Literature, psychoanalysis and history in books by Religion profs

Barbara Black

Michel Despland

Michel Despland, FRSC, is one of Concordia’s most prolific and distinguished scholars. His latest book is called Romans victoriens et apprentissage du discernement moral, which could be translated as Victorian Novels and the Learning of Moral Discernment.

In it, he examines works by eight British and American authors: Walter Scott, Dickens, Hawthorne, Thackeray, Melville, George Eliot, Thomas Hardy and Joseph Conrad.

Despland explained that the book has three themes. The first is literary history, “the enormous rise of the novel, and the attendant cultivation of interior life through solitary reading.” Bad novels try to prove that the old rules still work; vice is punished and virtue is rewarded. In contrast, good novels offer an opportunity to make moral choices in a confused world.

The second theme is the Protestant transformation of Britain. The Anglican Church lost some of its hegemony when positions of power were opened to Presbyterians, Methodists, Congregationalists and Baptists, and the emancipation of Roman Catholics followed soon after.

“British Protestants believed they could fight outdated, rigid Catholic dogma by building moral character and progressing toward more earthly justice.”

The third theme is the fact that these novels “reflect the new moral perplexities, the new challenges to Christian faith and the hope that Christian insights, especially forgiveness, can further moral progress. They all display sensitivity to the condition of women ahead of the society of the day.”

Romans victoriens is a companion volume to Reading an Erased Code: Romantic Religion and French Literary Aesthetics (University of Toronto Press), in which Despland wrote in English about a facet of French 19th-century literature.

Donald Boisvert

Donald Boisvert has gone back to full-time teaching and research after a stint as Dean of Students, but he still courts controversy. His latest book, published in 2004, is Sanctity and Male Desire: A Gay Reading of Saints.

Even his publisher (Pilgrim Press, run by the very liberal United Church of Christ) felt compelled to get him to rewrite passages such as the one describing desire for Jesus in earthy terms.

As a gay scholar of religion, Boisvert sees religious and sexual ecstasy as closely related, and nowhere more than in the Roman Catholic Church. While its attitude is often homophobic, the Church’s rituals and iconography are quite the opposite. A well-known example is St. Sebastian, whose arrow-riddled physique has been a gay icon for centuries.

In fact, Boisvert is reconciling the personal with the political, as he explained in Out on Holy Ground. That book, which came out in 2000, examined writings by gay men as examples of authentic religious expression, including meditations on his own intensely religious education.

He has a SSHRC grant to study how religious educators use teenaged saints as models of loyalty, modesty, piety and bravery. St. Dominic Savio, who died at 15, was a formative example in his own life. “When I was growing up, he was a great hero of mine,” Boisvert said.

Naming and reclaiming without shame is his mission. “It’s like doing feminist scholarship. You re-read, re-interpret, trying to reclaim familiar ground.”

Now no longer a practicing Catholic, Boisvert said, “I’ve made my peace, but as a scholar, it’s important to re-read the Church.”

Michael Oppenheim

Michael Oppenheim wrote Jewish Philosophy and Psychoanalysis: Narrating the Interhuman to combine his longstanding interest in modern Jewish philosophy with a more recent interest in post-Freudian theorists.  

“I am fascinated that the two groups of thinkers find that relationships to other persons are a key to understanding the way the self develops and is constituted, how meaning is achieved, and the dynamics of an authentic life.”

He looks at philosophers Franz Rosenzweig, Martin Buber and Emmanuel Levinas and some of the early important post-Freudians: Erik Erikson and the British analysts Melanie Klein, W.R.D. Fairbairn and D.W. Winnicott.  The work of the French feminist philosopher Luce Irigaray is also explored.  

These two groups both attack the notion of the self as fundamentally autonomous, self-concerned, and self-directive.  

“Still, the Jewish philosophers insist that the story of the life with others requires allusions to the divine, while the psychoanalysts narrate development in terms of powerful relationships with early caregivers.” 

Oppenheim said he concludes by suggesting how these distinctive approaches to “the interhuman” might lead to new ways of thinking about the goals of society, what we can expect from history, and how death can be faced.

Norman Ravvin

Norman Ravvin, who holds the Chair in Canadian Jewish Studies, has written both fiction and non-fiction. In his introduction to a new edition of Henry Kreisel’s The Rich Man, first published in 1948. It was one of first books by a Jewish writer on Jewish themes to be published in Canada.

Having escaped from Nazi-Germany to England with his family, Kreisel was shipped to Canada by the British as an “enemy alien” and interned in the New Brunswick woods. With the resilience of a teenager, he determined to write in English when he got out.

The Rich Man novel tells the story of a middle-aged immigrant tailor who travels from Toronto to Europe just before World War II. As Ravvin explains in his introduction, it is not a Holocaust novel, but it does show a community under great stress.

“Kreisel writes without a tendency toward what historians call backshadowing; his novelistic world does not behave as if the Holocaust is inevitable. In this way, he provides a rare fictional presentation of Jewish life as it was lived just before the disaster. This view is almost unheard of in English-language literature.”