European Literature and Theology in the Twentieth Century is a collection of essays originally delivered at the Fourth National Conference on Literature and Religion held at Durham University, England, in 1988. These essays, written both by professional academics and by professional clergymen, develop issues concerning time and its meaning in the post-Waste Land world of the twentieth century. As the introduction puts it, the "central themes" of the volume are "the mystery of time, past, present and future, and the problem of redemption." These themes are explored in eleven essays that deal with writers both modernist (Mann, Eliot, [End Page 354] Lawrence, Lewis, Beckett, Lowry, and Dostoevsky) and postmodernist (Kundera, and writers of contemporary apocalyptic fiction). A mixed bag of critical speculation and theological generalization, the essays nevertheless sketch out the range of difficulties twentieth-century literature has in thinking transcendence. It is on this question of the status of alterity and otherness in this literature that the volume's interest in the "dialectic between the closing of time . . . and its opening up, between closure and disclosure," is most apparent.
Most helpful in thinking this dialectic is Kierkegaard's concept of the "demonic," referred to by George Pattison in his essay on Mann's Doctor Faustus. As Pattison points out, for Kierkegaard, the demonic is characterized by "shutupness": by an egotistical self-sufficiency that refuses communication with any other, rejects all transcendence, and thereby remains closed to all disclosures of otherness and alterity. This theme of shut-upness—or, to use an appropriate Levinasian term, "being for-itself"—works its way through a number of this volume's essays as one term of the closure/disclosure dialectic. It underlies such diverse discussions as Colin Crowder's analysis of critical appropriations of Dostoevsky, Donald Mackenzie's look at the truncated apocalypse of Lawrence, Francis Doherty's description of Lowry's vision of hell, and Robert Detweiler's observations on the limitations of Baudrillard's notions of imploding simulacra. The rejection of transcendence and alterity constitutes, for many of these writers, the demonic condition of the modern waste land.
Other essays explore the cryptic traces of an alterity that breaks into this shut-upness, dis-closing the fractures in its self-completeness that are the annunciations of an otherness that makes a difference. Most telling in this regard is Michael Edwards' essay, "Rewriting The Waste Land." Along with an incisive analysis of the ways Eliot, in Four Quartets, rewrites the rhetoric, location, and matter of The Waste Land, Edwards also shows how the later poem redefines speech as a "multipersonal utterance" constituting an "othering of the self" that opens its shut-upness to a relation with alterity. This original relation, according to Levinas, is the foundation of being as ethics, of the being for-an-other that precedes being for-itself. It is towards this sense of the ethical that many of these essays are moving, and their interest in the question of being's relation with transcendence and alterity, and in how that question is posed by the modern and postmodern texts they discuss, comprises the volume's most significant contribution to the conjunction of twentieth century literature and theology. [End Page 355]