Research at the Ransom Center:
Modernism and Christianity in the Collections
By Dr. Erik Tonning
Theorists of literary modernism rarely go beyond token references to Christianity in their attempts at definition. So too in criticism, where the specifics of an artist's encounter with the dominant faith of the culture often dissolve into lazy and shrugging references to "secularization," "the death of God," and "the revolt against traditional religion." A new research project at the University of Bergen, Norway, called Modernism and Christianity: Literature, History, Archive (2011-2014) aims to retrieve Christianity from this subterranean, supposedly fossil existence within Modernism studies. Archival research is essential to this task because it enables us to uncover how a range of Christian influences were part and parcel of the intellectual world and creative process of modernist writers. As Research Director for this project, I spent much of June 2011 gathering information on behalf of our research team from several of the Ransom Center's rich collections.
There is still much to digest in the material assembled. Indeed, it will probably keep us busy for the next couple of years. But a few vignettes may be apposite here, illustrating that although some modernists may have been hostile to aspects of Christian culture and theology, we have still not fully appreciated the fact that they were almost never indifferent.
Both George Bernard Shaw and D. H. Lawrence may in one sense be dubbed Life-Force worshippers, consciously preaching a new theology. But this description also conceals a vast intellectual gap between them. Shaw is quite happy to fill out a "Questionnaire on God" (1931; in the Center's collection) from a journalist, issuing confident statements about the divine nature:
Has he a conscious purpose?
He is a purpose and nothing else.
Does God progress?
He tries to. He is doing his best, having nothing else to do.
As Shaw had made clear years earlier in his lay sermon "The New Theology" (1907), he rejected the nineteenth-century Intelligent Designer, creator of a world of necessary waste and pain; our world was, Shaw insisted, morally justifiable only if one thought of the divine as an impersonal Progress towards ever more consciousness ("the ecstasy of a brain"). The old myths and stories of Christianity should be abandoned in favor of this thoroughly modern evolutionary religion.
Lawrence would disagree. His last book, Apocalypse (1931), is an idiosyncratic reading of the last book of the Bible; against the grain of the orthodoxies of the nonconformist chapel of his youth, to be sure, but also opposed to any bland demythologisation of this startling text. For Lawrence, John's Apocalypse puts us in touch with a pagan cosmos: Christ as awful Kosmokrator, the Woman Clothed with the Sun, the Dragon. The latter figure reminds us how far Lawrence is from Shaw's rationalism: "That startled life which runs through us like a serpent, or coils within us potent and waiting, that is the dragon." In the manuscript drafts to Apocalypse at the Ransom Center, we can observe Lawrence's struggle to define a vitalist, sensuous "religious way of knowledge" as opposed to scientific abstraction and dissection. Shaw's and Lawrence's passionate engagement with Christianity is clearly an important measure of the contrast between these two writers.
There were also, of course, modernist converts to Christianity, and the most famous of these is undoubtedly T. S. Eliot. The principal Eliot holdings at the Center are the more than 1,000 letters in the collection. Eliot's epistolary persona is often businesslike and bland, but we can catch glimpses of his unfolding aesthetic thought, as in his 1948 musings to Mary Hutchinson about her recent Christmas present to him, a Spanish crucifix: "It is of a type of religious art that particularly fascinates me—that of things that ought to be ugly and are beautiful."
Seemingly on the opposite end of the scale is Samuel Beckett, a writer often portrayed as a sort of poster-boy for twentieth-century atheistic angst. The Ransom Center holds the endlessly fascinating drafts of the novel Watt, long known as the "white whale of Beckettiana" for their sheer bulk, complexity, and at times near-illegibility. These drafts belie the popular picture in numerous ways. For instance, the wicked humor of a mock-learned theological excursion upon a rat that eats of the consecrated Eucharistic wafer quickly dispels any impression of mere gloom. We find a host of such mildly bizarre theological references, from Francesco Cangiamila's Sacred Embryology to Archbishop Ussher's chronology of creation. Relentless though it is, the parody also swells into something more serious, for as with so many modernist writers, Christianity is finally Beckett's most intimate and pervasive interlocutor:
Down on your knees now sir and a prayer of thanksgiving this very minute to God who busy and all as he is with preventing the sparrows from falling to the ground has found time in his infinite mercy to cast us up in the midst of the ocean far from the tradelines on a barren rock abounding in seaweed, full of iodine, excellent for the blood, especially in October. It isn't every God who would do a thing like that.
Dr. Erik Tonning is Research Director of the "Modernism and Christianity" project at the University of Bergen, Norway. Tonning also holds visiting fellowships in the UK, at Regent's Park College, Oxford's Centre for Christianity and Culture, and at the University of Northampton. He is currently writing a short monograph for Palgrave called Modernism and Christianity. He is also Series Editor (with Dr. Matthew Feldman) of the new book series Historicizing Modernism from Continuum Books. In June 2011, he visited the Ransom Center to view a range of its modernism holdings.