Event Date: 18-20 July 2012
Solstrandveien 200, Postboks 54,
5201 Os, Norway
Modernism, Christianity, and Apocalypse
A conference organised by the Department of Foreign Languages at the University of Bergen, Norway; funded by the Bergen Research Foundation through the ‘Modernism and Christianity’ research project.
The modernist imperative ‘Make it new!’ posits a break with traditional artistic forms, but also with the entire mould of a civilization felt to be in a state of terminal decay (‘an old bitch, gone in the teeth’, as a second dictum by Ezra Pound has it). Modernism was steeped in the language of apocalyptic crisis, generating multiple (and contradic- tory) millennial visions of artistic, cultural, religious and political transformation. This conference will examine the continuing impact of Christianity upon the modernist thinking of Apocalypse in Western culture, covering the period of early-to-high modernism (c. 1880- 1945), with glances towards the immediate aftermath of World War II and the Bomb. ‘Modernism’ is not here confined to the arts, and contributions are invited from scholars across the humanities and social sciences.
The modernist crisis is often depicted as emerging ‘after’ disenchantment and secularisation. Yet contemporary assessments of Christianity varied strikingly, as modernist thinkers, artists, writers and political ideologues confronted its entrenched authority and formidable capacity for self-reinvention. Certainly, as the historian Peter J. Bowler has shown, the effort to ‘reconcile’ science and religion was in no way abandoned in early twentieth century discourse. Nor, of course, did the efforts of theologians across the confessional spectrum suddenly cease: on the contrary, theology from Karl Barth to the Nouvelle Théologie and beyond delivered penetrating responses to modernity. More radical theorists and philosophers of the modern from Nietzsche onward also grappled with Christianity, often becoming further enmeshed even while prophesying the Death of God. Indeed, whether read through Frazer’s dying gods or Freud’s paternal totems, the Christian stories stubbornly resisted easy assimilation. Repeatedly, artists and writers exploring radically new modes of religious experience might find their works subtly infiltrated by biblical or liturgical language and iconography. Christianity also garnered modernist converts: for some, the promise of cultural resurrection would converge on a return to orthodoxy following the liberal dilutions of the nineteenth century; while others freely adapted the tradition to suit their spiritual needs. Even those chary of such a step, or actively hostile to Christian faith, continued to reinvent the cultural resources and imagery of the Christian past – if only in order to overturn it in favour of a new future. The political religions of the twentieth century (Stalinism, Fascism, Nazism) promulgated their own revolutionary visions of Apocalypse and a secular Kingdom, casting Christianity as a chief antagonist, or at least as subservient to a vitalist national-political will. Nonetheless, these alternative salvation histories, too, were undeniably linked to their paradigm in the Christian tradition.
The complexities and ambiguities involved in such historical transactions are obvious: and interdisciplinary insights are essential in mapping them. Modernism, Christianity, and Apocalypse thus invites contributions by scholars in all relevant fields. New archival information and empirical research on this period is welcomed alongside broader theoretical and historical re-evaluations of the modernist crisis, or novel readings of central texts. A concerted effort to recover the complex interwovenness of modernism, Christianity and the apocalyptic imagination is especially urgent today, as the very idea of a ‘post-secular’ culture is being interrogated anew in a global context. Indeed, the recent Norway terror by a self-proclaimed crusader for ‘European civilization’ is a horrifying reminder that the contestation of history, and the proclamation of eschatologies, can still turn bloody.
Introduction to the conference by Dr Erik Tonning (Bergen)
Introductory poetry reading by Kevin Ireland
Paul S. Fiddes (University of Oxford) – Versions of the Wasteland. The Sense of an Ending in Theology and Literature in the Modern Period
Professor Hans Ottomeyer (Former Director of the German Historical Museum) – The Reason of Nature. The New Cosmos Around 1900
Professor Marjorie Perloff (Stanford University) – “To Change Your Life”: Wittgenstein on Christianity
Professor C. J. Ackerley (University of Otago) – The Nordic Vision of Malcolm Lowry’s In Ballast to the White Sea
Professor Mary Bryden (University of Reading) – “History is done”: Thomas Merton’s Figures of Apocalypse
Professor Gregory Maertz (St. John’s University, NY) – Nazi Modernism and the Collaboration of Christian Artists with the Hitler Regime
Dr Malise Ruthven (Independent writer) – The Apocalyptic Social Imaginary
Dr Finn Fordham (Royal Holloway, University of London) - “Woill the real mdernism please stand up?” Theological modernism within cultural modernism
Also recorded: a selection of panel papers:
Hedda Lingaas Fossum – WH Auden, Democracy, and Original Sin
Katherine Ebury – In this valley of dying stars: TS Eliot’s Apocalyptic Cosmology
Benjamin Madden – From Heaven to Hell in Flames: The Auroras of Autumn and the Christian Apocalypse
Dr Mark Byron – Ezra Pound’s Eriugena: Eschatology in the Periphyseon and the Cantos
Concluding Roundtable discussion: Apocalypse Now? On Contemporary uses of Apocalyptic Rhetoric with Paul Fiddes, Hans Ottomeyer, Malise Ruthven, Marjorie Perloff, John Milbank and Matthew Feldman (Chair).
Conference organisers: Dr Erik Tonning (Bergen) and Dr Matthew Feldman (Teesside University)
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