After Strange Gods: Modernist Blasphemy Revisited

By Imogen WoodberryOctober 5, 2017

After Strange Gods: Modernist Blasphemy Revisited

Blasphemous Modernism by Steve Pinkerton

“BLASPHEMY DEPENDS upon belief and is fading with it,” G. K. Chesterton declared in 1905. “If any one doubts this, let him sit down seriously and try to think blasphemous thoughts about Thor.” Chesterton’s observation of the relationship between belief and blasphemy forms the basis for Steve Pinkerton’s insightful examination of how modernist writers engaged with questions of faith. Modernism has traditionally been seen as deeply infused by secular disillusionment and a rejection of the certainties provided by religion. Acknowledging the existence of this vein of hostility, Pinkerton’s study takes up the somewhat provocative premise that rather than demonstrating the death of religion, expressions of antipathy toward belief in fact show the continued power of faith over the minds of the moderns. He proceeds to explore this contention through a series of case studies of modernist writers both mainstream and marginal: James Joyce, Mina Loy, Djuna Barnes, and the writers of the Harlem Renaissance.

In Joyce’s Ulysses, perhaps the paradigmatic work of modernist blasphemy, the Christian faith is relentlessly ironized and parodied. Religious ideas and symbols are repeatedly applied to the quotidian and humdrum. The novel begins with the riotously irreverent Buck Mulligan performing a parody of the mass with his shaving bowl: “He held the bowl aloft and intoned: — Introibo ad altare Dei.” Leopold Bloom muses on his bath using the language of the Eucharist: “Enjoy a bath now: clean trough of water, cool enamel, the gentle tepid stream. This is my body.” The interweaving of religion and sex is a recurrent motif. Bloom reflects on the sadomasochistic aspect of the sacrament of Penance: “Confession. Everyone wants to. Then I will tell you all. Penance. Punish me, please. Great weapon in their hands. More than doctor or solicitor. Woman dying to.” In the Nausicaa episode, Bloom masturbates as he watches a girl on a beach, while from a nearby church wafts “fragrant incense […] and with it the fragrant names of her who was conceived without the stain of original sin.” In her final monologue Molly Bloom excitedly imagines being “embraced by one in his vestments and the smell of incense off him like the pope,” pointing back to her husband’s earlier remark that priests’ attractiveness to women is often related to their odor.

Joyce renounced Catholicism during his university years, after which point he displayed a marked aversion to religious life. An adversarial relationship with faith is nevertheless a relationship, and religious matters remained deeply embedded in Joyce’s mind. His notebooks show an interest in Catholic lore and practice, and he read widely on Irish saints and scholars. Although his novels may delight in the sacrilegious and subversive, they are still pervaded by religious ideas and tropes. At times he expressed skepticism as to whether it was possible for the individual to choose to cast off the belief into which they were born. Once, when asked if he had left the Catholic Church, he gave the tart rejoinder: “That’s for the Church to say.”

Joyce, like many of his peers, also tended to articulate his role as a writer using the language of religion. A famous sentence from A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man compares the artist to “the God of the creation […] invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent paring his fingernails.” Following the Ulysses ban, Joyce became archetypal of the misunderstood artist-genius figure, above and beyond the world of ordinary humanity. This idea framed a 1922 interview feature on him for Vanity Fair by Djuna Barnes, who described how “[a]t the moment of seeing him, a remark made to me by a mystic flashed through my mind: ‘A man who has been more crucified on his sensibilities than any writer of our age.’”

Mina Loy, who accompanied Barnes on that visit to Joyce, became particularly enamored of the notion of the artist as a figure possessed of a divine aura. In her book Lunar Baedeker, we find a canon of modernist saints. In “Joyce’s Ulysses,” Joyce is depicted as a creative deity forging “the voice and offal / of the image of God.” In “Brancusi’s Golden Bird,” a poem celebrating the sculptor Constantin Brâncuși, the act of sculpting is placed on a par with the incarnation: “The immaculate / conception / of the inaudible bird,” while “The Starry Sky of Wyndham Lewis” draws on imagery from the biblical story of creation: “Jehovah’s seven days / err in your silent entrails / of geometric Chimeras.” Perhaps most grandiosely of all, “Apology of Genius” opens with the line: “Ostracized as we are with God.”

Loy could be deeply critical of organized religion — an aversion that partly stemmed from the dislike of the faith taught to her by her strongly evangelical mother — and her work also incorporates the aesthetics of sacrilege. The third of her “Songs to Joannes,” for example, depicts a couple copulating at the altar: “Or broken flesh with one another / At the profane communion table / Where wine is spilled on promiscuous lips.” The motif of the erotic body in a sacred space also forms the basis for a scene of more shocking profanity at the climax of Barnes’s Nightwood, with its strongly implied bestial coupling of the protagonist Robin Vote and a dog:

On a contrived altar, before a Madonna, two candles were burning […] Robin began going down […] The dog, quivering in every muscle, sprang back, his tongue a stiff curving terror in his mouth […] as she came on, whimpering too, coming forward […] Then she began to bark also.

Pinkerton observes that in the original typescript of the chapter either Robin or the dog are referred to as the other’s “mistress,” and there is also an implied reference to masturbation: “With a quick involuntary gesture Nora put her hands on the fore parts of her legs, bending forward.”

For the writers of the Harlem Renaissance, the deployment of religious themes and tropes became a tool of political expression. Alain Locke’s The New Negro anthology repeatedly drew on religious language and iconography as a way of framing both his understanding of black persecution and his hope for a new dawn of race relations. Locke interprets Harlem as “the home of the Negro’s ‘Zionism’” and compares slavery and “sorrow songs” to the experience of the Israelites and expression in psalmody. The anthology is also suffused with messianic expectation, something particularly prominent in the contribution of W. E. B. Du Bois (despite his own agnosticism), whose essay calls for a “black apostle.”

The reverential tone of Locke’s anthology is in stark contrast to the profanities of the Niggerati, the name coined by Wallace Thurman for a group loosely associated with the journal FIRE!!, which included Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, and the artist Richard Bruce Nugent. While the frontispiece of The New Negro, “The Brown Madonna,” employs the traditional iconography of the virgin — a woman in blue, serenely holding a child — Nugent’s treatment of the same subject, “Mary Madonna” from his Salome series, depicts a large-breasted naked woman gazing licentiously at the viewer. In addition to his sexualized illustrations of female religious figures, Nugent also wrote a series of homoerotic bible stories in the 1920s and ’30s. “Tree with Kerioth-Fruit,” for example, features the disciples pouting with jealousy over the arrival the beloved newcomer called Jesus, who awakens the passion of John and goes on to have an affair with Judas.

Thurman, for his part, directly punctured the sacral tone of Locke’s New Negro project in his satirical novel Infants of the Spring. In one passage, Thurman takes up Locke’s identification of blacks with the God’s chosen people, but here the deliverance looked to is not from the political oppression but the want of gin: “Beloved, we join hands here to pray for gin. An aridity defiles us […] Surely, God who let manna fall from the heavens so that the holy children of Israel might eat, will not let the equally children of Niggerati Manor die from the want of a little gin.”

Pinkerton’s study is textually focused and compiles a lively and readable collection of examples of blasphemy. It might, however, have benefited from a little more contextualization and consideration of the cultural freight of blasphemy in a period when the authority of the Church had diminished. Church attendance plummeted in the 1920s and ’30s, and the dogmas of Christianity were challenged both internally and externally (the term “modernism,” after all, originally applied to radical questioning of orthodoxy among theologians). The argument that authors blaspheme because of God’s continued power over them sometimes holds firm, but there are surely other reasons, too: the desire to shock, to emulate what, in the wake of Ulysses especially, became a fashionable trope; or out of a sincere antipathy toward religion that could be blended as much as with indifference as with interest. But Blasphemous Modernism is nonetheless an important contribution to rethinking the engagement of modernist writers with religion, and makes a persuasive case for the importance of blasphemy as a category of study in its own right.


Imogen Woodberry is a PhD researcher at the Royal College of Art, London and a senior editor at Review 31.

LARB Contributor

Imogen Woodberry is a PhD candidate at the Royal College of Art, London, researching the influence of mysticism and esotericism on utopian thinking in the interwar period. She is a senior editor at Review 31.


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