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Confronting Evil: The Psychology of Secularization in Modern French Literature

Scott M. Powers

This book uncovers a “psychology of secularization” at the core of modern literary texts. Drawing from the understanding of secularization as a phenomenon in which religion continues to exist alongside secularity in exerting influence on modern French thought, the present study enlists psychoanalytic theory on mourning and sublimation, the philosophical concept of the sublime, Charles Taylor’s theory of religious and secular “cross-pressures,” and William James’s psychology of conversion to account for the survival of religious themes in Baudelaire, Zola, Huysmans, and Céline.

The attempt to forge a secular vision of the human condition lies at the heart of each writer’s literary project, but by no means translates into a definitive “purging of God.” In envisioning a godless universe, Baudelaire and Zola remain highly engaged in religious concepts and imagery, but ultimately fashion a literary style that succeeds in assuaging their influence. Special attention is devoted to literary irony in Baudelaire’s and Zola’s secularizing texts as a psychic reflex aimed to keep the religious at bay. In contrast, in the works of Huysmans and Céline, largely devoid of irony, conversion to Catholicism and the embrace of anti-Semitism are indicative of a psychic threshold in secular but fragile visions that chronically repress rather than engage in questions of the religious.

The concept of evil proves to be central to the psychology of secularization. How authors cope with the reality of suffering and human wickedness has a direct bearing on the ability to sustain a secular vision. Baudelaire’s prose poems, Zola’s experimental novels, and Huysmans’s and Céline’s early narratives attempt to account for evil by redefining the traditionally religious concept along secular lines. However, when unmitigated by the mechanisms of irony and sublimation, secular confrontation with the dark and seemingly absurd dimension of man leads modern writers such as Huysmans and Céline, paradoxically, to embrace a religious or quasi-religious understanding of good and evil.

Scott M. Powers, associate professor of French at the University of Mary Washington, has authored several articles on modern and postmodern treatments of evil and secularization in Baudelaire, Zola, Céline, Beigbeder, and Littell. He has also edited a volume devoted to evil in contemporary French and Francophone literature. Research areas that intersect with his investigations into French literature on evil include Catholic theology, medical theory, anti-Semitism, and the Holocaust. Other publications include co-authorship of the second-year French language and culture textbook Interaction: Langue et culture and contributions to two volumes of the MLA Approaches to Teaching World Literature. Powers is currently pursuing research on the tension between the religious and the secular in Québécois literature of the twentieth century.

PSRL 66. 2016. 1-987-55753-•••-•, paper, $45.00; ebook available $38.99.

"Confronting Evil offers a compelling and at times provocative take on the literary dimensions of secularization in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century France. … makes two important contributions to the study of secularization’s literary manifestations. The first is to have pointed out that religion matters in how the scholar approaches modern texts … Indeed, Powers is likely at his most impressive in teasing out the repressed theological substrate of Zola’s first novel and then showing how it undermines naturalist pretentions to explain human reality exclusively in terms of biology. Powers’s second, and more significant, contribution is to have made clear, if only in the context of a literary analysis, the psychic limits of the secular worldview. … Preserving a moderate secular consensus, which celebrates the religious while inhibiting its political aspirations, will require secularism’s willingness to submit to a critique of its shortcomings. Powers’s book moves in this direction and should be of interest to anyone concerned with saving the secular from itself." Louis Betty, French Review 91.3 (March 2018): 214.

“Scott Powers hypothesizes the existence of a ‘subconscious wish fulfillment for a hidden universal order’ (7) in works by Baudelaire, Zola, Huysmans, and Céline. Influences by Lacan’s commentary on Nietzsche’s unconscious God, Powers theorizes that religion survived in these texts in spite of the often anti-religious tendencies of their authors. … While focused on literature, Powers strikes a delicate balance between aesthetic and ideological detail. The concept of “secularization as ironic” constitutes the most powerful overarching theme of the book, often deployed as psychological mechanism to mourn the loss of faith and to shift between metaphysical and material thinking.” Irina Armianu, Nineteenth-Century French Studies. For the complete review, see NCFS, 47.1-2 (2018).