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Author(s): Jay Martin

Review by: Jay Martin
Source: Modern Philology, Vol. 78, No. 4 (May, 1981), pp. 458-460
Published by: University of Chicago Press
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458 Modern Philology(May 1981)

patingin continuingprocesses; and Faulkner's Career is a book wortharguing


State University

of Otherness: Literature,Religion,and the American

The Interpretation

Giles Gunn/NewYork: OxfordUniversityPress, 1979. Pp. xiv+ 250.

In The Interpretationof Otherness Giles Gunn assembles impressiveevidence

that in recent years discussions of the relationsbetween literatureand religion,
or between culture and belief, have not only increasinglycome to occupy the
forefrontsof speculation in literarycriticism,philosophy,culturalhistory,and
religiousstudies; they have also had the good effectof wideningthe fieldsthey
touch by movingincreasinglyaway fromconsiderationsof the doctrinalto rec-
ognitionsof the humanisticin the literaryand the sacred.
In his firstchapter,"The Religious Use and Abuse of Literature,"he offers
a helpfulguide to the ways in whichthe Longinean traditionsurfacedin America
beginningin the 1920s in the contextof a coalescence of interestin literatureand
religion.Withconsiderable dexterityin developing sequences and a finefacility
forrapidlysketchingthe social surfaceas well as theinnerdynamicsof a historical
movement,Gunn moves froman account of contemporarytheological debates
to a discussion of the religiousscholars who devoted literarycriticismto religious
uses; thenhe shows thataroundthe same timeliterarycriticssoughtto understand
the arts by borrowingideas, values, and exegetical techniques fromreligious
scholarship. More specifically,he begins by sketchinga context in which neo-
orthodoxrevival and "chastened liberalism" faced each other uneasily,and he
shows how such apparentlydifferent works as HalfordLuccock's Contemporary
AmericanLiteratureand Religion and T. S. Eliot's "Religion and Literature"-
bothpublishedin 1934-originate in the same ideological matrixand, despitetheir
differences,come to somethingof the same conclusions. Gunn's nimbleability
to see associations and to clarifyrelationsis typicalof the book. Typical, too, is
its clarityand decisiveness ofjudgment.The sort of work Luccock and his col-
leagues did, Gunn declares, was "narrow and theirformulationsloose and awk-
ward" (p. 18); but underthe same influences,Eliot also comes to sound "like the
latter-dayNew England Puritanthatsuch fellowcriticsas EdmundWilson always
suspected he was" (p. 20).
As he moves toward the presentin this firstchapter,Gunn shows that, in
addition to his skill as a cultural and intellectualhistorian,he is an excellent
literarytheorist.He offerssome particularlygood observationson the work of
Nathan A. Scott, Jr.,who has persuasivelyargued, in Gunn's words, "that an
informedand responsible understandingof the Christianfaithrequires that one
take account of and fullyattemptto absorb the meaningsof lifeproposed by the

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Book Reviews 459

major modernwriters" (p. 31). As Gunn shows, such criticsas Scott have dealt
with the very subjects-death, loss of faith,or man's inhumanityto man-that
have traditionally been the objects of bothliteraryand religiousdiscourse. A good
historicist,Gunn illustrateshis remarkswithreferenceto a wide varietyof Amer-
ican writers.He suggestsas well thatin recentliterarytheorytherehas been a
good deal of crossing of boundaries between religiousstudies and other critical
disciplines,withthe resultthatGadamer contributesto literarytheorywhileLevi-
Strauss writes almost as a theologian,Ricoeur as a structuralanthropologist,
Mircea Eliade as a literarycritic,and NorthropFrye as a historianof religion.
Only at this point do Gunn's almost Prometheanaims in this book become
fullyapparent.These aims are two. First,he intendsto fuse religiousstudieswith
literarycriticismthroughthe mediationsof methodsthat have influencedboth:
linguistics,cultural anthropology,comparative philology,folklore,philosophy,
sociology, psychoanalysis,ethnology,archeology,hermeneutics,and semiotics.
Second, throughhis centralfocus and the methodsthatmediatethem,he intends
to exploretheveryissues thatnow seem centralto criticism:"the relationbetween
authorand work, the natureof texts and textuality,the affectivedistinctiveness
of particulargenres, the question of literaryimpact, the relationbetween the
spoken and the written[and] the grammarof individualmodes of discourse" (p.
I have paused over this firstchapter because it well representsthe whole
book. Each succeeding chapter tends to move in the same way. Gunn usually
beginsby proposinga few hypotheses;thenhe explores the applicabilityto them
of a wide varietyof critical tools; and finallyhe fuses these investigationsin
readingespecially seminaltexts by major Americanwriters.In this he himselfis
very much in the American tradition;for he is adventurous and restless, he
transplantsold tools fromforeignculturesto solve new problemsat home, and
he bringsback fromhis encounterswith "Otherness" an account of how his
subject may be redefinedand freshlyunderstood.
In the second chapter, "Forms of Religious Meaning in Literature,"Gunn
borrows M. H. Abrams's criticaltypologyfromThe Mirrorand the Lamp and
distinguishesfourelementsbasic to any work of art (the artist,the work itself,
the world, and the audience), and four predominatingkinds of critical theory
which give special emphasis to one or anotherof these elements. Characteristi-
cally, he explores main currentsin criticism,then provides a historicistlook at
the developmentof criticalproblems,rejects all narrowdoctrinalumbrellas,and
at last calls forcomprehensivevariety:"In developinga viable criticalconception
of the relationshipbetween these two modes of awareness and expression [i.e.,
religionand literature],our best hope, it seems to me, lies in the directionof
principledeclecticism" (p. 76). In general he argues persuasively-and always
gracefullybut vigorously-that literature,like religion,is "neither totally im-
mersed in the world of everydayexperience nor completelydivorced fromit."
Ontologically,he says, "it belongs to the realm of hypothesis:and not of actual
fact" (p. 83).
The thrust,which remainsconstantin the book's remainingthreeessays, is
clear. Basically,Gunnis so able to see theconnectionsbetweenvariousdisciplines

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460 Modern Philology(May 1981)

because he regards them as connected througha large networkof humanistic

scholarship:man believing,man fancying,man organizing,man thinking,and so
on. At issue is not the legitimizationof the kinds of knowledgewe possess, but
the problemof how to connect themand then to apply themto each other and
to our experience both of existence and of otherness.The functionof literature
preeminently, he believes, "is always that of mediatinga formof otherness,a
sense of thingsnot quite our own, which it does by invitingus ... to followthe
arrowof sense . . . disclosed by its own propositions,"and thus to reach almost
experimentally, and certainlydaringly,towarda fullerhumanity.The literarycritic,
then,works in harmonywith the religiousimpulse by allowingus, throughlit-
erature,to tryon our possible humanism.
Chapter3 takes up the last matterby lookingat the way thattheliterarycritic
can give guidance to the religiousthinker.Chapter4 makes its similarpointfrom
a differentangle-how religious and literarycritics contributeto the cultural
historian'sconcept of an "American Mind'." It is audacious to take up a topic as
largeand even apparentlythreadbareas thisissue ofthe nationalcharacter.Even
more audacious is the fact that Gunn relies upon such dissimilarcriticsas John
Dewey, Ernst Cassirer,and GilbertRyle to open up the subject. By doing so he
radicallyshiftsthe emphasis of the debate over the Americanmindfrom"Amer-
ican" to "mind." In his typicalfashionhe orchestrateshis philosophicalmaterials
around a crucial literaryconcept-the idea of the "classic"--and then analyzes
Moby-Dickforits expression at once of mindand of Americanness.
The finalessay describes and definesthe way that American writershave
always respondedto and represented"otherness" as an alternateto deficiencies
and absences of Americanlife.By so submergingthemselvesin otherness,Amer-
ican writershave been, he argues,fundamentally preoccupiedwiththe sacred and
re-creative,even if they need therebyto be profaneand decreative in order to
defendtheirsacramental,transcendentalhumanism.At the least, Gunn suggests
and exemplifiesin commentaryon The Great Gatsby, American literaturehas
always been a "poetry of desire," exhibitingan "imaginationof wonder."
Certainly,thereis some repetitionfromone essay to another-the more so
in thatGunn has a fairlysmall and predictablecircle of favoritemodernistcritics
and texts,and referencesto themappear and reappear withthe regularityof the
seasons. Yet in every part of the book Gunn exhibits a fiercecommitmentto
clarity,a fineliteraryand criticalsensibility,a wide-ranginghistoricalsense, and
a penetratingreligiousscholarship.The Interpretation of Othernessis a synthesis
of a fifty-yearmovement,but it is presentedwithsuch persuasive forcethat,far
frommerelysummarizingthis interestand so bringingit to a close, this book is
likelyto open the subject more widely and to stillricherinsights.

of SouthernCalifornia
Jay Martin/University

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