St. Jerome’s University in the University of Waterloo
The prospect of reading Nature as the Book of God in and around the Romantic period immediately calls up both the precise, “rational religion” of the eighteenth century (how much can be known of the true God without Revelation?) and the vague, evocative pantheism that has traditionally defined high Romanticism. Colin Jager navigates a way between the two, and the topic of design, seemingly only one small detail in the larger relations of theology, philosophy and literature, reveals itself as influentially everywhere, much like the hand of God. Design becomes a deft little needle to embroider the broad fabric to which Jager sets himself, a repatterning of the relation between Romanticism and modern secularism. The project points suggestively toward multiple significances of the concept of design, and ways to rethink Nature and Reason in early and late Romanticism, and in modernity. More explicitly, the book considers how to read religion in Romantic literature where it might seem most elusive, critiques Romantic criticism through its own investments in a certain narrative of modernity, and extrapolates that critique into a revisionary theory of secularization that accounts for the persistence of divine design and human faith.
A strength of the book is its combination of expected and unexpected texts for its subject matter. Its revivification of William Paley as a worthy object of scholarship is exciting, and the book’s standout chapter on Mansfield Park builds insightful and thorough arguments about design on a brief conversation about chapel fittings, moving out more broadly to a religious triangulation of Edmund, Fanny and Mary perceptively informed by British religious history.
Jager begins by taking on the secularization thesis as endorsed, for instance, in M.H. Abrams’ Natural Supernaturalism, and suggests instead a process of differentiation in which religion becomes one sphere among many rather than infused in all aspects of life. He argues for adoption of Charles Taylor’s concept of multiple modernities to enrich the idea that differentiation may mean a shift but need not imply a decline in the public role of religion. However, Jager seems to assert at once that there has not been a decline in religion, and that there is a current resurgence. He considers Western Europe to be the world exception in actually having “experienced secularization as both differentiation and religious decline and transformation”, and considers the objection, “why would it matter for interpreting British romanticism that secularization as commonly understood is not universally applicable, and that the global South, for instance, is currently experiencing a massive surge in religious activity?” (32-3). In answer, Jager emphasizes the interests of later interpreters who appeal to secularization, which is fair enough, but still the question remains open, as earlier he had argued “the most reliable data show that religious participation in England rose between 1800 and 1850 (the period of most intense modernization and industrialization) and then held steady or rose gradually until 1900; the period between 1890 and 1914 was probably the key turning point” (27). Was there or wasn’t there religious decline in Britain in the Romantic period? The amorphousness of the figures adds further uncertainty: religious participation is a lump undifferentiated by sect. The understanding of “religion” is problematic in the book, as overall it clearly concentrates on Christianity, yet appeals to wider examples to demonstrate resurgence—for instance, Saba Mahmood’s study of the Egyptian mosque movement—though surely a modern and feminine desire to uphold religious norms will be interestingly different between Christian and Muslim, English and Egyptian experience. (The “bodily postures” involved are treated in a broad, abstract, barely physical mode by Jager, one hint of how the transfer is inadequate.) The introduction is most solid and interesting in its initial explanations of points that will be crucial throughout, such as the rhetorical nature of design arguments, compactly demonstrated in Raphael’s advice to Adam that he must “reck’n right”: “we try to figure out something about God based on what we can see around us … But … we need to be reminded … to begin not with what we can observe but with what we know about God” (9). Design arguments, Jager insists, convince those already inclined to believe them. Also insightful is the understanding of analogy (on which design arguments rest) as “itself… a figure for secularization as differentiation” (31) because of its paradoxical ability at once to distinguish and hold together two different realms, such as nature and divinity, or science and religion.
Chapter One, “The Argument Against Design from Deism to Blake”, is somewhat confusingly titled, as deism is concluded not to be really “against” design; it is just like design without the orthodoxy. Jager turns to Godwin, using Caleb Williams’ relationship to Falkland, initially seen as a “benevolent divinity” (53), as a “rereading of the optimism of the deists … The subject can no longer believe, but that loss entails paranoia and a crippling reflexivity rather than a compensatory liberation” (54). Again this is conceived more as an extension than an opposition (almost like the relationship between modernism and postmodernism). Indeed, Jager draws an affinity between Caleb and Paul de Man, for whom, he argues, “secularization is melancholy, obsessive, and secretive” (54); both realize knowledge does not set them free. One might ask whether this is the inevitable result, though: in Caleb’s case, remembering that this reading is metaphorical, figuring his relation to God on his belief in a fellow human as divine (which is idolatry, of a kind very convenient to arbitrary earthly power), it may be that he is too socially brainwashed to get over the revelation that a (mere) class superior is not so superior.