All posts tagged: Enlightenment

Dostoevsky’s Literary Burden of Representing Saints

Perhaps no one in the history of modern literature was as conscious as Dostoevsky regarding the literary burden taken on when it came to presenting or representing an unassailably good person. Such a depiction was weighed down with representational disadvantages: it took talent but was not impossible to depict a great sinner who undergoes conversion or is capable of such; it took a unique talent, someone of Dostoevsky’s psychological acuity, to lay bare the psyche of the person alienated from others, self, and God and free-falling into incoherence. But how to depict a truly good man, indeed, a man who is nothing short of a saint, someone who has died to self and made himself available to others, was a task for which Dostoevsky was unsure that his or indeed anyone’s literary gifts were a match. Hagiography is a genre of long-standing, but no modern writer confuses it with literature, which requires characters that are not only believable in the modern world, but show the capacity to negotiate and transcend it. But just such a …

Kant and de Sade: The Modern Recalibration of the Monstrous and the Demonic

Demons and Monsters With regard to the imagining of who we are, and who we could become, 1794 was no ordinary year. This was the year in which the ever-reliable Immanuel Kant, whose walks in Konigsberg were such that you could set your watch by them, wrote a strange and spectral book called Religion within the Boundaries of Reason Alone, a book that seemed at once to recall the thinker of a few years earlier while also presenting a stranger who was more familiar with evil than anyone—including his erstwhile self—might have guessed. If Kant surprised himself by feeling compelled to write about “radical evil” in book 1, he shocked Goethe who, feeling betrayed, decried what he judged to be an inexplicable regression to the hateful Christian doctrine of Original Sin. Goethe was only somewhat right in linking Kant’s view of radical evil to the Christian doctrine of Original Sin, and if right at all perhaps only by accident in that certainly Kant intended to debunk Augustine’s doctrine of Original Sin and any of its …

We Have Never Been Medieval

In the early 1990’s the French philosopher, anthropologist, and sociologist Bruno Latour published a remarkable, and scandalous, essay, in which he argued that society had never been modern.[1] According to Latour, modernity has never been able to fully achieve its desired goal of an objective understanding of Nature, epitomized in scientific studies, bracketed off from an understanding of society, especially in politics. Modern people always take recourse to hybrids or “quasi-objects” that bridge this desired divide in order to make the world intelligible and to make society possible. The findings of scientific inquiry are never as objective and certain as they claim or hope to be, nor are political and economic considerations ever divorced from our understanding of the natural world and the way the natural environment acts upon humanity. In the end René Descartes and his intellectual descendants were never able to truly have an objective mastery of Nature. One consequence of Latour’s argument is that if society has never truly achieved the idealized hope of being modern so too has humanity never truly …

The Fear of Catholic Contamination at the Heart of American Individualism

Gothic fiction, the fiction of fear, has long been identified as paradoxically central to the literary tradition of the United States. Early exhortative texts such as the Declaration of Independence and Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography clearly articulated an optimistic national narrative of rational, self-interested individuals escaping past tyranny to progress confidently together into an expansive future. By contrast, the Gothic fictions of writers such as Edgar Allan Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, William Faulkner, and Toni Morrison have depicted nightmarish threats to national ideals, inherent flaws in those ideals and their implementation, or both—thereby radically challenging “America’s self-mythologization as a nation of hope and harmony.” Such is the critical consensus. What scholars have failed to recognize adequately is the recurrent role in such fiction of a Catholicism that consistently threatens to break down borders separating U.S. citizens—or some representative “American”—from the larger world beyond. This role has in part reflected enduring fears of the faith in Anglo-American culture. British Gothic fiction originated in the eighteenth century as what one scholar pointedly deemed Horror Fiction in the Protestant Tradition, …