The Word and the Wheel: Navigating the Incarnation in Twentieth-Century Literature

Kathryn Stelmach Artuso

In his famous essay, “Politics and the English Language” (1946), George Orwell denounces the increasing use of abstractions and clichés in the English language. Satirizing the “staleness of imagery” and “lack of precision” in twentieth-century prose, Orwell decries how “the concrete melts into the abstract and no one seems able to think of turns of speech that are not hackneyed.”[1] Despite his humorous forays, Orwell’s point is grave when he notes that the obscurantist techniques of political propaganda are often designed to cloak indefensible atrocities, as typified in phrases such as the “elimination of unreliable elements.”[2] Seventy years later, Orwell’s essay bears re-reading, especially in the aftermath of deconstruction’s demise, when Paul de Man’s exposure as a Nazi sympathizer challenged the textual—and implicitly ethical—indeterminacy lauded by the breakdown of binary oppositions. Despite Derrida’s attempts to defend de Man, deconstruction’s dance into the abyss of instability and ambiguity had exhausted itself by the conclusion of the twentieth century.

The backlash against deconstruction continued with a discourteous obituary for Derrida in the New York Times in 2004, followed by a new strand of anti-postmodern thought that actuated a paradigm shift from the previous linguistic turn.[3] Over the past decade, the academy has witnessed a turn to religion and theology in literary studies, critical theory, and continental philosophy. Influential European philosophers such as Alain Badiou, Giorgio Agamben, and Slavoj Žižek initiated a Pauline revival in 2004, with Badiou interpreting Paul’s letters as the “foundation of universalism.”[4] In Britain, Radical Orthodox theologians such as Catherine Pickstock, John Milbank, and Graham Ward critique modernity’s glorification of the state and market capitalism and promote Christian theology as the only alternative to a disenchanted modernity—a project that has elicited an intriguing Christological debate between Milbank and Žižek.[5] On the other side of the Atlantic, Saba Mahmood, Talal Asad, Charles Taylor, and Vincent Pecora have challenged the Enlightenment’s thesis of inevitable and evolutionary secularization, while Amy Hungerford and John A. McClure have addressed post-secular themes in late twentieth-century literature.

Despite the trend of the “religious turn,” which may have already peaked in popularity, any attempt to reimagine an ontology or epistemology centered on the Logos of Christianity and Western metaphysics, coupled with a pre-Saussurean notion of the sign, in which there exists a natural, non-arbitrary relationship between the signifier and the signified, may still be a nostalgic dream. Yet as George Steiner reminds us, pointing to Gödel’s incompleteness theorems, even mathematics rests upon unprovable axioms: “There is no mind-set in respect of consciousness and of ‘reality’ which does not make at least one leap into the dark (the a priori) of the unprovable.”[6] Taking a Cartesian and Pascalian “wager on transcendence,” as Steiner does, as well as accepting a Hegelian synthesis of transcendence and immanence, the longer version of this essay maintains that an incarnational aesthetic often privileges the concrete over the abstract, transcends the dichotomy between the secular and the sacred, and offers a glimpse into the intersection of time and eternity, as evidenced in the works of Kathleen Norris, Madeleine L’Engle, James Joyce, T. S. Eliot, and Jorie Graham, though such themes are given particular resonance in the wheeling, non-linear narrative technique of Graham Greene’s novel The End of the Affair.

Any attempt to define the divine Logos in His pre-incarnate state falls short of human language’s capacities, though the “Word made flesh” makes the ultimate abstraction communicable to humanity in the person of Jesus Christ. In the prologue to John’s gospel, the pre-incarnate Logos is God’s “self-expression” and “agent of creation,” through whom all things were created, alluding to the divine fiat of Genesis 1:1:[7] “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Whether one tries to conceive of the pre-incarnate Logos as “creative reason,” “Wisdom,” the Father’s “utterance,” or the mind of God, the passage culminates in the enfleshed person of Jesus Christ, in a hypostatic union fully human and fully divine, in the one who has explained and communicated God to humanity.[8]

In Real Presences, George Steiner draws upon Greek philosophy to describe Logos as the “saying of being,” a guaranteed connection between the signifier and the signified, which he believes ended in the late nineteenth century with the rise of the French Symbolist poets.[9] He notes that the “break of the covenant between word and world . . . constitutes one of the very few genuine revolutions of spirit in Western history” and “defines modernity itself.”[10] If there is a way to recuperate this loss, the language of incarnation may provide a pathway of redemptive reconfiguration, working on a literal and figurative level as both a one-time event and an eternal model for abstractions made concrete, rehabilitating the figurative and physical capacity of language as well as providing a glimpse into the confluence of time and eternity. In this way, it may be possible to merge an incarnational aesthetics and ethics by offering a revaluation of metaphor’s physicality as well as emphasizing the embodiedness of empathy.[11]


1. George Orwell, “Politics and the English Language,” in Politics and the English Language and Other Essays (London: Oxford City Press, 2009), 8.

2. Ibid., 17. On misleading phrases such as “collateral damage,” see Marilyn McEntyre, Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2009), 3-4, 9.

3. Jonathan Kandell, “Jacques Derrida, Abstruse Theorist, Dies at 74,” New York Times (Oct. 10, 2004).

4. Alain Badiou, Saint Paul: The Foundation of Universalism (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2003), 2.

5. Slavoj Žižek and John Milbank, The Monstrosity of Christ: Paradox or Dialectic? Ed. Creston Davis (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2009), 48-50. The hypostatic union of Christ answers Žižek’s problem of God ostensibly turning his back on God on the cross. The Father turns his back on the human nature and not the divine nature, which is impassable.

6. George Steiner, Real Presences (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1989), 214.

7. On Jesus as the “self-expression” of the Father, see Karl Rahner, Foundations of Christian Faith (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1978), 226, and “The Eternal Significance of the Humanity of Jesus for our Relationship with God,” in Theological Investigations, vol. 3 (Baltimore, MD: Helicon, 1967), 43-46. On Jesus as the “agent of creation,” see Robert H. Gundry, Commentary on the New Testament (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2010), 347; and “Word,” in International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, vol. 4 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1988), 1105-1106. I’m grateful for insightful conversations on this topic with Julianne Gilchrist, Benjamin Redelings, Thomas McCollough, Jon K. Cooley, John W. Soyster, Elizabeth Nees, and Robert H. Gundry.

8. On Jesus as the explanation and communication of the Father, see Gundry, Commentary on the New Testament, 351. On Christianity as the religion of Logos, or “creative reason,” see Joseph Ratzinger, “Cardinal Ratzinger on Europe’s Crisis of Culture,” Catholic Education Resource Center (April 1, 2005): On a revision of the Wisdom story in John’s prologue, see N. T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God (Minneapolis. MN: Fortress, 1992), 413-417. On Jesus as God’s “utterance,” see Walter J. Ong, The Presence of the Word (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1967), 185-188.

9. Steiner, Real Presences, 93, 94-99.

10. Ibid., 93. Passage was italicized in the original text.

11. An “incarnational ministry,” for instance, emphasizes face-to-face interaction and care for bodies as well as souls, rather than merely donations from a distance. On the significance of empathy and bodily care from a Marxist perspective, see Terry Eagleton’s After Theory (New York: Basic Books, 2004), 155-159, and The Body as Language: Outline of a New Left Theology (London: Sheed & Ward, 1970), 12.

The ideas above are adapted from the author's article, “The Word and the Wheel: Navigating the Incarnation in Twentieth-Century Literature,” published in Christianity & Literature 66.3 (June 2017). Read the full article by subscribing to Christianity & Literature or through your institutional library's subscription.