• Psyche’s “Whisp’ring Fan” and Keats’s Genealogy of the Secular

    John Savarese (see profile)
    LLC English Romantic
    English poetry, Nineteenth century, Religion, History, Romanticism, Secularism, Secularization
    Item Type:
    19th-century English poetry, History of religions
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    While scholars have long considered John Keats’s Ode to Psyche a document of secularization, the poem’s precise relationship to the secular needs further attention. This essay engages with recent critiques of secularism, by Gil Anidjar and others, which challenge readings of Keats that make secularism or “toleration” a hallmark of his radical politics. Specifically, Anidjar contends that the concept of the secular has consistently served the governmental interests of colonial expansion. In fact, he argues, the concept emerged in part from the Orientalist scholarship that underwrote that expansion. Yet if the Ode to Psyche is a potential target for this brand of genealogical critique, the poem and the letters surrounding it perform a genealogical work of their own. Keats’s repeated invocations of the natural historical catalogue demonstrate that the Ode’s familiar, internalizing logic is actually dependent on an outward-looking body of Orientalist texts. In his engagement with the catalogue, including the Ode itself, Keats both theorizes and problematizes the textual strategies that would countenance religion within and beyond Britain’s borders. The first section of this essay situates Keats within the textual systems that scholars of Orientalism have associated with the production or “invention” of religion as an object of study, and the concomitant production of the secular. The second section uses that context to excavate the Ode’s negotiation of “fanaticism,” and to interrogate its relationship to the heathen forms its “more orthodox” posture would recuperate. Seen in this light, the Ode does not just protest the course of Western history, but offers a genealogy of the writing practices that make its own project possible. Ultimately, if Keats makes “religion” a universal aspect of human psychology and reaches out to its less authorized forms, he also demonstrates the particular, local history of that very rhetorical strategy.
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    Last Updated:
    4 years ago
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