The Long View 2007-01-15: Stephen King & The Second Religiousness

Stephen King in 2007 at ComicConBy Pinguino Kolb - "Pinguino's" flickr account, CC BY 2.0,

Stephen King in 2007 at ComicCon

By Pinguino Kolb - "Pinguino's" flickr account, CC BY 2.0,

I’ve never been a Steven King fan, but his influence is hard to escape in American fiction. John riffs off of Ross Douthat’s attempt to make sense of the historical moment King can represent.

Stephen King & The Second Religiousness

The title of this entry was not the one that Ross Douthat (of The American Scene) chose for his excellent piece in the February issue of First Things; he called it "Stephen King's American Apocalypse." Nonetheless, I think it pretty clear that Oswald Spengler's notion of the Second Religiousness is essentially what Douthat was talking about.

As a preliminary matter, we might note that the article has an obituary air that is not perhaps altogether seemly when discussing an author who is still living and publishing one or two books every year. However, Douthat takes it as given that King's best work is behind him, in the form of the horror novels that threatened to engulf the nation's bookstores in the 1970s and 80s. (For myself, I would argue that King's best book on all levels is Pet Sematary, but Douthat may have a point when takes The Stand as the acme of King's art.) Douthat contends that King's world of vampire-infestation and demon-possession amidst brand-name household appliances was less distant from real American experience than the self-consciously realistic literature of the period. As Douthat notes:

This kind of supernatural realism is hard to pull it off.

It seems to me that King's great strength as a writer is the ability to produce plausible interior monologue, a gift which affords a high level of verisimilitude even to a character who is fighting a giant spider. What interests Douthat, though, is the way that King's tales of disjuncture from conventional reality chimed with an era in which just that seemed to be happening in the wider world:

[I]t is not a coincidence that King did his best work in the decade of Jonestown and The Exorcist, the Ayatollah Khomeini and The Late Great Planet Earth, the decade that stripped away the self-confident science-and-progress ethos of the nineteen fifties and early nineteen sixties.

Douthat notes that this period was the beginning of the age of conspiracy that continues to this day, and which was not without its effect on serious fiction. King's books attracted a mass audience and remain influential today, however, because they were more serious than literature:

The paranoid style is steeped in agnosticism or a wary deism, whereas King's novels don't deal just in devils but in a personal, active Almighty as well.... God does elbow his way into King's America -- it wouldn't be recognizably America if he didn't -- and when he appears, it isn't as the distance half-glimpsed presence, a philosopher's god or the wan deity of wistful almost-believers. He is instead "the Lord of Hosts"...

America does not lack for Christian fiction, or even for supernatural thrillers intended for a Christian readership. The appeal of King is more interesting, however, because it is more fundamental:

At their best, his works aren't just a wide-open window into the bedlam of recent American life. They're the first significant attempts at a literature for a post-secular age.

If you will forgive me, I will quote again the famous passage from The Decline of the West describing the Second Religiousness:

But neither in the creations of this piety nor in the form of the Roman Imperium is there anything primary and spontaneous. Nothing is built up, no idea unfolds itself - it is only as if a mist cleared off the land and revealed the old forms, uncertainly at first, but presently with increasing distinctness. The material of the Second Religiousness is simply that of the first, genuine, young religiousness - only otherwise experienced and expressed. It starts with Rationalism's fading out in helplessness, then the forms of the Springtime become visible, and finally the whole world of the primitive religion, which had receded before the grand forms of the early faith, returns to the foreground, powerful in the guise of the popular syncretism that is to be found in every Culture at this phase.

This seems to be a good description of King's supernatural, to judge by Douthat's observation:

Nor is King's God disposed to handle every supernatural flare-up. He coexists with a multitude of lesser powers, and he allows most of them more or less free rein.

Perhaps not so much the God of the Old Testament comes back in King's fiction as the God of the Gothic, whose preeminence was not inconsistent with a feudal structure of lesser eminences, some of doubtful loyalty.

Be this all as it may, Douthat is not interested in King as the prophet of a New Age, but as the marker of a transitional period that still continues:

The result, across King's body of work, is a vision of contemporary America as a spiritual realm that is out of joint and up for grabs, thick with competing forces and watched over by an Almighty whose goals are inscrutable, whose demands are peremptory, and whose methods are sometimes cruel...The Age of Reason is over, but the Age of Faith has not yet returned. And so Stephen King's America endures in fear and trembling-waiting for a messiah or a second coming.

Popular culture, and perhaps popular superstition, continued to develop the post-theological spirituality that King made mainstream. An example of this trend is the television series Supernatural, in which the Other World has quite literally gone feral; characters who are probably members of the National Rifle Association have to go out to hunt it. American religion after the 1970s, however, did not continue on the trajectory that King's syncretistic spiritual imagination suggested. Instead, there was a conspicuous turn toward orthodoxy. As is the case with all renaissances, it was a revival that masked novelty. The fastest growing forms of Christianity are generically pentecostal: not a new religion, much less a new revelation, but arguably a new Christendom. The keynote is direct experience, without reference to historical tradition. Actually, I would argue that the same indifference to historical development is also behend the increasingly successful efforts to revive older forms of liturgy: the audience for the Latin Mass, for instance, may be less interested in history than in transcendence.

The end of modernity is not yet. When it arrives, though, it will have less to do with the return of the Sidhe than with the development of a spirituality that does not suffer progress.

Copyright © 2007 by John J. Reilly

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