Kinds of Fundamentalism

There is more than one kind of fundamentalism, as Terry Eagleton points out in this essay in the Guardian. Fundamentalism is not so much religious as it is textual, which means it covers a lot of ground.

Fundamentalists are those who believe that our linguistic currency is trustworthy only if it is backed by the gold standard of the Word of Words. They see God as copperfastening human meaning. Fundamentalism means sticking strictly to the script, which in turn means being deeply fearful of the improvised, ambiguous or indeterminate…Since writing is meaning that can be handled by anybody, any time, it is always profane and promiscuous. Meaning that has been written down is bound to be unhygienic…Fundamentalism is the paranoid condition of those who do not see that roughness is not a defect of human existence, but what makes it work.

That’s a brilliant bit of writing. Mary McCarthy examines a similar kind of attitude (one can’t quite call it thinking) in her Memories of a Catholic Girlhood, when she describes the relatives she lived with who, as it were, considered the folds of the brain to be unhygienic.

Fundamentalism makes another appearance in this review of a biography of Irving Howe.

Howe was, by all accounts, a rigid and doctrinaire Trotskyist radical in his youth…The key that opened the door for Howe was literature…If part of his early attraction to Trotskyism had been inspired by Leon Trotsky’s own prowess as an intellectual and literary critic, in good dialectical fashion literature’s open-endedness proved to be a subverter of Howe’s Marxist dogmatism. Plunging into the life of literary criticism, Howe developed, as he himself put it, a ”taste for complication, which is necessarily a threat to the political mind.”

The open-ended and complicated, the improvised and ambiguous and indeterminate, the profane and promiscuous, the unhygienic and rough. Not always what’s needed, of course: not in math or engineering, for example. But when it comes to ‘human meaning’ and human politics, it seems a good deal safer than rigidity and paranoia and excessive hygiene.

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