Postsecular Pilgrimages: Civil Religion and Mystical Anarchism in the American Novel after the 1960s

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Copyright: White, Kimberley
This thesis contends that key leftist social movements of the 1960s and the canonical American novels that responded to them are best understood through a postsecular critical lens. Where scholars like Berlant opposed the secularism of sixties progressives to the religiosity of American conservatives, I instead interpret the dissident politics of the sixties, and the literature it inspired, as a heterogeneous blend of sacred and secular ideas. In doing so, I draw upon work in postsecular literary studies that insists modernity did not banish religion so much as make possible new spiritual experiences of emancipation. In formal terms, I argue that there exists a variant of the historical novel named the postsecular pilgrimage. A hybrid of Derrida’s spectral philosophy of history and Lukács’s theory of the classic historical novel, the postsecular pilgrimage figures popular uprisings as insurrections animated by faith in the messianic promises of past resistance movements. In postsecular pilgrimages, outsiders are summoned by a numinous call to obtain justice and journey to the sacred sites of democratic traditions to do battle with reactionary social forces. When successful, postsecular pilgrims attest to the power of militant faith to remake American society. When unsuccessful, postsecular pilgrims become martyrs whose defeats demand the creation of new modes of democratic struggle and survival. At the level of literary periodization, I argue that postsecular pilgrimages written by novelists active in sixties social movements retained a commitment to the discourse Bellah named American civil religion, while postsecular pilgrimages published by later generations of writers represent what I have called mystical anarchism. Where proselytes of civil religion remained convinced that outcast uprisings could radicalize the ideals and institutions of the American republic, adherents of mystical anarchism insisted that internal secession from the American state was the only path for radical democracy. If civil religion was celebrated in the novels of sixties icons like Mailer and Baldwin, it was opposed as an oppressive force in the texts of McCarthy, Morrison, and Pynchon. Yet, both generations of writers sought to embed contemporary rebellions in sacred traditions and all grounded secular resistance movements in experiences of spiritual awakening.
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PhD Doctorate
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