Academic journal article The Journal of Baha'i Studies

A Postsecular Look at the Reading Motif in Bahiyyih Nakhjavani's the Woman Who Read Too Much

Academic journal article The Journal of Baha'i Studies

A Postsecular Look at the Reading Motif in Bahiyyih Nakhjavani's the Woman Who Read Too Much

Article excerpt

Introduction

Postsecular theory is a privileged mode of criticism for works of contemporary, transnational historical fiction whose texts in some way engage with matters of a sacred or a spiritual nature. In this article, we will establish how the spiritual thesis in Nakhjavani's historical novel The Woman Who Read Too Much is manifested through the reading motif. As we examine the novel in light of a Bahá'í subtext, moreover, we will also assess how the characteristics of postsecular fiction that the narrative reveals- specifically, as John McClure's Partial Faiths: Postsecular Fiction in the Age of Pynchon and Morrison contends, an "insistence on the need to articulate the religious with progressive political projects," the "repudiation of fundamentalist prescriptions for social well-being," and the "dramatic disruptions of' secular structures of' reality" (3)-are manifested through the act of reading. In doing so, we will argue that Nakhjavani's narrative restores the voice of a religious martyr Táhirih Ourratu'l-Ayn, while, at the same time, avoiding the construction of a religious metanarrative in the form of a Bahá'í perspective.

In "The Literary Motif: A Definition and Evaluation," William Freedman argues that "QTJhe writer performs a worthwhile function when he attempts no more than to elucidate what he sees in the work, when he seeks to increase the reader's understanding of a work of art" (128). Although this position is never more relevant than when analyzing a work with the density of Nakhjavani's The Woman Who Read Too Much, in this article, I expand upon reading as a motif with spiritual implications in order to demonstrate how Nakhjavani's narrative reflects Jürgen Habermas's belief that twenty-first-century society now finds itself in a new postsecular condition.

If we are to examine, as this article intends, Nakhjavani's historical novel through a postsecular lens, the next step is to define what I mean by the term postsecularism. The term postsecular was first coined in 2001 by Habermas in his Peace Prize of German Publishers and Booksellers Association acceptance address titled "Faith and Knowledge." As Michael Reder and Joseph Schmidt summarize in "Habermas and Religion," in "Faith and Knowledge" Habermas develops the idea of postsecularity, calling for a reconsideration of the relationship between the religious and the secular in present-day society. In this speech, Habermas concludes that the secularization narrative has failed (6). The secularization narrative, as defined by postsecular scholar Manav Ratti in The Postsecular Imagination, is a theory that posits that "as societies become more modern-from agrarian to industrial to post-industrial-they become more secular, relying less and less on the narratives of religion for a sense of security, increasingly pushing the presence and power of religion into the private sphere" (5). Habermas sees this secularization narrative as proven false, that society is not moving toward the extinction of religion, and that "religion and the secular world always stand in a reciprocal fashion" (Reder and Schmidt 6).

Nakhjavani's novel is set over 150 years ago, yet historical fiction, we recall, is inevitably connected to the present. As Diana Wallace affirms in The Womens Historical Novel, "[a] lthough readers are often attracted to historical novels because they believe they will learn about the past time recreated in the novel, any historical novel always has as much, or perhaps more, to say about the time in which it is written" (4). The time in which Nakhjavani's novel is written sees the burgeoning of postsecular thought in Europe and America, as indicated by the studies that emerge in the first decade of the new millennium in both literary and sociopolitical arenas concerning the postsecular project; to name but a few: Jürgen Habermas's "Faith and Knowledge," Manav Ratti's The Postsecular Imagination, and John McClure's Partial Faiths. In the present moment, a Google search with the keyword "postsecular" yields over 158,000 results. …

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