The assumption that modernization in the early 20th century precluded stable belief systems has been so often repeated as to become a trope. According to this line of thinking, modernization and belief could not co-exist; religion could be reworked into metaphor and satire but never could it hold the thinking person’s
spirit in the same way. In the face of emerging scientific discovery, technology, and warfare, the sprawling and often incompatible movements that made up Anglo-European Modernism sought to forge various alternative directions. Manifestos took the place of religious doctrine and offered a way of charting existence without the need to rely on faith; art, perhaps, could be a godless religion. Some of this is indeed true, but it is far from absolute. As this paper will show, Mina Loy and Djuna Barnes are two modernist artists who sought to combine belief and artistic practice in ways that differ but address the same essential question: How best to live with the need for belief in an era that undermines traditional religion? Coupled with this concern is a grappling with identity politics that places both authors outside normative communities, religious and otherwise. Although it is beyond the scope of this paper, my hunch is that their work speaks to a larger trend among writers in the 20th century.
Recent scholarship has attempted remedy this cultural myth in several useful ways. In his book on the subject, Pericles Lewis (2010) asserts that the modernist period is replete with authors attempting to explain religious experience in non-religious terms. In doing so, the usual modernists suspects—Proust, Kafka, and Joyce—are rewritten as trying to “erect structures that will contain new sacred communities in place of the vanishing congregations of the lonely churches” (22). Similarly, Louis L. Martz (1998) argues that authors like Joyce and Lawrence assumed the role of prophets in their time, a role vacated by religious figures.
Less conservative approaches (and, I think, more useful) consider literature beyond a replacement for religion, especially in the work of traditionally marginalized figures. Continue reading