Agency and Enchantment in Evelyn Underhill, May Sinclair, and Mary Webb
- ISBN: 9781498583770
- Published By: Lexington Books/Fortress Academic
- Published: January 2020
The word “mystic” in the title of Mystic Moderns: Agency and Enchantment in Evelyn Underhill, May Sinclair, and Mary Webb functions adjectivally. That is, this book is not so much a text about “modern mystics” as it is about “mystic moderns.” This titular element is key to appreciating the force of James Thrall’s excellently written and thoroughly researched analysis of three early 20th-century writers: Evelyn Underhill, May Sinclair, and Mary Webb. For these women, mysticism provided a space within which they “embarked on projects of translation and transformation,” adapting the linguistic and conceptual resources from their spiritual and philosophical traditions into new cultural contexts (x). Thrall’s analytical focus is placed on the intersection between the lives these women led, and novels they wrote, and the hopes which oriented them.
Thrall situates his discussion of modernity around three tensions: (1) the theme of disenchantment, (2) his emphasis on “the new,” and (3) the issue of self-actualization. First, Thrall frames his analysis via a discussion of Max Weber’s theory of disenchantment. This theory sees in modernity the negation of “an earlier theological-metaphysical grounding”—to be modern is to fully confront the reality of the absence of a transcendent. Thrall calls this “secularization’s defining myth” (4) and suggests, most notably in his conclusion, that Weber’s theory might be overstated. Second, the issue of “the new” is a fundamental experience for Underhill, Sinclair, and Webb. Whether new technologies, new social transformations, or new political developments, the first several decades of the 20th century produced radically new challenges. These challenges were met by harnessing the intellectual and emotional strengths of their respective spiritual, mystical, and philosophical systems. Finally, the status of self-actualization is central to Thrall’s study, as the subtitle to the work suggests. Throughout this work, the nature and role of women’s personal autonomy as “moderns” who sought to be “the New Women, who could control both destiny and environment” is key (9). How each thinker creatively responded to these themes in their fictional and nonfictional work, organizes Thrall’s study.
Thrall’s discussion is divided into three sections, one on Underhill, Sinclair, and Webb respectively, and is bookended by an introduction and a conclusion. His analysis begins with Underhill. Best known for her 1911 historical study of the development of mysticism entitled Mysticism, Underhill was and is a foundational scholar in the modern study of mysticism. Thrall’s discussion of Mysticism is clear, balanced, and insightful; he rightly unpacks the curious influence of Henri Bergson and fleshes out the role that thinkers like Friedrich von Hügel had on her development. Equally important, Thrall accounts for the stunning intellectual achievements that Underhill’s project represented; though not herself a formally trained scholar, she nonetheless managed to produce a work on mysticism which exceeded her predecessors. Not unlike William James’s study of mysticism, Underhill’s attention was focused on the issue of experience. In experience, for Underhill, lay clear evidentiary grounds for assuming the reality of mystical states. However, Thrall’s contribution to the academic study of Underhill is revealed in his discussion of the novels she wrote and in unpacking how those novels reflect the development of Underhill’s thought. In her The Gray World (1904), The Lost Word (1907), and Column of Dust (1909), Underhill addresses the concerns of modernity and spirituality by portraying characters who wrestle with issues like gender, sexuality, ethics, aesthetics, transcendence, and religion.
In his discussion of May Sinclair, Thrall considers a variety of her published and unpublished texts: The Flaw in the Crystal (1912), A Journal of Impressions (1915), and Uncanny Stories (1923) among others. Sinclair’s principal interest concerns the process of “self-realization” (97). Influenced by Henri Bergson, Arthur Schopenhauer, and Neoplatonic thought, Sinclair was attentive to the ways in which the willing subject could create and experience new aspects of their individuality in the social sphere. For Sinclair, the social was the space within which personal willed action occurred. Principle among the social tensions that Sinclair discussed concern matters of sexual identity and, as with all three writers, her disillusionment with WWI. Her spiritual belief in a “world touched by enchantment” oriented the social themes in her novels in which the characters she created, explore issues like agency and desire via a spiritual impulse that sought union with God (183).
In the novels of Mary Webb, Thrall argues, the element of human will and the capacity for a “more-than-human” experience dominates (189). In The Golden Arrow (1916), Gone to Earth (1917) and Precious Bane (1924), Webb constructed images of a rural life whose accounts of unity with nature stood in stark contrast to the trappings of modern urban existence. Her stories are marked by a nostalgic desire for a bygone era in which the violent impulses that dominated WWI had not yet arisen. For Webb, then, mysticism and spirituality provide a portal through which her characters could explore a more complete understanding of the world—a sense of fullness, or reenchantment, which the modern world had lost (205).
In each writer, Thrall presents a portrait of a women wrestling with the “promise” and the “trauma” of their age (261). Thrall shows how these women found strength and inspiration in the writings of mystics, philosophers, theologians, and indeed, in the imagination itself. This imaginative element culminates in the conclusion to his work in which he reflects on the ways in which the motivations and strategies that compelled Underhill, Sinclair, and Webb echoes in our own time. Citing contemporary fictional narratives like Harry Potter and Buffy the Vampire Slayer (265, 267) Thrall considers how the desire to enchant reality—to become “enamoured with existence”—is a theme which is as important now as it was in the early 20th century (268).
Thrall’s study productively opens a space for future scholarship to explore the ways in which mystical and spiritual themes continue to find new modes of expression in modernity; to further investigate how mystical themes have been transformed and translated so as to speak to new concerns, address new tensions, and provide new avenues of hope in modernity.
Daniel Fishley is a PhD candidate at McGill University, Montreal.Daniel FishleyDate Of Review:October 21, 2021