- Confronting Evil: The Psychology of Secularization in Modern French Literature by Scott Powers
Scott Powers's Confronting Evil examines what the author calls the psychological dimension of secularization, focusing on the question of how authors negotiate encounters with evil, absent a belief in God and God's plan. Powers examines writers of nineteenth-and early twentieth-century [End Page 161] France as "various case studies of a modern psychology, born in the interstices of the rivaling cultural trends of religion and secularism" (5).
Referencing Charles Taylor and Peter Berger in the book's Introduction, Powers posits secularization as an ongoing dialogue between a mental perspective that believes in a cosmic frame of reference and one that does not. Secularization appears in his readings as interwoven with grieving, as authors grapple with loss of faith on either a social or a personal level. At times, he casts this sense of loss in Freudian terms of libidinal investment and psychic reaction against self-incoherence. At others, he casts it as a performance, part of what he calls "the project of secularization." Chapter One examines Baudelaire's poetry and essays, situating signs of nostalgia for the "lost enchanted world." Powers also addresses the question of responsibility for evil, noting that for Baudelaire, the individual and God cannot both be exonerated. This chapter's best point is its analysis of "Mademoiselle Bistouri," which reads the titular woman as monster and priest and interprets its prayer as a questioning of God's existence. Because Powers describes both secularization and the modernity of writing as the "performance of mourning" (6), it is not clear whether he sees every secular mind as feeling the loss of the divine, or if the sense of mourning is a poetic effect. This ambiguity is underscored by the numerous turns to Freud and to the author's religious pasts. In this chapter as in all the others, secularism seems to be by turns syndrome and construct, a provocative duality that calls for much greater clarification.
Chapter Two explores the correlation between irony and secularism in Baudelaire's Le Spleen de Paris. Here, too, the focus alternates between the psychoanalytic—irony as coping mechanism—and the philosophical—secularization as demanding a continued dialogic relationship with the notion of God. Powers claims that for Baudelaire, "evil is affirmation and positivity," and that Spleen's tension between idealism and realism casts evil in a sociological perspective. Chapter Three studies Zola and Huysmans, the relationship between sublimation and conversion, and the emergence of the body as the ultimate signifier in the nineteenth-century literary imagination. In an analysis of Thérèse Raquin, Powers describes the naturalist text as needing to "cover the abyss" by transmuting it into images of transcendence. This notion calls for some further development, since in some sense the abyss as described here is a naturalist construct. In this chapter, as in the one that follows, the secular mind seems principally interested in finding its way back to religion. At the same time, in a reading of Huysmans's En route, the act of prayer is presented as a "veritable reinvestment [End Page 162] of the libido," which raises the question of how, if this is so, it can be so only for a secular mind.
Chapter Four studies Zola and Huysmans's perspectives on physical suffering, comparing Zola's Lourdes to Huysmans's Les Foules de Lourdes. Lourdes, notes Powell, adopts the believer's perspective, while Huysmans wards off the loss of faith by casting Lourdes as a site of expiatory torment. Here too, the focus remains on secularism as a series of returns to faith, even as Powers finds in Foules a demonstration that "reaffirmation of belief in God involves the relentless process of self-convincing" (182). This chapter contains useful comparative close readings.
Chapter Five, which analyzes Céline's medical perspectives on evil, reads Céline's "conversion" to anti-Semitism as a mechanism for coping with evil. This chapter takes a troubling turn. As Powers writes, "It seems helpful to understand Céline...