Yes, [the gods] returned home, and all beauty,
All grandeur they took along with them.
All color, all sounds of life,
And left us only the lifeless word.
Torn from the stream of time, they hover,
Redeemed on the heights of Pindus.
What shall live eternally in song,
Must perish in this life.
(Friedrich Schiller, “The Gods of Greece,” 1793)
Modernity—no historian’s lexicon can do without it, whatever the constraints it brings to thought and imagination. It is a horizon of history. It is a disciplinary foundation of thinking the difference between past and present. We live otherwise than our ancestors; our time possesses characteristics unknown and unfelt by those who went before; gathered together, these characteristics paint a picture of an era or an age; neither prophet nor sage can see beyond the limits that define their times. These constellations of temporal commitments frame the historian’s work.
It is a horizon of history, too, in a normative sense. Modernity is our era, for better or worse, and so stories of its emergence and descriptions of its character offer stories of ourselves. The collective “we” that this normativity demands invites all sorts of invidious distinctions, however, as the many critics of the modern have not failed to notice: between past and present, medieval and modern, the civilized and the savage, the West and the rest.
And—most relevant in our context—between the secular and the sacred. The sacrality of the past, as the medievalist Kathleen Davis observes, is as much a prescriptive as an empirical claim. To be religious is to be medieval: it is to be disjointed from the secular present, less than fully developed in one way or another. And so the claim to modernity is as much a form of domination (over the past, over subjugated others) as any tool in the arsenal of the West.
By my reckoning, the discovery of modernity’s bad faith (literally, often) has been around for at least two centuries, ever since Joseph de Maistre discovered in the secular political institutions of European life a misplaced sacrality that unleashed the worst kinds of inhumanity. Observe the guillotine, the Savoyard anti-revolutionary commented in 1797, and witness what happens when Christianity is no longer around to satisfy humanity’s abiding desire for expiation. Secular politics is the politics of paganism: murder without end, the blood of man flowing in fruitless substitution for the real redemptive blood of the Son.
To show the “continuity of theological forms,” in Davis’s terms, thus not only proves the inability of modernity to live up to its own promises, but also reveals how the promises themselves wreak havoc on others. If to be secular is to be modern, and if to be modern is to be more . . . well, something, better, civilized, advanced, whatever… then to dispel this secularity as illusion, as bad faith, is to attack the very root of contemporary ills (scientism, colonialism, capitalism, statism, you name it). From that corner of the learned world that vaunts itself as “critical,” imprecations against the secular modern are by-now-ritual curse tablets written against the villains that make contemporary life so brutal.
But what if modernity—here understood as a historian’s period concept—entails more than claims for the autonomy and priority of the present over the past? What if instead modernity also (and always) invites constant attention to the presence of the past in the present? What if instead it is exactly the felt sense of disorientation with respect to one’s present moment—the sense that what we possess might not be securely our own—that is a characteristic sensibility of the modern?
This seems true in a general sense because the felt dissonance between things that we do, and the effects they produce, is so utterly typical of the world that emerged sometime in the eighteenth century. How can we feel at home, for example, living in an “economy” (a new concept in that century) whose operations are both a product of our choices and immune to them? Living in a “society” (another new concept) that we collectively create but that is nonetheless alien to each of us? Insisting on our status as no more than creatures of nature, yet ever convinced of our autonomy from it?
In historico-theoretical terms, we can call this the phenomenology of the “non-simultaneous,” the feelingof time’s “sedimentation,” in Reinhart Koselleck’s language. The historical present—call it “modernity”—never owns its own time. It is always replete with things that, when identified, cannot but feel alien and startling. Some of these may (indeed must) be invisible to us. We simply cannot know how much of what we imagine is ours is in fact so. It is our condition, the modern condition, to know that much of what we take to belong to this age may, must, belong elsewhere, either to a past we cannot acknowledge, or a future we cannot discern.
At least some of modernity’s gods then are “torn from the stream of time,” aus der Zeitflut weggerissen, in Friedrich Schiller’s terms. They are present in the form of their departure. Retired to Olympus, yet hovering, alive in different ways, differently discernible to the eye and ear. Grandeur and color may be gone, but that feeling of the gods’ departure opens new forms of intimacy with them. Poetry, for Schiller. Or more agonistic intimacies, like those of Nietzsche.
To show that the gods remain—to show the “continuity of theological forms,” or the persistence of Christianity, or the durability of religious commitments—is simply not an interesting criticism of secular modernity. At best, it acknowledges that the present is not just the present, but always something else; that what we take to be ours may not be at all. At worst, it makes the mistake that Schiller already warned against, the mistake of imagining a choice between presence and absence, disappearance and persistence, rupture and continuity. The real question is this: what is the new work the gods do in secular modernity, both in their presence and their absence?