Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow
The Humanities Center
Johns Hopkins University
3400 North Charles Street
Baltimore, MD 21218
Sebastian Lecourt is a scholar of nineteenth-century British literature whose work situates Victorian writing amid questions of secularization, colonialism, and world literature. He received his Ph.D. from the Yale University Department of English and has placed essays in PMLA, Victorian Studies, and Victorian Literature and Culture. His current research project, The Genres of Comparative Religion, 1815-1947, explores how Victorian writers used literary form to establish terms for comparing different religious traditions – how volumes such as Paul Carus’s The Gospel of Buddha (1894) gave a Bildungsroman-like arc to the lives of various religious founders, while translators like Max Müller used the Romantic rubric of the national epic to frame their versions of the Bhagavad Gita and the Quran. By treating Victorian comparative religion as a case of genre-formation, the book argues, we can develop a more complex sense of how both literary and scholarly categories globalize. Comparative religion, like comparative literature, has long been accused of imposing Western categories upon colonial materials. Yet in fact these genres of comparative religion attained wide acceptance precisely because different international audiences were able to read their significance in contrasting ways. To Charles Wilkins, the first English translator of the Bhagavad Gita, repackaging non-Christian scriptures as single volumes was a way of opening them up to chapter-and-verse comparison with the Bible. To Indian reformers such as Rammohan Roy, it had the very different effect of recasting Hinduism as the worthy opponent of a colonizing Protestantism. And to the members of the Theosophical Society, defining a global canon of sacred texts promised to clear the way for future forms of religious syncretism.
The Genres of Comparative Religion is part of a larger attempt to rethink secularization as a term for nineteenth-century literary studies. Where critics have long portrayed the Victorian age as one of religious decline, Lecourt’s work argues that public religion in the nineteenth century underwent two more subtle changes. First, faced with widening sectarianism at home and colonial involvements abroad, writers both scholarly and popular began to conceptualize religion as a discrete sphere of human society such as art or politics. Second, different constructions of religion – as propositional belief, or as ethnic identity, or as aesthetic experience – became central to competing visions of modernity, from Romantic nationalism to liberal imperialism. Lecourt’s work traces how various literary forms helped writers flesh out different understandings of what religion was and what role it could play in the modern world. For example, his first book manuscript, Cultivating Belief: Aestheticism, Anthropology, and the Secular Imagination, traces how Victorian liberal writers such as George Eliot, Walter Pater, and Oscar Wilde rejected Locke’s classical liberal construction of religion as belief for new anthropological notions that rooted religion in cultural or ethnic inheritance. In so doing, the book argues, these figures were not rejecting liberal individualism but rather were pushing liberalism beyond the parameters of Protestant Dissent, imagining a secularity in which religion represented not the ur-site of internal privacy but rather one of many non-voluntary inheritances that the cultivated individual could bring into play.
Lecourt has taught a range of courses on subjects including nineteenth-century British fiction, the literature of the British Empire, science fiction, the history of children’s literature, literary theory, and interdisciplinary questions of religion and secularism. He has received fellowships from the American Council of Learned Societies, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Institute for Advanced Study at the University of Konstanz in Germany.
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