Commentary Magazine

Religion in Literature

To the Editor:

Leslie Fiedler, in his review of Philip Rahv’s Image and Idea in the November number, gives us to understand that a critic who relies upon naturalist assumptions is incapable of adequately understanding the work of writers animated by religious faith: “. . . Rahv’s critical system, with its fundamental reliance upon naturalist assumptions, will not permit him to comprehend fully the very writers of whom he has become a leading advocate. . . .” The logical and unavoidable implication of this statement—which is substantiated by no evidence, since Mr. Fiedler does not show us who has fully comprehended the writers in question—is that like can only criticize like and that the best criticism is a homologue of its object. Accordingly, the supernaturalist critic should keep his hands off irreligious writers like Goethe, Keats, Shelley, Kleist, Heine, Mallarmé, Valéry, Gide, Carducci, Leopardi, Yeats, Henry James, Joyce, D. H. Lawrence, etc., etc., while the naturalist critic, in view of the fact that most of the past belongs to religion, should not venture back beyond the middle of the 18th century.

I know that Mr. Fiedler takes his cue from T. S. Eliot’s conclusion that to share a writer’s beliefs increases the enjoyment of his work. I myself do not quite agree with this, but I am willing to grant it for the sake of argument and to point out merely that enjoyment is not identical with understanding. The supernaturalist critic who enjoys Dante to the maximum may miss what the naturalist critic, who sees beyond religion to its psychological context, perceives. Thus T. S. Eliot himself wrote what is perhaps the most illuminating appreciation of those eminently religious poets, the English metaphysicals, before he adopted his present religious position (which in itself seems to have been of very doubtful benefit to his work as either critic or poet). I could offer further instances to refute Mr. Fiedler but lack of space prevents me.

Another implication of Mr. Fiedler’s statement, taken together with his concluding remark, “that no critical approach can outlive the historical moment that evokes it,” is that one’s philosophical position is refuted for the purposes of art and literary criticism by the superior creativity during one’s own age of those with a different position; that if the naturalist critic wants to understand, for instance, the latest literature of the present moment, he had better change his philosophical position, or else withdraw—as if, say, a contemporary of Homer’s who wanted to practice literary criticism but had abandoned polytheism would have had to return to it in order to keep up with and explain the Iliad. One sees that Mr. Fiedler’s position is in itself neither naturalist nor supernaturalist but essentially opportunist.

What Mr. Fiedler objects to in Mr. Rahv’s “critical system” is its failure to keep up with the latest trends (in indicating the supernaturalist direction of the present latest trend, Mr. Fiedler unwarrantedly slips James and Kafka in among the religious writers) and what he asks of literary criticism is that it co-ordinate itself with those trends, whether they go “backward” or “forward.” As if, for instance, Goethe’s view of the German Romantic writers was superseded by the view of the Romantic critics themselves simply because Goethe’s assumptions belonged to an earlier trend.

I think Mr. Fiedler ought to be more careful. If we take him on his own terms, he as a fiction-writer ought to be given pause by the irreligiousness of such of his contemporaries as Faulkner, Gide, Mann, Hemingway, Forster, etc.

Clement Greenberg
New York City



To the Editor:

I find in Mr. Greenberg’s letter an awareness of one very real difference between us, and several mistaken notions of what I was trying to say. It is a fair restatement of my position to say “the best criticism is a homologue of its object.” This, I should think, would be universally accepted. It does not, of course, follow that “like can only criticize like,” and I have in no way implied it. Many partial insights into works of art may be found in critics only partially sympathetic to the views expressed in such works; but to “comprehend fully” any work, one must have read it with the sort of commitment to its mythos that is inhibited by a fundamental difference of belief. There is naturally no question of the “right” of a critic to deal with any writer he may choose to examine, no matter what their doctrinal differences; but one should not be scandalized at a prediction that the critic will be limited by those differences. This is especially true in the case of non-formalist, “ideological” critics like Philip Rahv.

There are two apt bits of evidence in Mr. Greenberg’s letter itself, illustrating the kinds of errors into which a naturalist may fall in the face of supernaturalist literature. The first is “Kidnaping”: attempting to claim for his own camp writers whom he admires, but whose ideas seem to him “wrong.” This Mr. Greenberg does with Kafka (whom, by the way, I listed in my review with James not among the “religious,” but with the “palefaces,” quite another matter) and with Yeats. Not to acknowledge these two, to begin with, as “supernaturalists” is to vitiate all further critical comment.

The second error arises out of the assumption that the naturalist “sees beyond religion to its psychological context,” and leads to a reduction of more complex mythical structures to less complex ones, e.g., Dante’s metaphysics to Freudianism or behaviorism. The critic is always at a disadvantage beside a work of art; but the provincial arrogance of naturalism (“beyond religion”!) and its flatness put it at an especial disadvantage.

From the beginning of his third paragraph on, everything Mr. Greenberg asserts is irrelevant to what I have written. I maintained simply that different generations require different critical approaches in accord with their differing world-outlooks; and that it was, therefore, foolish to reproach Mr. Rahv, for instance, for failing to achieve a method congenial to a younger group of critics, after producing a body of work important in its own period. Within the short time Mr. Rahv has been writing, there has occurred, I believe, a crucial break between generations, a shift-over to a new Anschauung that demands a new criticism, whose assumptions and methods are not those of Mr. Rahv.

I do not want, however, to end on a note of dissent. The disagreements between Mr. Greenberg and me are real and important; but I think we should conclude, at least, by remembering our area of agreement, where we share (against the Howard Mumford Joneses of the world) a real respect for Mr. Rahv’s acute insights into some of the basic problems and processes of American literary life.

Leslie A. Fiedler
Montana State University
Missoula, Montana



About the Author

Pin It on Pinterest

Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
for full access to
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
Don't have a log in?
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.