- Modernist Moralities
STEPHEN KERN’S Modernism After the Death of God examines seven writers through their relation to Christianity: Friedrich Nietzsche, James Joyce, Sigmund Freud, D. H. Lawrence, André Gide, Martin Heidegger, and Virginia Woolf. Kern goes beyond familiar explanations of why so many modernist authors in general cultivated new and difficult fictional techniques, such as the inadequacy of realism in portraying life as it is subjectively experienced. Instead, he traces the source of the formal innovations of this period to a deeper need that these authors perceived: an imperative to find a remedy for the decline of Judeo-Christian faith as a narrative that had helped Western civilization cohere for two thousand years. In the resulting study, Modernism After the Death of God portrays how these seven thinkers created artistic and philosophical substitutes for religion in order to craft a sense of unification that for them Christianity could no longer provide.
However, this account is not a nostalgic Arnoldian one of hearing the “melancholy, long, withdrawing roar” of faith receding from the shore of [End Page 441] modernity. Rather, the seven authors forcefully attacked Christianity and its believers, largely because of biblical teachings on sexual morality. Among their statements, Nietzsche described Christianity as “the one great curse, the one great innermost corruption,” and “the one immortal blot on humanity.” Joyce called the Catholic Church a “whore,” also writing that the image of the Pope is something to be “spit upon.” According to Freud, religion was a pathological “system of wishful illusions” and, in Kern’s summary of Freud on Judeo-Christianity, “a group mental illness of the obsessive-compulsive variety generated as a defense against knowing and accepting the crimes of murder, cannibalism, and incest that were at its source.” Lawrence denounced “salvation” as something to “loathe,” and the Bible as “repulsive.” In Gide’s view, Christianity “sacrifices the strong to the weak,” and during his period of supporting the Soviet Union, Gide condemned Catholicism alongside capitalism for promoting misery. Heidegger accused Christian faith of being “foolishness,” and “Christian philosophy” of being “a round square and a misunderstanding.” Woolf called Christianity “repulsive,” the psalms “senseless,” and belief in God “obscene,” ridiculing believers in her letters and fiction. The attacks by these seven figures were as inclusive as they were pointed, targeting Catholics and Protestants; theologians, priests, and ordinary believers; services and hymns; the Bible and God; and the divinely transcendent as well as fallible earthly institutions. Along with the insults, though, these thinkers also drew something from religious faith. As the book explores at length, they each ultimately demonstrated ambivalences toward Christianity, manifested in a variety of ways.
In tracing the entwined biographical, cultural, psychological, and moral factors complicating the religious stances of the seven writers, Kern examines the evidence methodically. At the core of his analysis, he posits a “modernist ideal type,” one “modeled after the method of Max Weber,” with four principal arguments embodying the type: “Christian Education, Reasons for Rejecting Christianity, Substitute Unifications, and Reactions to Patriarchal Society.” Each chapter in the body of the book addresses one of the seven figures at a time, and each chapter proceeds sequentially through sections on Christian education (in the case of Freud, “Christian” in quotation marks), sexuality and love, anti-Christianity, ambivalence about Christianity, and fragmentation and unification. “The most important element of this modernist ideal type,” [End Page 442] Kern writes, “is the paired undertaking of radical fragmentation and radical unification.” In some chapters, further subdivisions elaborate the larger categories. The discussion of Freud under “Fragmentation and Unification,” for example, expands into descriptions of his theory of instincts, dream theory, conception of mind, psychotherapy, and view of culture. Lawrence’s anti-Christianity is similarly subdivided for analysis. Kern sets up the book as a whole, however, to create “a unified analytical construct” from the lives and writings of these influential modernists.
The book’s structure enables Kern to marshal coherently a broad array of material—biographical, literary, philosophical, psychiatric— while also incorporating systematic analyses of individual texts in support...