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Wednesday, February 04, 2004
Also: Faulkner's religious overtones making Southern families "gothic"; Tolstoy's religious knowledge tying together multi-family sagas; Dickinson's religion making her closeted personal dramas mythical; Twain and Letters From the Fucking Earth, like Vonnegut in his worst mood ever; Vonnegut's humanism needfully tied with an acknowledgement of the community of God; Hawthorne and Melville and America as the New Jerusalem, the City on the Hill, making myth out of the frontier; Garcia Marquez's melding of transcendentalism with touches of native religion turning it into a kind of reversal of European "noble savage" imagery; the existentialists' whole fictional philosophy based around the absence of a key character in the religious narrative; Milton, of course...

A lot of American and Continental authors in there; not a lot of Brits, and not a lot of women. Having a hard time coming up with them, for some reasons; maybe because they're "littler" and...OK, I'm stumped. Also not a lot of modern authors. Can't even do it for ones I like, really. Jonathan Lethem? Robert Coover? A.M. Holmes? People talk about the humanism of David Foster Wallace, but there doesn't seem to be a whole lot of religion in there, aside from certain instances--the stress of blind faith in 12-step programs in Infinite Jest, the Biblical reference in "Burned Children," etc. Dare I make the argument that humanist post-structuralist fiction must explicitly rely on blind faith now that the essential groundlessness and danger of language and narrative has been exposed--that there's a kind of religious narrative in knowing that something makes no sense, and doing it anyway? Or am I just missing something? Maybe Holmes' Nabokov play in The End of Alice has enough of Nab's explicitly modernist half-faith to carry it on? Or are we entering a whole new narrative era, where the whole art-under-oppression philosophy sets up a--OK, I want to say dialectic, so I'm just going to--a dialectic that you respond to or don't depending on your stance and the whole grand scheme is carried through that way? Has the standardization and increased importance of pop culture allowed references to that to replace references to religion? Was religion just the pop culture of the last 2000 years?

Maybe more pointedly: if an acknowledgement of religion's importance has been one narrative technique that has persisted for most of our recorded artistic history, have there been parallel techniques that gain power depending on the particular historical circumstance that could wholly or in main part replace such acknowledgement? Shakespeare's not all that religious, but so much of what he does takes place in the context of the aristocracy that perhaps that's one parallel technique? Has politics been an alternative?

And speaking of politics, it's important to note that a great number of progressive causes in America were proposed in terms of Christian morals, of good Christian behavior. We can start with abolitionism and go on to the "cross of gold" speech and temperance and so on and so forth. It held a power, but was this power solely based in the fact that Judeo-Christian religious values were the only shared morality in the nation? Is there such a shared belief system today? Maybe the kind of civil religion of democracy and republicanism and human rights? (I think civil religion is awesome, by the way.)

You can't make your case for a progressive cause in reference to religious values today because if you say something like "I think we should feed the poor because it's the good Christian thing to do" or "I don't think we should execute prisoners because it's the good Christian thing to do" most people likely to support your cause will just hear "I hate gay people" or "I'm basically conservative," regardless of whether or not that's true. Those sudden intrusions of religious belief into public policy make leftists verrrrrry nervous, despite the fact that it's been a key component of our rhetoric for the last 250 years. (See previous post re: humanists and deists finding things to love in Christianity.) If someone could come along and successfully make pleas in these terms, I think it could be very powerful, because as I say, there's something very convincing about someone like Leonard Cohen or Faulkner who can say very smart things and tie them into the great religious traditions of the West.