In 2015, Amy Hollywood offered a course of poetry, history, and literature as part of a larger ongoing project. Its title: secular death. It looked to track death through writing, as it emerged from a religious, Christian past into an ostensibly secular present. It followed death through Heidegger, Henry James, and Claudia Rankine, with the suspicion that—whether through its interactions with politics, science, or art—death had somehow changed for modern individuals. I spoke with Professor Hollywood about this narrative, and about the project’s ongoing evolution, in Cambridge.

Lewis West for Cosmologics

Cosmologics: On secular death, the class and in general: how did you come to the project, but also how did you want it to evolve regarding the relationship of the secular, whatever the secular is, to death?

Amy Hollywood: I’m a little ambivalent about the title. It was a course title, and it did its work, but I’m not particularly interested in the various theorizations of the secular, secularity, or secularism. Just the use of the word can spark in people the presumption that you’re interested in this giant debate about what these terms mean. After having taken part in pieces of that debate, I’m like, “wow, I really don’t care!” Obviously, there’s interest in it, but the question in its abstraction is not what I want to pursue.

The question, for me, is much more immediate. Put crudely, I was interested in the fact that in the United States, Europe, and the West broadly construed, the management of death—management, I hate that word, it’s a secular word—and the approach to death, both for the dying person and others aware of the immanent death, has been done by religion. Christianity, Judaism, and Islam have done much of that work, and native traditions are often built around the crucial moments in life, such as death. If you no longer have those traditions in place, what is it, if anything, that is doing the work of helping us think about death, whether our own or that of others? There is the capitalization of death, the death industry. But I’m interested in the ways in which, in my reading and hearing and seeing, a lot of modern literature and philosophy and music and art has been about trying to think about what death looks like and how we approach death in the absence of those more traditionally religious ceremonies, rituals, beliefs, and modes of practice. It’s something people have touched on in lots of different ways, but haven’t thought about in terms of the kinds of practices that are involved, in reading, writing, and listening.

This is where the project has evolved a bit. I’ve also been thinking a lot about difficulty as a poetic and theoretical category, and have this broad project I’ve been terming “the poetics of difficulty.” I’m working on the multiple ways in which things can be difficult, and the kinds of difficulty that are useful, interesting, and helpful versus those that are obscurantist and secret club-making. Against esotericism, but for something else. I realized, as I was giving a talk this fall, that the secular death question and the difficulty question are actually closely related to each other. The literature and poetry that marks different modes in which difficulty can be articulated is not always about death, and living in the face of death, but much of it is. So the difficulty of death is tied to the difficulty of a certain kind of literature, one that doesn’t lend itself to esotericism. It’s not as if you have the secret key and you’re going to unlock it all, although that fantasy lives. It’s much more about trying to think something that is literally unthinkable.


The more traditional forms of religion were never a part of James’s life: he grew up, in his own account, secular, or without religion.


Cosmologics: Within that, where do people like Henry James sit? Both in that literature and in thinking about death within or outside these traditions?

Amy Hollywood: One of the reasons James is important for me is completely autobiographical. James is somebody I’ve read throughout my adult life, and that I’ve read often in situations that were incredibly difficult. There was something about difficulty in his work—which is not always difficult in the same ways—that has always appealed to me. Something about James’s voice, especially in the late novels but not only there, provided a way of looking at the things around me and at really bad situations in a new way. Not in an aestheticizing, now-we’re-going-to-make-it-beautiful way; it wasn’t the thing that James is accused of. It was more about looking at the nuances of and the various facets of what was difficult about the situation. He is making art out of it, but I don’t think it’s about aestheticization, about making something beautiful. It’s about making something interesting, and saying, “how do we make this difficulty one that we can begin to parse, and then think about the multiplicity of things that are happening in this moment?”

James talks in his late memoirs—memoirs, they’re kind of odd, he was supposed to write a book about his brother and he wrote about himself—about his childhood. He writes about how his father was a Swedenborgian, this kind of nutty, mystical figure. He says at one point, if I’d grown up with traditional Christianity, maybe things would have been different. Instead, he grew up—and he doesn’t say this because he’s too kind—knowing his dad was a nut who thought Swedenborgian angels were going to come down and lift him up into another world. The more traditional forms of religion were never a part of his life: he grew up, in his own account, secular, or without religion. That’s why Henry Adams interests me, too; he’s the same generation, and they both seem to have been raised without anything there. Both James and Adams then try to figure out how we should think about how to live, about ethics, about how to live well, and about death.

Cosmologics: I wanted to ask about Adams, too. I was wondering what relationship this project has to your work on medieval Christianity, for you, but also when you have people like Adams who are fixated on the Middle Ages.

Amy Hollywood: Adams and James were very different. You can give different readings of this, people have different takes. Jackson Lears has a very influential one that sees Adams as having a certain nostalgia for lost possibilities. Although, in No Place of Grace, Adams is the hero of the book: he has that nostalgia, but rises above it with a stoic recognition that we no longer have that type of world. The narrative has a little tinge—even though Lears doesn’t want it to—of a sense that all these kind of foppish men got overly obsessed with the middle ages; Adams flirted with that, but came out the other end.

But I think Adams is more interesting—though Lears has a fascinating reading of him—because he’s interested in what he sees as the way in which belief makes something real. He’s looking around at the turn of the twentieth century and saying, “what is it that we think is real?” It may or not be real, but it’s the force of our belief that’s making it real. That’s “The Dynamo and the Virgin,” that whole argument. Similarly, one of James’s key motifs is the question of the real, of what the real is. There’s a relationship between this and what you could call the loss of religion—though it’s not lost, there’s lots of religious people all around them. Yet for them, that particular class and type of white, American, wealthy men and women, there was a sense of loss. They were all fascinated with Adams’s cousin, Philips Brooks, the preacher at Trinity Church in Boston. Brooks basically said, I see all the objections, but Christianity is still true, we have to hold it to be true. They were fascinated with him, but were also like, you’re a weirdo. It’s fascinating to me, that ambivalence.

But anyway, the point is, there’s some notion of, “if those things aren’t real, then what is real? And how is it that we understand or come to understand what is real?” That question of the real ties together Adams’s work and James’s work, even though the kinds of answers they give to that question are very different.

Cosmologics: Could you extend that beyond them into a kind of nineteenth-century moment? For example, at the American Art Museum in DC, you see that much of the art from this period has this recovery of medieval and classical themes.

Amy Hollywood: Yes, absolutely. I think it’s very widespread, the search for what we call the real, the notion that some pre-modern age had it and lost it, and that going back to that age will make it reappear. It starts at least with the pre-Raphaelites and others in England, and that has a huge impact on American artists and audiences. There’s a historical trajectory whereby this is a broadly shared question.

I’m not sure right now whether what I want to do is tell a story about Adams, James, Philips Brooks, that circle, and the various ways in which they approach the problem. I do think there’s a really interesting story to be told about this group, one that includes Clover Adams and Minny Temple, Henry James’s cousin. Minny Temple, when she was dying, went to hear Philips Brooks preach, just as Henry Adams has his character Esther do in the novel. So I can’t help thinking that Clover must have gone also, because Esther is so much like Clover Adams. I’m trying to figure out what I can uncover about that. But that’s a particular historical moment and there’s a significant story to be told. Philips Brooks was also part of this church building, art, and architecture revival movement that involves a huge amount of medievalism.

Cosmologics: Places like Mount Auburn

Amy Hollywood: Exactly. Mount Auburn’s earlier, but yes, I think of Trinity Church, and H. H. Richardson and John La Farge, the various artists and architects that were involved in the building of Trinity Church, some of whom then also worked on the building of Adams’s house in DC. There’s layers of it there.

Cosmologics: Connecting this to another aspect of the class: with people like Freud, is there a scientific, medical discourse that gets wrapped up in this, in other communities or with other people thinking about these same questions?

Amy Hollywood: That’s an interesting question, and I have two different answers. On the one hand, you have Freud, and in some ways William James, and people interested in understanding what happens in human experience, minds, and psychology that gives rise to religion and which also grapples with these larger existential questions about why we’re here and how we die. There’s something really interesting to be done—that hasn’t been, as far as I can tell—about Henry and William James together in relationship to these questions. The paths that they took diverged, in terms of the ways they thought about what might serve as the basis for living in the face of death and the absence of traditional religion. It was actually William’s scientific impulses that led him to argue that we can’t say that religion’s gone. He was involved in various kinds of experimental work or explorations, though I think he was pretty skeptical, and people have different readings of that.


When you’re dealing with systematic racism and the ways it destroys nonwhite peoples, reading and writing about that is going to be difficult.


But there’s another side to it that I don’t have a handle on, especially when I think of somebody like Adams. Let me put it this way: if you think about Esther, a novel in which Henry Adams grapples intensely with religion and shows a character very like Clover grappling with it, on the sidelines is this character who’s based on their friend, Clarence King. King was a geologist who did all these geological surveys while also leading this weird double life—he was a fascinating figure. In the character based on King, you see the scientist as the one who finally stands in the face of truth. Nietzsche makes fun of this figure at the end of On the Genealogy of Morals.

This figure is very much alive in Adams, as it is in William James. It’s not alive in Henry James, and that’s what I think is interesting. Henry James is perfectly aware of that stance: his brother’s got it, he’s got friends who’ve got it. He sees it around him, and people impute his neglect of it to his lack of interest. But it’s more than that, it wasn’t that he just wasn’t interested in that. There’s a rejection of that stance as one that’s meaningful or that will help resolve the kinds of issues in which he’s interested.

Cosmologics: What are the stakes of thinking about this for current writing? The class ended with contemporary poetry—what’s the relation between then and now, or the potential relation?

Amy Hollywood: I think the relationship for me and the work I’ve done has to do with that bridge I’ve just described: between thinking about the question of how death is approached, thought about, and grappled with in the nineteenth century, and the other project about contemporary poetry and the question of difficulty, that in some ways I was posing as a sort of riposte to the notion that literature should be accessible and that accessibility means not difficult. I don’t believe either of those things are true. When you’re dealing with systematic racism and the ways it destroys nonwhite peoples, reading and writing about that is going to be difficult. And it’s not necessarily at the syntactical level or the grammatical level, although the difficulty of what’s being described and articulated does often fracture the syntactical and grammatical normative conceptions of how you should write.

But I also think that this is true, in some ways, for anybody dealing with the difficulties of living everyday life. Illness, bodily harm, and death are particular cases of that, and perhaps death is always underlying all of it, as a question, but it’s certainly not the only issue. So, how do we allow ourselves to think about the ways in which thinking with difficult texts, or living with difficult music or literature, can actually help us live with, think about, and not be terrified by the difficulty of everyday life, as well as of death. I think that James, for me, is thinking about those questions very actively at the turn of the last century. His work resonates with what I see in a lot of contemporary work, particularly poetry.

Amy Hollywood is Elizabeth H. Monrad Professor of Christian Studies at Harvard Divinity School. Her most recent book is Acute Melancholia and Other Essays: Mysticism, History, and the Study of Religion.

Lewis West is co-editor of Cosmologics and a doctoral student at Yale.


Image from Flickr via Gaby Av

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