In this ambitious, provocative, and important book, Zhange Ni seeks to globalize the scope of what in the past has been—with some exceptions, such as the scholarship of Ni’s own teacher, the late Anthony C. Yu (1938–2015), or more recently the collaborative venture crystallized in A Poetics of Translation: Between Chinese and English Literature, edited by David Jasper, Geng Youzhuang, and Wang Hai (Baylor University Press, 2016)—the mostly Western-bound, Christian- and Jewish-focused study of religion and literature. The “agenda” Ni sets forth “is to radicalize the postsecular turn in the study of world literature—to extend the interdisciplinary study of religion and literature into the study of world religion and world literature” (3). For her proposed method, she coins the neologism “pagan criticism,” meaning “a reading strategy that pays due credit to the context-specific formations of both religion and literature, tracing their related transmigration and transmutation in various parts of the world” (3, her emphasis). The aim of such criticism “is to shock the reader into abandoning entrenched presuppositions and taking departure from these points, or even freely inventing alternative points of departure” (8). Inviting others to follow suit, Ni presents herself as a “magician-critic” (6, 69–72, 167, 171), one who, “marginalized, and boundary-crossing, . . . straddles reason, skepticism, and reflexivity on the one hand, and faith, delusion, and enchantment on the other” (69). In doing so, she incorporates insights of four prominent late twentieth- and early twenty-first-century figures: the postcolonialist literary scholar Edward W. Said, on “worldliness of the text” and the ideals of “secular criticism” (47–48); the theorist Jean-Luc Nancy, on “the need to deconstruct Christianity and monotheism” and his “creation of the world in opposition to globalization” (61); the philosopher Gilles Deleuze, on “immanence” as “the condition of possibility for the creation of philosophical concepts” (64); and the Egyptologist Jan Assmann, on monotheism as “counterreligion” and secularism as “transfiguration of monotheism” (56–57). Framed between a substantial introduction and brief conclusion, The Pagan Writes Back consists of six main chapters divided into two parts, which respectively establish the theoria of Ni’s project and engage in its praxis. The two chapters that comprise part 1, “Proposing the Pagan Criticism,” survey the “varieties of [historical] paganism” (19, chapter 1) and the “key ideas of conceptual paganism” (45, chapter 2). For Ni, drawing on Assmann, paganism (from the Latin term for the non-Christian, paganus, comparable and later interchangeable with the word for the non-Roman/Jewish, gentilis; cf. the Greek-derived terms, “barbarian” and “heathen”) is rooted in a cosmotheistic worldview exemplified by ancient Egyptian religion; Alexandrian philosophies such as Stoicism, Neo-platonism, and hermetism; medieval alchemy and Kabbalah; and Spinozist pantheism. Not so much a tradition itself, paganism is “a product of monotheist polemical counterconstruction”—what Assmann calls the “Mosaic distinction”—“and antagonistic acculturation” (30). Already valuable in and of itself, Ni’s overview of “historical paganism” could be further enhanced by considering a pair of pivotal nineteenth-century Western thinkers (unmentioned by Ni) whose pronouncements on paganism mark a divergence in two totally different, fateful directions: the Dane, Søren Kierkegaard, who condemned modern bourgeois European “Christendom” (Christenhed), in which the struggles and “conditions of opposition” (Modsætnings-Forhold) that defined New Testament Christianity had dropped out, as “paganism” (Hedenskabet) passing itself off as Christianity (The Moment [Øieblikket], July 7, 1855, no. 4); and the German disparager of Christianity (for its Sklavenmoral or slave morality), Friedrich Nietzsche, who lauded “pagans” or “heathens” (Heiden) as “all who say yes to life, for whom ‘god’ is the term for the great yes to all things” (Der Antichrist  §55; translation mine). Arguably Ni’s most original contribution is her evolvement of a coherent critical theory and interpretive method from this historical background, rehearsing, critiquing, and finally abandoning Said’s notion of secular criticism in favor of her own pagan criticism. To accomplish this, she exposes “the fundamental ambiguity of secular criticism, which is rooted in both monotheism and paganism” (55), and whose claim of superiority over the religious “uncannily replicates the monotheist repudiation of paganism” (57). Once this first of a number of paradoxes Ni exposes has been explored, she turns to defining the three “key ideas” that underlie conceptual paganism: the “immanent world” (posited by Deleuze), with its latent pagan undercurrents; the pagan “idol-text” (“a mirror that returns the world to itself,” i.e., to immanence), a concept that she borrows from Jean-Luc Marion together with its antithesis, the “icon-text” (“which incarnates some ultimate meaning and pushes us to look beyond it for the transcendent”) (65); and the aforementioned “magician-critic,” who “turns the given text into the idol-text by drawing connections across textual boundaries as well as boundaries between the articulated and unwritten, the intended and ignored, and the aesthetically valid and unsound” (72). The volume’s praxis unfolds in the remaining four chapters that constitute part 2, “Practicing Pagan Criticism,” where Ni applies her paganist theory and method to interpreting works in different genres—mostly novels—by four different writers, two of them Western, North American (or “Euro-American” ) females (and feminists), and the other two, East Asian males: the American novelist Cynthia Ozick’s The Puttermesser Papers (1997), consisting of five stories that had each originally appeared separately in magazines; the essay collection by the Canadian poet and writer Margaret Atwood, In Other Worlds (2011), and her four novels The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), Oryx and Crake (2003), The Year of the Flood (2009), and Maddaddam (2013); the Japanese novelist Endō Shūsaku’s Deep River (Fukai kawa, 1993); and the Chinese-born, 2000 Nobel Prize-winning novelist and playwright Gao Xingjian’s “Wild Man” series, comprised of his two plays Wildman (Yeren, 1985) and Of Mountains and Seas (Shanhai jing zhuan, 1993), and his novel Soul Mountain (Lingshan, 1990). In these works, Ni uncovers or “retrieves” multiple levels of paganism, some of them explicit, others hidden or “repressed.” She proves as uninhibited in criticizing any of these writers as she did some of the theorists—for example, regarding Talal Asad’s and Charles Taylor’s “insufficient attempts to engage Said’s project on its own terms” (55), or Nancy’s “not [having] gone far enough [in his deconstruction of Christianity and monotheism]” (61; cf. 62). Turning her critical eye to Ozick, a writer famed for her struggle to reconcile her Jewish identity with her craft of writing what she worries might potentially be “idolatrous” fiction in English, Ni finds Ozick’s “Jewish monotheism” to contain “pagan others at its heart,” and, says Ni, “the resistance [Ozick] sees among the Jewish minority to the globalization of Christianity and secularism mistakenly takes the repudiated paganism as its target” (82–83). If Ozick exalts “anti-idolatry” (77) as a primary trait of Judaism, Ni reads her work as betraying a “monotheist paganism, which forever opens onto the judgment of the unimaginable transcendence that it imagines” (96). Meanwhile, Atwood, an avowed “pessimistic pantheist” (and hence Ozick’s opposite), “enthusiastically participates in the contemporary reinvention of paganism” (97), and her works, for Ni, “might have gone a bit further” (121) in deconstructing monotheism. In discussing Endō, a famously “Japanese Catholic writer” (122), Ni could do more to square this crucial fact of his biography with her description of him as a “‘pagan’ writer [who] wrote back to the Christian West” (122). No less ironic than her detection of “pagan others” in Ozick’s monotheism is Ni’s perception of Endō’s portrayal of “Indian primitivism” in Deep River as “typical of orientalist writing” (127). Ni situates Endō in the tradition of “Japanese tourists/pilgrims who followed in the footsteps of the nineteenth- and twentieth-century Europeans and Americans” who romanticized their own “pilgrimages to India” (126). Yet more could be said on this point. For example, a fascinating comparison could be drawn between the treatments of the journey-to-India theme in Deep River and The Temple of Dawn (Akatsuki no Tera, 1968), the third novel in the Sea of Fertility tetralogy by Endō’s more famous Japanese contemporary, Yukio Mishima (1925–1970); the latter employs the theme to provide graphic background to the (“pagan”) Hindu and Buddhist notions of karma and reincarnation that tie together his whole tetralogy. As for Gao, in compensating for the dearth of discussion of “religion as a discursive formation” in previous readings of his work, Ni attends to his “Wild Man” series’ “engagement with the religious question, or more precisely, the pagan problem, in modern China” (146). She concludes that his reduction of the Chinese cultural complex of Confucian, Buddhist, Daoist, and popular sects “to stifling official culture and its opposite, pristine folk culture” does little to settle the question of what religion is—let alone the question of religion’s relation to literature: “The relation between religion and literature in modern China is a mind-blowing mess” (175). Especially because something similar might be said about the religion/literature relation worldwide, we can be grateful for the guidance The Pagan Writes Back offers for at least one way forward. Ni openly admits the necessary “limits” of her book: its focus mainly on contemporary literature to the exclusion of ancient and early modern materials, and the concentration on theological and philosophical sources for conceptualizing paganism to the exclusion of “the utterly ‘pagan’ thinkings vibrant in esoteric texts, antinomian trends, or minor traditions” (178). Yet she is right that these limits “provide excellent points of departure for the future development of pagan criticism” (178)—a most promising venture in which it is hoped that other scholars will be willing and equipped to join her. © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the American Academy of Religion. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Journal of the American Academy of Religion – Oxford University Press
Published: Feb 13, 2018
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