Reflection by Scott Thompson
Lecourt’s Cultivating Belief participates in an emerging vein of Victorian scholarship that has been referred to—including in other V21 Collations—as the “anti-subjective turn.” “Anti-subjective” scholarship attempts to expand the definition of subjectivity beyond an interior, voluntaristic, purely mental conception of self, which is exactly what Lecourt does here. Lecourt’s argument asks the reader to think about individuality and subjectivity in the Victorian period (and beyond) as more than what he refers to as “a classical Protestant secularism centered upon private commitment and freedom of conscience” (3). The subject, as teased out in Cultivating Belief, is multi-faceted, heterogeneous, many-sided; and the proper navigation, the aesthetic free play, of non-voluntaristic inheritances such as race, ethnicity, or religion makes for the most complete and fulfilling expression of subjectivity in all of its complexity. In a book ostensibly about religious and literary history, Cultivating Belief usefully reimagines the liberal individual in a secular world and contains implications for contemporary readers.
Lecourt directly connects his argument to recent movements in literary studies. In his chapter on George Eliot, Lecourt juxtaposes The Spanish Gypsy and Daniel Deronda in order to foreground what Deronda has that Fedalma does not: the opportunity to navigate his religious and racial heritage through personal interpretations of historical texts. The hermeneutic distance Deronda cultivates through encounters with particular books allows him to bring his “inheritances of the past into free play” (103). Thus, Lecourt argues, Eliot imagines a new approach to reading, an approach which values attention to materiality, empirical detail, and historical difference, rather than personal interpretation. In this way, Eliot “echoes,” as Lecourt claims, in a presentist gesture, our current conversations about suspicious, surface, distant, and descriptive reading (120). Daniel Deronda becomes the nineteenth-century model for the intellectual payoffs of twenty-first-century alternative reading practices, and Eliot becomes a fellow advocate for anti-suspicious approaches to texts, even if Lecourt’s own method swings closer to deep reading.
I’ll end on two thoughts: As someone who studies the history of nineteenth-century psychology, I feel as if Lecourt’s frequent use of terms such as “heterogeneous” and “many-sided” to describe subjectivity stands just this side of vagueness. But perhaps, à la Wright’s Bad Logic, there is something to value in vagueness. And adding to the interdisciplinary breadth of this work is a big ask, which brings me to my final thought. Though certainly grounded in the “Victorian” period, Lecourt’s ambitious scope encompasses anthropology, liberalism, aesthetics, and secularism and necessitates histories and syntheses that span multiple centuries and countries; he coherently and convincingly moves between pre-Enlightenment religious history and twenty-first century secularism. The anthropological approach to religion in the mid-Victorian period, via Lecourt’s analysis, speaks directly to the fissure between right and left in American politics. In the face of a seemingly ever-widening divide between liberals and conservatives, Lecourt reminds us that the two ideologies are not as distant as our contemporary political rhetoric suggests: there is a Protestant self-discipline embedded in liberal values, such as the sense of moral duty toward multiculturalism, and an aestheticism built into conservatism in the form of “old cultural capital” (20). Any gesture that complicates and connects these often over-simplified political narratives is a positive one, especially as issues which affect both sides of the aisle, such as climate change, increase. Cultivating Belief also demonstrates why the emergence of religious extremism and fundamentalism in our global present demands a reassessment of religion’s function in a secular world. In a moment in which Victorian studies and the humanities more broadly are actively attempting to redefine the way we conceive of what it is we do and why it is important, Lecourt’s book offers a refreshing reminder of the ways in which the nineteenth century can help us navigate both the past and the present.