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The End of "Secularization"?

Pecora, Vincent P. Secularization without End: Beckett, Mann, Coetzee. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2015. 214 + xiv. Paperback. $30.00.

In Secularizaton without End: Beckett, Mann, Coetzee, Vincent P. Pecora reads the radical "disavowal of redemption of any sort" (12) in these three writers as generating reconfigured versions of Calvinism: where a realization of total depravity, predestination, lack of free will and bereftness of grace paradoxically becomes the only possible basis for any residual gesture of humility or prayer. Theirs is "a literature of absolute, even primoridal, shame" (12), exposing "the utter disgrace of human existence as it might be judged (even if it is not) by a divinity" (12). Still, the desire for some form of justice, some form of justification, recurs ineradicably in all three writers, however overtly "secular" their premises. For Pecora, this surprising swerve--from within a prose manifestly committed to a godless, mechanical universe towards the reappearance of theological themes like atonement and justification--complicates standard versions of the history of the novel as an inevitable harbinger and catalyst of secularization. Taking a page from Heidegger's "The Principle of Identity," Pecora adapts the concept of Verwindung (a transformation, distortion, recuperation or un-forgetting, reappropriating Being from within the secular) to focus on "the manifold ways secularization manages to stimulate, often from within its own machinery, religious thinking in return" (24). This reading strategy produces fresh and suggestive connections between the post-World War II, post-imperial novels of Beckett, Mann, and Coetzee, scarred as they all are by the catastrophes and guilt of the twentieth century.

Pecora's reading of Samuel Beckett draws on previous work by Anthony Uhlmann and David Tucker on the influence of Arnold Geulincx' occasionalism in Beckett's writing. Geulincx' mechanised, determinist universe in which mind and matter are causally disconnected (synchronized only by an obscure, unknowable divine will) serves in Pecora's argument both as an ironic image of what a "fully secularized modernity" (27) might actually look like, and as a direct historical link to Calvin's "doctrine of human helplessness without God's grace" (38). While some of the themes pursued by Pecora (Geulincxian humilitas in Murphy for example) are well-known, his chapter makes the Calvinist connection more explicit and adds suggestive readings of the recurring idea of perpetual atonement (life as a "pensum") and the ambiguous temporalities in Molloy, Malone Dies, and The Unnamable. The work on Geulincx could, however, have been supplemented with more systematic attention to the influence of Arthur Schopenhauer. Pecora briefly acknowledges the philosopher as the source for "pensum" and "the original sin of having been born" but avoids further discussion of, say, mysticism in Schopenhauer, his account of issueless desire and of tragedy, his debunking of free will, or his critique of theodicy. In particular, Beckett's lifelong ethical assault on the very possibility of theodicy as a rational justification of God's ways to man is finally closer to Schopenhauer than to either Geulincx or Calvin.

In Pecora's chapter on Thomas Mann, the swerve towards religious thinking is elucidated through the ambiguous fascination with Heiliglosigkeit--the unholy, utterly corrupt or grace-less--in Mann's work. A key insight here is on Adrian Leverkuhn in Doctor Faustus, who "wants to believe that his devotion to the truth, even the truth that there can be no salvation for him, is of greater value than divine grace itself" (66). That is, the realization of complete abjection generates a residual hope-beyond-hopelessness: as Augustine and Calvin emphasized, it is only by recognizing the full extent of one's depravity and abandoning the idea that salvation can be earned that mercy may become possible. For Mann, German bourgeois piety and self-satisfaction on the one hand, and Nazi barbarism and fanaticism on the other, both represent culpable evasions of this recognition. With real critical acuity and telling detail, Pecora shows how both Doctor Faustus and the late novel Die Erwahlte end up "recuperating the religious" through a "a strenuous, neo-Augustinian rejection of routinized piety in pursuit of something like the miracle of a grace that is 'beyond faith' itself" (71). In an interesting coda to the chapter, Pecora glances at the "Death of God" theology of the 1960s to suggest that the paradox of a "redemption made available by the denial of redemption itself" (81) was far from a merely personal obsession of Mann's. Indeed, Pecora concludes that this swerve towards the recuperation of the religious may be ineradicable from secular modernity itself, even in its most advanced phase.

Pecora's most wide-ranging and convincing readings are found in his chapter on J. M. Coetzee, whose ouevre he sees as focused on abjection, disgrace, and the condition of the outcast. While there is no question that Coetzee vehemently rejects the Dutch Reformed Calvinism of his upbringing and conveys a searing guilt at the Apartheid of the Boer social order that supported it, the very force and absoluteness of that guilt evokes "a theological condition of life bereft of grace, emptied of faith, and forsaken by God" (88)--or Calvin redux, once again. As Pecora points out, Coetzee's own label of "pessimistic anarchistic quietism" for his political thought is thoroughly Calvinist in its emphasis on the corruption and inefficacy of the human will (111). Pecora accordingly seizes on the motif of an endless, failing, recursive secular confession in Coetzee's novels: a confession that can never issue in absolution because its motives always appear questionable, self-serving, and corrupt in some form. A brief review cannot do justice to the impressive range of detail from across Coetzee's work that Pecora marshals to develop this thematic, but an important conclusion is that this suspicion is explicitly turned not just on characters but towards Coetzee's own writing, as an "allegorizing novelist who turns abjections into dramatic (and ultimately prizewinning) moral tales in order to soothe his own disgrace, and yet feels, even as he is doing it, all the more ashamed" (109).

This book is a valuable contribution to the theory and history of the modern novel, which, after this volume and Pericles Lewis's Religious Experience and the Modernist Novel, has moved definitively on from Ian Watt's influential but indefensible idea that the novel is an inherently secular form. One would, however, have liked to see some engagement with the argument (made by John Milbank, Charles Taylor, Michael Allen Gillespie and others) that the modern idea of the "secular" is itself an imaginative product, forged through an elaborate and complex history of theological and moral debates dating back at least to thirteenth century Nominalism. So, how exactly does the novel contribute to this invention of "the secular"? Instead of taking up this gauntlet, however, Pecora prefers to rely on a bizarre characterization of religion itself as "a sort of incurable infection," a "disease" that is somehow also "a productive, creative force" (83). This is a blemish on an otherwise intelligent study.

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Title Annotation:Secularization Without End: Beckett, Mann, Coetzee
Author:Tonning, Erik
Publication:Papers on Language & Literature
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2018
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