Missing Character   /   Spring 2024   /    Essays

Immortalizing Words

Henry James, Spiritualism, and the Afterlife

Ashley C. Barnes

Séance with spirit manifestation, 1872, by John Beattie; Penta Springs Limited/Alamy Stock Photos

In 1862, the Spiritualist medium James V. Mansfield wrote a letter to his wife Mary, recounting a minor skirmish in the battle to modernize American Protestantism. A religious practice that promised communication with dead spirits, Spiritualism already had numerous adherents on the East Coast, most of them white and middle class. Having left Boston for San Francisco to spread the movement in California, Mansfield was visited one August day by an Episcopal minister, evidently a stranger, who challenged him to “convince me the dear departed return to us again and do of a truth speak with us.” The cleric’s first test: Tell me my name. Deferring to the minister’s “spirit friends” for this information, Mansfield said he “took [the minister’s] hand in mine and with my other and pencil wrote his full three names out.” As Mansfield told it to his wife, the spirit who conveyed the minister’s name was a recently deceased fellow clergyman, a Reverend Keith, “who was lost on the Gold Gate 11 days before—the Rev. Sir said he was perfectly satisfied that Keith had spoken, for not another man in the City knows his middle name but his brother Keith.”

After Mansfield passed the clergyman’s second test by channeling Keith’s unusual first name, Cleveland, “this was conclusive to the Rev. Sir. He expressed perfect satisfaction and promised to call on me again at no far distant day.” Mansfield saw this as a significant win: Convincing one of the “best minds in this community” was “worth a hundred newspaper notices.”11xJames Mansfield Papers, box 1, vol. 5, August 11–20, 1862, 14–15, William L. Clements Library, University of Michigan. Mansfield had shown a religious authority that he could speak with, and for, the immortal souls that Spiritualists asserted were all around us.

It was on these grounds—claiming the power to prove human immortality—that Spiritualists competed with established clergy in the decades around the turn of the twentieth century. But James Mansfield and his like were not the only contenders for the cultural authority that had been exercised by the church. Among those claiming to be gatekeepers of the transcendent were novelists. In an essay commissioned for a forum on the afterlife in Harper’s Bazaar in 1909, later published as a volume titled In After Days, Henry James proposed that the “artistic consciousness” endures forever. The attention James had cultivated in his career as a writer had, he wrote, put him “in communication with sources” beyond all “observation and experience.”22xHenry James, “Is There a Life After Death?” in W.D. Howells et al., In After Days: Thoughts on the Future Life (New York, NY: Harper & Brothers, 1910), 224.

To say that writing novels trained a mind for eternity was a bold professional claim. James admitted that he might sound like a traditional Christian, urging a program of moral attention that would open the door to heaven. But he dismissed the Protestant parallel as “superficial” and turned the tables by suggesting that Protestantism was “insidiously built on” the same “sense of appearances” that emerged from an artist’s experience. James was making a bid for literary art as a worthy successor to religion in the modern age not because literature embodied “sweetness and light” (as Matthew Arnold had argued, using his favored synonyms for beauty and intelligence), but because literary attentiveness might enable the human mind to endure forever.33xMatthew Arnold, “Sweetness and Light,” in Culture and Anarchy, ed. J. Dover Wilson (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1969). First published 1869.

Both James the novelist and Mansfield the medium wanted to be taken seriously as professionals. Both sought that status by demonstrating, in their writing and apart from any church doctrine, the capacity of human consciousness to endure beyond death. James’s written output comprised not messages from dead people but the invention of fictional ones. Still, the task for a paranormal writer such as Mansfield and for a prestige novelist such as James was, in one key respect, the same: to outdo the claims of traditional Christianity by convincing readers that the words put on a page by a living man could prove the durability of the human soul.

If we measure the contest by the disappearance of Spiritualism after the 1920s and the rise of professional literary critics and scholars around the same time, James won and Mansfield lost. Great novels, certainly James’s novels, became sacred texts for a twentieth-century secular culture. James would come to be reputed as the Master, his fiction hailed as the zenith of the novel as fine art. His claim for the novel’s secular legitimacy was so effectively elaborated that the artistic consciousness could be seen to perform the religious office not only of enabling access to eternity but of teaching readers how to love their neighbors. Dorothy Hale, whose scholarship focuses on the theory of the novel, traces James’s influence across the twentieth century to contemporary Anglophone writers (Gish Jen, Zadie Smith, and J.M. Coetzee, to name a few) who view the novel as an ethical project aimed at attunement to otherness.44xDorothy Hale, The Novel and the New Ethics (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2020), chap. 1, especially 5, 27.  One of the strongest cases for seeing fiction this way comes from philosopher and novelist Iris Murdoch, who in 1959 described the ideal author as a self-sacrificing lover. In our own day, similarly, Canadian author Sheila Heti meditates on novel writing as a process of granting soul to others through attention. Taken together, these writers suggest that, embodied in language and honed by attention, novelistic love produces eternity.

But this is not quite what James says, and that formula misses a key distinction between these two versions of secular authority—between the way James asserted his access to immortality and the way Mansfield did. For James, the novelist’s language can be generative; for Mansfield, language is disclosive. For James, that is, language can generate a truth that is potential, showing us “the things that…we never can directly know; the things that can reach us only through the beautiful circuit and subterfuge of our thought and our desire,” as he defined the task of writing “romance.” For the Spiritualist, language opens a window to a truth that is already there. The medium uses language as if eternity were among “the things we cannot possibly not know, sooner or later,” to use James’s description of what we call “real.”55xHenry James, “Preface to The American,” in The Art of the Novel: Critical Prefaces (New York, NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1962), 31–32. First published 1909. James stipulates that the great novelist is both a realist and a romancer—this is not a forced choice.

But to mistake the desirable for the real, to try to disclose what is not directly knowable, is a category error that confounds the difference between what we can and cannot prove. And the secular authority of the novelist, as James saw it, lies in a capacity to give body to what is unknowable. The core of a secular religion of art is the faith that artful language cannot simply disclose immortality but can plausibly generate it. A slackening of that faith is discernable today in many places, Heti’s writing included. This is worrisome because it means that art must feed an appetite for the authentic at the expense of practicing the creative indirection that answers to desire. Even more troubling is that it means we are losing faith in our own power to create art that might count as imperishable.

A Medium in Every Home

Mansfield could claim that his words disclosed eternity because Spiritualism treated the afterlife as a matter of fact. Spiritualism’s headline principle was that the living can contact the dead. It may be described as a kinder, gentler Protestantism amalgamated with a vaguely Catholic host of spirits who intercede for us. For an American middle class that espoused meritocracy, that believed in boundless self-improvement, and that increasingly rejected the Calvinist doctrine of limited atonement, there was great appeal in the multistage hierarchy of existential spheres that Spiritualism pictured. Heaven, to the Spiritualist, was an inclusive moral improvement seminar that anyone could enter, even if no one could ever leave. For the educated and not so well educated, for women and children and men, Spiritualism democratized an oracular power that humans have always attributed to only a few of their fellows. The teenaged Fox sisters, Kate and Margaret, whose mediumistic debut in upstate New York in 1848 is usually taken as the origin point for American Spiritualism, began translating messages from a murdered peddler buried under their house. Over the next several decades, households everywhere would discover their own mediums.

Spiritualism was devoted to progress both theological and social, its adherents committed to overturning what they saw as primitive church doctrines (Mansfield cited infant damnation as one of the most abhorrent) and to supporting movements for women’s rights, the abolition of slavery, and the fair treatment of indigenous persons. Spiritualists also saw their faith as evidence-based and as an ally of technical progress. The rhetoric and methods of mediums kept pace with nineteenth-century advances in communications technologies such as the telegraph and the typewriter. Indeed, one of the more prominent spokesmen for American Spiritualism, Andrew Jackson Davis, reached for a technological theory to explain these living-to-dead conversations: They were transmitted by means of a supersubtle electrical telegraph.66xAnthony Enns, “Spiritualist Writing Machines: Typtology, Typewriters,” communication+1 4, no. 1 (September 2015), article 11, 6–7.

If Spiritualism seemed of a type with the era’s technological progress, it was language, nonetheless, that served as the underlying tool of the trade for a medium such as Mansfield. He called himself the spirit postmaster. He penned responses to sealed letters from the living addressed to the dead, claiming that he never read the letters, just channeled the relevant spirit. His intramortal correspondence alone was voluminous: Mansfield’s letters to his wife back in Boston often ran to a hundred or more pages per week. Just two years’ worth of those letters, housed at the University of Michigan’s Clements Library, fill twenty-seven thick bound volumes. The author of an 1869 profile of Mansfield in the Spiritualist newspaper The Banner of Light calculated that in the prior three years Mansfield had written 31,000 letters on behalf of the dead, including a few in French, Chinese, Italian, and Gaelic (though he had never studied these languages).77xHorace Dresser, “James V. Mansfield: The Medium for Answering Sealed Letters,” Banner of Light 24, no. 20 (January 30, 1869): 1–2; accessed November 7, 2023, International Association for the Preservation of Spiritualist and Occult Periodicals, iapsop.com.

For Spiritualist communication, language was a neutral technology, a no-value-added tool that disclosed a reality that was already there, just beyond ordinary perception. The deceased were waiting to advise and console and chat, whether through raps on a table, pencil on paper, or a planchette on a Ouija board. The key point was that the dead spoke. The fact of such communication, more than what the spirits said or how they said it, was proof of Spiritualism’s authority.

But because Mansfield’s communication with eternity was meant to reveal facts, in accordance with Spiritualists’ insistence on the empirical verifiability of their claims, it was susceptible to debunking. So it was when Mansfield encountered Horace Howard Furness, a Shakespeare scholar at the University of Pennsylvania who headed the Seybert Commission to Investigate Modern Spiritualism. Furness found that Mansfield was discreetly opening the letters from the living and inventing the spirits’ replies. The Seybert Commission’s report in 1887 declared Mansfield a fraud.88xA 1920 reprint of the Seybert Commission’s findings, Preliminary Report of the Commission Appointed by the University of Pennsylvania, is accessible at Project Gutenberg, https://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/11950/pg11950-images.html. First published 1887.

Love Comes First

The liabilities of scientific scrutiny, however, did not apply to novelists. A writer’s success would be decided by aesthetic and ethical judgments—by how much, James said, a writer could “intensify” a reader’s “whole chance of pleasure.”99xHenry James, “Preface to The Golden Bowl,” in The Art of the Novel: Critical Prefaces (New York, NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1962), 345. First published 1909. In his essay on the afterlife, James abandoned scientific approaches to “reach beyond the laboratory-brain.” His vision of immortality offered an unprovable hypothesis, grounded only in his own experience.

And language is everything here. For those “living preponderantly by the imagination,” James suggested, words are more than disclosive; they are generative. The language wielded by the novelist to “invoke and evoke” creates rather than reveals immortality. While he called mediumship a performance with its own “remarkable felicities and fitnesses,” he seems not to have taken seriously the work of Spiritualists on their own terms.1010xJames, “Is There a Life After Death?,” 211. James maintained his skepticism about the supernatural—apart from the effects that art might produce—despite the devotion of his father, Henry James Sr., to the mysticism of Emmanuel Swedenborg, and his brother William’s loyalty to a medium named Mrs. Leonora Piper (to name just one figure in William James’s long career of research into the paranormal). In 1863, when he was twenty, Henry James heard the celebrity medium Cora Hatch speak about eternal life. He judged her speech “a string of such arrant platitudes” that he left before she finished.1111xHenry James, The Complete Letters of Henry James, eds. Pierre Walker and Greg Zacharias (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2006), 81.  The banality of Spiritualists’ language proved it a failure.

That skepticism tempered James’s speculation about eternity. But he could not endorse the idea that a carefully cultivated imagination stops at death. When he wrote “Is There a Life After Death?,” he was in his mid-sixties. By then, he said, having lived many more years in the company of his own mind—habituated by the task of writing to “deal with being” and to “figure and represent”—he could no longer believe that his consciousness would simply end. (For those who did not pay attention on earth, or whose lives were simply miserable, James could imagine no further extension of consciousness; it was lights out.) It is not that he pictured any particular spectral reunion in the next life or anticipated haunting his younger, still-living, friends. Not even the strongest personality, once deceased, has ever reasserted itself in this world, he noted. Instead, the universe itself takes on the quality of an interlocutor of vast proportions. Being, or the universe, harbors an “intense desire…to get itself personally shared.” To that end, the universe prods an artist into feats of consciousness that James described as a boundless appetite: “feeling one’s exquisite curiosity about the universe fed and fed, rewarded and rewarded.” This is a reciprocal and sensual relationship: the artist “surrender[s] to invasive floods” from the universe and emerges “shin[ing] as from immersion in the fountain of being,” “all scented with universal sources.” It would be a “brutal amusement” and “in execrable taste” for the universe to cultivate such an appetite only to “whisk it away.”

This may sound like the flimsiest self-apotheosis. But James had always ascribed immense power to words and underscored the writer’s responsibility to such power as the supreme artistic medium. In one of his many critical self-assessments, later compiled in the collection of prefaces titled The Art of the Novel, James claimed that a writer’s choice of words, down to the “shade of a cadence or the position of a comma,” was subject to claims of honor to his art and of duty to his readers.1212xJames, “Preface to The Golden Bowl,” 345. Language was consequential action: “To put things is very exactly and responsibly and interminably to do them. Our expression of them… belong[s] as nearly to our conduct and our life as every other feature of our freedom.” Most of what we do and say in our lives dissipates in forgetfulness. But the relation between the writer and his printed words is always reparable. It is the “incomparable luxury of the artist”—and it is simultaneously a burden of proof, “conduct minutely and publicly attested”— that a published work lasts forever. In the afterlife, the responsible novelist’s consciousness would last forever too.

It is not words but love that makes human souls immortal. So argued James’s fellow novelist Elizabeth Stuart Phelps (1844–1911). Phelps was a prolific and respected author, best known for her blockbuster The Gates Ajar, a novel that appeared in the wake of the Civil War and assured readers (many of them bereaved women left disconsolate by church doctrine on the afterlife) that they would be reunited with their loved ones after death. Phelps was the daughter and granddaughter of men who taught at Andover Seminary, a bastion of conservative theology, and she was deeply conversant with religious debates. She never avowed a belief in Spiritualism but was frequently tagged with the Spiritualist label, no doubt because The Gates Ajar portrays heaven as a Spiritualist’s dream. The novel effectively invented heaven as we still usually imagine it: a place of tangible creature comforts (pianos, carnations, gingersnaps) where we commune with friends and family. Phelps’s use of language in The Gates Ajar is, like the Spiritualist’s, disclosive: She presents eternity as a matter of fact, continuous, in its familiarity, with our worldly experience.

In her essay for the Harper’s forum, Phelps posited the distinction between those who could and those who could not experience immortality not in terms of James’s division between the hyperaware and the obtuse but between people who love passionately and those who do not. “Love claims in proportion to its intensity,” she wrote, and in a line that seems designed for self-recrimination, she warned that “I incline to go so far as to say that, if we do not clasp our dead again beyond the barriers of their mystical silence, it is our own fault.”1313xElizabeth Stuart Phelps, “The Great Hope,” in W.D. Howells et al., In After Days: Thoughts on the Future Life (New York, NY: Harper & Brothers, 1910), 30.  More hopefully, love is, for Phelps, a cosmic warrant that we cannot simply die and be done. Picturing a mourner by a new grave, she wrote, “Because he loves and grieves, he believes in the life everlasting—and, so long as he loves, and believes, he has reason to expect it.” Faithful love—not the use of exquisitely crafted language—is what makes a soul eternal.

Phelps’s essay has a personal and therapeutic tone; reviewers of In After Days found James’s contribution cold and overintellectual, a common complaint about the writing he did late in his life. Yet James’s creative awareness, as much as it may sound (to readers then and now) like self-absorption, has also been the foundation (for novelists and critics then and now) on which the novel has been made an ethical exercise in imagining other people’s lives. Are Phelps’s love and James’s creative awareness different names for the same immortalizing power?

That is what Iris Murdoch suggested. Although Murdoch was not interested in adjudicating the existence of an afterlife, she saw the ideal novelist as one “who, nothing himself, lets other things be through him.”1414xIris Murdoch, “The Sublime and the Beautiful Revisited,” Yale Review 49 (1959), 270.  In support of this novelist-lover, she cited James’s “well-known remark…that Balzac did not love [his characters] because he knew them, he knew them because he loved them.” Love comes first; knowledge follows. And love, for Murdoch, was exercised by respecting the reality, meaning for her the freedom, of other people. The novel enables “the realization of a vast and varied reality outside ourselves,” initially terrifying, but then exhilarating. Murdoch called that experience the “social sublime.” Rendered on the page by the novelist, the social sublime fosters a capacity to see what is uniquely valuable in every other person. It is not merely liberal tolerance; it is love.

Murdoch had an explanation for how the right words can instantiate love by fostering attention. The “just and loving gaze” she advocated cannot be exercised apart from language.1515xIris Murdoch, “The Idea of Perfection,” in Existentialists and Mystics, ed. Peter Conradi (New York, NY: Penguin Books, 1997), 327. That is because the “value words” that we use to make judgments of each other and of our common world “are both instruments and symptoms of learning. Learning takes place when such words are used, either aloud or privately, in the context of particular acts of attention.” We learn to see what we have the words to see, and we go blind to things we cannot or will not name. This is another way of distinguishing the generative power of an artist’s use of language from the Spiritualist’s use of words as tools of disclosure. And this is why literature was more potent than science for Murdoch. Her staunch humanism counters the empiricist confidence with which Spiritualism claimed secular authority: “the place of science in human life must be discussed in words,” Murdoch wrote. Hence, the “most essential and fundamental aspect of culture,” of which science is one part, “is the study of literature,” which offers “an education in how to picture and understand human situations.” This is a stronger case for the role of literary study in a secular culture than many contemporary academics and critics would be prepared to make.

The Return of Spiritualism?

Contemporary writers, too—even those who seem aligned with the Murdoch or James program—are ceding faith in the generative power of language that grounded the secular authority of literature. This loss of confidence may belong to a broader discontent with secularism. Such discontent takes the form of critiques that read the secular as a smokescreen for Protestant imperialism, as in the scholarship of Talal Asad, for instance. It also manifests in the affirmative form of re-enchantment efforts, as in what Tara Isabella Burton calls a postrationalist culture. Burton finds this culture thriving in an online community that ten years ago endorsed atheistic, rational problem-solving but now encourages “religious ritual, Tarot, meditation,” and the like “in pursuit of spiritual fulfillment.”1616xTara Isabella Burton, “Rational Magic,” The New Atlantis, Spring 2023, https://www.thenewatlantis.com/publications/rational-magic.

The work of Sheila Heti, which has been compared to Murdoch’s for its philosophical questing, shows how a novelist who seems committed to the immortalizing power of imagination might be understood as working from a Spiritualist form of authority. Heti’s recent work, usually categorized as the memoir-novel hybrid called “autofiction,” combines diaristic candor with occultism. The narrator of Pure Colour (2022) transforms into a leaf, into which her deceased father’s spirit enters to commune with her. Motherhood (2018) includes scenes of fortunetelling and tarot card reading and incorporates dialogues that represent Heti’s version of the divination practice of the I Ching. Motherhood evinces a desire to connect to the dead. But the question at the heart of the novel is whether Heti’s narrator-proxy should or should not bear a child. The narrator decides that her allegiance is to art, and thus to the past, whereas children are commitments to the future. “Art,” as the narrator defines it, “is eternity backwards,” “written for one’s ancestors.”1717xSheila Heti, Motherhood (New York, NY: Picador, 2018), 120.

With that definition in view, critic and editor Jonathan Baskin has argued that Heti’s work effectively defends a secular religion of art. As Baskin puts it, Heti is an artist insofar as she “values the present as the richly inherited product of the past” and creates work that continues the modernist aim “to preserve those immaterial substances—whether one called it life itself, the remembrance of things past, or the stream of consciousness—that they perceived as being under threat in a rapidly secularizing, industrializing world.”1818xJonathan Baskin, “Sheila Heti and the Fight for Art,” Liberties 2, no. 4 (2022), https://libertiesjournal.com/articles/sheila-heti-and-the-fight-for-art/.

Heti can also be seen as continuing the novelistic project delineated by James and Murdoch, betting that loving attentiveness, carefully formalized in language, can render a human soul immortal. She wants to write a book “that lives inside many bodies,” that is itself “a body that will speak and keep on speaking.” The narrator of Motherhood asks, “Is attention soul? If I pay attention to my mother’s sorrow, does that give it soul?… If I put it into words, transform it, and make it into something new—can I be like the alchemists, turning lead into gold?”1919xHeti, Motherhood, 16. At the end of the novel, when the narrator’s mother reads the manuscript (the book we are holding in our hands) and declares it magical, we are meant to see that Heti’s words have pulled off that trick.

Yet as moving as Motherhood frequently is, it falters in its alliance with the vision of the novel that James and Murdoch present. For one thing, Heti’s book does not evoke the social sublime. Murdoch called art “not an expression of personality, [but] a question rather of the continual expelling of oneself from the matter at hand.”2020xMurdoch, “The Sublime and the Beautiful Revisited,” 269. Making self-examination compelling is, presumably, the goal of autofiction. And it is true, as Baskin writes, that the narrator imagines other ways of living, achieving an “agonistic” quality that dramatizes “sharp clashes between good and good” to test competing values.2121xBaskin, “Sheila Heti and the Fight for Art.” Yet the novel scarcely imagines other lives at all. The I Ching-derived dialogues Heti constructs by tossing a coin read like monologues, a way for the narrator to hear herself think. The narrative shows little confidence that language can instantiate a just and loving gaze on anyone but oneself.

Heti has turned from faith in language as generative and embraced the Spiritualist’s principle that language is disclosive. Motherhood aims for authenticity rather than artifice. In choosing what James called the “looseness” and “terrible fluidity of self-revelation” afforded by first-person narration, Heti denies herself the challenge of achieving the compositional “tightness” James so admired (though anyone who has read James’s late novels may wonder if his writing was half as tight as he thought).2222xHenry James, “Preface to The Ambassadors,” in The Art of the Novel: Critical Prefaces (New York, NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1962), 320, 321, 311. First published 1909. The virtue of Motherhood’s prose is that it is so plainspoken. The transparency of the words grants us a parasocial intimacy with what feels like Heti’s true self as we watch her answer the toughest question she has ever had to ask herself: Should I have a child? It may be that fostering intimacy between the author’s persona and the reader is the dominant publishing imperative now, when social media makes the writer’s lifestyle a commodity at least as valuable as whatever transcendence she might generate through the words she writes.

The result of all this self-revelation is that many of Motherhood’s passages come across as insights of the kind James might have called arrant platitudes. Summing up one dialogue with the cosmic yes/no, the narrator concludes, “Happiness and joy are feeling like you belong to the world, and are at home in the world, at the level of nature, humanity, and time.” By devoting so much space to those I Ching question-and-answer sessions (which a prefatory note assures us all emerged from real-life coin tosses), Heti dodges her own authorial responsibility, as James would say, to make words create what is unknowable. Instead, her words become a “psychospiritual technology” (to borrow a phrase from one of the postrational practitioners cited by Burton) for self-healing. That counts as apostasy for the secular religion of literary art.

Recovering Attentiveness

Who cares, though, if novels have abdicated whatever secular authority they once might have exercised? One reason to worry is that we lose the necessary practices for using language to sharpen our awareness of the world outside ourselves. If love is equivalent to attentiveness, then an age of attention deficit disorder is also an age when love is disordered. L.M. Sacasas, reflecting on Murdoch’s claim that words shape human attention, suggests that greater care for language might redress our collective dimming of sight: “Were we to properly attend to the world, its particularities and distinctions would emerge, and we would be impelled to…learn to speak adequately if not exhaustively about what we have seen (or heard, or felt, or tasted, etc.).”2323xL.M. Sacasas, “Too Many Words, and Not Enough,” The Convivial Society 4, no. 6, April 29, 2023, https://theconvivialsociety.substack.com/p/too-many-words-and-not-enough. Attentiveness is the capacity most threatened by our screens and tablets. It may be the capacity that we’d most hope to regain in an afterlife blessedly free from Internet access. We need authors to show us, in writing, an appetite for the universe so strong that it might never end.

Would better words make us more loving here on earth? Is language-assisted attention what novels should train us for? Both Murdoch and James understood that fine-tuned awareness was no guarantee of virtue. As much as James has been taken up to frame an ethics of fiction, he never wavered from his early claim that a writer has no obligation to be uplifting, only to be interesting. His advice to aspiring novelists was to “be one of the people on whom nothing is lost!” Developing creative awareness means, for James, practicing an almost occult “power to guess the unseen from the seen.”2424xHenry James, “The Art of Fiction,” Longman’s Magazine 4 (September 1884): 502–21, accessed November 7, 2023, Department of English, Washington State University, https://public.wsu.edu/~campbelld/amlit/artfiction.html. But this power is produced by the writer’s responsibly choosing the right words. This secular literary power is not a disclosure of what is there, nor a faithful self-portrait, but a generative as-if. It is because authorship is a powerful creative act that it entails responsibility.

If a secular age is one in which, as Charles Taylor has argued, organized religion is one option among many, then a religion of art must remain competitive against versions of Spiritualism.2525xCharles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University, 2007), 3.  That means that literary art must not only reflect or record the world we can know; it must generate worlds we cannot know by using language “whose highest bid is addressed to…the mind led captive by a charm and a spell,” as James said.2626xJames, “Preface to The Golden Bowl,” 346. Keeping alive this secular faith in language’s generative power is one way to spur the production of great art. That faith holds fast to the claim that heaven is an object of desire, not a fact to be proved, and that anything like human immortality must be sustained by our own attentive, responsible use of language here on earth.