Because one of my professors got sick this semester and canceled her seminar, I currently don’t have any classes, which is a mixed bag because her seminar would have been my last class–ever. On the upside, however, I’m teaching two classes this semester and the grading load is killing me; I can only imagine how bad things would be if I had coursework to contend with as well. I’m 99.8934% sure my faculty adviser doesn’t read my blog, so I’ll go ahead and say that I’ve made almost no headway on my orals reading list this semester. I have no worthy excuse since, as stated, I don’t have any course work of my own to accomplish, but as I stare down this stack of 80 papers (damn the person who invented the word “rewrite,” damn him/her to hell!) I can only shrug and admit that if I started the semester over again, I doubt that I’d be able to do anything differently.
That said, I have had a chance to think a bit more about where I want to take my research after I’ve completed my orals. My focus over the summer was on modernism and religion–a topic which still interests me, especially as it pertains to the rise of atheism and Marxism in the colonized world, as well as the orientalist appropriation of eastern religious traditions by English authors (namely T.S. Eliot in The Waste Land). I have long felt that religion is often overlooked as one of the contested cultural sites of modernism, and that it deserves a place in the discussion right next to empire, politics (fascism/communism/capitalism), and urbanization.
In fact, even the most irreligious of the modernists still recognized the critical role religion played in shaping the modern subject and state. For example, Woolf’s character Louis in The Waves, whose father is “a banker from Brisbane,” seeks to overcome his status as a colonial and become a fully actualized Englishman by embracing Anglicanism. Ironically, the “true Englishman” characters in the book that Louis so longs to be like have long since rejected the church. This religious willo-the-wisp that Louis chases throughout the novel can be read as the paradoxical desire of the colonized subject to be fully synthesized into a colonialist culture that is constantly being redefined specifically to prevent such synthesis, thus maintaining the colonizer/colonized relationship.
Likewise, in Nostromo Conrad links religion, culture, politics, and capital together into a hydra of battlefields (both literal and figurative), and like the hydra of myth, none of these conflicts can be resolved until all of their intertwining companions are dealt with. While the contest between South American Catholicism and American Protestantism–both linked to their respective economic ideologies–is only one of the factors that lead the reader of Nostromo to feel that the cycle of rebellion and turmoil must continue on indefinitely, there is no denying that religion is a co-equal partner in this pantheon of forces that defy resolution.
But the problem with the above analysis is that it has likely been said somewhere already. To say that religion is important in the history and construction of English culture and politics, regardless of the period, is like saying that wheat is important when making bread. It’s not that there isn’t more to be said on the subject, just that one would have to dig for nuances that may have diminishing returns.
With the challenges facing any discussion of religion in modernism in mind, I decided to turn again to one of my original interests: the spaces and times of rebellion and/or conflict. On the one hand, this focus may be rather well trodden ground as well, especially if discussed in terms of “borderlands,” a compelling but now cliche idea in literary studies. But on the other hand, I think we live in a world where ideas and ideologies become ever increasingly fixed and rigid. Until there is a rupture of some kind that can force a society to not only imagine a different world but actually act on those possibilities, we are content to allow life to continue as usual. It’s true that artists “imagine” a different world all the time (thank you very little Mr. Lennon), but during times of rebellion and upheaval art and literature can serve as a reconstructing force as a nation or community tries to construct a new group-narrative that will resolve the injustices and cultural imbalances which caused the recent rupture. But rarely does one particular national myth rise up uncontested; multiple narratives must contend with each other before one can assume dominance. These points of contention, right before a national/cultural myth becomes fixed, are what I am interested in researching.
I read the experimentalism and themes of modernism, then, as just such a rupture, and I hope that linking the impulses and cultural products of that rupture with the subsequent political and cultural upheaval of the postcolonial world will allow me not only to bring in the questions of religion discussed above, but also help me say something about human subjectivity in periods of conflict and indeterminacy.