- Blasphemous Modernism: The 20th-Century Word Made Flesh by Steve Pinkerton
Those critics self-consciously engaged in academe’s “religious turn” regularly cite Stanley Fish’s 2005 op-ed for the Chronicle of Higher Education in which he predicts the inexorable return of repressed religious issues into mainstream academic discourse. Steve Pinkerton’s Blasphemous Modernism represents the most provocative recent addition to this conversation in large part because the author rejects one of Fish’s core assumptions. Instead of treating religion as a critical category destined to supplant the academic idols of race, class, gender, and sexuality, Pinkerton insists on the inherent connection between political, religious, and artistic concerns in purportedly “secular” modernist literature. Blasphemy, with its sacrilegious reverence for the sacred, allowed both enshrined and peripheral modernist writers to subvert socioreligious orthodoxies concerning, among other things, gender binaries, racial superiority, and normative sexuality.
In 1934, T. S. Eliot bemoaned the dearth of “first-rate blasphemy” in the modern world because it implied a corresponding dearth of religious belief.1 Pinkerton turns Eliot’s assertion back on itself. The blasphemer need not necessarily believe, so long as her blasphemies respect the beliefs of others enough to outrage them. Weaponized blasphemy allows “misbelievers” like Langston Hughes to assault the white God of the American south by asserting that “Christ is a Nigger.”2 Mina Loy employs a similar strategy by depicting Jesus as “a ‘poet’ of the libidinal body” (Blasphemous, 56). Neither Hughes nor Loy, Pinkerton contends, need adhere to particular doctrines concerning God in order to infuriate His adherents by painting Him as black or sexual or female; they need simply respect His authority enough to do so.
James Joyce emerges immediately as the “patron saint” of modernist blasphemers. Portmanteaus such as “sacreligion” (Finnegans Wake) and “jocoserious” (Ulysses) help define the [End Page 423] blasphemous aesthetic as simultaneously sacred and profane, playful and earnest. Among the many refreshing insights provided by this approach are recuperative readings of Buck Mulligan and Molly Bloom as the presiding clerics of Ulysses’s blasphemous assault on Church, nation, and empire. Whether discussing the momentary deification of Leopold Bloom or the “sacrilegious aesthetics” of Shem’s “Eucharistic art,” Pinkerton repeatedly demonstrates that Joyce not only believed enough in God to piously piss on Him, but also that he believed enough in his art to attempt a semi-ironic form of self-deification (46).
Pinkerton goes on to highlight the various ways in which Loy, the ironically self-styled “Niggeratti,” and Djuna Barnes adopt and adapt the Joyce model from outside the cannon of high modernism. Each uses blasphemy to poison the wells of religious orthodoxies regarding such things as gender, race, and sexuality.
Loy’s poetry profanes and reimagines “the gendered hierarchies of both church and state, orthodoxy and patriarchy” by sacramentalzing sexuality and proclaiming a female Logos to unseat a male God (53). Adhering to her own brand of Christian Science, which asserts that both religion and life as a whole are “generally reducible to sex” (quoted in Blasphemous, 55), Loy felt compelled to reject Christianity in general and Catholicism in particular for gender inequality (quite believably) and “doctrinal Christianity’s denial of the flesh” (more problematically) (60). The author reads all of Loy’s blasphemies sympathetically, but her insistence on a dualistic (mind vs. body, soul vs. flesh) Catholicism is hard to swallow, given that the entire religion is based on the notion of Incarnation. Pinkerton’s close reading of her poetry is spot on and illuminating, but some readers may wish for a slightly more critical approach to Loy’s idiosyncratic brand of blasphemy.
What follows is perhaps Pinkerton’s richest chapter. The enfants terribles of the Harlem Renaissance—Wallace Thurman, Richard Bruce Nugent, Langston Hughes (among others)— managed to outrage not only God but their New Negro predecessors, most notably Alain Locke and W. E. B. Du Bois, by travestying all of the above. Rather than usurping Christian typology as a means of pushing for social reform, the “Niggeratti” engaged in aggressively...