Academic journal article Church History

William James and the Modernist Esthetics of Religion

Academic journal article Church History

William James and the Modernist Esthetics of Religion

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In his intellectual biography, William James: In the Maelstrom of American Modernism , Robert Richardson never defines modernism, and never addresses the reasons for its turbulence in America. But he does present the maelstrom through his subject, showing how James helped drive the modernist sensibility he inhabited--a whirlwind of creativity and intellectual passion "whose leading ideas," to quote Richardson, "are still so fresh and challenging that they are not yet fully assimilated by the modern world they helped to bring about." Presenting James as an intellectual activity, Richardson focuses on bringing the emotional background of that activity into view, chronicling James's intellectual history as splashes from a turbulent stream of consciousness. The book's dedication to Annie Dillard next to the book's epigraph from James reveals Richardson's respect for the volatility both writers represented. The dedication is: "For Annie, who wrote, 'we have less time than we knew and that time buoyant, and cloven, lucent, missile, and wild,'" followed by the epigraph from James testifying that, "[life] feels like a real fight--as if there were something really wild in the universe which we, with all our idealities and faithfulnesses, are needed to redeem."

Building on Richardson's undeveloped insight into James's similarity to an artist, I argue that James's work on religion can be understood in relation to other modernist works of art, suggesting that James's estheticism offers a fresh way of thinking about the early development of religious studies. I define modernism as an esthetic style that incorporates otherwise misfitting elements in a unified composition, relying forthrightly on the composer's subjectivity as the unifying ingredient. In the subsequent development of post-modernism, by contrast, the composer's subjectivity is more matrix than ingredient, apparently enveloping everything, including the past and the subjectivities of recipients, as in the photographs of Cindy Sherman. The display of subjectivity in modernism and post-modernism sets work in those styles apart from classic art, where the composer's subjectivity is hidden and conflict is resolved through other forces within the work, like the chorus and deus ex machina in Greek drama. Subjectivity is also hidden in neo-classic works of enlightenment artists like Mozart, Racine, and Christopher Wren, which present themselves as formal displays of natural order, while romantic works by Chopin, Goethe and Emerson display the authors' subjectivities as doorways to timeless truths. To take the epigraph from James in Richardson's book as an illustration of James's modernist technique, which departs from romanticism in its play with irresolution, James offers his own subjectivity as the unifying ingredient of otherwise discordant elements, writing that "something really wild" needs redeeming. Not taming. That which needs redeeming is not sin--with its implication of evil--but "something really wild." Using subjectivity to bring wildness and redemption into relationship, James writes that "it feels like a real fight" and that "our idealities . . . are needed"--in league with his.

In his biography of James, Richardson refers twice to the claim of James's son Henry that his father was "one half an artist." According to son Henry, James's "imagination played over and around everything that held his attention. [A] penumbra of feeling always enveloped his thought. An idea might give him a pain in the thorax."85 But Richardson does not go far enough in emphasizing James's artistic drive, though he does acknowledge James's early desire to be a painter. Richardson skates over the intellectual contest provoked by James's declaration that "Art is my vocation," telling us only that, "Henry Senior despised painters, and had brought the family to Europe the year before precisely to discourage William's growing interest in art. …

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