Theses Doctoral

Modernist Unselfing: Religious Experience and British Literature, 1900-1945

Iglesias, Christina

This dissertation examines the role of religious experience in British modernist literature, arguing that a strain of modernist writing drew from different religious traditions to conceptualize and model ways of escaping the confines of the self. In distinctive yet strikingly similar ways, these writers draw from these traditions—orthodox and heterodox, eastern and western—not in an attempt to propound traditional theological ideas but to recapture a religious sensibility that extends beyond dogma or creed: a sensibility that can offer means of getting beyond the self’s limited, solipsistic, and myopic perspective. In response to the perceived decline of religion in late 19th- and early 20th-century British culture; the atomizing effects of industrial modernity; and a growing distrust, informed by contemporary psychology, of the limitations of the self and the self’s perspective, the works this dissertation examines achieve a frame of reference beyond the individual point of view through processes and practices I group under the term “unselfing.” Unselfing emerges in these works as a moral and broadly religious imperative, necessary to achieving authentic communion between people and, paradoxically, to achieving a more authentic relationship to the self; at the same time, these works represent unselfing as an endeavor that is necessarily asymptotic, difficult, and always incomplete. They model unselfing in and through literary form, not only conveying but also embodying processes of unselfing in their formal experimentation. Reading works by D.H. Lawrence, E.M. Forster, Dorothy Richardson, and T.S. Eliot alongside contemporary psychological, philosophical, and anthropological writings of the period, I show how a pervasive and urgent desire to use spiritual practices to escape the self shaped the development of British modernist literature. Modernist Unselfing thus challenges prevailing accounts of British modernism, according to which secular artistic innovation absorbed and attained the sacred value formerly located in religion. I argue that, on the contrary, these narrow accounts of secularization and aestheticization have obscured what much of modernist experimentation was actively attempting to capture: a desire, often ethically-minded, to forego self.


  • thumnail for Iglesias_columbia_0054D_14548.pdf Iglesias_columbia_0054D_14548.pdf application/pdf 1.31 MB Download File

More About This Work

Academic Units
English and Comparative Literature
Thesis Advisors
Cole, Sarah
Viswanathan, Gauri
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
April 13, 2018