The Sacred in the Secular in European Literature 

Edited by Daisy Gudmunsen and Claudia Dellacasa

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MHRA Working Papers in the Humanities 13

Modern Humanities Research Association

20 December 2018

Open Access with doi: 10.59860/wph.i5881a6


Most aesthetic concepts are theological ones in disguise. — Terry Eagleton

Senti il mancare di ogni religione | vera. — Pier Paolo Pasolini

How has the cultural and social significance of religion changed in Europe? How does European literature register or reformulate the ‘narrative’ of secularization, and what is it about literary texts that makes them such privileged sites for exploring the intersection of the sacred and the secular? Volume 13 of Working Papers in the Humanities considers the intertwining of the sacred and the secular across eight different contexts, ranging from the end of the eighteenth century to the present day. Across a multitude of literary genres, including hymn, poetic parable, fairy tale and novella, and often poised at the intersection of philosophy and literary studies, this collection of articles both answers and raises questions about sacralization and secularization. In particular, it celebrates the work being done by early career researchers on questions of faith and doubt; Christianity and atheism; epiphany and experience; and contemporary transformations of the ethical.

'Just over a decade after the publication of Charles Taylor's landmark book, A Secular Age, it feels appropriate to reflect on what it means to live in a secular world which still retains or includes features of the sacred. Literary and poetic notions underpin many of the theological, social, and philosophical debates around secularism and various forms of faith. The Sacred in the Secular in European Literature examines these crossing points: where the literary meets the theoretical, and where the secular meets the sacred.' — Judith Ryan



The Sacred in the Secular in European Literature
Daisy Gudmunsen, Claudia Dellacasa
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Time, Space, and Sacred-Secular Configurations in Modern European Poetry
Judith Ryan

Syncretic religions are often the result of cultural overlap, either between proximate geographical areas or because one culture comes to dominate another. Sometimes, however, a writer or a group of writers deliberately sets out to create a new form of syncretic belief. In Germany around 1800, a small cluster of thinkers and poets conceived a new experiment: what they envisaged was to be a fresh way of making abstract ideas more palatable to a broader audience. A two-page document written in Hegel’s handwriting, but incorporating ideas of at least two other fellow students, Hölderlin and Schelling, urged that idealist philosophy might be enlivened by mythology, with its long poetic tradition. I adduce two poems from the period, Schiller’s ‘Der Spaziergang’ (1795) and Hölderlin’s ‘Mnemosyne’ (1803), to serve as examples of the syncretism espoused in that document. The special syncretic character of such poems stands out against the ‘greater Romantic lyrics’ in other European languages, as in the case of texts by Wordsworth and Lamartine, which do not employ mythological allusions. Nonetheless, in the mid-nineteenth century, we find Nerval making his texts a crucible for an eclectic combination of beliefs; and in the aftermath of World War II, Johannes Bobrowski develops a new kind of syncretism in which ancient Slavic divinities from Latvia and Lithuania seem to exist beneath natural landscape formations. In conclusion, the paper turns to a reading of Seamus Heaney’s poem ‘The Tollund Man in Springtime’ (2005/06), in which anthropological empathy becomes a vehicle that brings an over-2000-year-old culture into a palimpsestic relation with the present day.


The Welsh Hymn: Sacred or Secular?
Nathan Munday

Wales has long been stereotyped as a land of song. One of the reasons for this recurring image is its historic love for the hymn — a privileged entity within Wales’s unique choral tradition. Hymns are still sung in Wales; male voice choirs, rugby internationals, pubs, funerals, weddings, and the box-like chapels retain this ancient form like a spectral ghost dance. In light of this curious afterlife, we can ask: when does a hymn become secular and what can we learn from this process if it happens at all? This essay asks these questions by visiting three typical scenes from Welsh history. These imaginary vignettes show how the crucible of the hymn was also where they were sung as well. The first is the eighteenth-century Seiat or experience meeting; the second is a nineteenth-century North Walian square, where the Temperance Movement are singing one of their hymns; and the final destination is a large, early-twentieth-century Cymanfa Ganu (Singing Festival), where hundreds of people celebrate this kinetic form in a chapel. Arguably, Welsh hymns are no longer worship songs but cultural indicators; they are residues and echoes of a former spirituality to which only a small percentage in Wales now adhere.


The Intersection of the Secular and the Sacred in Un Cas de conscience by Alexandre Dumas Père
Steffie Van Neste

‘[E]ntre la foi et la negation [...] il reste le doute’, states Alexandre Dumas père (1802–70). This sceptical attitude not only embodies Dumas’s own hesitancy between the sacred and the secular, it is also emblematic of the entire French nineteenth century. This article investigates the intersection of the sacred and the secular in Dumas’s 1866 novella Un Cas de conscience (A Question of Conscience). Un Cas de conscience not only epitomizes the major (anti-)religious tensions of the 1860s, but also offers a privileged understanding of Dumas’s view on religion. As in his pamphlet Le Pape devant les Evangiles, l’histoire et la raison humaine (The Pope in View of the Gospels, History and Human Reason), Dumas criticizes the hypocrisy of the reactionary Catholic ultramontanes. Yet Dumas has not abandoned faith. Like several French Romantic prophet-writers, Dumas subtly intertwines secular thoughts and religious elements in his work.


The Sacred Mind: William James and Modernist Epiphany
Valeria Taddei

The modernist age in Europe (1890s-1930s) is often regarded as a time of spiritual crisis, yet at the outset of the twentieth century religious sentiment enjoyed a renewed attention fostered by contemporary science. William James’s The Varieties of Religious Experience (1901–02) proposed a study of religious feeling in a modern psychological perspective that became widely known in England and beyond. This paper considers the substantial affinities between James’s description of religious experiences and the critically accepted definition of literary epiphany, suggesting that his work might have inspired the way in which some modernists across Europe conceived and portrayed their ecstatic moments. Two case studies, from the Anglophone author Katherine Mansfield and the Italian Federigo Tozzi, are considered in close reading. Finally, a reflection is proposed about how James’s conclusions can illuminate some important reasons for the popularity of epiphanies in modernist times.


On Becoming-Secular: Gilles Deleuze and the Death of God
Marie Chabbert

Gilles Deleuze is not traditionally thought of as a philosopher of religion, and for good reasons. Throughout his works, Deleuze repeatedly stresses that he is a ‘peacefully godless philosopher’, someone for whom God’s inexistence or death is not a problem but rather a given. In this article, I wish to draw attention to Deleuze’s engagement with Nietzsche’s proclamation of the death of God in Nietzsche et la philosophie (Nietzsche and Philosophy), and suggest that the latter can be of crucial use in understanding problems and issues relating to the so-called secular age. Deleuze’s ‘tranquil’ atheism has indeed little to do with mainstream atheism. In fact, it even challenges the main tenets of Western secularism. As such, I argue that Deleuze’s reading of Nietzsche’s thought opens new horizons which cannot be described as postsecular, but rather correspond to a becoming-secular.


‘No great statement about reality [...] can be static, like simple information’: Literary Language and Reality
Emily Holman

This paper sets out the implications of Marilynne Robinson’s statement of the title, with reference to the work of former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams. It is notable that Robinson and Williams are themselves creative writers — Robinson a novelist and Williams a poet — as well as academics who write on language, Christian theology, and aesthetics. I claim in this paper that Robinson’s statement is suggestive for thinking about the kind of language required to articulate, intimate, and imagine or conceive of ‘reality’. Robinson takes as assumed that ‘reality’ ought to have a ‘great statement’ made about it, indicating that such reality bears on what we might think of as, and what Robinson would no doubt call, the sacred — a term she believes necessary to human life. Such ‘reality’ resists a ‘static’ or simply informative definition or description, meaning that the functional, transactional terms of everyday language are neither adequate nor appropriate. What kind of language can achieve or point towards recognition of reality, such that the rich mystery of that reality, too, be acknowledged?


Creating a ‘space for the mystery’: The Sacred in the Twenty-First Century
Sara Helen Binney

In the wake of postmodernist fairy tale fiction, with its strong emphasis on socio-political critique, more recent folklore-inflected fiction is turning away from political engagement and risking what Josh Toth and Neil Brooks have called ‘reactionary and conservative blindness’. This article argues that, while such fiction does retreat from its predecessors’ feminist reworking of traditional narrative and often has recourse to tired ideas of the unknowable feminine, its alternative focus on mystery still has important political implications. Using The Crane Wife by Patrick Ness (2013) and The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey (2012) as my examples, I examine the ways in which twenty-first-century folklore-inflected novels foreground the unknown, which has been referred to by various commentators as ‘wonder’, the ‘sublime’, and ‘enchantment’, and make the case for this apparently apolitical turn as a form of the sacred. I take the word ‘sacred’ not only in its religious sense but also in the OED’s most suggestive definitions, as something ‘dedicated, set apart’ and ‘regarded with or entitled to respect or reverence similar to that which attaches to holy things’, and examine the relationship between this form of the sacred and reworked folkloric narrative in contemporary fiction. Drawing on the work of Jane Bennett, I will ultimately make a case for these novels as sites of ethical enchantment with the contemporary world.


A Bit of Faith in Ecology: Paradox in Michel Deguy’s Poetic Parables
Sam La Vedrine

For contemporary French poet Michel Deguy, ecology is a new epistemology capable of replacing a deconstructed Christianity. In his theology-inflected lexis, Deguy’s poetic parables create an ontological and cultural logic seeing the paradox of difference rooted in poetic comparison and its analogical signifier, comme (like). With implications for the language of Western metaphysics and precepts inherited from Christian identity and its image of the human, Deguy also challenges the Hegelian dialectic with his poetic figures the end in the world (la fin dans le monde) and the flesh made word (la chair se fait Verbe) expressing analogy’s profanation of revelation. This essay argues that in locating a secular core in a sacred poetics, Deguy has drawn out serious questions for post-theological community. By affirming literature’s textual production and poetry’s creative imagination, he tentatively expresses answers for the mutable meaning of terrestrial habitation.


Bibliography entry:

Gudmunsen, Daisy, and Claudia Dellacasa (eds), The Sacred in the Secular in European Literature (= MHRA Working Papers in the Humanities, 13 (2018)) <> [accessed 17 July 2024]

First footnote reference: 35 The Sacred in the Secular in European Literature, ed. by Daisy Gudmunsen and Claudia Dellacasa (= MHRA Working Papers in the Humanities, 13 (2018)) <> [accessed 17 July 2024], p. 21.

Subsequent footnote reference: 37 Gudmunsen and Dellacasa, p. 47.

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Bibliography entry:

Gudmunsen, Daisy, and Claudia Dellacasa (eds). 2018. The Sacred in the Secular in European Literature (= MHRA Working Papers in the Humanities, 13) <> [accessed 17 July 2024]

Example citation: ‘A quotation occurring on page 21 of this work’ (Gudmunsen and Dellacasa 2018: 21).

Example footnote reference: 35 Gudmunsen and Dellacasa 2018: 21.

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