Joseph Sterrett. "Review of Regina Schwartz, Sacramental Poetics at the Dawn of Secularism: When God Left the World." Early Modern Literary Studies 15.1 (2009-10) <URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/15-1/revdonn.htm>.
If Jean-Paul Sartre could equate Modernism with learning to live without God, then its defining moment must surely have been the moment the realization occurred that humanity was, indeed, alone. Dictionaries of critical or philosophical terms (Wikipedia among them) typically resort to an event as a critical shorthand—whether Enlightenment science, Nietzsche’s announcement that God is dead, or two World Wars—for understanding the move from the way things were to what things are now. But, of course, to characterize the arrival of a more secular understanding as a moment, a flash, epiphany, or an event rather than a prolonged process of collective reflection and memory with multiple reversals and diversions is to oversimplify the idea of the idea itself. How refreshing and valuable, therefore, is a study that looks at one of the monumental changes in world culture, modernity, through a very specific lens aimed not only at a pivotal element of its inception, the Protestant Reformation, but at a very crucial and particular slice of that element, the stripping of a transubstantiated God from the Eucharistic wafer.
When God Left the World is Regina Schwartz’s subtitle (or even main title, if the reflexive citation in the concluding bibliography is to be believed) and her study is not so much about the Eucharist as the intellectual and literary responses to the lingering memory of God within it. From ancient Greece, or the waning of paganism, right through to Nietzsche, and the postmodern renunciation of grand narratives, the gods, Schwartz notes, seem to be “abandoning the world, or dying, all the time” (12). It is a trope that serves to register dramatic shifts in people’s relationship to their world. The redeployment of the Eucharist as a trope in Shakespeare’s Othello, Milton’s Paradise Lost, as well as in a variety of poems by John Donne and in Herbert’s Temple traces, therefore, an anxiety rooted in their society’s intellectual repositioning as much as it articulates a hope that a sacramental understanding of life and love can be maintained. Once communion had become merely a spiritual symbol of Christ’s sacrifice instead of the body of the sacrificed Lord physically present, “many early moderns sought to keep alive the figure of the Other” where “They detected the threat on the horizon of a world emptied of meaning, a godless world” (139). Schwartz’s book is a studious lamentation for the role the sacrament played as an expression of Justice and as a hope for a better social as well as spiritual communion. If many at the time, like Montaigne, noted with some distress the fact that the Eucharist stood almost irrationally at the centre of division and strife, it remains an ironic “testimony to the stubbornness of human aggression” (141).1 But even that distress betrays a sense that it should be otherwise—an ideal “life-world”, as Schwartz puts it, that constitutes community without recourse to “blood or territorial boundaries”, “history or […] political allegiance, but through sharing divinity” (141).
This study (no mere piling of New Historical detail) is an adventurous philosophical and textually specific journey that situates its material within a language of religious toleration. In support of her thesis, Schwartz traces a philosophical articulation of religion that runs from early church writers such as Pseudo-Dionysius, through medieval thinkers like Nicholas of Cusa, to current postmodern theologians, Emmanuel Levinas and Jean-Luc Marion. Turning to Othello, Schwartz deftly oversteps recent critical fascination with Shakespeare’s possible leanings toward Protestant or Catholic culture and emphasizes the more unequivocal, if more general, expression of the play’s desire for justice. Each of the play’s references to the Eucharist are thus employed in that vision, from Cassio’s devil’s cup to Iago’s caustic quip, “The wine she drinks is made of grapes”, that drains Desdemona (and by extension the world of which she is a part) of transcendent meaning.
Thus primed, Schwartz is in a position to examine contrasting images of a transubstantiated or God-filled world in successive chapters. Milton’s image of paradise represents “the entire universe […] ceaselessly transforming into God” (65), an image that stands perhaps as an ironic development upon his earlier invective against the “cannibalistic rite”. His is a sinless Eucharist of a lost paradise where “all things[…] are bursting with the glory of the Lord” (70). The mass or banquet with flowing cups is served in a vision of communion that is both accessible and levelled of hierarchy. A “table of grassy turf” (68), close and approachable, is set as opposed to a distant altar, and is served by Eve, naked. Moving into the world where salvation must be found in Paradise Regained, efficacy is less in sacrifice than in the “choice”, Christ’s choice as much as every believer’s; a choice that is best expressed, in the end, through an active, apophatic silence when one encounters “the failure of what we must say about God”.2
Donne redeploys the image of the Eucharist as sexual love. The image is not merely an ironic sexual persuasion in a poem about a flea, but reaches into a tradition of Renaissance love treatises and Christian mysticism that experienced God in physical terms, expressing that relationship as man to his lover. Here idolatry can be linked with adultery; and yet, provocatively in true Donne fashion, “betrayal” can be “completely transvalued to become liberality” (95), the grace of divine love spread as widely as possible. For Herbert the word itself is emphasized as his “sacrifice of praise” (123) and his poetry is quite literally both the altar and temple that draws the believer into a sacramental encounter with God. The word is offered as a gift with the expectation of being heard either in the fullness of thanksgiving or in lamenting “songs in the night” (129). Here the conversation between God and communicant takes precedence over any question about what occurs in the elements of the bread and wine. The call and response themselves are the sacrament, expressed in a sustenance of praise.
Unfailingly readable, clear and precise, Sacramental Poetics is one of the most important studies of our critical moment, allowing us to move beyond readings of early modern ritual and theatre as merely the emptied-out forms of an earlier age. Schwartz’s book is an excavation of “Cultural Memory” that not only recovers a lingering sense of loss, but also an imaginative reconfiguration in an effort to find a just and meaningful world.
1. See his comments on Hoc est corpus meum, Matthew 26:26, “This is my body” in Michel de Montaigne, The Complete Essays, trans. and ed. M. A. Screech, (London: Penguin, 1987), p. 590.
2. Schwartz quotes Denys Turner, Eros and Allegory: Medieval Exegesis of the Song of Songs (Kalamazoo, Michigan: Cistercian, 1995), p. 54.
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