Fiction Beyond Secularism
Publication Year: 2014
Modernist thinkers once presumed a progressive secularity, with the novel replacing religious texts as society’s moral epics. Yet religion—beginning with the Iranian revolution of 1979, through the collapse of communism, and culminating in the singular rupture of September 11, 2001—has not retreated quietly out of sight.
In Fiction Beyond Secularism, Justin Neuman argues that contemporary novelists who are most commonly identified as antireligious—among them Orhan Pamuk, Salman Rushdie, Ian McEwan, Margaret Atwood, Nadine Gordimer, Haruki Murakami, and J. M. Coetzee—have defied assumptions and have instead written some of the most trenchant critiques of secular ideologies, as well as the most exciting and rigorous inquiries into the legacies of the religious imagination. As a result, many readers (or nonreaders) on either side of the religious divide neglect the insights of works like The Satanic Verses, Disgrace, and Snow. Fiction Beyond Secularism serves as a timely corrective.
Published by: Northwestern University Press
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Before expressing my gratitude to the many people and institutions whose support made it possible for me to write this book, I want to offer an acknowledgment about my relationship to its subject matter. Religiously “unmusical” was Max Weber’s preferred self-description. I too have little aptitude for religion, though, while growing up in rural Vermont on the hippie fringe of New York’s Jewish diaspora, where the Jewish community shared space with a local church, I made a weekly...
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In this book I explore the new modes and meanings of secularity that emerge in Anglophone and world literature in the period that begins, roughly, with the Iranian revolution of 1979, picks up speed with the collapse of communism, and gains full legibility in the aftermath of September 11, 2001. I argue that some of the most trenchant and farreaching critiques of secularist ideologies, as well as the most exciting and rigorous inquiries into the legacies of the religious imagination,...
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Ka, the protagonist of Orhan Pamuk’s novel Snow, is an Istanbul-born intellectual who “couldn’t see how [he] could reconcile . . . becoming a European with a God who required women to wrap themselves in scarves,” and so, dismissively, “kept religion” and its “bearded provincial reactionaries” out of his life (96). In this way, Ka typifies the ideological secularism commonly associated with transnational elites in the late twentieth century, though the particular cluster of beliefs,...
1. Salman Rushdie's Wounded Secularism
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Quoted out of context, as the words of celebrities often are, the epigraph above might easily be taken to betray Salman Rushdie’s personal convictions on any question of the “secular versus religious,” as the available choices are rendered in this passage of The Satanic Verses. Even readers lucky enough to have read the novel during the brief pre-fatwa window—opening with its hardcover publication in the United Kingdom on September 26, 1988, and closing less than five months later with the ...
2. J. M. Coetzee's Prophets of Asceticism
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When the hunger strikes at the Guantanamo Bay detention facility in Cuba reached an acute stage in the late summer of 2005, a series of widely circulated articles confirmed what many had long suspected: not only were detainees engaging in prolonged and systematic fasts to protest the conditions of their confinement, but the military—following a Department of Defense policy that sanctions “assisted feeding”—was also subduing hunger strikers with head, arm, leg, and torso restraints and feeding them against their wills via nasal intubation, a practice...
3. Time and Terror
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On February 24, 2007, 207 people froze in place at exactly 2:30 p.m. in the main concourse of New York City’s Grand Central Station, holding their poses while bemused onlookers shot photos and moved around them until, after five minutes, the participants unfroze and went about their day as if nothing unusual had happened. The spectacle, staged and filmed by Charlie Todd’s Improv Everywhere group, elicited cheers of amazement from dazzled onlookers. The subsequent video, a viral success on YouTube, artfully accelerates its footage to emphasize the...
4. Messianic Narrative
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Fugitive Pieces, a 1996 novel of the Shoah and its intergenerational aftermath by Canadian novelist and poet Anne Michaels, crystallizes the problems of representation and interpretation endemic to fictions of encountered loss in vivid, poetic prose that carries readers across decades, speakers, and continents. In its gathering of fragments, Fugitive Pieces opens itself again and again toward ethical encounters with an unwitnessed past. One notable passage,...
5. Reading Islam
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In 2002, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill was engulfed by a firestorm of controversy for selecting Michael Sells’s Approaching the Qur’an: The Early Revelations as the summer reading text for incoming first-year students. On its “Carolina Summer Reading Program 2002” webpage, specifically citing the tragic events of the previous fall as inspiring its choice, the university explained:...
Coda: The Novel and the Secular Imagination
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Writers and critics of fiction commonly believe that there is something inherently antireligious about the novel as a genre. There are many reasons why this view has maintained the widespread credence it has commanded for over a century. First, unlike other literary genres that predate the written word, the novel as a genre, in its origins and rise, formal characteristics, thematic concerns, and historical development, closely parallels European secularization. Second, it is precisely the...
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Page Count: 256
Publication Year: 2014