Restless Secularism: Interview with Matthew Mutter

Among Winter Cranes
The Quarterly of the Christian Poetics Initiative
Vol. 2 Issue 3
Summer 2019

Restless Secularism: Interview with Matthew Mutter
By David Mahan

Matthew Mutter is Associate Professor of Literature at Bard College, having completed his PhD in English at Yale. His recent book Restless Secularism: Modernism and the Religious Inheritance (Yale University Press 2017), joins the growing conversation about the history and present critique of secularism in this ‘post-secular’ moment.

DM: Thank you for taking the time to do this interview, Matthew. Let me begin by asking a rather broad question about what inspired your book. On my reading of it, there is a sense that you aimed to correct or at least amend certain perspectives about modernist writers and the modernist ‘project’, as well about secularism itself. What were some of the particular questions or concerns that initially sparked your interest in this topic?

MM: I’m grateful, David, for your interest in my book. I’ve had a long-standing interest in the intersection of literature and religion. I majored in both English and Religious Studies in college. Indeed, I studied philosophy of religion at the University of Edinburgh during a junior year abroad, and happened to be there when Charles Taylor gave the Gifford Lectures in Edinburgh that later became A Secular Age. It was those lectures that first got me thinking about “the secular,” not as religion’s simple antagonist, but rather as an ethos, or as what Geertz calls a “model for” and “model of reality.”

Taylor’s arguments about the contingency of the “secular” – that it is not the self-evident, default position towards reality that emerges as religion declines, but is rather an active epistemological and metaphysical construction of that reality – were important for me. I was also interested in the older disagreement between Karl Löwith and Hans Blumenberg about the dependence of secular thought on the religious thought it displaces, and it struck me that the literary modernists were struggling with this problem – that in many ways it was one of the animating problems for many modernists.

My impression was that while some scholars of modernism had happily taken on board (implicitly and later explicitly) a set of attitudes now associated with the “post-secular” – thus in the last couple decades we’ve seen multiple studies of modernist occultism, spiritualism, residual religious curiosity, etc. – the problem of “the secular” as such was still obscure. I would sometimes notice in conversations with other scholars that an inquiry into these matters was taken to entail a question of whether these modernist writers did or didn’t believe in God, or whether they viewed religion as “good” or “bad.” There is occasional difficulty in persuading some scholars that “secularity” itself might be an object of inquiry, in the same way “religion” or even “atheism” is assumed to be.

DM: Something I appreciate most about your book is the ‘thick’ description you offer of secularism as it was expressed in modernism. Despite the common view that modernism marks a decidedly secular moment, for example, in your introduction you claim instead that there is “a profound ambivalence in modernism over the nature and consequences of secularization” (p.2). Can you elaborate the “intricacies,” as you call them, which led you to this conclusion, and what implications literary scholars in particular should draw?

MM: Even superficially, the characterization of literary modernism (or the various “modernisms”) as secular is curious. If one thinks of Jean Toomer, H.D., D.H. Lawrence, T.S. Eliot, Willa Cather, Kafka, Rilke, Yeats, etc., and if by “secular” we mean something like “atheistic metaphysical naturalism” or “Enlightenment liberal humanism,” that characterization is clearly inadequate. Stanley Cavell once described “Romanticism” as “alternative process of secularization,” by which he meant that Romanticism wanted to preserve a certain view of spiritual depth and ontological mystery that was incompatible with, say, instrumental rationality or a mechanistic view of human beings and the world. My view is that many modernist writers are looking for a similar “alternative”; the trouble is that Romanticism, after Darwin, Nietzsche, and the naturalist novel, is no longer considered a straightforwardly viable ethos for preserving the spiritual dimension in the face of disintegrating religious authority.

One concern is that Romanticism is simply theology by other means. The modernists I write about are starting fully to confront the arguments, made by Nietzsche and others, that modern liberal humanism and Romanticism have simply translated certain God-terms into a ‘naturalized’ idiom, and that true emancipation from religion would require a comprehensive re-description of experience, language, and the values that govern them. The ambivalence emerges when experience, and the search for a language adequate to it, seems to draw them back into a religious vocabulary. Yet it is also dangerous to frame this problem as a binary option, in terms of a “pure” secularity or a “pure” religion, because genealogically Western secularism is so difficult to disentangle from the religious cultures out of which it emerged.

DM: At the same time, while recognizing the complexities of the ‘secular’ in modernism, which you configure broadly in terms of different ‘models,’ you also argue that “Secularism has … a distinct social imaginary.” Can you fill out what that imaginary looks like which makes it distinctive, on your reading?

MM: That’s a good question. The attractiveness of the term “secular imaginary” for my arguments is that it describes an ethos or a worldview that may not be stated theoretically (as a series of propositions), yet which is constructed tacitly as a constellation of authoritative symbols, metaphors, or narratives. For instance, the foundation of Stevens’s secular imaginary is probably “the earth.” “The earth” for Stevens is not a neutral word that merely denotes the planet on which we happen to reside; it is charged with a devotion to what is immediately here, present, sensuously available, as opposed to an ostensibly “other-worldly” source of value. Compare T.S. Eliot’s “earth,” which in “East Coker” is shorthand for “dung and death.” And whereas in Eliot “The whole earth is our hospital,” Stevens is looking to affirm something he calls “the health of the world.”

The other bricks in Stevens’s imaginary might be “flow” – the “mere flowing of the river” of becoming is “a gayety” — again as opposed to Eliot’s ontological image of the “river,” and the question put to it: “Where is there an end of it…?” The flow of life on the earth for Stevens is then understood as an “adventure,” sometimes ecstatic, sometimes tragic, and the agency that elaborates this adventure is the “imagination.” (For Eliot the Christian ascetic, “the imagination” can often be, as it was for Pascal, a principle source of illusion.)

For the other writers I discuss, the “secular imaginary” can look different. For Yeats, it is an updated Homeric, or pagan imaginary, that aims to rehabilitate the values and states of being that ascetic Christianity treated with suspicion: physical heroism, glory, rage, etc. But while Yeats wants to amplify the drama of “immanent” life, he is profoundly uninterested in, even derisive towards, other “secular” values that have their origin in Protestantism, like the dignity of the “everyday” or the “inner life.” Auden’s secular imaginary, which I see as compatible with his later Christian faith, emphasizes the impersonal otherness of the material world; the villain in this imaginary is “magical thinking,” which is ultimately a failure of humility and a refusal to accept one’s status as a creature.

DM: One of the veins you explore throughout your close readings of Stevens, Woolf, Yeats, and Auden qualifies our understandings of the secular by elaborating a broader understanding of the religious, thus troubling a simplistic view of either. 

MM: I try to do this, yes. The example of Auden, which I just mentioned, is to my mind exemplary here. I think Auden could legitimately be characterized as a “Christian secularist,” or something like that. Not in the Harvey Cox, Rudolph Bultmann, death-of-God theology mode (these gained traction when he was writing), for which Christianity itself must be “demythologized.” But Auden emphasizes the creaturely, embodied element of human existence, while insisting that this element is compatible with “transcendence.”

My work on Virginia Woolf left me with a sense that Woolf herself was constricted by the late Victorian atheistic/agnostic discourse that she inherited from her father, and which was in some ways extended by the philosophical influences on the Bloomsbury group (i.e. Bertrand Russell). It’s as if when Woolf’s subtle explorations of experience take her into metaphysical territory, they hit a wall of unimpeachable rationalist authority. That wall consists of the demands of rigorous empiricism, the agnostic framing of the “problem of evil,” etc., and threatens to consign possible discoveries in that territory to the category of subjective projection or illusion.

In other words, the discourse of “secular reason” constrains the view of what counts as “religious,” what should be called “mystical,” etc. But it is equally true that, insofar as we might call these modernists “secular,” their secularity is not synonymous with “disenchantment,” or the emptying of reality and flattening of experience.

DM: A number of Christian literary scholars have been involved in a project whose aim I have described as ‘shaping a Christian poetics for the 21st century.’ This is very much a work in progress as we seek to carry forward a longstanding conversation among sympathetic scholars. In what ways do you imagine your work in Restless Secularism contributing to such an undertaking? (I’m thinking here, in part, of the increasing body of work by Christian literary scholars to engage post-secularism.) Do you have other projects in the works that extend your own interest in the relationship between religion and literature?

MM: I would begin with Auden, the only modernist in my book who was concerned with such a poetics. As much as I admire Auden, one senses in his later work a residual Kierkegaardian anxiety about conflating the religious and the aesthetic. Auden may have gone from holding an exaggerated view of the spiritual (world-transformative) power of poetry in his early career to holding too timid a view of it later on.

Hans Urs von Balthasar was famously critical of that Kierkegaardian segregation, but I have also been impressed by the work of Nicholas Boyle (which I’ve only read since my book was completed), who has a sharp critique of von Balthasar’s German Idealist blinders. Boyle appeals to Auerbach, and takes von Balthasar to task for his dismissal of the “low style” of the realist novel, “the style which notices that Peter was warming himself at a fire while denying Christ.” It is just that sort of “low style” that appealed to the later Auden, and for just the theological reasons that Boyle surmises.

I am sympathetic to the reflections that your initiative is pursuing. In my book, I criticize some of the ways “religion” has made its way back into the academic literary discourse. I often see in this discourse a covert functionalism, in the sense that religion is welcomed insofar as it can serve as a vehicle for certain values that the secular critic affirms ahead of time: subversion, heterodoxy, the critique of imperial reason, etc. This is what accounts, I think, for the remarkable fact that in the study of 19th and 20th century literature, the first wave of mainstream academic retrieval of religion focused on spiritualism and the occult.

But the normative horizon and the metaphysical imagination are typically ignored. Like you and others, I don’t think that there can be a “systematic” religious poetics – Christian or otherwise. I agree with Nicholas Boyle’s formulation, in Sacred and Secular Scriptures, that “Literature is language free of instrumental purpose, and it seeks to tell the truth.” (It would take pages to unpack what he means by “truth” and “instrumental purpose.”)

I also agree with his suggestion – Auden made a similar claim many years ago – that literary “representation… is the secular analogue of Redemption,” because representation always carries the conviction that existence matters, and the endowment of this existence with form is an act of “remaking,” which itself bears an analogy with “forgiveness.” I suspect that the academic indifference or condescension to a religious poetics springs from the atrophy of a viable vocabulary for acknowledging the capacity of literature both to “tell the truth” and to disclose value, i.e., to show how and why things “matter.” My hunch is that the re-articulation of these capacities – whether the literature in question is characterized as “religious” or “secular” – might be the most far-reaching contribution a “Christian poetics” could make.

Matthew Mutter
Associate Professor of Literature
Bard College

David Mahan
Co-Director of the Rivendell Center for Theology and the Arts
Lecturer in Religion and Literature at the Institute of Sacred Music
Yale Divinity School

Image Credit:

Spencer Collection, The New York Public Library. “Momoyogusa = Flowers of a Hundred Generations.” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1909.