Varieties of Aesthetic Experience

Literary Modernism and the Dissociation of Belief

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Craig Bradshaw Woelfel
  • Columbia: 
    University of South Carolina Press
    , October
     240 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


An exploration of belief as an experience, both secular and religious, through the study of major literary works.

At the height of modernism in the 1920s, what did it mean to believe and how was it experienced? Craig Woelfel seeks to answer this pivotal question in Varieties of Aesthetic Experience: Literary Modernism and the Dissociation of Belief, a groundbreaking exploration of the relationship between secular modernity and religious engagement.

Woelfel hinges his argument on the unlikely comparison of two revered modern writers: T. S. Eliot and E. M. Forster. They had vastly different experiences with religion, as Eliot converted to Christianity later in life and Forster became a steadfast nonbeliever over time, but Woelfel contends that their stories offer a compelling model for belief as broken and ambivalent rather than constant. Narratives of faith—its loss or gain—are no longer linear but instead are just as fractured and varied as the modernists themselves. Drawing from Eliot's and Forster's major and minor creative and critical works, Woelfel makes the case for a "dissociation of belief" during the modern era—a separation of emotional and spiritual religious experience from its reduction to forms. He contextualizes belief in the modern era alongside modernist religious studies scholarship and current secularization theory, with particular attention to Charles Taylor's A Secular Age, paving the way for a more nuanced understanding of religious engagement.

In Varieties of Aesthetic Experience, Woelfel considers major literary works—including Eliot's The Waste Land and Forster's A Passage to India—as well as the Cambridge Clark Lectures and previously unstudied personal writings from both authors. The volume revolves around a line from Eliot himself, from a lecture in which he said that he wanted "to see art, and to see it whole." Rather than excluding belief from the conversation, Woelfel contends that modernist art can become a critical liminal space for exploring what it means to believe in a secular age.

About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Craig Bradshaw Woelfel is a professor of British, American, and postcolonial literature at Flagler College in St. Augustine, Florida. His research and publications focus on the intersections of religion, literature, and intellectual history in the modernist period, as well as on Dante and the modernists.


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