Reported by Cody Schmidt, class of 2025
Religion+ Literature is part of HRC’s Tuesday Night Conversation Series, Religion+X, hosted by the Religion+ research group. The informal conversations focus on the intersection between religion and a different topic each week and feature an array of faculty guest speakers.
Literature professors Adrien Pouille, Stephanie Anderson, and Caio Yurgel joined students and faculty in the Water Pavilion on January 17th, along with religion and humanities professors James Miller and Yitzhak Lewis. Flanked by small stacks of books around their chairs, they proclaimed that “everything is literature” and examined works focusing on religion.
Professor Pouille began by recounting a formative experience where he was introduced to Sufism through transcribing research exploring the religion. He was fascinated by the supernatural encounters described in the work, which he describes as connecting the individual with their creator, and began studying the religion’s literature. Pouille shared a translation of a poem about Sheikh Bamba, a Sufi Master from Senegal. Written by one of his followers, the poem hails Sheikh Bamba as “the refuge for the weak, the Laobés and the disinherited.” The Sheikh, as the follower explains, “embodies the prophet’s virtues so well that the inhabitants of Mecca identify him with Muhammad.” Pouille explained that such literature is difficult to access due to the language barrier, making such work and transcriptions an important insight into Sufi mysticism and culture for the wider world.
Professor Anderson introduced her interests, which she describes as “more conceptual” as compared to Pouille. She focuses on 20th century poetry from authors that she describes as “irreverent, even blasphemous.” Poetry, as she explained, is similar to prayer, as poetry is also addressed to “an unhearing other… [you’re] speaking to someone beyond yourself.” The poem “Ave Marie” by Frank O’Hara was read, drawing parallels between the images of American coming-of-age scenes and religious experiences. Anderson found the comparisons poignant. For instance, O’Hara drawing similarities between a teenager’s first time going to the movie theater independently to attending church “bring together the profane and the sacred in very real ways… [it’s] playful with divinity,” as Anderson explains. Equating the mundane to the sacred in these poetic prose, with similar structures to prayer, is a reflection of the undercurrents of religion in everyday life to Anderson.
Professor Yurgel prefaced his part by asserting that he’s “interested in things that can’t be explained.” He maintained this by reading “The Awakening,” an excerpt from Las Aventuras Perdidas by Alejandra Pizarnik. Originally a part of her personal diaries, Pizarnik uses “The Awakening” as a way of challenging God’s existence, calling to the heavens and lamenting over her suffering on Earth, writing declarations such as, “Lord, the cage has turned into a bird and devoured my hopes.” Yurgel describes the contempt that Pizarnik treated God with, continuously defying authority from above. Yet, throughout her writing, she is able to muster energy when referring to and addressing God, only for it to deflate again. This ebb and flow in her references to the higher power simultaneously places Pizarnik above and below in status. Moreover, using this language in her diaries, a piece of work not written for an audience, is significant; these are her innermost challenges with this omniscient unexplainable being. Yurgel explains that, to her, God served as a strawman for unwanted authority figures that have continuously rejected Pizarnik, using such personal writing as a form of liberation in her own life.
The conversation ended with a final thought on this idea: “Artistic creation lies in rejection, [it] comes from a place of darkness… even God had to deal with that, the first thing he said was ‘let there be light.’”