Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name



Comparative Literature


John Brenkman

Subject Categories

Comparative Literature | Religion


Baudelaire; Dickinson; Frampton; Pascal; Poetry; Science Fiction


My dissertation, "Modern Era Centaur: the Fusion of Art and Religion," focuses on art's ability to assume other social functions outside its domain. It deals with a variety of artistic practices that take on overt religious roles or are otherwise implicitly grounded in a religiously inflected stance. I argue that the religious impulse of the modern era greatly motivates the poetic and visual aesthetic innovations in the European and American avant-garde. Framed through the thinking of Blaise Pascal, Emmanuel Levinas, and Niklas Luhmann, I show how proto-modernist poetics such as that of Charles Baudelaire and Emily Dickinson articulate similar religious commitments, as does the abstract art of such artists as Wassily Kandinsky and Kazimir Malevich. The modernity of Dickinson and Baudelaire, I contend, stems from their articulation of a religious position independent from a particular religious system while nonetheless plundering that same system in an expropriation and transformation of its symbols, narratives, and personalities. Kandinsky and Malevich accomplished a similar feat in their disavowal of mimetic art, and their construction of a pictorial language--in the case of Malevich inspired by Orthodox Christian iconography--aimed at fulfilling a religious function outside of a religious system. Abstract art prefigures the visual language of science fiction films of the late twentieth century. Representations of outer space in this genre have however transformed the positive openness to infinity implicit in Renaissance perspectival painting into an angst-filled view of infinity. In particular, apocalyptic science fiction films envisioning end of the world scenarios are pictorial inheritors of abstract art, although they refuse the ontological positivity of Malevich and Kandinsky. To paraphrase Hannah Arendt, in these films one sees how the conquest of space has altered humanity's perception of itself in the universe. Scholarship on modern and modernist literature and visual art often assumes the background of secularization. My dissertation, however, argues both for the importance of religion and for the unprecedented transformation of the meaning of a religiously informed outlook.