- Religion And Aesthetic Experience In Joyce And Yeats by Tudor Balinisteanu
Is it possible for modernist aesthetics to forge, between text and reader, a transformational connection such that morally grounded political action is converted by a group consensus into a social myth, a particular myth so unifying it emboldens groups to agitate for fundamental social change revolutionary enough to bring down existing power structures? For Georges Sorel, the sociologist who conceived of the concept of social myth, it is unique in that it borrows from religious convention to give the group a shared faith that becomes the real engine driving home their shared purpose.
In Religion and Aesthetic Experience in Joyce and Yeats, Tudor Balinisteanu applies Sorel's conceptualization of social myth to the works of James Joyce and W. B. Yeats to show that a central and largely unnoted feature of modernist aesthetics is to engender something like social myth in the reader and thereby offer a possible value system independent of the increasingly pervasive values of market capitalism. This was true for the workers on general strikes, which gave Sorel the idea of social myth: a myth that generates an alternative value system to that of capitalism. Such an alternative is essential if one is to challenge it; otherwise, the energy of the movement will be re-appropriated into the capitalist system by relatively meaning [End Page 428] less reforms that masquerade as concessions even as the structure of power remains untouched. What is needed for this to occur is the embedding of a social myth inside a narrative structure, a myth of such unifying power that all the predictable attempts to appropriate or break it up will energize the group even more in the absence of the usual shared value system that can be manipulated by the capitalist structure.
This book offers the argument, through the prism of Sorel's work, that engendering social myth in their respective readers was the aesthetic practice of both Joyce and Yeats, an intended and hoped-for effect. On the one hand, I agree with Balinisteanu that his exploration of "the theorisation of the experience of art as a form of religious experience" is "of pressing interest for the contemporary moment."1 Where he and I differ is in his optimism that this process always produces positive social outcomes: "we [the general readers of the modernist text] read cultural texts to imagine forms of social belonging through which to challenge the isolation of economic materialism" (1). I am not saying this cannot happen. Indeed, I am all for it—but it is hardly inevitable! How many people in late capitalism are even reading at all, much less reading Ulysses? And how many are reading it with the degree of care needed to suss out such a delicate effect of a complexly rendered aesthetic practice? Even if all this could be overcome, the fact would still remain that Balinisteanu's reading is a highly prescriptive rendering of what the experience of reading Ulysses should do. If only one thing is clear about the aesthetic practices evinced by Ulysses, it is that there is no single effect produced by the reading of it.
Despite the fact that Sorel was a contemporary of many important modernists, no critique has explored possible parallels with the works of the modernists, a fact that Balinisteanu notes (3-4) and that must be briefly rehearsed. A very young Benito Mussolini, working his way through Karl Marx, and looking for some more advanced way to create a popular movement, cites Sorel by name as an inspiration.2 Mussolini's take on Sorel was that social myth had no need to be reality-based as long as the illusion it generates seems credible: "[men] do not move mountains; it is only necessary to create the illusion that mountains move."3 Mussolini's assessment exploits what indeed does appear to be a dangerous naiveté on the part of Sorel. Because he saw social myth as arising spontaneously from the collective action of...