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Gimme That Old Time Religion
Mark Goldblatt

"Review of Denis Donoghue’s Adam’s Curse: Reflections on Religion and Literature"



Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press

The subtitle of Adam’s Curse, Denis Donoghue’s most recent collection of academic lectures, is Reflections on Literature and Religion. The key word is "reflections"--which serves simultaneously as a disclaimer and a rationale. As a disclaimer, "reflections" disavows any pretense of topical breadth or investigative depth. As a rationale, "reflections" provides the book with a kind of instant first-person unity it might not otherwise possess. That is: These are my reflections, and I’m a noted scholar, so I’ve earned the right to be heard out on the subjects of literature and religion.

In this case, he has. The author or editor of over two dozen previous volumes of criticism, including 1998’s award-winning The Practice of Reading, Donoghue is one of the finest close-readers of texts currently working in English. Typically, he addresses his own reader directly, in lucid, jargon-free prose, on the assumption that the role of the critic is explication rather than performance--which inevitably situates him in opposition to much of the politically-charged, jargon-muddled deconstructive criticism of the last quarter century. Unlike many humanists, he has taken the time to wade through the works of his antagonists; he knows his Derrida, de Man and Deleuze. This, it must be said, is not invariably a strength. Trained philosophers tend immediately to recognize such figures as charlatans—witness the celebrated 1992 letter of protest to Cambridge University, signed by twenty of the world’s most eminent philosophers, after the college decided to award Derrida an honorary degree. But as Donoghue is at pains to remind us throughout Adam’s Curse, he himself is not a trained philosopher. Thus, a chapter titled "Otherwise than Being" in which Donoghue takes issue with the ontological ramblings of the Lithuanian proto-poststructuralist Emmanuel Levinas--a current darling of the literary theory crowd though at best a kind of bush-league Martin Buber—is simply a pointless engagement; Donoghue has failed to discern what the noted philosopher/linguist John Searle has called the "atmosphere of fakery" pervading deconstruction. The entire chapter is thus a pointless exercise on Donoghue’s part, like shoveling mercury with a pitchfork.

Predictably, Donoghue is on much firmer ground when he focuses on traditional literary texts. He is at his very best, for example, in a chapter that addresses the alleged anti-Semitism of T.S. Eliot. The case against Eliot was brought most vociferously by Anthony Julius in T.S. Eliot, Anti-Semitism, and Literary Form (1995); it is a measure of the success of Julius’s prosecution that no less a critic than Harold Bloom would refer, five years later, to "the incessantly anti-Semitic T.S. Eliot."

Not so fast, says Donoghue. He challenges the lynchpin of Julius’s case, the notorious passage in After Strange Gods in which Eliot writes " . . . reasons of race and religion combine to make any large number of free-thinking Jews [in a Christian society] undesirable." Whereas Julius accepts the slander at face value--and even Donoghue concedes that, at face value, the words ARE damning--Donoghue attempts to place them in the broader context of the argument Eliot was making, and of his views on religion and culture in general. Citing a seemingly-innocuous emendation to a footnote (a footnote!) in another work of Eliot’s, and thereafter drawing bits and pieces from Eliot’s personal correspondence and later poetry, Donoghue gradually builds a defense that Eliot’s gripe was not with Judaism or Jews per se but with the phenomenon of "free-thinking" among people who continue to profess a particular faith--that is, the nominal devotion of those who secularize their own religion to make it more socially palatable, thereby corroding its spiritual core. It was the spiritual core of religion (specifically Christianity) with which Eliot was primarily concerned, for he believed that that core was what made possible the coalescence of a morally-sound culture. The fact that he chose Jews to make his point is a lapse in judgment on Eliot’s part; the point could as readily have been made with the phrase "free-thinking Zoroastrians" or even "free-thinking animists." It’s just that Eliot’s own society was predominately Christian, and the free-thinking minority with which he was best acquainted was comprised of Jews. To put the matter differently, according to Eliot, the presence of devout Jews in a Christian society wouldn’t be negative since their example would serve to inspire and consolidate Christian faith. In fact, in a letter to the Jewish philosopher Horace Kallen, Eliot makes precisely this point: "The racial problem, as between Jews and Gentiles, ought not to exist: and as between Jews who have abandoned their religion, and Christians who have abandoned theirs, it is a matter of indifference which body is ‘assimilated’ to the other."

This brief sketch doesn’t do justice to the nuances of Donoghue’s argument. It’s an astonishing piece of critical resourcefulness and deduction. It is anything but a deconstruction; the words still mean what they mean, and old-fashioned, real-world authorial intention is foregrounded throughout. Still, he plausibly, if not altogether convincingly, acquits Eliot of the charge of anti-Semitism, convicting him instead on the lesser charge of sloppy writing. Considering the hole Eliot had dug himself, this result is no small feat.

The Eliot apologia reverberates throughout Adam’s Curse. Donoghue is clearly sympathetic with Eliot’s point about the dangers of secularizing religion. In a chapter called "Church and World," he insists that "the church must restore the founding mysteries, without appearing to domesticate them or explain them away. It must tell the story over and over again. It must not take the easy way out, reducing theology to popular psychology, evading the dark parts of the Old Testament and New." He argues that the Church should find itself at odds with the world, "ready to denounce specific crimes: the conduct of war by indiscriminate bombing and the killing of civilians, the retention of the death penalty, genetic experimentation, the structural crimes committed in the cause of profit." Given Donoghue’s litany of necessary denunciations, however, the glaring omission of abortion seems disingenuous. Urging his Church to remain at odds with the world is one thing; Donoghue himself apparently doesn’t want to wind up at odds with academic orthodoxy on that particular hot-button issue. And can he really be serious in calling on Christians "to live as ‘resident aliens’ in modern America"--paying their taxes but not voting in state or general elections?

Such quirks, however, are ultimately outweighed by the strengths of Adam’s Curse--namely, the literary analyses. (Which is only another way of saying that Donoghue’s reflections on religion are less persuasive than his reflections on literature.) Explications of William Butler Yeats (whose poem gives Donoghue’s book its title), Philip Larkin, Wallace Stevens and John Milton are consistently rewarding, and occasionally jaw-dropping in their insights. As is often the case with strong criticism, Donoghue’s has the virtue of rendering the familiar new, of compelling the reader to set down the critical work in order to return to the original text, yellow highlighter in hand. Five pages by Donoghue on the logical subtleties of Satan’s discourses in Paradise Lost cost me half a night’s sleep--and caused me to alter the syllabus of a humanities course I’ve taught for years.

What higher recommendation, in the final analysis, could a book of criticism carry?


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