Restless Secularism

Modernism and the Religious Inheritance

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Matthew Mutter
  • New Haven, CT: 
    Yale University Press
    , June
     336 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


What would it mean to live in a world fully disentangled from its religious inheritance? As Charles Taylor argued in A Secular Age (Harvard University Press, 2007), the answer is never simply a “subtraction story,” one in which real life simply “appears” once the barnacles of supernaturalism are scraped away. From a different viewpoint, scholars informed by critical theory have, in another way, insisted on the submerged, Christian genealogies of the secular.

Matthew Mutter’s Restless Secularism: Modernism and the Religious Inheritance contributes to this conversation by engaging a distinctive case: explicit literary attempts to excise the religious supports of modern literature and deal with the resulting instability. Using case studies of four modernist writers—Wallace Stevens, Virginia Woolf, W.B. Yeats, and W.H. Auden—Mutter explores distinctive and closely thought out attempts to imagine and live without transcendent reference (except in the case of Auden, a Christian).

Mutter’s goal is to find the sticking point for these attempts—to show the ambivalence that made each author’s secularism “restless”—but the project’s implications are larger. Mutter seeks to illuminate “not post-secular religious experience but the secular frames that alter the coordinates of all experience, religious or other” (8).

As such language suggests, Mutter draws on Taylor’s notion of imaginaries—the oft-hidden frameworks by which people interpret and order the whole of life. His interest, however, is not in Taylor’s “social” imaginaries, which typically lurk in the background of life. Instead, he focuses on how modernist texts explicitly struggled with their larger imaginary. The implication—as Mutter suggests in a short, prescient argument with “lived religion” methodology—is that discursive thinking is also a form of lived experience. Likewise, Mutter contends, focusing on the strategic use of religion obscures the prior role of imaginaries in forming selves.

Because imaginaries are everywhere and nowhere, however, they resist focused study. Mutter’s case-study approach models one way to deal with this problem. In particular, it shows how each writer recast, in secular light, a particular realm of existence: language (Stevens), aesthetics (Woolf), the emotions (Yeats), and materiality (Auden). Mutter argues that the fact “that these writers link the struggle between religion and secularity to these fields mean that the central religious problem for modernism is not explicit belief or disbelief in God but the entire fabric of thought and feeling implicit in the religious or secular imaginaries where belief situates itself” (3).

The vast majority of Restless Secularism consists of careful literary analysis that demonstrates Mutter’s case. In addition to ably narrating the evolution of four major modernist writers, Mutter also situates each in a larger literary and philosophical conversation. This attention to context provides clarity and reflects enormous intellectual range.

Mutter’s chief contribution is to show the enormous labor, and ultimate ambivalence, of literary modernism’s attempts to fully cleanse itself of religion. For Stevens, the sticking point is a suspicion that poetic language itself, with its analogical thinking and anthropomorphisms, suggested a false (religious) unity of existence. For Woolf, the problem is that the world’s beauty, whose pull she could not quite disavow, suggested a (created) harmony that she rejected.

These chapters meticulously trace each writer’s vacillations and compromises, but Mutter finds his sharpest critical edge in the tension between the pagan revivalism of W. B. Yeats and the ethically responsible Christianity of W. H. Auden. As Mutter puts it, Yeats drew the borders of secularity not between “‘religion’ … and secular humanism, but between rival visions of the sacred” (114). Like Nietzsche, Yeats understood modern inwardness—Taylor’s buffered self—as a neurotic Christian inheritance. To slough it off, he embraced the pagan passions and their underlying ontology, which placed conflict at the foundation of existence. Thrilling to battle, moderns could fuse their will with that of the pagan gods—understood less as objects of faith than as placeholders for the overwhelming forces of immanent conflict. The result was an experience Yeats called “joy,” defined as “the sheer ecstasy of the will discharging itself” (130).

Such joy, however, left no basis for second-guessing immanence; indifferent to consequences, it accepted “whatever happens” (160). Yeats’s ambivalence stemmed from this point, Mutter shows. Yeats could not make sense of the passion of remorse without appeal to Christian notions of grace, forgiveness, and self-emptying. More crucially, his late poems refuse to do what his pagan ontology requires: affirm the historical horror overtaking 1930s Europe as merely one instantiation of an underlying, and thrilling, ontology of conflict. Ultimately, Mutter argues, Yeats steps back from his pagan imaginary.

Mutter interprets Auden largely as a foil to Yeats, as well as a critic of the broader trajectory that connected modernist occultism to Nazi “blood mysticism” (191). Auden’s position, Mutter shows, centers on a critique of “magic,” defined as any position that pretended to unite the separate spheres of personhood and materiality. For Auden, magical thinking responded to modern alienations (from the body, from society, and so on) but did not solve them. Auden, by contrast, insisted on dualisms, the most important of which opposed history (as a value-laden realm of human agency) and nature (as a repetitive world of mechanical cause and effect).

Using Auden’s embrace of history as an arena for human responsibility, Mutter can enter into a limited dialogue with critical theory. He notes Auden’s opposition to the mystification of social structure and repeatedly shows Auden’s affinities with Theodor Adorno. Against contemporary celebrations of occultism as counter-hegemonic resistance, Mutter invokes Auden’s fears of ethical irresponsibility and, more immediately, pagan fascism. The connection between Auden’s anti-magical thinking and contemporary critiques of ahistorical modes of religious studies is clear (if not developed at length).  Mutter’s recovery of Auden’s dualism—understood not as a discursive tool of empire but as the condition for “an ethical relation to the world in its otherness” (172)—is also a surprising, and welcome, provocation.

Despite his embrace of a disenchanted material world, of course, Auden was a Christian. How to imagine, live, and create in fully secular imaginary? Mutter ably shows the difficulty, and the ambivalence of the task.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Ben Brazil is assistant professor at Earlham School of Religion.

Date of Review: 
September 26, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Matthew Mutter is assistant professor of literature at Bard College. His essays and reviews have appeared in English Literary History, The Journal of Modern Literature, Modernism/Modernity, and other publications. He lives in New Haven, Connecticut.


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