Sacramental Poetics At the Dawn of Secularism: When God Left the World.
Regina Schwartz's brilliant and thought-provoking contribution to the "Cultural Memory in the Present" series from Stanford University Press begins with a note of lament. Telling the story of her unwillingness to take communion when offered the opportunity to do so during a private Mass at the chapel of Ignatius of Loyola, Schwartz offers the following analysis of what she confesses to be a long-standing reluctance to participate: "On that day I knew that I could not take communion because the world was not yet redeemed" (xiii). For Schwartz, the pervasiveness of injustice and suffering in the world is such that Christ cannot be deemed to be fully present, and it is from this starting point that the book examines the consequences of the Reformers' break with the doctrine of the Real Presence. We are encouraged to appreciate how much was risked when the Reformers pursued a more limited notion of the Eucharist: "a redeemed world, eternal life, justice, participation in a communion constituted by consent rather than by rule, and by even more--love" (26). But we should not think that Sacramental Poetics at the Dawn of Secularism: When God Left the World is about "nostalgia for the 'old faith' of a more sacramental Christianity, even for Catholicism" (140). Schwartz is much more interested in understanding the "ever-departing" (140) loss of the gods that secularism brings forth than she is in seeking a return to a pre-Modern era. Her argument is that understanding this loss brings hope: remembering what is no more, we recall the value of such things and desire them anew. Whether or not such hope is an adequate replacement for the presence of Christ is debatable, as Schwartz's preface acknowledges, but there is no question that remembrance does, at the very least, alert us to the consequences of theological dispute, in literature and culture.
Following two conceptual chapters on the cultural and theological implications of the loss of the Real Presence, the substance of the book consists of close readings of work by four Early Modern writers: William Shakespeare, John Milton, John Donne, and George Herbert. I do not want to make too much of the distinction between conceptual analysis and close reading, however, for one of this book's great strengths is the seamless way in which Schwartz moves between textual insight, cultural analysis, theological reflection, and theoretical understanding. From start to finish, the discussion speaks intelligently of multiple worlds (the worlds we inhabit, physically and mentally; the present world; and the world of the Reformation) and moves fluently and imaginatively between them. There is a methodological richness here which, when taken alongside the book's beautiful and considered prose, results in one of the most engaging works that I have read for some time. Not only is the book attentive to the doctrine of the Eucharist; it is a book that impresses upon us why theological intricacies matter and how they connect with other issues that we might be more familiar with. Aware of the dynamic potential of all forms of representation, chapter 3, for example, observes how the Reformers' "very insistence that in the Mass, the sacrifice was only represented, and not repeated ... brought the Mass closer to the theatre" (42). This leads Schwartz to examine Shakespeare's use of the Mass in Othello to help stage questions relating to the "problem of evil and the problem of justice" (56). A similarly nuanced consideration of a host of theological, theoretical, and cultural issues informs the reading in chapter 4, which begins by noting the surprising appearance of Eucharistic imagery in the Eden imagined by Paradise Lost. Schwartz reflects on the ramifications of Paradise Lost's "digesting universe [that] is not only tending toward God ... [but] also constitutes the body of God" (64), before going on to ask how, for Milton, humans participate in and contribute to that universe. In Paradise Regained Milton explores the answers provided by acts of renunciation and silence. By contrast, the author discussed in the next chapter is less hesitant to name and describe what he cannot fully know: "In Donne's work, the body not only makes love, it also suffers fevers and tortures; it dies and is resurrected, it is disassembled and reassembled. His work depends so completely on embodiment that it is difficult to imagine how he could express love, agony, or salvation without it" (110).
As a result of their engagement with the Eucharist and its preoccupation with bodies, words, and signs, all of the writers discussed in this book share in common what Schwartz calls sacramental poetics. She explains: "[w]ith Reformation theology insisting that the sacrifice be remembered rather than re-enacted in the communion, these poets are all asking, albeit in different ways, that their poetry carry the mystical force of the sacramental re-enactment; hence we discover the irony that Reformation poetry becomes the new site of transubstantiation of the Word" (120). At different times the sacramental poetics evoke presence and absence--revealing something sacred whilst also admitting its absence and reminding us that something remains unsaid and unknown. But if that something risks becoming too intangible, then the sacramental poetics of Herbert, particularly in his "Love III," create space for individuals to participate and converse. The language of love, "is not understood as 'standing for things,' what is said is less important than the very activity of saying, the dynamic of conversation itself. In conversation, some thing is not passed from one to another; rather some one hears and responds" (135-36). The trope is suggestive and offers a fitting way to conclude the book. It reminds us that our talk of God cannot be reduced to something; it insists that the Eucharist involves an economy of love given and love received; and it figures the Eucharist as a conversation, thereby establishing a way of rethinking our own relation to God and to others.
Impressive though this book is, it is not just a set of printed words to be admired at a distance. It is a conversation, with a range of established poets, critics, philosophers and theologians, to be sure, but also with us; it is a conversation that bids us welcome and encourages our response. Whether or not we agree with everything that is said is not really the point. For the most part, I do (or have come to) agree, but where I do not, the book is no less valuable. In making this latter observation, I am thinking about an assumption that permeates much of the book, namely that that the modern world is best described as secular and that there is an inevitable drift of Protestantism into an "immanent social sphere" (19) that is, ultimately, godless. Schwartz does not the use the term secularism unthinkingly, but my own sense is that the term needs to be interrogated further. Why should one accept the argument of figures such as Slavoj Zizek, that the Christian (Catholic or Protestant) faiths emphasis on a God who makes himself known and takes on flesh, must lead us to think of the secular? The logic of such arguments requires that God be defined in terms of pure transcendence, a definition that is questionable from a Christian point of view. Of course, rethinking the term secular is no easier than trying to define precisely what one means by 'Ca Christian point of view." And it is in this context, of an ongoing conversation about important and difficult matters, that the few elements of the book that I am less persuaded by should be seen. Schwartz offers us a rich feast of ideas and enables us to participate in a vital conversation; I have thoroughly enjoyed consuming what she has to say, and I urge others to take the opportunity to do likewise.
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|Publication:||Christianity and Literature|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2010|
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