CC 325 B - Modernism, Mysticism, and the Interpretation of India
3 or 4 Credits
TR 3:00-4:15 pm - Professor Upton
Fulfills diversity requirement

Modernist literature, the avante-garde writing of the early 20th century, has been called a literature of crisis. Poets, novelists, and playwrights all responded to a common perception that civilization as they knew it was crumbling around them. Social conditions, literary customs, and inherited modes of philosophy and theology: all seemed on the brink of collapse. In response, modernist writers adopted truly radical and revolutionary modes of writing in the hopes of shaking their audiences into awareness and action.

One particular area of concern to the modernists was religion, writing as they did at a time of religious skepticism and unprecedented encounters with non-Western traditions. A wide range of writers increasingly turned to pre-modern mystical traditions in an attempt to rejuvenate religious life. Mysticism, the direct awareness of the presence of God, seemed to provide a more direct, immediate religious experience, one that was potentially subversive and regenerative. At the same time, many of these writers began to find analogous texts in non-western religious traditions, especially those of India. Modernist writers were active at a time when the relationships between Europe and its colonial possessions were changing rapidly and dramatically. Increasingly, Europe’s colonial oppression was recognized with horror and condemnation. This situation resulted, for the modernists, in fascinating and potentially problematic comparisons between western mystical sources and Indian texts.

This class will ask what problems modernist writers saw in religious thought and practice, and why they saw the need to turn to mysticism on the one hand and non-western sources, especially those of India, on the other. It will also ask whether the categorization of Indian texts as “mysticism” is itself appropriate. This course will first examine some classics of western mysticism, in particular, the work of Pseudo-Dionysius and Teresa of Avila. It will also engage with the epic Indian text, the Bhagavad Gita for critical comparison. Finally, it will examine in depth the work of a select group of modernist writers in the attempt to discern how they adopt various elements of these religious traditions for their own purposes.

The course will examine poems by W.B. Yeats, Wallace Stevens, and T.S. Eliot. Novels will include Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India, Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, and Hermann Hesse’s Siddartha. We will also examine the philosophical fragments of Simone Weil in Gravity and Grace.