Is There a Place for Spirituality in Literary Studies?

Matt Wickman, professor of English and director of the BYU Humanities Center, presented his research on spirituality in literary studies for the 2017 P. A. Christensen Lectureship.

PROVO, Utah (Feb. 9, 2017)—Does spirituality have a place in literary studies? Literature and spirituality both have meaningful relationships to faith and knowledge, and bring about a feeling of reality and presence, while still distant and ethereal. “Literature helps us represent unfamiliar situations; it prepares our minds for fuller understanding,” Matt Wickman said. “[Analogous to spirituality], literature anticipates where thought will have been; it captures us in the process of change.”

Wickman, a professor of English and founding director of the BYU Humanities Center, was the recipient of the P. A. Christensen Lectureship for 2017. His presentation, entitled “Is There a Place for Ultimacy Intensity—Spirituality—in Literary Studies? No?” focused on elements of spirituality in the study of literature. The area of spirituality in literary studies has long interested Wickman, but it is only a recent subject of his research and teaching. “As I see it, and as the class I teach explores it, literature is a vehicle of spirituality,” he explained.

As an example, Wickman used James Hogg’s poem The Queen’s Wake (1813), which describes a poetic competition held in Edinburgh to welcome Mary, Queen of Scots, back to her home country from France. Hoggs work typically involves fairies, spirits, and other supernatural beings. Although, “In Hogg’s work, few things simply are, including fairies, for in that particular ballad the supernatural beings are divulged as merely a group of singing maids,” said Wickman. “What draws us to them is less their assertion of some otherworldly reality than their evocation of circumstances that defy the norms of everyday life.”   

In 1814, a year after Hogg published The Queen’s Wake, Walter Scott published Waverley which is considered the first historical novel of the Western tradition. Philosopher David Hume described Scott’s work as “the science of man,” explaining human nature as a social, cultural and historical phenomenon. “As [Scott] would have it, literature captures evanescent ways of life – societies in process of extinction – thus expands our understanding and appreciation of the breadth of human experience,” said Wickman.

Scott’s work explores how cultures shape our understanding of ourselves and the world. However, Hogg disagreed with Scott’s premise  derived from emerging theories of social science, “that culture and history are the motivating forces of change and the mediators of all experience.” In Hogg’s narratives, influences come from beings of the divine realm – spirits, demons, fairies or simply things we cannot explain, no matter how sophisticated our theories. Wickman continued, “Hogg’s work attends to what [Scott’s romances of human progress] forgot, or what is bigger than any world of which humans can conceive.”   

Wickman answered the question of whether there is a place for spirituality in literary studies in a variety of ways. Hogg would answer no, if only because literary studies pretends too readily to explain literature. But one might also answer yes on several grounds. One answer, yes, relies upon a consideration of the person as a whole and “conjures iconic notions about the multiple ways that literary study affects us, promoting delight as well as education, sensibility as well as rationality, feeling as well as idea.” Literature, then, is what connects people to greater realms and ideas.

Another answer, no, might find inspiration in Hogg, who would be a predecessor to scholars who see literature not as separate from life, but as what animates and enriches the everyday. These critics would “dissolve the barriers dividing literature from life,” Wickman said. Literature is “hardly reducible to a narrowly defined literary studies.”

Because literary studies is so broad and cannot be narrowly defined, Wickman dismissed his original question of a place for spirituality in literary studies as “small minded.” His final response is a call for a better question than if there is a  place for spirituality in literary studies and to reflect on the multitude of forms it takes and the ways it touches our lives. A better question would be to define spirituality, and to discover what else spirituality might be. At this mid-point of his career, Wickman reflected, he feels compelled to inquire more earnestly into ways that spirituality influences his work as a scholar and teacher, and how he can become more aware of and attentive to that influence. 

Hannah Sandorf Davis (B.A. Art History and Curatorial Studies ’17)

Hannah covers events for the Humanities Center of the College of Humanities. She is a senior pursuing a degree in art history with a minor in art.