The Disappearance of God
by J. Hillis Miller
Harvard, 367 pp., $7.50
Mr. Miller’s big book belongs to a half-recognized genre to which we have become accustomed to give a special kind of attention. Such books, though more or less ostensibly studies within a conventional field of literary criticism or history, promise something more than a review of a set of academic particulars. By the figures selected, by the pitch of abstraction chosen, by the large generalizations ventured, they present themselves as guides to contemporary intellectual life, handbooks for orientation. The major examples have traditionally been European, or by scholars trained in Europe; but the recent works of Morse Peckham, Stanley Edgar Hyman, Norman Brown, and Leslie Fiedler are signs that the American academic community has begun to supply its own versions.
The working method in all of them has been to link the history of ideas with close criticism, the largest conceivable abstractions with the minutest particulars of discrete texts. “Literature is a form of consciousness,” says Mr. Miller; by attending to the literary evidence, we re-discover past reality as part of a continuing historical process which ends with ourselves. The literary critic thus announces himself as the most reliable historian and sociologist.
Mr. Miller’s book is a standard work of its kind. There is a long introduction, containing his view of the spiritual history of modern times. There follows a group of essays on half a dozen representative figures mobilized to illustrate in sequence the larger generalizations, Mr. Miller’s chief generalization is indicated by his title. He believes that the key event of modern history, hence of modern literature, is the disappearance of God. The nineteenth-century lives and works he studies are interesting to him so far as they demonstrate a late stage in a vast historical process that has continued from the medieval world to the present, a process characterized by the ever-increasing distance between the Creator and the creation. Once upon a time, says Mr. Miller, the world was one. God, man, nature, and language interpenetrated one another. God’s presence in the world, attested daily in the Eucharist, affirmed the meaningfulness of experience, the harmony of nature with man, the communion of men with one another and of each man with his own experience. Language was sacramental, and poetry meant what it said. But then something happened: the cultural unity supported by an immanent God fragmented, for many complex reasons. The Reformation, science, industry, the rise of the middle class and of the city have brought about a world in which words are separate from things, nature is infinite and indifferent. God has withdrawn beyond experience, and each man finds himself alone, separated from his fellows and his own life. Modern times begin when men faced this situation: the literature of this century and the last is variously symptomatic of the new condition and of the modes by which exceptional souls have confronted and expressed it.
One of the by-products of this great change, Mr. Miller observes, is the development of a sense of …