Human hagiography : the saint figure in modernist British literature.
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Crews, Denise Galloway.
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Somewhat unexpectedly, saints' lives provided rich material for literary writing in the first half of the 20th century or modernist period. This study examines commonalities in how George Bernard Shaw's Saint Joan, T. S. Eliot's Murder in the Cathedral, and Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited interpreted and portrayed saints' lives and in how they used allusions to the saints to create a particular type of character, what I call the modernist saint figure, and a particular genre, what I call "human" hagiography. Some of these characters are actual saints, but others are fictional characters who possess the traditional characteristics of a medieval saint while bearing the marks of the modernist period. Many authors of the prewar and interwar period seem particularly interested in overturning prejudice against the medieval and the religious, instead appropriating spirituality as a contrary to some tendencies of modern thought and modern society. Specifically, these works often explore spirituality, subjectivity, humanism, compassion, aestheticism, and femininity as opposed to rationalism, legalism, absolutism, ideology, statism, and patriarchy. Although modernists often emphasized newness in all things and the breakdown of civilization, these works do not reject tradition, instead reinterpreting stories and beliefs with an emphasis on artistic innovation and individual authenticity. One of the most interesting aspects of this modernist "hagiography" is that it does not idealize the saint but instead shows his or her moral failure and reluctance towards spiritual commitment. That this reluctance is overcome emphasizes the powerful compulsion of love and compassion in the saint while also establishing ordinariness as necessary for the modernist saint. The process of becoming a saint is an irrational, i.e. supernatural, process, not the product of the will, self-control, or reason. Fate, providence, miracles, and grace are present and challenge modern materialism. The saint figure is an individual, often at odds with institutions, even religious institutions, and with English notions of propriety and modern notions of the state. Spontaneity and paradox, as well as social exile, freedom, suffering, and disillusionment, are all important motifs. The freedom and exhilaration of Dionysian experience is an important analogy for spirituality and an essential component of modernism.