- Cultivating Belief: Victorian Anthropology, Liberal Aesthetics, and the Secular Imagination by Sebastian Lecourt
Sebastian Lecourt’s Cultivating Belief: Victorian Anthropology, Liberal Aesthetics, and the Secular Imagination—a study of nineteenth-century liberalism, race, and religion—could not be timelier. In an era of resurgent populism, authoritarianism, and intolerance, each of which is oddly bound to the neoliberal assault on social equality, the very notion of a cultivated liberal self can seem naïve or antiquarian. Yet Lecourt’s rich account of the intersections in Victorian intellectual culture between individualist self-cultivation and the unchosen heritages that are otherwise anathema to it seems hopeful just now. It suggests that we might profitably look back to a nineteenth-century liberalism that is flexible, robust, and inclusive enough to help shore up democracy.
Lecourt does not actually say any of this himself. Instead, the book ends modestly, perhaps too modestly, with “the key takeaway . . . [that] paradox is endemic to the attempt to make aesthetics into a working blueprint for politics” (200). Lecourt describes how four major Victorian intellectuals—Matthew Arnold, George Eliot, Walter Pater, and Andrew Lang—cultivate “many-sided individuality”: the opening up of a universal, abstract, free decision-making subject to multiple forms of ethnic and religious inheritance (2). In each case, such cultivation occurs as an aesthetic free play of diverse histories, and the political energy of these hybrid identities wanes with a recognition that contradictions inherent in liberalism will inevitably hamstring it. The book’s account of the secularizing of cultural affliations and passions into a many-sidedness that recognizes multiple inheritances promises new forms of political life where politics seems most fractured. Yet this discovery ultimately dissolves into melancholy concurrence with Charles Taylor that such pluralism cannot be realized fully. [End Page 682]
This somber note confirms the findings of each chapter. Arnold’s use of racial and later philological science to assert a secular, multifaceted, disinterested critical personality turns upon itself. (This is perhaps unsurprising, since an attempt to reclaim evolutionary polygenism—the theory of multiple human origins—for the liberal personality is surely doomed from the start, but Lecourt’s argument is that culture is finally unable to absorb religion, whose universalizing force it depends on.) Eliot, he then shows, reconfigures sympathy away from Adam Smith’s impartial spectator to a mode in which selves develop by internalizing multiple perspectives and absorbing the energies of multiple forms of inheritance. Yet because for Eliot race and religion can only help to cultivate a self if they are absorbed through the acts of reading and interpreting scripture, many-sidedness risks being pushed back into Protestant contemplative interiority. Pater ends up having to embrace a version of the asceticism that the aesthetic free play of long-surviving cultural forms he identifies in second-century Christianity wants to reject. For Lang, folklore brings the savage survivals of an ancient past forward into a new literary heterogeneity that respects deep cultural inheritances. But he ends up fetishizing and essentializing primitive belief, thereby setting it at odds with the secularity of “generous eclecticism” (199). In this sequence of deconstructive turns, Cultivating Belief sounds an even bleaker note than that of Amanda Anderson’s Bleak Liberalism (2016): for Anderson, liberal aesthetics productively attends to thwarted political aspirations and the impossibility of universal self- actualization; for Lecourt, liberal eclecticism is stymied by the very forms that give it voice.
Cultivating Belief is not, however, really trying to reimagine political subjectivity or liberal multiculturalism for the present day. Its central concern is to counter a longstanding historical narrative in which the rise of Western secularism is coterminous with religious decline (helped along in the later nineteenth century by evolutionary theory). The book is enormously persuasive in this regard. Lecourt shows the ways in which religion becomes an expression of ethnicity reflected in liberal aesthetics. And he convincingly posits that through many-sidedness, Arnold, Eliot, Pater, and Lang all theorized an alternative to Protestant secularism with its emphasis on choice and private, interior...