Religious Experience and the Modernist Novel

In Religious Experience and the Modernist Novel (Cambridge University Press, 2010), Pericles Lewis pursues his interest in the cultural climate of modernism and its impact on literary forms. The modernist period witnessed attempts by sociologists, psychologists, and historians of religion to explain religious experience in non-religious terms. William James, Emile Durkheim, Max Weber, and Sigmund Freud all tried to account for the status of belief in the sacred in an era after Nietzsche had announced the death of God. Each of these thinkers sought effective means to describe and study religious inclinations without necessarily deciding the question of whether or not there is a God. They were concerned more with the structure of faith than with its truth content. In the same period, a series of agnostic or atheistic authors sought to make the structure of the novel more capable of describing transcendent experiences. Without turning towards religion, such novelists as Henry James, Marcel Proust, Virginia Woolf, and Franz Kafka found methods to describe through fiction the sorts of experiences that had traditionally been the domain of religious mystics and believers. This study explores the variety of experiments that the modernists undertook in order to invoke the sacred without directly naming it.


“Lewis’s book is a masterly analysis of the transmutation of religious expereience in the modernist novel.  These experimental fictions from the early twentieth century have been hailed as vehicles of the secular world-view, but Lewis provides a critique of this interpretation through a sensitive dissection of iconic modernist works.

Lewis had the inspired notion of lining up five canonical modernist novelists – Henry James, Marcel Proust, Franz Kafka, Virginia Woolf and James Joyce – with their contemporaries who laide the social-scientific foundations of secularization theory – William James, Emile Durkheim, Sigmund Freud and Max Weber – underlining their common intellectual influences. Each chapter focuses on a matched pair: the James brothers, Henry and William, brought up in a Swedenborgian household in New England; the Frenchmen, Proust and his fellow Dreyfusard, Durkheim; the twin Central European virtuosi of the unconscious, Kafka and Freud; and, more surprisingly, Woolf, the Bloomsbury aesthete, and Weber, the prophet of the ‘disenchantment of the world’. Joyce, the ex- and anti-Catholic Irishman, has no social-scientific alter ego, but is paired instead with the devout Dante in a final chapter that pulls the threads of the book together in a profound and illuminating coda on the ‘burial of the dead’. ”

Bernice Martin, Times Literary Supplement

“Many key writers among the Western intellectual and artistic elites lost their faith in God at a time when the mass of people were still believers.  In his poem “Dover Beach” (1867), the English poet Matthew Arnold described the “melancholy, long, withdrawing roar” of the “Sea of Faith”. However, as Pericles Lewis writes in this study of religious experience in the modernist novel, that “roar” would continue to sound in Western literature for a century or more. As he argues, many philosophers and authors would seek to provide replacements for religion “in the wake of a God whose announced withdrawal from this world never seemed to be quite complete”….

It is one of the great strengths of Lewis’s lucid and erudite book that he looks not only at crucial novels written between the final decades of the nineteenth century and the Second World War, but that he also interprets these works in the light of some of the major thinkers of the modernist age.”

Emer Nolan,