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  • Dying Gods in Twentieth-Century Fiction
  • Morton P. Levitt
K. J. Phillips. Dying Gods in Twentieth-Century Fiction. Lewisburg: Bucknell UP; London: Associated UP, 1990. 257 pp. $37.50.

Steeped in the workings of myth and in the mythic sources which so profoundly influenced the modernist novel, this is one of the best books to date on this intricate and rewarding subject. Phillips knows the literature well, understands its contexts, and is secure in her judgments. That I do not always agree with her judgments—or, indeed, with her choices—in no way diminishes my respect for her accomplishment. There are more revelations here by far than there are disagreements.

The scheme is straightforward: "Modern authors have transformed the myths (of dying gods) either ironically (to explore the hellish quality of modern life) or 'programmatically' (to bring the divine back into life)." They have managed, in the process, to raise larger, more traditional issues: "to make reflexive statements about art" (about the nature of art and the role of the artist, not what postmodernist critics call "self-reflexivity"); "to question the metaphysical nature of the world" (what Phillips calls "spirituality"); "and to explore political and social issues" (in response to history and to Phillips' own most polemical interest, gender). It [End Page 688] is not an inevitable scheme, but it serves as well as any other as a means to explore some of the major works of the century and some of the most persistent issues that they raise.

In speaking of Woolf's use of the Demeter-Persephone-Hades "triangle" in To the Lighthouse, of Forster's use of Hindu and Moslem rites in A Passage to India, of Faulkner's use of Isis and Osiris in Pylon, among others, "I assume influence," Phillips writes, "not archetypes." That is, her concern is with conscious, literary borrowings (a Western mode) rather than with intuitive, inherent constructions which may be converted to literature. Her omission of Kazantzakis, at once the most intuitive and knowing of mythmakers, is in this sense the book's major defect. But it is balanced by perceptive and often original readings: that Beckett parodies Joycean myth in the Trilogy; that Conrad makes use of Tezcatlipoca, the "twin" of Quetzalcoatl, in Nostromo; that Kafka is very precise in his handling of myth (although I think Phillips misses the real irony at the end of The Metamorphosis).

From a feminist perspective, Jung is the villain of the piece in his mythic distortions; Lawrence is predictably dishonest toward women in his myth; even Woolf's Mrs. Ramsay accepts the wrong stereotypes. (Hemingway, interestingly, is exculpated in The Sun Also Rises.) On another level, the historical, Lawrence's politics are "reprehensible," and Mann's irony is "too neutral" in the face of the evils against which he wrote his Joseph novels. By and large, however, Phillips applauds the convention and its development: "by and large twentieth-century authors have used myth to understand and act in the world."

Among her other subjects are Bellow, García Márquez, Konwicki, Flannery O'Connor, Malamud, Welty, Oates, and Francis Ford Coppola. There is a useful bibliography.

Morton P. Levitt
Temple University


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