Colin Jager - Unquiet Things: Secularism in the Romantic Age. Review by Daniel Larson

Wednesday, September 2, 2015 - 05:01

Colin Jager, Unquiet Things: Secularism in the Romantic Age (U of Pennsylvania Press, 2014). 344 pp. (Hdbk. and ebook, $75.00; cloth ISBN 978-0-8122-4664-3, ebook ISBN 978-0-8122-9040-0).

Daniel Larson
University of Colorado Boulder

Secularism is not first and foremost about religion,” Colin Jager emphasizes early in Unquiet Things; more than its antipode, religion, secularism is concerned with “power—its consolidation and streamlining, its dispersal and diffusion” (7, emphasis original). Still, as Jager notes, one of the aims of secularism is to circumscribe religion, to confine it within a safe hermeneutic space. Unquiet Things spans secularism’s violent roots in the English Reformation to an imagined future after the secular/sacred binary, engaging the various subject positions, philosophical and linguistic constraints, and political structures that arise particularly in “romantic-era writers [who] were among the first to confront the secular world” (246). Drawing his primary metaphor from Coleridge’s “Frost At Midnight,” Jager likens the articulation of secular ideas to the film fluttering on the grate—“the sole unquiet thing” in the poet’s silent cottage—animated by the fire’s unseen heat. The book outlines how literary vehicles voice the “unquiet things” animated by secularism through the assimilation and resistance of increasingly secularized subjects. Here, “Rather than marching under the banner of secularization […], the secular becomes the background condition” for literary production (63).

The book is divided into three sections, each with three chapters. In Part I, Jager provides the historical context for the secular state as it arises out of Henry VIII’s religious reform and the rich textual aftermath the consolidation and politicization of English Christianity provided for the following centuries. When encased in literature, secularism takes on a tone of “melancholy” about the inaccessible and imagined past, an overriding mood found in Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1764) and Austen’s Emma (1815). Part II focuses on the ideas and practices marginalized by secular power. These chapters begin to show ways in which the formations of secularism become indistinguishable from religion: while denying authority to religious ideas, secularism at once creates religious extremists and sanctions state violence against them. Finally, Part III pushes against the secular/religious divide, imagining a world “after the secular.” Eschewing the term “post-secularism,” Jager offers “after the secular” to encompass at once what it means to be formed in the likeness of the secular, to be in search of the secular, and to follow chronologically from the secular—a tripartite critical framework equally at home in the nascent secularism of Romantic period as in the twilight secularism of our own.

This is a rich and careful book, and readers unfamiliar with contemporary debates over religion and secularism might find themselves disoriented. Likewise, its ambitious move to provide a thorough history of secularism in the Romantic period can come at the cost of detailed analyses of the literary texts that—at times—seem like mere exempli gratia. But what it glosses in close reading it makes up for by its stakes: Unquiet Things provides a historical and theoretical foundation for Romanticists to reimagine the secular background that shapes literary texts. However, while the focus on secularism opens a new prospect, it also erects a number of blind spots. For example, Southey’s affirmation of the English State Church as the bulwark of social unity certainly seems to resist secularism’s “melancholy” tone; while the Evangelicals’ open-air-meetings, alternative liturgies, and abolitionist campaigns (which all seem to transgress the tidy fiction of a distinct “secular and sacred” space) challenge the “either/or” of assimilation or marginalization of religion under secularism; obversely, while Jager does mention the Jacobites generally, the Non-Juroring Schism in particular (and its anticipation of the Oxford Movement) complicate the idea that secular power moves independent of religion. That is, while the book addresses well the “unquiet things” sounded under secularism, it turns a number of other very prominent religious positions into “quieted things,” things silenced by the secular framework, however active in the period. At the same time, religion—Protestant religion in particular—tends to be flattened-out into a homogeneous generality. This, of course, is no fault of the book; it is one of the notable criticisms of secularism.

And it’s a criticism Jager understands. For this reason, of the book’s three parts the third offers the greatest contribution as Jager begins to look “after the secular.” These final chapters demonstrate how “literature […] also mobilizes the secular for a constructive purpose” (185), making literature a productive force (rather than a passive effect) of historical ideas. Moreover, Jager explores the breakdown of the secular/sacred division already surfacing in the early nineteenth century. The concluding chapter in particular complicates Percy Shelley’s involvement with radicalism, finding in “Mont Blanc” a move beyond the binary opposites “atheism” and “theism” toward a world that does not posit one framework for truth above another (secularism or religion, by any other name), but rather asks us “to imagine the noncoercive peace” that comes after the dissolution of secular and sacred (243). Engaging and rewarding, Unquiet Things offers a much needed perspective in discussions of Romantic religion, directing readers toward the powerful shadow of secularism that looms over it, but it also invites us to think criticality and optimistically about the world yet beyond secularism—or after it.