Mourning and America | The Nation


Mourning and America

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Wilson builds his picture of the nineteenth-century crisis of faith (mostly in Victorian Britain) with a composite of biographical essays about the era's leading thinkers. He begins with eighteenth-century figures who set the stage for the Victorians: Gibbon, who demolished the notion that revelation was passed down pure from the Church Fathers; Hume, who questioned the anthropocentric assumptions of all previous metaphysics and removed the philosophical necessity of belief; and Kant, who replaced abstract noumena with concrete phenomena as the only reliable criteria for verifying the truth of propositions. These men, the late Enlightenment's last Templars, dealt deathblows to any lingering claims that Christianity had an exclusive franchise on explaining the history of the universe. For intellectuals who wished to remain in the mainstream of academic thought, Wilson notes, Deism became the most respectable way to salvage theology. (The Deist God was a "Divine Watchmaker" who created the world and then abandoned it to work according to its own mechanized laws.)

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Michael Joseph Gross
Michael Joseph Gross, a onetime seminarian and former speechwriter for Massachusetts Governor William Weld, is a...

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Thus freed of dogma, nineteenth-century thinkers inherited immense intellectual freedom. Heady revelry ensued, from which arose a profusion of Theories of Everything (Marx's economics, Carlyle's Supermen, Arnold's aesthetics, Darwin's natural selection). The Victorians believed they had it in them to understand the world more clearly and completely than any previous generation; all prior history had been the overture to their entrance.

As Wilson explains, the Victorians' prideful progress, particularly in science, got them in a pickle. Darwin's theory of natural selection gave the hook to Deism by "remov[ing] any necessity for a metaphor of purpose when discussing natural history." But Darwin, Cliffs Notes history notwithstanding, did not kill Christianity. Many scientists, among them the biologist and Catholic monk Gregor Mendel, still retained faith in a loosely orthodox Christian God, "an immanent Creator perpetually and lovingly involved with what He has made." Nevertheless, the eighteenth century had proven the Christian God was not necessary, so most of the era's leading progressives threw out religion altogether.

Their apostasy, in most cases, was dramatic, heroic and principled. And yet, in Wilson's biographical essays, the Victorians' awakening to steely secularism was almost always accompanied by intense spiritual bereavement. Wilson reads Thomas Hardy's poem "God's Funeral" as an unsentimental report on the deity's demise ("Uncompromising rude reality/Mangled the Monarch of our fashioning,/Who quavered, sank; and now has ceased to be"); and yet, Wilson adds, the narrator cannot avoid admitting some astringent grief at the proceedings ("what was mourned for, I, too, long had prized"). "Indeed, though many intellectual justifications were offered by those who lost faith, the process would seem to have been, in many cases, just as emotional as religious conversion; and its roots were often quite as irrational," Wilson writes. "This is the story of bereavement as much as of adventure."

The stories of bereavement, as Wilson tells them, are by turns funny, eccentric and touching. John Stuart Mill resisted being conscripted by Auguste Comte's baroque Religion of Humanity but fell prostrate before the "genius" of the merely smarter-than-average Harriet Taylor. Marx, Darwin, Herbert Spencer and William Morris, Wilson observes, all grew long, flowing beards (they "could have all been mistaken for Jehovah in a frock coat") even as they were perpetrating deicide. George Eliot, the "sibyl of Victorian Rationalism," was too grief-stricken to attend the funeral of her life-partner, George Henry Lewes, in 1878. She spent the day in seclusion, reading and rereading "In Memoriam" by Alfred Tennyson, "the poet of the Honest Doubters," who nevertheless held on to faith.

The pathos of these stories is sometimes punctured by wanton priggishness. Wilson frequently lays his pedagogy on thick ("If you haven't read Kant before, I should strongly recommend that you avoid summaries or introductions"), and he relies overmuch on rhetorical flourishes ("One does not need to elaborate...to make the point," he intones, after elaborating a point rather rococoily).

Yet such tics draw attention only because the tone of God's Funeral is so thoroughly generous and humane. The book's history of ideas emerges incidentally from its portraits of people, in whose emotional lives the reader becomes invested, to the point where, in his final chapter, Wilson justifiably calls his subjects "friends." God's Funeral is not about "the end of a phase of human intellectual history"; it describes "the withdrawal of a great Love-Object."

Within the Victorians' faith in progress, Wilson discerns stifled sobs of bereavement at the withdrawal of this "great Love-Object." As a result, time spent at God's Funeral attunes a reader's ear to the doubt that usually resonates within declarations of confidence.

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