Guest-editor’s introduction

Neohelicon, Aug 2014

Dorothy Figueira

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Guest-editor’s introduction

Dorothy Figueira 0 0 D. Figueira (&) Athens, GA, USA - This cluster of articles is the fruit of a panel that was organized at the Congress of the International Comparative Literature Association that took place in Paris in July 2013. The topic of discussion was the interface between religion and literature. In the initial essay, Figueira examines the fundamental concern of the cluster. In the context of a more general de-emphasis of religion as a theme in literature, she questions the reception of deeply religiously-themed novels in the twentieth century. She sees a reticence on the part of readers, particularly in the US, to deal with texts that are significantly informed by belief structures. She questions whether Catholic-themed novels, for example, might be particularly disregarded, given the Protestant prejudice against Catholicism that pervades American society and academe. Do Catholic texts suffer because Catholicism in general is deemed unAmerican? This question leads her to ask how the study of religion, in general, is institutionalized in the US? How does religion figure in interdisciplinary studies? Figueira notes that, of all the interdisciplinary subfields that have flourished in the US under the umbrella of comparative literature, religion and literature has had the least traction. As a case in point, Figueira focuses, in particular, on the reception of I promessi sposi, placing it within the context of American anti-Catholic nativism and Italian anti-clericism that have both tainted the reception of Manzonis work. After this examination of theoretical concerns regarding the role of religion in the large novel, we proceed with a series of individual case studies. Gerald Gillespie evokes the extensive scope of religious consciousness in literature from the revolutions of the nineteenth century to the modernist period. He offers a succinct panorama of the foci that appear in literature. In the work of Schopenhauer, we find the human subject to a cosmic will and capable of moral insight through art. Pessimism and its answer of heroic perseverance finds particular resonance in the work of Nietzsche, Wagner, and Freud. Gillespie then moves on to modernist authors who use anthropological insight in order to understand the human condition. In particular, he notes their efforts to constitute meaning through the reenactment of myth and ritual. Thomas Manns Protestantism and its affirmation of the individual prevented him from sacrificing that same individual to the State or any other mythic collective. James Joyce, while abhorring the anti-individualism of totalitarianism, deconstructs all religions by subsuming everything in archetypes. By viewing experience as sacramental, Marcel Proust provides a ritualistic relationship to art by clothing his prose in a language of religious symbolism. For all these modernists, literature functions as a reincarnation of the ritual moment, a sacramental embodiment that seeks to reunify the past and the present. This basic inquiryhow literature deals with transcendenceis followed up in Monika Schmitz-Emanss investigation of the work of Jean Paul. Schmitz-Emans asks what kind of language is most appropriate to deal with religion, belief, and mans relationship to the transcendent. Clearly, it is not the language of philosophy that is best suited for this task. Rather it is the language of the imagination and emotion, in other words, the language of literature where the dimension of inner experience beyond the grasp of reason can be articulated. Schmitz-Emans focuses her examination on the work of Jean Paul, particularly on the manner in which he investigates theological concepts as a form of religious discourse. She shows the degree to which this authors oeuvre deals with the themes of death, resurrection and the afterlife and how these themes are articulated as part of a larger thematic dealing with writing and communication. The Self in Jean Paul appears isolated in a world of phantoms, often addressed in a monological sermon and involving the persona of the preacher. Schimtz-Emans also traces Jean Pauls indebtedness to the Glaubensphilosophie of his friend Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi. His characters engage in what can be termed nihilism experiments, where the Self undergoes trauma at the thought of the non-existence of a transcendent world. The ensuing desperation loosens emotions that provide access to a spiritual realm. As Schmitz-Emans shows, Jacobis Glaubensphilosophie also becomes a propitious vehicle for Jean Paul to express a unique self-image of the artist. Steven Shankman offers two additional case studiesthis time from Russian literatureof authors attempts to grapple with religion in the format of the large novel. Shankman provides a close reading of Dostoevskys Brothers Karamazov and Vassily Grossmans Life and Fate in light of the work of Emmanuel Levinas. Shankman explores Levinass injunction to think God on the basis of ethics outside the question of Gods existence or non-existence. He explores Levinass thesis that obedience to God manifests itself in responsibility to the Other. He then applies Levinass directive to Dostoevskys masterpiece. Similarly, in his close reading of Grossman, Shankman shows how the itinerary of what Levinas terms illeity can be conceived outside of ontology and outside the question of Gods existence. Schmitz-Emans and Shankman both show how an examination of religious imagery and ethics can enrich our understanding of canonical texts in new and inventive ways. Finally, John Burt Foster, Jr. continues to analyze the long Russian novel in his examination of the themes of vengeance and mercy in Tolstoys Anna Karenina. He distinguishes the role religion plays in this novel from that of his later postconversion shorter works. As in the case of Figueiras essay, Foster also addresses the issue of the reception of religion in the English-speaking world. Because of the translation history of Tolstoy into English, he has often been seen as a writer who deals with religious issues, whereas in Anna Karenina, religion is expressed primarily through character delineation, action and situation rather than through dialogue, thus setting it apart from his later didactic work. Foster notes how in Anna Kareninas epigraph, Tolstoy appropriates (via Schopenhauer) Pauls words Vengeance is Mine, but omits the coda This sayeth the Lord. He argues that Tolstoy was not interested in the divine source of punishment but rather articulating Schopenhauers concern with limiting human vengeful tendencies. If we do not recognize what is left out of the biblical injunction of Tolstoys Old Church Slavonic, we can misunderstand the phrase as harshly vindictive. Instead Foster argues that the Russian author is interested in depicting the psychic counterweight to revenge located in mercy and the power to forgive. In fact, Anna Karenina examines the interplay between forgiveness and taking revenge upon oneself. Tolstoy issues a stern command to harness vengeful feelings and acknowledge mercys natural power. It is Annas inability to forgive herself that causes her death and any condemnation of her is not Tolstoys intent. Rather, his depiction of the interaction between vengeful feelings and forgiveness is more fluid, subtle and complex. This cluster seeks to raise interesting questions regarding the role of religion in literature and the reception of the religious themes in literary studies. It explores several fruitful avenues for viewing literature from a religious perspective. As such, it offers a timely corrective, reminding readers that religious issues (symbolism, ritual, myth, ethics and theology) are worth exploring, even if they have fallen out of fashion. The theoretical, philosophical and sociological reasons why such studies are not explored more frequently is also of fundamental interest to literary scholars.

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Dorothy Figueira. Guest-editor’s introduction, Neohelicon, 2014, 367-369, DOI: 10.1007/s11059-014-0282-5