Re-appropriating the Catholic imaginary: discourse strategies and the struggle for modernization in late nineteenth-century religious fiction
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This project explores how literary authors used religious discourses in the sociointellectual climates of late nineteenth-century Catholic cultures. It takes its premise from a tacit paradox of Western European modernization: unlike other Western European nations, nations such as France and Spain modernized without adopting Protestantism or doctrines of anti-Catholicism or anticlericalism--and, thus, without a strict break into national secular discourses. Addressing how various religious discourses were used in modernizing France and Spain (respectively, from 1848 and from 1868 to the early twentieth century), I take a cultural-historical approach to representative religiously themed novels and short fiction of the periods. I contend that non-institutionalized traditional Catholic culture (a culture's “religious imaginary” or “Catholic imaginary”) offered authors a plural and, thus, strategic source for making cultural critiques. These critiques would have resonated widely with contemporaneous readerships, and often without overt confrontations (as anticlericalism has historically done). I point to the presence of such critiques specifically in canonical authors’ religious works--works often considered to be aberrational or “too Catholic” to be valued as modern vis-à-vis the landmarks of Western literature. Taking as my key example a novel by the “father of the modern Spanish novel,” Benito Pérez Galdós’s Misericordia or Compassion (1897), I unfold progressive readings of this text based on discourses borrowing historical, thematic, and stylistic elements from the archives of a Catholic imaginary. Thereafter, I broaden my argument by considering how comparable, but distinct, discourses inform social-critical readings of Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables or The Underclass (1862), Gustave Flaubert’s “Un Coeur simple” or “A Simple Heart” (1877), and Emilia Pardo Bazán’s “Un destripador de antaño” or “The Heart Lover” (1900). Overall, the project challenges a critical status quo that has chosen to identify canonical literature in reference to a secular aesthetic program, without allowing for the possibility that cultural-religious discourses might also carry weight for cultures that were modernizing. Additionally, it re-characterizes the modernizing intellectual, seen typically as spiritually cynical or atheist, as one acknowledging the populist force of the religious imaginary freed from church limits.