In 1869, at a meeting of the Metaphysical Society, the philosopher Thomas H. Huxley coined the word ‘agnostic’. Huxley needed a new term to deﬁne his religious, political and ethical position, something that for him would be ‘suggestively antithetic’ of the doctrinal religious beliefs of the majority of his fellow Victorians and ‘the “Gnostic” of Church history, who professed to know so much about the very things of which [he] was ignorant’ (Huxley 1909: 239). In resisting Gnosticism, however, Huxley distinguished his position from that of the atheist as well, for agnosticism, he argued, was rooted in the premise that the existence or non-existence of God was intrinsically unknowable. While Huxley’s refusal to commit to a belief in any form of ultimate knowledge has frequently seen him labelled as an anti-religious man of science, he maintained that ‘a deep sense of religion was compatible with the entire absence of theology’ (Huxley 1903: 318). Huxley’s notion of agnosticism thus inhabits a spiritual framework, although it broadens the parameters of this framework to include a spirituality that goes beyond a belief in God to embrace an ethical questioning of the very nature of belief. The signiﬁcance of this point is far-ranging. At the same time as Huxley articulated the growing religious scepticism of late Victorian intellectual life, he also ushered in the intense secularism seen as synonymous with the modernist era; a precise understanding of his position is thus fundamental to any consideration of modernist spiritual ethics. If modernism can be characterised as an agnostic literary age, Huxley’s own deﬁnition of his term helps us to see that, even as many modernist writers shared his ‘active scepticism’, they neither utterly abandoned questions of spirituality nor wholly lost their sense of the sacred. Following Huxley, many modernist writers transformed or signiﬁcantly
broadened their understanding of what spirituality could mean. For the modernists, a sense of the sacred no longer primarily resulted from an unwavering faith in God, nor could it be easily contained within the framework of a denominational religious system; the question of faith remained nonetheless central to the modernist ethos. Modernist literature evinces a sense of the sacred as a form of faith or, to borrow a phrase from Wallace Stevens, a ‘will to believe’ in something that is not there for the test of
reason or empiricism.1 It embraces a sense of blessedness derived from manifold sources including nature and interpersonal connections, as well as scientiﬁc and technological developments. It understands the experience of the sacred as one of being connected to something larger than the self and consequently constructs spirituality as an ethical mode of understanding the place of the individual in the universe. In the increasingly secularised spaces of modernity, writers from Joyce Cary to Dorothy Richardson, from Henry James to Ernest Hemingway, continued to interrogate inherited deﬁnitions of sacredness and to explore emerging notions of non-doctrinal spirituality. These writers became literary pilgrims who combined an active agnosticism with a quasi-spiritual quest to engage with their cultural histories in the search for a new spiritual ethos for the modern age. They did so most overtly through the trope of the sacred journey which recurs persistently and meaningfully in modernist literature. An illustration from the canons of secular modernism will clarify this
point. Virginia Woolf’s well-established religious scepticism permeates her novels and is best encapsulated by the ﬁgure of Mr Ramsay in To the Lighthouse (1927), a man whose very posture declares, ‘there is no God’ (Woolf 1992b: 224). Yet in apparent contradiction to her own and her characters’ religious doubt, the novel as a whole enacts a version of a sacred journey. The title of To the Lighthouse simultaneously evokes journey and homage. The notion of the journey frames the entire novel, from James’s ‘extraordinary joy’ (1992b: 7) at the thought of visiting the lighthouse in the opening scene, to Mr Ramsay, Cam and James’s boat trip to reach the lighthouse in the ﬁnal pages. Equally, the novel constitutes an act of literary homage to Woolf’s family and childhood and, as the title more speciﬁcally suggests, to the lighthouse whose beam both punctuates and illuminates the plot. The lighthouse is a sacred space that Woolf consistently conceives of in mobile terms. This mobility is seen primarily in the journey to the lighthouse – a journey prone to rerouting and deferrals – but is also apparent in the image of the lighthouse itself. As Woolf’s Lily Briscoe contends, ‘so much [ … ] depends on distance’ (1992b: 207): according to the viewer’s perspective, the lighthouse is either ‘a stark tower on a bare rock’ (1992b: 220) or ‘a silvery, misty-looking tower with a yellow eye that opened suddenly and softly in the evening’ (1992b: 202). Ultimately, it is, James comes to realise, both at once for ‘nothing was simply one thing’ (Woolf 1992b: 202). The blinking yellow eye of the lighthouse signiﬁes a sacred site that changes according to perspective and that, furthermore, has a transformational power of its own, epitomised by the sweeping beam that lights up the landscape in an instant and then subsides. Instead of representing or inciting a ‘grand revelation’, this sacred space creates little ‘illuminations, matches struck unexpectedly in the dark’ (Woolf 1992b: 176). Woolf’s lighthouse is a sacred site, and the journey to it can best be
described as a pilgrimage. Cam imagines the journey as an expedition of ‘adventure and escape’, and, as she dangles her hand in the sea during the
short crossing, envisions ‘a world not yet realised [ … ] Greece, Rome, Constantinople’ (Woolf 1992b: 205). The journey to the lighthouse imaginatively connects Cam to a larger world of uncharted territory and, at the same time, back to her past and her childhood aspirations. As the lighthouse emerges out of the silvery mist, it becomes a Promised Land for Woolf’s characters. The journey to the lighthouse that structures the narrative progression of Woolf’s novel impels both characters and readers to realise the symbiotic relationship between geographical and allegorical journeys. The pilgrimage in the novel is simultaneously a material expedition and a metaphorical act of homage. It is this connection, so clear in To the Lighthouse, between journey and homage that forms the central focus of this book. Travel and Modernist Literature: Sacred and Ethical Journeys considers the complex ethical relationship between journeying and spirituality in modernist literature and explores the contradiction and ambivalence central to the treatment of the sacred journey in modernism.