectors, and asks whether or not literature can be reconceived, reimagined, or repurposed as repair in such a world where religion appears to isolate its adherents, disconnecting them from other communities” (1). Millet provides a comprehensive introduction that expands this initial framing, grounding the project in “the philosophical principles that underwrite [the] posited relationships” ←249 | 250→between literature, religion, and ethics (1). Millet argues that the West, via Kant and subsequently Hegel, has imagined literature as that which produces space for the transcendental. The senses interact with literature in particular ways, and the transcendental categories thus generated via imagination’s mediating operation map a particular set of axes whose vectors describe the possibility and potential necessary to both the religious and the ethical. Thus, as Millet explains, “[i]n this way, literature opens a place for a transcendental, but does this place demand that the transcendental space be occupied by some entity? To some extent, literature produces the coordinates for a transcendental to be housed among mere mortals whether or not that being occupies the space, whether or not that space is filled in by the Divine, whether or not it is ethical to appropriate this position” (14).

This theoretical framing is important because it makes clear the ways in which the pieces in this volume are grounded in a theoretical approach that produces two central themes: the question of literature’s utility, and the question of literature’s ontology. To one degree or another, each piece here is concerned with what literature does and how that work can be used within a community, or with what literature is and how that identity affects literature’s relational mode of being in the world. In this sense, Fault Lines of Modernity asks questions that exceed its topical concerns and address the field of literature more broadly, thus increasing its own value and utility in the ongoing discussions of literary studies.

The volume groups the papers into four main sections: 1) the transcendental and transcendence, 2) literature, 3) religion, and 4) ethics. While space does not permit a full engagement with every paper in each section, I will provide a brief overview of each section’s content in order to give a better sense of the variety of approaches, views, and concerns developed throughout the volume.

“Part One: The Transcendental and Transcendence” is comprised of three chapters: “Rewriting Grand Narratives as a Supra Temporal Mystical Competition: Illustrations from Dante, Rabelais, Cervantes, Goethe, Proust, Mann, and Joyce” by Gerald Gillespie; “ ‘Clearer Awareness of the … Crisis’: Erich Auerbach’s Radical Relativism and the ‘Wealth of Conflicts’ of the Historical Imperative” by Geoffrey Green; and “Secularism and Post-Secularism” by Wlad Godzich. Gillespie’s work explores the ways that grand narratives within the western tradition serve as connective sacramental tissue that builds culture in bridging past, present, and future through the witness of change. These grand narratives ←250 | 251→thus serve as a type of cultural touchstone. While the reading here is invigorating in its comparative ability, Gillespie unfortunately does not address the clear questions of canon and the ethics of the exclusion process that undergird the concept of a grand western (Christian) literary tradition. In contrast to Gillespie’s breadth, Green chooses depth in his focus on the work of Eric Auerbach. Green’s approach focuses on what Auerbach teaches regarding how to interpret texts in light of the overlapping tensions of modernity, using the work of Ernst Robert Curtius as a foil. Ultimately, Green argues that these overlapping tensions reveal the relationship between religion, literature, and ethics via Auerbach’s work. Green provides an inviting way to explore Auerbach beyond Mimesis, and clears space for further readings to bring Auerbach in conversation with more contemporary theoretical discussions (e.g., see pages 58–59 and the potential to engage contemporary ecological ethics). Godzich, in turn, examines the relationship between secularism and post-secularism, framing his discussion in terms of each party’s relation to the transcendental. For Godzich, secularists today “want to insure that the place of the old transcendental remains vacant” both from any religious incursion as well as any other potentially transcendental ideology (69). Following this line of enquiry, Godzich posits a triangular form to the debate between secularism and post-secularism in which there is the secularist position (formulated above), the religious position (advocating a return), and the globalist position (seeking world order via regulation through occupation of the vacated transcendental space). The piece ends by returning to the book’s subjects as a whole in light of the theoretical structures Godzich has just explicated, advocating an increased scrutiny of post-secularist forays into the question of reading and calling for a discussion of post-secular neo-formalism.

With the theoretical ground thus covered, “Part Two: Literature” turns to pieces that engage specific authors and genres. Shawna Vesco provides “Redemptive Readings between Maurice Blanchot and Franz Rosenzweig,” which compares the ways in which reading and writing within both literature and Judaism each open onto the question of the relation between ethics and community. Vesco’s work turns to the form of revelation as redemptive in both authors given their articulation of language’s ability to remain sustained and open, avoiding the collapse into synthesis. Vesco is followed by Ipshita Chanda’s “ ‘So What If You Are Big?’: The Ethics of Plurality in Indian Literatures of Devotion.” In order to read the broadly pluralistic content of Indian devotional poetry, ←251 | 252→Chanda utilizes Merleau Ponty’s concept of “sedimentation,” or the accretion of understanding of the world that forms through continually living in it. In Chanda’s reading, the differences of language and culture in Indian devotional poetry are built upon a culturally sedimented foundation centered around an emotional relationship with the divine that allows the poet to imaginatively inhabit a pluralistic society centered around what Chanda terms an “ethics of pluralism” (100). Chanda ends on a provocative question – “whether in literary studies, we can conceptualize the ‘modern’ as a phenomenological category rather than a temporal one” (117) – and her work here demonstrates the value of readings whose comparativism extends beyond the Judeo-Christian worldview of the majority of the western literary canon. Part Two then concludes with Christopher Weinberger’s “Alterity and the Ethics of the Novel in J. M. Coetzee’s Quasi-Realism.” Weinberger uses Coetzee to explore the complicated question of ethics in the novel, which has traditionally been understood in terms of the novel’s ability to produce mimetic identification, provoking either empathetic identification or negative rejection and thus reflection within the reader. Coetzee, Weinberger argues, is an author who, like other contemporary novelists such as Haruki Murakami, Zadie Smith, Salman Rushdie, Ruth Ozeki, and Mark Z. Danielewski, draws “on the anti-mimetic rhetorical strategies of metafiction for expressly ethical purposes” (144). Weinberger’s work here raises interest in the potential for other anti-mimetic genres often under explored in literary studies (e.g., speculative fiction) to participate productively in these discussions of literature, religion, and particularly, ethics: for example, consider the works of N. K. Jemisin, Vandana Singh, Rivers Solomon, Tomi Adeyemi, and Akwaeke Emezi, each of which deliberately utilizes the speculative in order to probe the contours of ethical relations.

“Part Three: Religion” brings the theme of the utility of literature into the foreground, as questions regarding how religious figures, forms, language, themes, etc. are used by various poets and authors in order to achieve or convey their particular aesthetic goal are considered. Sara Hackenberg begins this section with “Asmodeus, the ‘Eye of Providence,’ and the Ethics of Seeing in Nineteenth-Century Mystery Fiction.” Hackenberg traces the way in which the figure of Asmodeus is gradually complicated when the narratives are read paying special attention to the theme of vision / sight. As the detectives construct a concept of trustworthy visual epistemology, Asmodeus is likewise ←252 | 253→constructed in terms that reflect both the objective scientific sight and the divinely providential eye. For Hackenberg, this fusing of the demonic and the divine “infuses the Asmodeus gaze with a sense of ethics” while simultaneously complicating moral identity so that the perception cannot describe morality (160). Hope Howell Hodgkins then provides “Modernism’s Religious Rhetorics: Or, What Bothered Baudelaire,” in which she reads modernism’s power as being “found in the ultimate, otherworldly fulfillment implied by those religious rhetorics” (166). The promise of the author is aligned with the commitment of the divine so that religious concepts entered modernist terminology. The final piece in this section is Stephanie Heimgartner’s “Poetry and religion: Approaches to Christian transcendence in late-twentieth-century poets.” Heimgartner argues that the works of four poets – Les Murray, Wisława Szymborska, Inger Christensen, and Hans Magnus Enzensberger – “demonstrate a persistent desire among poets to speak of redemption as still a possibility for the modern era” (185). While each poet’s approach to this theme is decidedly distinct (e.g., poetry as supplying divine surplus, poetic irony as opening divine address, use of biblical source material and formal rhetoric), the combined force of their work argues for a continued religious relevance to contemporary literature as a necessary component of cultural literacy. Each of the pieces collected here provide interesting readings, and yet I found it worth discussing as noted above that each approaches religion in various terms of utility. Is there something about focusing on religion in literature that foregrounds religion as used by authors? What would discussions or readings of religion in literature look like without recourse to the concept of use?

The final section of the book, Part Four, then takes ethics as its organizing topic. Dorothy Figueira develops a thoughtful discussion concerning the political and ethical implications surrounding the shift from comparative literature to world literature within the academy in “Instituting the Other: Ethical Fault Lines in Readings and Pedagogies of Alterity.” Figueira argues that the politicization of alterity within the humanities is ethically problematic in the ways that minorities are often limited to self-study in order to satisfy institutional political agendas of perceived equality. She posits that much of the work on alterity has taken place from the position of a hermeneutics of suspicion, and promotes bringing a hermeneutics of belief (via Ricoeur and Levinas) into the conversation in order to address the ethically problematic institutional appropriation of alterity that the field of literary studies apparently is ←253 | 254→either disinterested in or even unable to address. Figueira’s careful, big picture approach to the question of ethics and literature contrasts usefully with Steven Shankman’s focused reading of Dostoevsky in “Thinking God on the Basis of Ethics: Levinas, The Brothers Karamazov, and Dostoevsky’s Anti-Semitism.” Shankman sees a Levinasian project in Dostoevsky’s work to think God through the ethical relation rather than the ontological question in The Brothers Karamazov, but one that is complicated by Dostoevsky’s return to an insistence on a doctrinal fidelity to the concepts of immortality and resurrection at the novel’s end. Shankman uses this fidelity to pivot to a discussion of Dostoevsky’s problematic anti-Semitism, now framed in his commitment to the ethical relation. While this move engages Dostoevsky’s ethics in their historical setting, it also misses an opportunity to continue the theoretical thread thus established – Dostoevsky’s insistence on both the ethical relation and the commitment to a religious doctrine grounded in the event of the resurrection resonate significantly with Alain Badiou’s Ethics: An Essay on the Understanding of Evil (2001; originally L’éthique: Essai sur la conscience du Mal [1998]) and his development of an evental fidelity as a ground for truth. Following Shankman, Kitty Millet provides the final piece in the collection, entitled “An Ethics for Missing Persons.” Here, Millet adroitly moves between the work of two Holocaust survivors, Jorge Semprun and H. G. Adler, in order to argue that they turned to “literature as their chosen form of representation because of literature’s capacity to exhibit a condition eliciting an ethics unique to itself. In this way, the survivor’s need to tell becomes the linchpin to a literary ethics” (227). Millet produces a careful, nuanced reading of Semprun’s Literature or Life (1998) and Adler’s The Journey, but importantly, refuses to collapse the separately witnessed traumas into a single categorical identity as such an act would, in itself, be unethical in its erasure of the individual experience.

In Fault Lines of Modernity, Millet and Figueira have produced a significant contribution to the fields of literature and religion as well as literature and ethics. Pieces that might otherwise have appeared as literary studies are instead gathered into a productive conversation in which the work of literature, religion, and ethics inform and influence each other. The pieces here argue for the enduring relevance of an ongoing dialogue concerning these relationships, which continue to signify albeit in multiplying and distinct forms within contemporary secularism. As a whole, the volume is well produced, readable and accessible, though not without the small typographic errors that plague us all in the world ←254 | 255→of contemporary academic publishing. My only significant reservation lies instead with an unfortunate limit to the volume’s philosophical conversation partners. While it is expected that this topic would (as it does) take up the work of thinkers such as Levinas, Kant, Ricoeur, Derrida, Taylor, Spinoza, Merleau-Ponty, and Habermas to varying degrees, the theoretical field engaged here is somewhat narrow and repetitive within the otherwise varied articles. I would not have been surprised to find Kierkegaard, Augustine, or Schopenhauer, for example. But even more so, I would have expected to find more in terms of the contemporary philosophical conversations occurring with reference to religious forms. The aforementioned Badiou (e.g., Ethics [1998/2001]; Saint Paul: The Foundation of Universalism [1997/2003]) and the work of Giorgio Agamben (e.g., The Time That Remains: A Commentary on the Letter to the Romans [2000/2005]; The Sacrament of Language: An Archaeology of the Oath [2008/2011]; Pilate and Jesus [2013/2015]; see also Agamben and Theology by Colby Dickinson [2011] for a more systematic overview) immediately spring to mind as areas for theoretical enrichment of this conversation. Additionally, work by contemporary philosophers reading literature and philosophy in order to think religion, such as Adam S. Miller (The Gospel According to David Foster Wallace: Boredom and Addiction in an Age of Distraction [2016]; Speculative Grace: Bruno Latour and Object-Oriented Theology [2013]), seem likely conversation partners. More broadly, developments like object oriented ontology, assemblage theory, and ecocriticism could be brought into the ethical dimension of these conversations with productive results.

To be clear, I do not take these absences to be a fatal flaw. And the few names mentioned above are not meant to be comprehensive or necessary in any way – they are instead meant to initiate a consideration of the ways in which contemporary philosophical discourse could be engaged fruitfully in what is clearly a fertile field. Figueira and Millet have produced an important contribution to literary studies, one that brings together the creative force of multiple perspectives, scholarship, and approaches. The hope after reading this volume, then, is that these conversations will both resonate and continue to expand.

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