Sunday, July 4, 2010

Eastern Religion and the Dilemmas of the Modern

“Eastern Religion and the Dilemmas of the Modern” is the title of a PhD dissertation recently submitted by Roderick B. Overaa in the Department of English at the University of Washington. Overaa writes in his Introduction:

This dissertation presents a genealogy of modernism that explores the impact of Eastern religion and philosophy on nineteenth and twentieth century Anglo-American literature. This project significantly reframes our current understanding of modernism, its origins, and its legacy. Twentieth century critics typically emphasized modernist innovations in style and form as defining characteristics. Increasingly, however, modernism is viewed as a massive cultural response to a profound and pervasive crisis of spirituality in the West—a crisis that has its origins in Enlightenment rationalism and which achieves its most concise and familiar expression in Nietzsche’s famous 1882 pronouncement that “God is dead.” This study demonstrates that the perceived loss of the spiritual (as the ground for both moral and cosmic order) is the fundamental problem of Western modernity, and that this perspective allows us to understand and explain the extensive influence of Eastern religion on the art and literature of the modern era.

While focusing on writers like Emerson, Melville, and Somerset Maugham, he also lists the publication of Madame Blavatsky’s The Key to Theosophy, Rudyard Kipling’s “The Ballad of East and West,” and William Butler Yeats’ early Indian poems, as examples of this new impulse.

The central critical question that demands attention is not whether or not writers like Melville, Kipling, Yeats, Blavatsky, and [Edwin] Arnold “got it right,” in their various appropriations of Eastern thought, but why they were appropriating it in the first place, and in such increasing numbers. The answer, as [Arthur] Versluis’ gloss suggests, has much more to do with the West and its escalating cultural dilemma than the specific manner in which Eastern texts were assimilated and redeployed.

His thesis can be read here.

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