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  You are in: Home > Literary Criticism & Linguistics > Queer Fish  

Queer Fish
Christian Unreason from Darwin to Derrida

John Schad

John Schad is Professor of Modern Literature at the University of Lancaster. He is the author of The Reader in the Dickensian Mirrors, Victorians in Theory, and Queer Fish: Christian Unreason from Darwin to Derrida (Sussex), the editor of Dickens Refigured, Thomas Hardy’s A Laodicean, and Writing the Bodies of Christ; and co-editor of life.after.theory.


At some point in the nineteenth century God died, the world grew secular, and Christianity became oppositional, irrational, odd, even queer – or so the story goes. To explore this narrative, John Schad offers a suitably odd or ‘unreasonable’ history of what Michel Foucault once called ‘Christian unreason’. This proves, in part, to be an unlikely, or uncanny history of Christian involvement in such radical movements and developments as Anarchism, Surrealism, the Absurd, deconstruction, and even quantum physics. It also proves to be a dark and guilty history of Christian involvement in such terrible things and events as slavery, forced conversion, Fenian bombs, the Great War, the Holocaust, and even Hiroshima.

The book begins with Matthew Arnold’s ‘Dover Beach’ and its withdrawing ‘sea of faith’ as time and again Schad finds the figure of the Christian to be beached, a fish out of water – a queer fish, in fact. This, then, is a book that is all at sea – beginning with Charles Darwin’s voyage to ‘the extreme point of Christendom’ that was South America, and ending with James Joyce and Jacques Derrida in ‘the same boat’, the same ruined, but sea-going, boat that is the twentieth-century Western Church. In between: Karl Marx is to be found in 1848 watching the ‘waves of revolution’ withdraw in Berlin; Sigmund Freud stands incredulous by the shore of Loch Ness; Oscar Wilde is laughed at in the rain at Clapham Junction; and Charles Dickens visits a church for the drowned, a church for ship-wrecked corpses. Revisiting ‘Dover Beach’ is often an appalling event, an event of death; often it is comic or even absurd. Sometimes it is both at once.

List of Illustrations

Introduction – ‘Dover Beached’

Part I Three Moderns

Boat Memory: Darwin’s Strange Sea of Faith
Dead fish
With a hammer
Galilean space

Marx and Angels: The Silly Lives of Saints and Communists

Stations: Freud’s Christian Trains of Thought
Station to station
War to war
Bridge out into

Part II Four Fish and an Umbrella

Subterranean Soul: Dickens’ Cryptic Church
Undermining the city
‘Not my father’s house’
Postscript, or the left umbrella

The Love that Dare Not Speak its Christian Name: Oscar Wilde’s Perversion
Badly cast

Joycing Derrida, Churching Derrida: Glas, église and Ulysses

Conclusion – ‘What has not yet happened’


“Schad explores the ways in which echoes, traces, and revenants of Christianity survive almost subliminally in seven modern writers who might at first seem to have rejected Christianity’s major tenets. Using a frankly Derridean method of investigation through puns, allusions, echoes, and hints, Schad finds evidence of Christian symbolic fish in Darwin, and saints and confessions in Marx and Engels. Further, Freud hints at the disaffected European Jew as a Christ figure; Dickens’s use of church/crypt imagery offers a revealing religious presence; and Wilde, Joyce, and Derrida betray an association with the faith through their suggestive diction. …To be savoured for its unexpected insights and intriguing comparisons. Recommended.” Choice

“This important book deserves the widest possible readership because of its bold truthfulness, its spiritual power, and its timeliness. Indeed, if I had to select one book published this year that has affected me most it would be this one. It is a book about what it means to be a thoughtful Christian at this time, struggling with the inherent unreason of Christian faith on the one hand and the double assault that thinking Christians face at the present time: on the one hand, the assault from those skeptical thinkers who have abandoned faith entirely for secular culture and, on the other, from those evangelicals who (from the 19th century to now) mistakenly think that Christianity requires the abandonment of critical thought altogether for the sake of faith.” Michael Payne, John P. Crozer Professor of English, Bucknell University, writing in The Daily Item

“Schad’s book is quirky and highly informative, theoretically sophisticated and written in a unique, distinctive voice. Expanding on Foucault’s idea that a ‘mad’ unreasoning Christian tradition re-emerged at the ‘moment’ of Dostoyevsky and Nietzsche, Queer Fish has a broad scope. The first half of the book encompasses an uncanny Darwin and a prophetic Marx, and ends with Freud’s religious ‘train of thought’. The second half begins with the ‘cryptic church’ of Dickens and Wilde’s queer Christianity and ends with the religious turn of Derrida read back into a postcolonial and post-Catholic Joyce. The book is essential reading for anyone wanting to make sense of the traces of Christianity in our supposedly secular age.” Bryan Cheyette, author of Constructions of ‘the Jew’ in English Literature and Society (Cambridge University Press, 1993) and Muriel Spark (Northcote Press, 2000)

“John Schad’s account of Christian unreason makes both belief and unbelief the more relevant for us today. Queer Fish is a critical, yet always empathetic, rereading of some of the major thinkers of the last two centuries, whose influence we are still experiencing even today. Schad is a critic who inspires respect and trust, even when we disagree.” Jonathan Dollimore, author of Political Shakespeare (Cornell University Press, 1994) and Death, Desire and Loss in Western Culture (Routledge, 1998)

Queer Fish leaves one with the overriding impression of a critic who is able to use scholarly procedures and a sophisticated critical apparatus to produce work of great wit, sympathy and humanity, that is quite unlike anything produced by his peers… The chapter on Wilde is particularly well done and exudes a genuine admiration and sympathetic understanding rarely encountered in academic writing. Add to this an impressive breadth of knowledge, an uncanny ability to identify the most unlikely figural affinities, and a splendidly idiosyncratic style, and you have a rather extraordinary book that deserves a wide and appreciative readership.” The Glass – Journal of the Christian Literary Studies Group

“Wonderfully perceptive… Schad’s ability to read texts closely and appreciate the multivocality of language help make Queer Fish one of the most exciting and imaginative contributions to the field of religion and literature for some time. Such attention to language may be the avowed aim of all literary critics, but few possess Schad’s impressive sensitivity to the indeterminacy of texts, a sensitivity that enables him to pursue Christian unreason without falling into the trap of systematising the illogical threads he uncovers.” Christianity and Literature

“Rarely is a book on nineteenth-century Christianity so much a day at the beach: bright, splashy, full of laughter, leaving you happy, if exhausted at the end. This is fitting for a book whose central task is uncovering the peculiarly fishy, aqueous metaphors that haunt Victorian and Edwardian texts, even as the hot winds of modern rationalism and capitalism were forcing the sea of faith to recede, leaving us all marooned on Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach”… the beach-ball bounce of Queer Fish will undoubtedly leave some readers unwilling to play, but its overall point is not to be missed: the late nineteenth century witnessed the moment when “certain forms of Christianity” left behind Enlightenment’s rationalized religion, and, marginalized by both the established church and an emerging secularist society, recovered its scandal, its queerness.” Victorian Studies


Publication Details

Hardback ISBN:
Paperback ISBN:
Page Extent / Format:
192 pp. / 229 x 152 mm
Release Date:
July 2004
  Illustrated:   No
Hardback Price:
£35.00 / $52.50
Paperback Price:
£15.95 / $25.00

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