Printer Friendly


THE doctrine of Original Sin posed problems for modernist writers and artists who celebrated forms of liberation and progression. For some, the notion was offensive or at least needed re-interpretation to reconcile it with a spirit of vital and often sexual creative energy. Yet for others a conservative ethic could co-exist with radical aesthetics. This article surveys some of these intersections and negotiations between orthodoxy and heresy in both cultural and theological modernist spheres.

We need of course to distinguish between the two meanings of the term "modernism": first, as used by Pope Pius X to refer to forms of theological liberalism; and secondly, as used by cultural historians and literary critics to refer to revolutionary practice in the arts in the first part of the twentieth century. In some ways the two categories overlapped; in others they differed significantly. Theological "modernism" - or at the least the composite account of such modernism presented in Pius X's 1907 bull Pascendi Dominici Gregis--seemed to deny the reality of Original Sin or to re-define it in terms compatible with modern science to refer to forces impeding an immanent, evolutionary divinity. Meanwhile, modernist artists and writers broke with aesthetic convention, but often re-imposed their own new forms of canonical law. Critics still strive to expand the narrow definition of modernism centered on works by Eliot, Joyce, Woolf, and Pound. Eliot himself in After Strange Gods (1934) distinguished between "orthodox" writers among whom Eliot numbered himself and "heretic" liberals such as the "romantic" John Middleton Murry. The judgment is characteristic of Eliot's intermixture of political, theological, and aesthetic distinctions. A "them and us" division was being drawn, but if Eliot sought to define a narrow "modernism" of his own he failed: literary historians now readily include left-wing, liberal, atheist, and downright blasphemous writers within an expanding modernist canon. This is not to deny the presence of a conservative religiosity alongside a radical liberalism at the heart of the modern movement. Some cultural modernists, like their theological namesakes, invoked the Fall myth in heretical terms; but others did so with earnest reference to Christian dogma. Whether re-working or returning to the doctrine, artists and writers repeatedly drew on a Christian vocabulary, returning to an ingrained concept of ancient corruption and inherited evil.

While profound questions regarding human nature are in play, this study ranks among relatively localized histories of the impact of the Fall doctrine in modern thought, homing in on the fin de siecle. The key text here is Stephen Mulhall's Philosophical Myths of the Fall (2005), which notes how the Fall doctrine seems to underpin even the most radically atheistic modern thought, notably that of Nietzsche. Mulhall points to the famous passage in The Gay Science (1882), recounting the madman's declaration of the death of God. Usually read as the declaration of the end of the Judeo-Christian epoch, Mulhall suggests it is merely the restatement of our sense of fallenness and sin recapitulated in the Crucifixion. Similarly, On The Genealogy of Morals (1887) identifies a watershed moment when the ethic of self-sacrifice and abnegation overcame the earlier noble morality of virtue; in condemning the influence of the Fall doctrine, Nietzsche merely identifies another kind of Fall experience in its place. In accounts that transgress or defy Christian orthodoxy, we often find the Fall doctrine being replayed in different terms, gravitating back towards the original dogma.

As Peter Bowler has shown in detail, many late Victorian and Edwardian scientists strove to find ways of accommodating religious belief, while religious thinkers struggled to harness the possibilities of modern science, particularly those of evolutionary biology. Original Sin presented a major problem, not just in the difficulty of reconciling Genesis with emerging geological and evolutionary evidence or with the earlier challenges of the Higher Criticism, but as an impediment to progressive ideology. Progressivism was a leading spirit of the day; its development could be traced from Whig History through the influence of German Idealism and evolutionism into a wide range of finde-siecle socialist and liberal approaches that depended on a notion of human development.

One result of these negotiations between science and faith was a kind of immanentization of religion: an identification of divine energy in the world around us. This maneuver drew on a long romantic tradition of pantheism. Thus the rise of modern Darwinian thought coincided with a revival in spiritualism and theosophy, which re-identified spirit with matter. In another form, philosophical vitalists like Henri Bergson re-described evolution itself in spiritual terms. Other writers drew on Eastern religions and the ancient tradition of Neoplatonism to bolster this idea. Another compatible source for evolutionary treatments of history could be found in German Idealism and this tradition too fed into a nexus of Darwinism, Idealism, and the loose spirituality that shaped progressive thought. This tendency was particularly resonant with radical politics, which sought to locate heaven on earth. On the left, the romantic tradition was re-stated in seminal American transcendentalist texts by Emerson and Whitman, which in turn inspired a new generation of European socialists in declaring that a heaven on earth was possible. Theological modernism, by emphasizing the hope that Christ's moral teaching would produce salvation in this world as well as the next, opened the way to a general acceptance of evolutionism, but was forced to repudiate the traditional interpretation of Original Sin and the need for redemption. This proved too radical a step for many conservatives. In short, as Bowler puts it: "even if evolution was conceived as the unfolding of God's plan, the element of progress made nonsense out of the idea of original sin (since there could be no Fall from an earlier state of grace), and if there was no original sin, one would have to ask what the point of the Atonement would be within the new theology" (Bowler 211).

Between 1901 and 1902, the modernizing Anglican theologian F.R. Tennant delivered the Hulsean lectures at Cambridge (published in 1902 as The Origin and Propagation of Sin). His lectures advanced the argument that sin was a throwback, an impediment to growth deriving from our original animal state, which we are shaking off over time:
What if [man] were flesh before spirit; lawless, impulse-governed
organism, fulfilling as such the nature necessarily his and therefore
the life God willed for him in his earliest age, until his moral
consciousness was awakened to start him, heavily weighted with the
inherited load, not, indeed of abnormal and corrupted nature, but of a
non-moral and necessarily animal instinct and self-assertive tendency,
on that race-long struggle of flesh with spirit and spirit with flesh,
which for us, alas! becomes but another name for the life of sin. On
such a view, man's moral evil would be the consequence of no deflection
from his endowment, natural or miraculous, at the start; it would
bespeak rather in present non-attainment of his final goal.
(Tennant 11)

A graduate of the Natural Sciences Tripos, Tennant taught science at Newcastle-Under-Lyme High School, before returning to Cambridge as a lecturer in theology, focusing on the Philosophy of Religion. By the early 1900s, his published works were gaining attention across the intellectual press..

Tennant was thus a well-known and formidable presence at Newcastle and Cambridge in the years that the modernist writer T.E. Hulme attended both institutions. It is worth considering for a moment the proximity of such different figures, both representatives in their own way of the Edwardian frame of mind. Beside his renown as a "verse revolutionary," Hulme became one of the most strident defenders of the reality of sin and would place the doctrine at the heart of the cultural modernist movement or at least within the modernism defended by Eliot and his closest followers (Carr, Revolutionaries 3). He was the exemplar of a certain type of cultural modernist who would revile the theological modernists' position and welcome the solidity and firmness of religious orthodoxy. Over the years, many literary histories have identified Hulme's writing as a key root of the modernist movement in all its later complexity. He is known for his dislike of romanticism and his pursuit of a "classic," "austere" style, relying on precise metaphor in poetry and abstraction in the visual arts. As an Imagist and a leading supporter of art by Jacob Epstein and David Bomberg, he shaped both literary and visual traditions. He was also clearly responsive to theological and ideological attempts to mitigate or modernize conservative dogma; yet, having first presented himself as a radical, Hulme later pronounced himself a conservative--although even then his conservatism was framed in paradoxically radical terms (Hulme 59-73, 233-45).

Hulme prided himself in keeping abreast of modern thought and would have been aware of the theological debate around the question of sin. Tennant, his elder by seventeen years, exemplified the liberal mindset Hulme delighted to challenge; his defiance of efforts such as Tennant's to revise the concept of sin set an important strand of cultural modernism in opposition to its theological namesake (Hulme 89-92). A key step was to bring traditional dogma into literary and artistic conversation as a point of principle. Wyndham Lewis humorously recalled in his 1945 memoir that Hulme was:
... mainly distinguished as a "thinker" for having heard of the
theological doctrine of Original Sin. No one else in England at the
time had ever heard of it, or would, I am persuaded, have done so
since, had it not been for him.... Original Sin is such an original
thing to have taken any notice of. (Lewis 101)

Lewis's odd hyperbole hints at resentment for a rival whose ideas came to overshadow his own, but has some truth in it. Hulme did indeed place the idea at the center of avant-garde discourse. He first came to it, however, as a political thinker. Original Sin could be treated initially at least as shorthand for a pessimistic, anti-humanist ideology that was traceable to Thomas Hobbes, whose severity Hulme contrasted with the optimism of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. It was as a synonym for a political principle that Original Sin was first mentioned in his own writing in a series of articles on "Tory philosophy," prompted by the House of Lords crisis in 1912 (Hulme 232-33). It began: "It is my aim to explain in this article why I believe in original sin, why I can't stand romanticism, and why I am a certain kind of Tory" (Hulme 232). Yet between 1911 and 1916 his use of the term changed from being an ingredient in a stylish intellectual cocktail into a sincere religious principle (Hulme 419-45).

This engagement in real theological debate is gradually apparent in Hulme's writing, but he was not at first so hostile to the liberal position; indeed, in announcing the arrival of a new modern poetry, he at first echoed the language of Church reform. In 1908, the Irish Jesuit priest George Tyrrell, one of the leading Catholic modernists, had publicly attacked the Pope's anti-liberal encyclical in a letter to the Times, leading to his excommunication shortly afterwards. This modernist defiance of Rome was reported widely. Just months later, Hulme in a lecture delivered to the conservative Poets' Club announced that he stood for an "extreme modernism" in poetry (Hulme 54). It seems very likely that he intended to link his assault on the literary establishment with Tyrrell's attack on the Pope. He was thus connecting his own aesthetic experimentation to the shift towards immanentism in the Church.

Tennant was pursuing the same project in the Anglican sphere and was very likely known to Hulme not only as a renowned theologian of his alma maters, Newcastle and Cambridge, but also as a prominent voice advocating the liberalization of the Original Sin doctrine. Yet by the time Tennant published a sequel to his work, The Concept of Sin (1912), Hulme was actively arguing the opposite position. Tennant's new work, true to his liberal project, continued to develop his vitalistic account of sin as merely another name for lingering animal impulses impeding, but not preventing, the advance of the human spirit. In contrast, Hulme in a lost, provocative lecture entitled "Anti-Romanticism and Original Sin" and delivered to the liberal-minded Heretics Society at Cambridge emphasized the Augustinian doctrine: "Repeat the word 'Progress' often enough and it is easy to delude oneself into denying the truths of the doctrine of Original Sin amidst the mess of hypocritical Utopias, which ignore the principle of the constancy of Man" (Ferguson 112). It was typical of him to rebel against his teachers, even if that meant turning back to conservative faith (Ferguson 7).

The contrast between Tennant's and Hulme's thinking in 1912 paralleled the reaction against Catholic modernism through the Thomist revival that gained pace in France after the Pope's 1907 encyclical. Indeed, Hulme's positioning is similar to that of Jacques Martain, who also came under the influence of the philosopher Henri Bergson before gravitating back towards a conservative worldview, a reaction captured in La Philosophie bergsonienne (1914). Bergson, whose key work Creative Evolution (1908) brought him celebrity status and drew crowds to his lectures at the College de France, drew on empirical psychology to identify a deep stratum of intuitive creativity as the foundation of human consciousness, relating closely to an elan vital of possibly divine origin running through all nature and material experience. This resurrection of a spiritual component within an empirical methodology seemed to many a liberating force, offering a release from both the reductive materialism prevalent under the Third Republic and the burden of dogmatic religious tradition. Hulme's earliest work had relished the sense of "exhilaration" in escaping the "cell" of determinism (Hulme 126). The Catholic modernist Maurice Blondel was particularly close to Bergson and shared Hulme's feelings, describing how "[Bergson] made me dream about the spring-like flowering of Ionian thought" and inspired "the sudden awakening of a vigorous upheaval from the weight of twenty-five centuries of science, a science whose sediments threatened the mind with asphyxiation" (Lefevre 47-48). Bergson as emphasized by Edouard Le Roy also offered liberation from religious dogma; Le Roy was Bergson's colleague and successor at the College de France and the keenest Bergsonian of the Catholic modernists. In his essay "What is Dogma?" (1905), later expanded as Dogma and Criticism (1907), he describes institutionalized laws being rendered obsolete by the intuitive force of Bergson's elan vital. Contrasting fixed, authoritative, and intellectual religious law with the living faith beneath, Le Roy's image of dogma as a form of mummification, an encrusted shell that might be broken to reveal a fiery core, called to mind Bergson's use of similarly vivid metaphors, as did Charles Peguy's description of Thomist dogma as a "sclerosis"--a hardening of the arteries (Grogin 147). The images of breaking through the hard crust of dogma and reinvigorating the living being within carry an implicit notion of a fall from vivacious immediacy to an ossified, static state.

Thus the history of the Church dogma itself was seen as having somehow fallen from a moment of authenticity into decrepitude; the redemption offered by modernism itself and indeed by Bergsonian vitalism was to revivify the doctrine. Hulme felt too that both scientific and religious systems had fallen into a state of abstract hardness and needed to be brought back to life. Conforming to Mulhall's thesis, these attacks on both positivism and encrusted dogma contain an echo of dogma themselves. As Mulhall notes, Nietzsche's attack on the Judeo-Christian tradition contained within it the seed of a re-assertion of faith--as the death of God is announced the narrative of atonement begins again. For the thinkers surveyed here, the re-imagining of a vital spark at work in evolutionary processes also led to the reiteration of the Fall narrative, our sin now incorporated in our very self-reflexivity: our penalty being the cage of the reasoning mind.

The Vatican's condemnation of modernism had the more direct effect of reinstituting a traditional theology. The political consequences among the intelligentsia were notable. Maritain distanced himself from Bergsonianism and for a while under the influence of his priest moved towards the nationalist, neo-royalist group Action francaise.' The leader of Action francaise, Charles Maurras, was an atheist who espoused positivism, but at the same time on the strength of a cultural nationalism called for Frenchmen to return to their traditional Catholic faith, including a belief in Original Sin. Ironically, Maurras's cultural politics rested on another re-working of the Fall narrative, in this case seeing the foreign spirit of romanticism as a corrupting influence that had led France astray from its pure classical lineage. A Nietzschean version of this argument was developed by Maurras's colleague Pierre Lasserre in Le Romantisme francais (1907) in which the Christian Fall myth encased within Nietzsche's On the Genealogy of Morality (1887) was re-orientated for nationalist purposes. Redemption could be found in discarding romantic progressivism and returning to a native tradition, "classical" in morality, but institutionally Catholic; noble and slave morality both played parts in this renewed French culture. Simultaneously, Maurras invoked a tradition of politics that supposedly granted local communities and guilds autonomy, but only under the centralized authority of the monarchy, thus in fact subordinating the individual to elite rule, bolstered by top-down religious authority. A Christian ethic reconciled those outside the "Hellenic" elite with their subordinate place in this hierarchy.

Maritain agreed to follow Action francaise for a time, but his discomfort with their political usage of the Fall doctrine came to a head when the Pope denounced Maurras in 1926. Shortly afterwards Maritain announced his rejection of the group's politics; his Catholicism was evidently deeper-rooted than his interest in Maurassian nationalism. Similarly, Hulme turned against Maurras's version of "classicism" in insisting on the absolute truth of higher values; the true Catholic dogma replaced a political charade.

At this point, a place for vitalism remained in Hulme's thought; the intuitive substratum of mind described by Bergson was compatible with a desire for "absolute values," achieved through "freezing" the living into hard static shapes. Hulme, like Maritain, retained a place for a vitalist component in his renewed orthodoxy, registering Aquinas's distinction between faith and reason (Mead 15). These thinkers recognized a paradoxical requirement for error and variation in the lower functions that gave the dogma its true meaning. Free will was a requirement, sin a necessary element of our condition. The churning, ephemeral movements of the quotidian animal were intrinsic to humankind; they were only frozen later in hieratic form, subject to the severity of Church dogma.

Lying behind these responses to Catholic modernism was the on-going debate with modern science. The French political thinker Georges Sorel, like Hulme, was very attentive to developments in psychology, particularly in the exploration of the intuitive mind led by Bergson and in the related theories of crowd psychology developed by Gustave Le Bon. Hulme's work includes these sources in a line of thinking about the Fall that linked evolutionary psychology to literary modernism via Imagist poetry. As Bowler's book recounts, a central preoccupation of post-Darwinian psychologists (in England, Lloyd Morgan and Romanes; in France, Ribot) was to locate the point of distinction between the animal and the human. The question of speciation was by no means solved by Darwin and remained a mystery in the early years of the twentieth century. How did human intelligence emerge from animal intelligence? Was this a step forward or could it be seen as a kind of Fall in itself? Could we regain an animal's purity of vision? (see also Mead 38, 51, 71-72).

A tripartite distinction between instinct, reasoning power, and intuition was a motif in many accounts of human spiritual evolution--notable in the work of Darwin's protege, George John Romanes; it recurs in the French psychological pioneer Theodule Ribot's Evolution of General Ideas (1899), which saw the development of conceptual thought as a diminution or impoverishment of the immediacy of sense data. Ribot, a direct influence on Hulme, also worked closely with Bergson in whose Time and Free Will (1889) and Creative Evolution (1907) we find again the motif of animal intelligence, human reason, and higher intuition as three stages of development (Mead 71). Ambiguously, these writers discussed an immanentist theory of mind, but also re-stated a version of the Fall myth in terms of mental evolution and corruption. They described in different ways an occlusion of vision that comes with self-consciousness and a nagging desire to return to a prelapsarian receptiveness to immediate experience. The resulting state would be akin to the animal mind, but somehow higher than reason--a union of body and mind.

Meanwhile, in the field of social psychology, Gustave Le Bon's The Crowd (1895) identified Bergson's idea of intuitive consciousness with the mind of the masses. What was alarming about the crowd was its capacity to err in its collective passion. Moved by emotion, it could not distinguish between righteous and corrupting movements or causes. Connected to theories of the mass mind was the raw, basic desire associated with the lower functions of man, those regions that were closest to the animal realm. Evolutionary psychology again linked the substratum with forms of animal, primitive, and child-like comprehension. This libidinous energy needed discipline, but also offered a power that could be harnessed; it was in many way closer to the raw materials of life.

It is significant that for T.E. Hulme the desire to see, to regain the purity of immediate animal perception, was driven by a similar impulse. Joseph Campbell, his fellow Imagist, noted that the poetry Hulme was writing from 1908 was self-consciously informed by a sexual impulse or what Augustine might call "concupiscence": the disorderly element of desire, of love of things for what they are and not how they reflect God. Campbell, an Irish Catholic himself, recalls that "the first poetic work that appealed to [Hulme] was the Song of Songs":
He had no illusions [about] what side of his nature responded to that
poetry... he also realised that it was great poetry.... But he did not
exalt his eroticism...--it was rather a flaw--an element of disorder in
himself. If the whole significance of poetry was the appeal it made to
that disorderly element in him--then it was less than nothing. But the
other side of his nature also affirmed the greatness of great poetry.

(qtd. in Carr, Revolutionaries 139)

The Imagist poet F.S. Flint similarly noted the origins of Imagism: "somewhere in the gloom of... 1908, Hulme... excited... by... the propinquity, at a half-crown dance, of the other sex... proposed to a companion that they found a Poets' Club" (Flint 71). Campbell was surely aware of the theological sources he invoked in his remarks. Augustine wrote in the tenth chapter of the Confessions: "besides that concupiscence of the flesh... there pertains to the soul... a certain vain and curious longing, cloaked under the name of knowledge and learning" (10.34). The Confessions allude here to 1 John 2.16: "For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, is not the Father, but is of the world." Peter Harrison has identified the "lust of the eye" with scientific analysis in early modern thought: "Curiosity was nothing more than an original concupiscence refracted through the mind rather than the body--concupiscentia oculorum in Augustine's vivid turn of phrase, the lust of the eyes" (Harrison 36). It is tempting to link Hulme's instinctive, radical empiricism and his pronounced masculinity with the treatment of poetic vision as a form of penetration (Carr, "Hulme" 93-112).

Hulme's Bergsonian aesthetic then arrives at a notion of poetic visuality as a libidinous, urgent scopophilia, piercing the veil of appearances to reach the thing-in-itself; tellingly, the subjects of his poetry are often of the opposite sex: "The flounced edge of a skirt,/ recoiling like waves off a cliff" (Jones 49). In the logic of Thomism, it was possible to reconcile this sense of sin in oneself with Christian belief. As Charles Peguy, who deferred his return to the faith until his death in battle prevented it, famously wrote: "the sinner is at the heart of Christianity. No one is as competent as the sinner in matters of Christianity. No one, unless it be a saint" (Peguy 181).

Thus the new disciplines of Bergsonian vitalism, Nietzschean ethics, and evolutionary and social psychology on the one hand and the new politics of neo-royalism on the other all offered new takes on the doctrine of Original Sin. For some modernists, these re-interpretations eventually took them on a complete circuit through heresy back to orthodoxy. Indeed, it is possible to see this pattern across a much wider pool of examples and echoed in an Anglican or alternative spiritual discourse; for example, the writings of Edward Carpenter in England echoed Bergson, but drew also on Eastern religions and theosophy to expand the idea. There is more to be said about D.H. Lawrence's restatement of the Fall myth in terms of a vitalist, sexual energy; Lawrence was influenced by his Congregationalist pastor, a devotee of R.J. Campbell's "New Theology." In the same period, Edwin Muir and Katherine Mansfield, among many other writers and artists, employed the Fall motif as an integral part of their modernist project. Above all, the potency of the Catholic debate can be seen as a model and exemplar for these echoes in other non-Catholic fields, and the trajectory of culturally modernist but orthodox Catholic writers was a paradigm for others outside the Roman faith. Hulme's proximity to Maritain illustrates how Catholic ideas impacted on British literary and artistic culture. The outlines of the Catholic debate regarding Original Sin impacted the modernist canon most plainly through interested writers like Hulme and later Eliot, but echoes of this theological controversy can be seen further afield, across work by various Catholic, non-Catholic, and non-religious modernists. The full range and extension of the motif of Original Sin in modern Western culture remains to be fully explored; modernist writers' responsiveness to theological debate is particularly notable and worthy of detailed study.


(1) Maritain had some contact with Action francaise, but distanced himself after 1926. Hulme had expressed enthusiasm for their ideas from 1911, but never fully accepted their criticisms of Bergson; he showed a greater interest in Georges Sorel's work in 1912 and criticized Maurras's authoritarianism in 1915.


Augustine. Confessions. New Advent.

Bowler, Peter. Reconciling Science and Religion. Chicago: Chicago UP, 2002.

Carr, Helen. The Verse Revolutionaries. London: Jonathan Cape, 2009.

--. "T.E. Hulme and the 'Spiritual Dread of Space.'" T.E. Hulme and the Question of Modernism. Ed. Edward Comentale and Andrzej Gasiorek. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2006.93-112.

Ferguson, Robert. The Short Sharp Life of T.E. Hulme. London: Allen Lane, 2002.

Flint, F.S. "The History of Imagism." The Egoist 2.5 (1 May 1915): 71.

Grogin, Robert C. The Bergsonian Controversy in France 1900-1914. Calgary, AB: Calgary UP, 1988.

Harrison, Peter. The Fall of Man and the Foundations of Science. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2007.

Hulme, T.E. The Collected Writings of T.E. Hulme. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1996.

Jones, Peter, ed. Imagist Poetry. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1972.

Mead, Henry. T.E. Hulme and the Ideological Politics of Early Modernism. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2015

Lefevre, Frederic. L'Itineraire philosophique de Maurice Blondel. Paris: Editions Spes, 1928.

Lewis, Wyndham. Blasting and Bombardiering. Berkeley, CA: California UP, 1967.

Mulhall, Stephen. Philosophical Myths of the Fall. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2005.

Peguy, Charles. Basic Verities, Prose and Poetry. Trans. Ann and Julian Green. New York: Pantheon, 1943.

Tennant, Frederick. The Origin and Propagation of Sin. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1902.

Tyrrell, George. "The Pope and Modernism." The Times. 30 September 1907: 4.
COPYRIGHT 2017 Marquette University Press
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2017 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Mead, Henry
Publication:Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature
Article Type:Critical essay
Date:Jun 22, 2017

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2021 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters |