restricted access Religious Experience and the Modernist Novel (review)
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Reviewed by
Pericles Lewis. Religious Experience and the Modernist Novel. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2010. viii + 236 pp.

God, it turns out, had a significant afterlife in modernism. Theory and history have emphasized secularization, viewing “the emergence of modernity as the result of increasingly rational modes of thought and a rejection of belief in the supernatural.” Lukács famously describes the novel as “the epic of a world that has been abandoned by God” (23). The modernists themselves made the emphatic break from bourgeois Victorianism into a credo that allowed little acknowledgement of interest in secularity’s consequences. Lewis, discounting these tidy narratives, persuasively argues that what William James calls “religious experience” was of considerable import to modernists, especially those who were agnostic or atheist in inclination. That institutional religion no longer satisfied the intellectual elite (the broader culture remained traditionally religious until after midcentury) did not diminish their interest; if anything, it heightened the stakes. Despite the death of God, intellectuals shared an abiding preoccupation with questions about the kinds of experience that religion had once explained. The problem of interpreting such experience, given the absence of shared value systems and consequent “blurring of the lines between the sacred and the profane” (20), is central to modern social thought; Lewis proposes that it matters equally in the modernist novel, whose innovations shift attention from the “empirically observable world” to the interior life in which such experience occurs (23).

Lewis’s strategy for addressing this important topic is provocative and produces some surprisingly new insights. He aims both to [End Page 352] map a scarcely examined field of considerable complexity and to show that attention to religious experience motivated formal experimentation as well as themes about the fragility of human communion, the transience of epiphany, and the persistence of the dead. To this ambitious end, he pairs novelists and thinkers whose affinities allow him to invoke larger cultural and religious contexts in close readings: Henry James and William James, Marcel Proust and Emile Durkheim, Franz Kafka and Sigmund Freud, and Virginia Woolf and Max Weber. (Four had liberal or evangelical Protestant origins; four were assimilated or secular Jews. James Joyce, “both exemplary and singular” as an Irish Catholic, is treated in the conclusion [51].) For thinkers and novelists alike, Lewis proposes, traditional methods—positivism and realism—were inadequate to explain the “heightened tension and conflict” evident in competing phenomena from Nietzschean rebellion to newfound fundamentalism (43), and modes of grieving the war dead as disparate as patriotic commemoration and revived spiritualism (171). Sociologists and psychologists sought “to describe how religious beliefs function without making a judgment on the truth or falsehood of the beliefs in question,” while novelists used religious language—”sacred,” “reverence,” “soul”—in heterodox ways to speak of “human truths for which supernatural explanations might no longer seem adequate, but for which a sheer materialism or reductivism also seemed suspect” (30).

Churchgoing scenes serve to introduce these themes: Lambert Strether observing worshipers in Notre Dame, Leopold Bloom musing during mass, Josef K. touring a cathedral, and Miss Kilman praying in Westminster Abbey. Putting institutional ritual in counterpoint with individual responses, modernist narrators reveal tension “between the possibility of seeking spiritual solace in the church and the touristic impulse to view it as an outsider, a sort of amateur anthropologist” (15). Ordinary and profane thoughts predominate in precincts meant to be holy, even for Proust’s narrator, awestruck by architecture. Conflict between religiosity and secularity had a formative effect on modernism, Lewis argues, for the “cultural and genealogical parents” of the figures he examines “underwent crises of conscience that led them either to agnosticism or atheism or to new forms of spiritual life” and produced a pattern of increasing secularism (31). Leslie Stephen, from a family of prominent Evangelicals, “became one of the most famous agnostics of his time; his daughter Virginia grew up without religion and married a Jew” (32). Proust, Durkheim, Kafka, and Freud, whose grandparents (or great grandparents) were observant Jews born in closed communities, did not follow dietary laws; Proust was confirmed Catholic, and Freud celebrated Christmas. While few had “the belief that there is an unseen order, and that our supreme good [End...