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Partial Faiths

Partial Faiths: Postsecular Fiction in the Age of Pynchon and Morrison

John A. McClure
Copyright Date: 2007
Pages: 224
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    Partial Faiths
    Book Description:

    Spiritual conversions figure heavily in such novels as Thomas Pynchon's Vineland, Toni Morrison's Paradise, and Louise Erdrich's Love Medicine. What connects such varied works is that their convert-characters are disenchanted with secularism yet apprehensive of dogmatic religiosity. Partial Faiths is the first study to identify a body of contemporary fiction in such terms, take the measure of its structures and strategies, and evaluate its contribution to public discourse on religion's place in postmodern life. Postsecularism is most often associated with philosophers and theorists such as Jacques Derrida, Richard Rorty, Charles Taylor, William Connolly, Jürgen Habermas, and Gianni Vattimo. But it is also being explored and invented, says John A. McClure, by many novelists: Leslie Marmon Silko, Don DeLillo, Michael Ondaatje, and N. Scott Momaday among others. These novelists, who are often regarded as belonging to different domains of contemporary fiction, are fleshing out the postsecular issues that scholars treat more abstractly. But the modes of belief elaborated in these novels and the new narrative forms synchronized with these modes are dramatically partial and open-ended. Postsecular fiction does not aspire to any full "mapping" of the reenchanted cosmos or any formal moral code, nor does it promise anything like full redemption. It is partial in another sense as well: it is emphatically dedicated to progressive ideals of social transformation and well-being, in repudiation of resurgent fundamentalist prescriptions for the same.

    eISBN: 978-0-8203-3660-2
    Subjects: Language & Literature
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Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents (pp. vii-viii)
  3. PREFACE (pp. ix-xiv)
  4. Introduction. Postsecular Projects (pp. 1-25)

    In Tony Kushner’s celebrated play Angels in America (1993), a secular-minded gay man, Prior Walters, is converted by catastrophe to a powerful, dramatically unorthodox spirituality. When the play opens, Prior has just discovered that his body, destined in his imagination to become, through liberation, a “fabulous” and reliable source of gratification, has betrayed him: he has aids. Almost immediately, his partner, Louis, betrays him, too, leaving him to deal with his pain, his terror, his physical disgust, and his heartbreak. Prior is at this point a thoroughly secular being, a “soul without faith who does not seek” (Merton 107). Even...

  5. 1 Ontological Pluralism and Preterite Spiritualities: Thomas Pynchon (pp. 26-62)

    There’s a tension between the readings of Thomas Pynchon’s fiction that constitute what might be called “Pynchon studies” and those that could be gathered under the heading of studies in postmodernism. From early on, many of Pynchon’s close readers have registered, with interest, unease, or dismay, his preoccupation with religious discourses, narratives, and models of the real. They have noted that the world of Pynchon’s novels is richly and strangely seamed with religious terms and concepts, story forms, and figures and that the worlds he renders incorporate important features of a whole range of religious ontologies. And they have explored...

  6. 2 Worldly Vocations: Don DeLillo (pp. 63-99)

    “When the Old God leaves the world,” a character asks in Don DeLillo’s Mao II, “what happens to all the unexpended faith?” (7). One strand of secularization theory assumes that religious emotions, impulses, and modes of thought simply disappear when God does and that what follows is a rational order free of the religious. Another strand of thought (the two are intertwined in the groundbreaking work of Max Weber) implies that these emotions, impulses, and modes survive to shape and betray the cultures of reason, condemning secular thought to recapitulate the idolatries of religious thought and secular cultures to fight...

  7. 3 Enclosures, Enchantments, and the Art of Discernment: Toni Morrison (pp. 100-130)

    It is the claim of this study that contemporary North American fiction shares with the culture at large a resurgent interest in the religious. But even as writers such as Kushner, Pynchon, and DeLillo challenge secular definitions of the real and project a spiritually charged cosmos, they also caution, as we have seen, against turning this cosmic house of the spirits into a prison house of religious dogma. Rejecting the fundamentalist drive toward social and intellectual enclosure, they attempt a reinvention of the religious like that delineated by Mircea Eliade, who, as I noted in the introduction, called for a...

  8. 4 Narratives of Turning in Native American Fiction: N. Scott Momaday, Leslie Marmon Silko, and Louise Erdrich (pp. 131-161)

    While the religious dimension of contemporary Euro-American fiction is often overlooked, this is hardly the case when it comes to Native American literature. Here, on the contrary, spiritual preoccupations are taken for granted and even expected, so that a Native American writer who may not at first seem to share them—for instance, the novelist James Welch—is in danger of marginalization in the literary market. It is possible to ascribe this expectation to the emphatic registration of religious elements in the work of eminent Native American novelists such as N. Scott Momaday, Leslie Marmon Silko, and Louise Erdrich. Certainly...

  9. 5 Neomonastic Paths and the Limits of Postsecularism: Michael Ondaatje (pp. 162-191)

    By many standards, Michael Ondaatje is a worldly writer. He was born in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) in 1943 to a well-established family with a complex ethnic heritage: “the Ondaatje ancestry,” writes Ed Jewinski, “is a blend of Dutch, Sinhalese, and Tamil” (23). In 1952, after his parents separated, he went to England to be with his mother. In 1962 he moved again, following his older brother to Canada, taking his ba at the University of Toronto, and becoming a Canadian citizen. His fiction reflects this legacy of mixture and displacement and the acute sense of historical forces this legacy...

  10. Epilogue. The Dream of Open Dwelling (pp. 192-196)

    In After Heaven, the eminent sociologist of religion Robert Wuthnow distinguishes between two common forms of religious life, dwelling and seeking. Wuthnow’s description of traditional religious dwelling is succinct and useful. At its fullest, he argues, dwelling situates the believer under what Peter Berger called a “sacred canopy” (167): within a well-mapped religious cosmos, a well-established and organized religious community, richly symbolic religious structures, and a round of rituals that consecrate time. It requires, in return, that the believer “learn to be at home,” obeying the rules and playing the roles assigned by the religious community (146). The satisfactions of...

  11. WORKS CITED (pp. 197-204)
  12. INDEX (pp. 205-209)