Blasphemous Modernism: The 20th-Century Word Made Flesh


“First-Rate Blasphemy”

This chapter demonstrates the relevance of blasphemy to literary study and to modernist scholarship in particular. The very term blasphemy denotes a specifically verbal mode of religious transgression that rewards a close textual analysis—yet modernist writers also complicate that definition by creating viscerally embodied literary forms that seek to exceed blasphemy’s status as text. Such forms reflect an “aesthetics of sacrilege” that complements these writers’ habitual recourse to “transgressive typology”: the subversive repurposing of scriptural themes to achieve radical formal and political ends. Throughout, this chapter explores the ambivalence with which modernist writers engage the putative death of God. Relentlessly profaning the very religious traditions from which they derive much of their own literary aesthetics, they also reaffirm those traditions’ enduring status as sacred: an observation that holds even in the most brazenly irreverent of modernist texts.

1. “For This Is My Body” 

James Joyce’s Unholy Office

This chapter posits the novels of James Joyce as paradigmatic of how blasphemy works in, and as, literary modernism. Modeled on the mystery of the Eucharist, Joyce’s art typifies modernism’s profane exercises in literary transubstantiation. At the same time, his fictions provide a case study in how the rhetoric of blasphemy can be deployed against the repressive mechanisms of sacred and secular power, including Catholic orthodoxy as well as the ideologies of both British imperialism and Irish nationalism. A careful attention to Joyce’s blasphemies thus elucidates the author’s complex negotiations of church and state, flesh and word, textuality and the body.

2. Blasphemy and the New Woman

Mina Loy’s Profane Communions

​This chapter examines Mina Loy’s poetics of profanation, which persistently integrates religion, text, and the erotic body to highly blasphemous effect. In poems such as “Parturition” (1914) and Songs to Joannes (1917), she refigures Father and Son as a pro-creative mother and a crucified female Christ; throughout her work, she persistently unites sexuality and sacrament in profane communion. Subscribing to an idiosyncratic version of Christian Science, Loy held carnal desire and its consummation to be sacred above all else; their betrayal at the hands of repressive institutions and ideologies, both ecclesiastical and otherwise, were for her desecrations of the true spirit of Christianity. Accordingly, her poems and prose works use the rhetoric of blasphemy to profane those institutions and ideologies in turn.

3. Blasphemy and the New Negro 

Black Christs, “Livid Tongues”

This chapter shows how Alain Locke’s New Negro anthology and the works of Harlem’s self-styled “Niggeratti”—including Richard Bruce Nugent, Wallace Thurman, Zora Neale Hurston, and Langston Hughes—produce a cultural dialogue out of the dueling rhetorics of prophecy and profanation. Offering itself as a New Testament for black culture, The New Negro presents its titular figure as a Christlike redeemer whose advent is invoked repeatedly, from the child pictured in the arms of its frontispiece Madonna to the “black apostle” imagined in the final essay by W. E. B. Du Bois. The Niggeratti, in subsequent works—including their provocative little magazine Fire!!—respond in often stridently blasphemous ways. Profaning Locke’s programmatic vision as well as Christianity itself, the Niggeratti’s two-pronged offensive typifies blasphemy’s status as the preferred modernist idiom in which to critique both sacred and secular authority.

4. Go Down, Djuna

The Art of “Transcendence Downward”

This chapter turns to the interwar period’s reigning assumptions about homosexuality as “sexual inversion,” and to the satiric demolition those assumptions undergo in the works of Djuna Barnes. In accordance with its trademark inversions of the sacred, blasphemy serves Barnes as a uniquely effective means to turn modern sexology on its head. As with James Joyce’s “New Womanly Man,” Mina Loy’s “New Woman,” and the Niggeratti’s irreverent revisions of “the New Negro,” Barnes conscripts a blasphemous aesthetic into the service of articulating a distinctively modernist identity: in this case a queer identity unaccounted for by the period’s popular and scientific discourses of gender and desire.​



To Be as Gods

Modernist writers have often engaged God as an object of both imaginative identification and profanation, at once emulating and blaspheming a deity memorably pronounced dead in the latter part of the nineteenth century. Such an ambivalent response to God’s “death” betrays revealing structural affinities with the psychodynamics of Freudian melancholia; just as the melancholiac both incorporates and abuses a lost love-object, so these writers profane their lost God while also yielding to the original biblical temptation “to be as gods.” This chapter surveys the modernist artist-god as he (or she) appears in works by writers including Mina Loy, Djuna Barnes, Wallace Stevens, and, finally, Salman Rushdie, whose novel The Satanic Verses provides a demonstration of how modernism persists in postwar anglophone literature—and of the critical role blasphemy plays in that persistence.

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© 2019 by Steve Pinkerton