Sebastian Lecourt, Cultivating Belief: Victorian Anthropology, Liberal Aesthetics, & the Secular Imagination

Sebastian Lecourt, Cultivating Belief: Victorian Anthropology, Liberal Aesthetics, & the Secular Imagination (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018), 229pp., £55.00, ISBN: 978-0-19-881249-4

Sebastian Lecourt’s Cultivating Belief: Victorian Anthropology, Liberal Aesthetics, & the Secular Imagination is a move to overturn prevalent thoughts on secularism in Victorian studies. It does so through a consideration of the liberal interest, which Lecourt sees as embodied in conceptions of religion as inheritances of the past. Lecourt suggests that ethnological, anthropological, and evolutionary science all to some extent contest religion’s nature and role, and intellectual prose writers, such as Matthew Arnold, found that by associating religion with race, a residue of spirituality was preserved, often in a multi-faceted individual.

Lecourt comprehensively and deftly considers the work of Max Müller, George Eliot, Matthew Arnold, and Walter Pater, and Andrew Lang, amongst others, and in doing so, traces two divergent forms of secularity: Protestant liberalism, and aesthetic liberalism. Lecourt argues ‘one is a classical Protestant secularity that valorises personal privacy, freedom of conscience, and negative liberty. The other, which Arnold, Pater, and Eliot theorize, is an aesthetic secularity that emphasizes hybridity, heterogeneity, and the ability to keep multiple values in play.’ (27)

The chapter ‘Max Müller and the Rubicon of Language’ identifies the ways in which Müller’s Indio-European philology became relevant in the emergence of ‘a re-energized polygenism,’ (50) one in which language was seen as biologically embodied. This in turn led to a secularized form of liberalism, predicated on the recognition of difference, and determinism. Lecourt notes how the dissonances between mono- and poly-genic beliefs, E. B. Tylor and Müller, as well as the ideological conflicts between anthropological and ethnological societies were heightened by the paradigm shifting work of Darwin. Yet, the Anthropological Society – and Tylor’s – recognition that humanity spread from a single point of origin did nothing to curtail the inherent racism of the society; indeed, the significant evolutionary and embodied differences between primitive and more complex contemporaneous societies, still emphasized a power structure. Tylor’s monogenism is influenced by a ‘racial’ meritology, of which Western civilizations sit at the apex. Müller’s concern that Tylor’s adherence to a monogenic evolutionary development for humanity, eradicated individual agency, instead the individual is merely subject to developmental laws and physiological, as well as socio-cultural. inheritances. This erasure of individuality, Lecourt (via Müller) contends, creates a schism in mid-Victorian thought, and Müller’s comparative religion professes ‘the subjective and experiential investment in religion.’ (65)

In ‘Arnoldian Secularism’ Lecourt builds upon the monogenic/ polygenic debate by highlighting that Arnold’s own polygenic beliefs provided humankind with a multiplicity of racial identities, and subsequently a many-sidedness. For Arnold, religion becomes a ‘moral and emotional coherence,’ (70) but one interchangeable with ethnic inheritance.

‘Self-Cultivation and Scripturality in George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda and The Spanish Gypsy’ in which: gypsy identity and Jewishness ethnic identity, with religion representing ‘the site at which textuality and blood-heritage intersect.’ (103) Reading becomes a practice in which social and historic relationships are preserved, but Eliot turns away from what Lecourt and Saba Mahmood entitle the ‘sovereign subject,’ a form of Protestant private reading produces which can be a reductive and unchallenging way to read. Lecourt draws parallels between Daniel Deronda’s inheritance of race and religion, as well as sacred texts, from his grandfather as multifaceted, and many-sided. Race felt ‘merely in the blood’ stifles individuality, yet race that ‘comes by way of scared texts’ can be individualized and render the self ‘eclectic’. The bildungsroman is many sided, and with this many-sidedness produces a capacity to see beyond the individual and provide communication between races.  

Consideration of Pater’s Marius the Epicurean as a conversion narrative—in ‘Walter Pater’s Erotics of Conversion’—is fascinating. Lecourt argues that for Marius, Christianity becomes a synecdoche for the many-sided individual as the religion salvages ‘relics of past culture and synthesizes them into new aesthetic formations.’ (131) Many-sidedness becomes in this instance, an example of liberality, in that the many-sided individual refuses to hold a strong opinion, akin to cultural apostasy or conservatism. In this way Pater’s and by extension, aestheticism’s deviance is its ‘passivity and openness to manifold influences’. (133) Furthermore, Lecourt engages with Pater’s interest in the survival of paganism and its adoption and adaptation of certain beliefs and rites into the Christian faith, and beyond that, the transmutation of this survival of the pagan into aesthetic value.

Finally, ‘Andrew Lang and National Supernaturalism’ considers Lang’s conflation of religion with race to ‘make it a resource for a many-sided individuality.’ (165) Lang’s interest in folklore and the suggestion for him, that it revealed a supernatural otherness for which science could not account. Lang’s anthropological background and his interest in psychical research was, Lecourt notes dismissed by his contemporaries as ‘Philistine twaddle.’ (191) Yet, the author argues, Lang’s multifaceted individuality has survived as a useful way of thinking about religion and ethnicity. Lecourt’s monograph provides an insightful, and engaged consideration of religious belief and secularism in the nineteenth century.   

Sally Blackburn-Daniels, The Open University