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Reviewed by:
  • The Modernist God State: A Literary Study of the Nazis' Christian Reich by Michael Lackey, and: Violence Without God: The Rhetorical Despair of Twentieth-Century Writers by Joyce Wexler
  • Merry M. Pawlowski (bio)
Michael Lackey. The Modernist God State: A Literary Study of the Nazis' Christian Reich. New York: Continuum, 2012. 358 pp. ISBN: 9781441197597.
Joyce Wexler. Violence Without God: The Rhetorical Despair of Twentieth-Century Writers. New York: Bloomsbury, 2017. 201 pp. ISBN: 9781501325281.

Both The Modernist God State and Violence Without God react, in part, to prevailing views of increasing secularization in modernity, and both rely on the work of modern writers to elucidate theories about how a profound religious undercurrent subtends and informs the apparently secular state and why that recognition is fundamental to understanding the conditions for the rise of totalitarianism. For Wexler, for example, twentieth-century writers are [End Page 84] overcome by "rhetorical despair," as evidenced in her selection of a quote from Conrad's Heart of Darkness where Marlow describes his contact with colonialism as "a weary pilgrimage amongst hints for nightmares" (1). Naturally, Stephen Dedalus's famous "History . . . is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake" (1) comes to mind as well. Such revulsions to modernity result from the shock of unspeakable violence in the modern world. For Lackey, the novel is superior to philosophy as a means of understanding the cultural history of the West, but equally important, twentieth-century writers can produce theories in their work about the origins of oppressive nation-states. Lackey calls upon Lawrence's claim that the "novel is the book of life" (4) to reinforce the primacy of the novel to make sense of the senselessness of genocide.

Wexler begins by, among other matters, acknowledging the forcefulness of Adorno's observation that "writing poetry after Auschwitz was barbaric" (2), and she raises the issue of secularity in the modern age by referencing Charles Taylor's A Secular Age. Taylor claims that secularity is not so much an absence of religion as an absence of consensus in belief, thus faith becomes one possibility among multiple options for negotiating the world. In Taylor's view, according to Wexler, extreme violence in the twentieth century can be partly explained by an instability of meaning through the loss of communal belief systems which may have allowed or condemned horrific acts but which nonetheless provided the moral core from which to view them.

The problem, as Wexler approaches it, is the representation of "unimaginable violence" (20), and the writers in her study are chosen as models of various responses to the problem. From Conrad to Joyce, Sebald, and Adler, Wexler follows the trajectory from symbolist and expressionist texts to magic realism and examines the duality of realism and symbolism—or, "thing and meaning" (20). Starting with Arthur Symons's influential work on symbolism and Conrad's Heart of Darkness as a symbolist text, Wexler moves forward to expressionism in Eliot and Lawrence and post-expressionism and magic realism in Joyce, Grass, Döblin, and postcolonial writers Rushdie and Marquez. Wexler concludes with a chapter on the Holocaust and an analysis of Sebald's Austerlitz, Adler's Panorama, and Grass's The Tin Drum not only as the culmination of themes she's traced in the earlier writers but also as an expression of her "aim to show how some of the great writers of the period expressed the inexpressible" (26). Wexler does make an additional interesting claim in her introduction: that secularity in the twentieth century ended in the twenty-first with terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, September 11, 2001, which resulted in an all-too-brief period of national unity.

The chapter on Conrad's Heart of Darkness begins with a discussion of Symons's notion that the Symbolist movement had become an aesthetic [End Page 85] substitute for spirituality. While Conrad did not seek to make his art a substitute for religion, he did use symbolism to portray the violence of colonialism by embedding real events in the narrative. Conrad grounds the mythic in a specific time and place—Wexler uses as an example the iconic quote "Going up that river was...


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