Having thus observed the way that the shipwreck metaphor or paradigm evolved from its diametrical opposite, the Christian vision of a journey to God, we can now examine a related situation of crisis that of mariners on a drifting hulk or castaways on a desert island. After Poe's narrator in "MS. Found in a Bottle" recovers from the state of shock and hopelessness that first afflicted him when the ocean crashed into his ship, he realizes that he and his companion, the old Swede, have been spared immediate death but will almost certainly have to endure a lingering one. The two men, in other words, remain trapped in a situation of peril and crisis but one different from that experienced in the moment of shipwreck:

The main fury of the blast had already blown over, and we apprehended little danger from the violence of the wind but we looked forward to its total cessation with dismay, well believing, that in our shattered condition, we should inevitably perish in the tremendous swell which should ensue. But this very Just apprehension seemed by no means likely to be soon verified. For five entire days and nights . . . the hulk flew at a rate defying computation, before rapidly succeeding flaws of wind . . . more terrific than any tempest I had before encountered.... We awaited in vain for the arrival of the sixth day- that day to me has not yet arrived — to the Swede never did arrive. Thenceforward we were enshrouded in pitchy darkness, so that we could not have seen an object at twenty paces from the ship. Eternal night continued to envelop us .... We neglected all care of the ship, as worse than useless, and securing ourselves as well as possible, to the stump of the mizzen-mast, looked out bitterly into the world of ocean We had no means of calculating time, nor could we form any guess of our situation.... In the meanwhile every moment threatened to be our last.... I could not help feeling the utter hopelessness of hope itself.

In contrast to the situations of shipwreck, avalanche, or the other versions of crisis one encounters in George Stubbs's Lion Attacking a Horse (1770, Yale University Art Gallery) or Elie Delaunay's The Plague at Rome (1869, Louvre), this equally important paradigm is not particularly kinetic. Thus, whereas the shipwreck and analogous forms of the situation of crisis present the instant at which powerful forces first impinge upon the victim, this situation has an essentially different structure. The men on the drifting hulk, like those in the analogous situations of being trapped on a desert island, lost in a labyrinth, or shut in prison, are held in, contained, circumscribed by forces that block their aims and constrain free action.1 This basically static situation obviously bears a less intense emotional charge than the situations of sudden crisis, such as shipwreck. This paradigm (or what Paul Ricoeur terms a "schema of existence")2 appears in a Christian or traditional form far less commonly than does that of the shipwreck, and its primary meaning seems to be as an image of primal isolation — of isolation from both God and other human beings. Its relation to the Christian topos of the life journey, like that of the shipwreck, takes the form of diametrical opposition, but the chief emphasis falls, not upon the cataclysmic interruption of the voyage, but upon simple cessation of movement and consequent deprivation. Poe's application of this paradigm in "MS. Found in a Bottle" both traps the survivors on the floating hulk, thus threatening their lives, and also deprives them of freedom, food, and even light and a sense of time passing. The significance of the shipwreck and castaway paradigms, then, is that by transforming the Christian metaphor of the life-voyage, they provided a superbly appropriate analogy to the way many men and women experienced their world these past two centuries. The full explanation for this changed use of basic cultural paradigms during this period would require something very like a complete history of recent Western civilization. Although such a history clearly lies beyond the bounds of this study and the capabilities of its author, let me tempt the charge of rashness by suggesting a few of the more central factors that have called this imaginative landscape into being.

Crises of Christianity and Images of Crisis

The crisis of Christianity and its drawn out death-struggles over the past few centuries certainly provide the chief reason why these two paradigms became important. The medieval historian Lynn White has proposed (during a seminar at the Society for the Humanities, Cornell University, in autumn 1969) that in the future when students of history find the periods into which we divide the years since the Middle Ages increasingly cumbersome and increasingly unsatisfactory, they will call the centuries from the sixth to the twentieth the "Christian Ages"; for during this time the beliefs of Christianity, which were generally accepted as divine revelation, formed and informed the morality, philosophy, science, economics, and politics of the West. In thus suggesting the sixth and twentieth centuries as outer limits of the Christian Ages, Professor White sets his boundaries as wide as possible, for, as R. H: Tawney has shown in Religion and the Rise of Capitalism (1926), the unified view of God and man which typified the Middle Ages had already begun to disappear with the Reformation and the rise of Protestantism, capitalism, and nationalism. And one should add that as early as the seventeenth century, the ideas of Descartes, Hobbes, and Locke were beginning to erode the philosophical bases of Christianity, a process continued by the philosophes, the emotionalist moral philosophers of the Scottish school, and the sciences of geology and biology. At the same time that older conceptions of man's place in a hierarchically ordered universe began to weaken, new models of the human mind, new attitudes towards society, and new conceptions of politics wore away at Christian belief. With the French Revolution, perhaps the central event of modern history, the imaginative landscape of Europe, now politicized in an entirely new way, had changed for ever. Then, in the next century Darwinian theories of natural selection, the new philology, and German Higher Criticism further undercut belief in the literal truth of the Scriptures and their relevance to contemporary life, as did the writings of Marx and Freud.

By claiming that the increasing secularization of America, Britain, and Europe caused the genesis and subsequent popularity of these new paradigms or non-religious schemes of existence, I do not mean either that Christianity completely disappears from Western civilization at a particular date or that the student of culture can easily recapture the imaginative tone of individual minds with casual references to secularizatiop. In fact, although Western thought becomes increasingly more secular between the late Middle Ages and the present — which is to say that non-Christian or anti-Christian cultural codes and ideas become increasingly more important — that change is especially difficult to chart. One reason for such difficulty lies in the fact that until quite recently secularization rarely took the form of the abandonment of Christian positions and their replacement by explicitly non-Christian ones.

Furthermore, major instances of religion's loss of previous ideological dominance frequently appear to the agents involved as necessary combinations of retreat and advance. For example, every time a group of independent Christians has abandoned what had once been a fundamental doctrine or attitude, its members have announced that they were abandoning false belief as a way of purifying Christianity. Thus, the American Unitarians abandoned the divinity of Christ, the Broad Church Anglicans the literal truth of the Bible, and the seventeenth-century Calvinists earlier prohibitions against usury. Similarly, to Evangelical Protestants of all denominations their de-emphasis or even complete abandonment of church tradition and church hierarchy, like their emphasis upon subjective emotional states, seemed — and to many still seems — to signify the advance, rather than the retreat, of faith in everyday life. None the less, one can justifiably argue on two grounds that such changes in the Christian religion constitute evidence of progressive secularization in Western society.

First, they in fact opposed earlier forms of Christian belief that had more completely permeated Western culture. There can be no doubt that during the past several centuries, Christianity, which once so completely dominated European thought, has played an increasingly smaller role in political ideology and action, economic theory, and the arts; and any form of Christianity, such as fundamentalist Protestantism, which supports such lessening influence, de facto contributes to secularization. Second, when viewed at a distance, most of these changes obviously appear as signs of Christianity's lessening power and influence because they did not in fact fulfill their early claim to revivify Christian belief and thence restore it to its earlier position of pre-eminence. After all, had Essays and Reviews (1860), Bishop Colenso's The Pentateuch and the Book and Joshua Critically Examined (1862), and Broad Church abandonment of earlier belief in Verbal inspiration actually created a major and long-lasting religious revival, then one would have to grant that their narrowing of traditional bases of religious faith successfully produced a new stage of Christianity, equal in influence and power to that of the Middle Ages. As one who has devoted considerable attention to the generally unrecognized major role that scriptural interpretation had upon Victorian culture, I am the last to claim that Christianity completely lost its power over men's minds in the last century. On the other hand, I am also forced to recognize that, despite apparent anomalies like Victorian typology, the broad history of Christianity during the past two centuries is one of sporadic advances amid general retreat and even surrender.

A further difficulty in charting the de-Christianization of Western thought lies in the fact that secularization has often taken the path of adapting religious forms to new uses. Indeed, as M. H. Abrams has so convincingly demonstrated in Natural Supernaturalism (1971), the defining characteristic of German and British Romanticism consists precisely in such transference of the most detailed patterns of religious thought to secular purposes. Conceptions of history, prophecy, symbolism, interpretation, inspiration as well as those of redemption and apocalypse all were adapted to systems of thought in which the mind of man or some other entity replaced that of God. Accordixng to Abrams,

The tendency in innovative Romantic thought (manifested in proportion as the thinker is or is not a Christian theist) is greatly to diminish, and at the extreme to eliminate, the role of God, leaving as the prime agencies man and the world, mind and nature, the ego and the non-ego, and self and the not-self, spirit and the other, or (in the favorite antithesis of post-Kantian philosophers) subject and object.... The notable fact, however, is that this metaphysical process does not delete but simply assimilates the traditional powers and actions of God, as well as the overall pattern of Christian history.... In this grandiose enterprise, however, it is the subject, mind or spirit which is primary and takes over the initiative and functions which had once been the prerogatives of deity.3

Attempting, in the absence of God, to employ a structure or paradigm originally based upon the coming together of man and his maker has certain obvious difficulties, the most basic of which is that one party, and that the least able, now has to do all the work. Abrams's description of the grandiose enterprise of British and German Romanticism again demonstrates how codes, paradigms, or structures originally developed as part of orthodox Christian belief then became applied to a secular program; and one may add that when nineteenth-century thinkers perceived that limited time-bound, relatively helpless humanity could not in fact assume the power and glory of a deity, then the ironic and subversive capacities of the originally Christian paradigms became particularly compelling.


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Last modified 15 July 2007