Secularism, Cosmopolitanism, and Romanticism
Mark Canuel, University of Illinois at Chicago
Reading the works of figures ranging from Bentham and Coleridge to present-day incarnations of the Gothic novel, this essay argues that the 'secular' emerged in Romantic literature less as a distinct form of belief and more as a new organization of beliefs. It claims that the crucial development for achieving that organization was the reconfiguration of penal laws, which in turn demanded a new articulation of fear among political subjects. This essay appears in _Romanticism, Secularism, and Cosmopolitanism_, a volume of _Romantic Circles Praxis Series_, prepared exclusively for Romantic Circles (http://www.rc.umd.edu/), University of Maryland.
Dan Brown's best-selling thriller The Da Vinci Code contains an updated argument for secularization—a strategy that seems somehow to be both timely and out of step with current politics. At first the premise of the novel appears to involve a struggle to secure the political hegemony of one truth over another: a religious sect called the Priory guards the secret of Jesus's marriage to Mary Magdalene and their progeny, while members of the Catholic Opus Dei attempt to stop them from revealing it. Initially, that is, the novel seems to involve the search for, and possible exposure of, a specific piece of evidence—the "holy grail"—and this piece of evidence would inevitably lead to a political struggle in which Catholicism would be defeated, or at least undermined, by its religious rivals.
But then the novel—closely followed by the feature film based on it—turns into something different. For as the plot unfolds, several things happen that entirely defuse the force of this struggle. Once it turns out that the "grail" is actually Mary Magdalene herself, it becomes radically unclear how decoding the site of her tomb could help to ground or shake anyone's specific beliefs about her. And in fact finding the grail at last seems, from the protagonist Robert Langdon's perspective, almost irrelevant. He ends his search for the grail simply by believing in it, as he kneels in the courtyard of the Louvre in worship of the Mary Magdalene. The lesson at the end is that the grail is less important as a specific religious truth than as the focal point for one among many beliefs that people might hold and act on, peacefully and in the most public of places.
This logic is inseparable from the way that religious violence in the novel and film is finally understood to be a feature of the distant past rather than the present, even though initially we hear evidence of murderous plots and counterplots surrounding the grail's exposure. Present-day Catholicism disengages itself from religious extremism; Opus Dei is said to be innocent of any crimes. The Priory itself is more concerned with maintaining international and domestic peace than with exposing the secret evidence that it may or may not actually possess. The actual violence and potential for violence come not from any group of believers but from the fanatical Sir Leigh Teabing, who manipulates and plots to kill others—including members of Opus Dei—in order to obtain the secret of the grail for himself. The conclusion is not merely meant to show that Teabing might be entirely mistaken in his search for a grail that may not actually exist. Much more significantly, it is meant to show that Teabing's quest has no significant political role in the institutions or communities represented in the novel. Violence in The Da Vinci Code is the result, not of a religious struggle, but of a group of isolated individuals. It is not a clash of cultures, religions, or ideologies, but a local and thoroughly manageable criminal disturbance.
For this reason one could very easily see that The Da Vinci Code formulates itself as a vision of global politics in the age of "fundamentalist" terrorism. By making sectarian conflicts into crime problems, the novel suggests that such struggles wouldn't be struggles if people and the institutions in which they moved would reconfigure the impact that beliefs are expected to have on the governance of daily life: religious wars are part of the past but not the present. A great deal of commentary on both the novel and film—ranging from Brown's own words to newspaper editorials virtuously promoting the "discussion" of controversial religious opinion—has tended to reinforce this logic, and fears that either one would foment opposition to Catholicism or Opus Dei turned out to be completely groundless (Eaton par. 19). This is because many critics had failed to see what most audiences have at some level understood all along: that the The Da Vinci Code completely evacuates controversy by making historically contentious religious groups look utterly harmless: only murderers look bad.
The sense of peaceful closure afforded by the novel and film is surely distant from the way that global politics has most recently been configured in the US and much of Western Europe as a struggle against religious fundamentalisms coupled with a concentrated political generation of fear about them. That generation of fear is the necessary extension of, and motivation for, domestic struggles over religion, which—in the US—results in a range of politically inhibiting and consolidating pressures in areas ranging from the schoolroom to the scientific laboratory. In Britain likewise, the battle against external adversaries is simultaneously conducted as the battle against enemies within: two recent acts of parliament, for instance, began requiring new citizens to declare allegiance to the monarch, to promise loyalty to the nation and its "democratic values," and to take a "Britishness" test ensuring proper integration into British society.
If our present moment is marked by a return to religious wars at home and abroad, some theorists might make us think that such events simply demonstrate a long-suppressed political truth about the underlying structure of liberal democracies. Stanley Fish, for instance, has repeatedly claimed that the idea of secular tolerance denies the conditions of its existence, which depend upon the exclusion of fanatics and other intolerable groups. "At some point," he writes, "capaciousness will threaten to become shapelessness, and at that point fidelity to . . . original values will demand acts of extirpation" (Fish 103). From a quite different philosophical perspective, Alain Badiou has led a continental attack on multiculturalism and the politics of difference that converges in one crucial way with Fish's. Badiou accuses the tolerant acceptance of differences of blatant hypocrisy. "Become like me and I will respect your difference," is the mantra that Badiou ascribes to all "conquering civilizations" (25). Badiou's argument differs from Fish's in that, for Badiou, the conquering civilization's demand for sameness masks an ontological condition of infinite difference, the recognition of which grounds ethical truth. Still, the urgency of Badiou's ethics arises in the first place because of his claim—like Fish's—that political urges to inclusion simply obscure a commitment to uniformity and exclusion. Even though Badiou seeks for a truth outside or beyond politics, while for Fish all truth is necessarily political, this arises only out of the deeper sense of agreement that the secular work of government is primarily about the imposition of uniformity by a politically powerful majority. Fish is simply more comfortable with this imposition than Badiou is.
In such arguments, the current state of religious warfare at home and abroad looks like the inevitable outcome of secular inclusion, which was never secular or inclusive in the first place. (It is unsurprising that Fish's response to terrorism is to call on supposedly uniform "lived values that unite us" in order to marshal a more effective opposition to it ["Condemnation" 1]). A book like The Da Vinci Code, on these terms, seems not only like a politicized attempt to reverse the ideologies and political organizations of the present, but also like a fundamental misunderstanding of the logic of secularization itself, which (as Fish says) demands acts of "extirpation" in order to avoid ideological "shapelessness." What I want to suggest, however, is that the novel is not simply mistaken about a political truth, but displays a certain kind of homage to another idea of the secular—one that is predicated on an institutional coordination of actions rather than an alignment of philosophies, ideologies, or beliefs.
We can move closer to defining that idea of the secular first by seeing that Brown's novel could be understood as a recent installment in the Gothic genre, taking up the overwhelming interest that Gothics in the late eighteenth century display in the confessional environments of church, monastery, and convent, in order to reinforce the contrasting advantages of more inclusive patterns of institutional action, affiliation, and organization. As I've argued elsewhere, novels like Ann Radcliffe's The Italian demonstrate that the problem in the Gothic isn't with Catholic believers, but with the structure of the Catholic church, which Radcliffe's narrative casts as a sanctioning body for a range of illegalities, and thus as a disruption of public order (Religion 55-85). The opposition to Catholicism is thus likewise an opposition to the Protestant established church and to all confessional governments that value beliefs at the expense of acknowledging the visible and calculable harms and benefits of interpersonal actions. The problem with murderer-clerics, as in The Da Vinci Code, is not that they are clerics but that they are murderers; thus The Italian, resolved by a complex juridical procedure, ultimately devotes itself to recommending a tolerant yet rigorously defined legal order with clearly demarcated crimes and penalties. By shifting its attention from the elimination of heterodox belief to the prosecution of criminal harms, the Gothic's apparent anti-Catholicism arises from a commitment to reconcile itself, and tolerant political and legal institutions, to adherents of any number of different beliefs. And thus the Gothic becomes an early and influential Romantic advocate of community beyond religious communion.
What emerges from this political-aesthetic maneuver—and what I'm particularly interested in pursuing in this essay—is not simply peaceful coexistence. It is something on the order of what Judith Shklar calls "The Liberalism of Fear" characterizing political regimes that take the inclusion of different religious and political doctrines as their primary goal. This is not a fear generated from the constitution of society against seen or unseen religious, cultural, or ideological adversaries. Indeed, it resists that all-encompassing fear "created by arbitrary, unexpected, unnecessary, and unlicensed acts of force," while recommending "the natural and healthy fear that merely warns us of avoidable pain" (11). Shklar is probably wrong to say that fear is merely natural or healthy; the stronger connecting point I want to make with her work is that the basic notion of the secular involves an absorption and reorientation of fear within the confines of inclusive institutions, making fear—a fear that I think is completely a product of Romantic secular thinking—into the formal complement of an institutional systematization and identification of crimes and "avoidable" penal sanctions. Fear, to put it another way, is the constructed affective complement of systematized penality.
I am already mixing the terms "tolerant" and "secular," because my fundamental premise is that one of the most historically significant notions of the secular arose from a particular turn that appeared in the English discourse of toleration in the eighteenth century. Toleration was not necessarily a set of coherent beliefs and attitudes enforcing sameness, as in Fish's and Badiou's accounts. Instead, beginning with John Locke and then elaborated in the late eighteenth century by thinkers like Joseph Priestley and Jeremy Bentham, a particular kind of toleration arose as a new disposition toward belief rather than as a new belief or set of beliefs that could be counted as tolerant. This is because the traditional apparatus of the confessional state, enforced through oaths of allegiance and religious tests, was shown to be not only oppressive but also inefficient as a means of securing social order. The problem of how to tolerate different modes of belief—some of them insular or even intolerant toward each other—is central to secularization because of the inescapable connection between toleration and a tolerating governing body. Secularization in its late eighteenth century manifestation, in other words, was not a mental phenomenon but an institutional one; it was not visible in the beliefs that people held but in the way that political, educational, and military patterns of affliliation took political inclusion, rather than ideological coherence, to be their central ambition. This is not to say that tolerant societies do not exclude various individuals and associational networks; indeed, only the most facile of arguments suggest that exclusion is a problem for toleration. As Michael Walzer has so effectively shown, certain exclusions are at the center of toleration. The exclusions do not operate—as in Fish's or Badiou's account—in order to assure the coherence of a single doctrinal position, but instead to assist in, and enhance, the decisions and actions of individuals in a group (86).
Let's pause for a moment to reflect back on Fish and Badiou before moving on to the position of Romantic fear within these dynamics of toleration. By proposing a different model for the secular, I'm not simply arguing against their theoretical points of view. I'm arguing against their use of historical models as if they were moral-political truths. Fish and Badiou, I would argue, criticize the logic of the secular by appropriating two different historically specific, yet highly influential, modes of the secular from English and German traditions. Fish's account derives from his work on John Milton, for whom the exclusion of "popery" was a necessity; it also resembles a range of other enlightened empiricist accounts in England and on the continent, from Shaftesbury to Voltaire, who saw toleration as the cultivation of proper, civilized, rational beliefs. David Hume's praise for "moderation" in aesthetic taste and political practice, for instance, produces an ethico-epistemological foundation for secular political subjectivity that is not far from Milton. The commitment to moderation made him hostile to religious zeal of all kinds because it only inflamed "ambition, pride, revenge, and a persecuting spirit"; clergy were tolerable only if they subscribed to other counterbalancing "virtues of humanity" (201n).
Badiou's revision of Hegelianism—the problem with multiculturalism is that it is a false universality—demonstrates a second powerful interpretation of the secular, which has its origins in Hegel and could also be traced in neo-pietist texts (like Friedrich Schleiermacher's On Religion) that postulate a constitutive connection between individuality and the spiritual "Whole" (4). Rather than a successive accumulation of beliefs, in which government is simply the product of proper cultivation, the secular is an ontological condition, constituted in Hegel's vision as the product of a "complete interdependence" among members of a community and the apparatus of the state (123). The state is the "universal" which is not so much an accumulation of customs or beliefs but a realization, by recognition, of the "actuality" of the individual's "concrete freedom" (160). The problem with that account for Badiou is that the liberal state can never be a true universal and therefore can never actualize freedom: the ethical in Badiou both aligns itself with, and corrects, Hegel's account by situating ethics as the perpetual undoing of a political closure.
It would be impossible to do any real justice here to these two traditions and to the important philosophical and historical work that has come out of them; I use Fish and Badiou only as convenient and striking endpoints for traditions that would include the cosmopolitan perspectives of Martha Nussbam and Amartya Sen on the one hand (since they argue for a reform of thought and manners) and the post-Marxist perspective of Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri on the other (since they argue for a reconfiguration of identity within a global economic order). What is most pertinent to this essay, though, is the influence that these lines of thoughts have had on the study of Romanticism. The enlightened account of the secular is highly visible in fairly recent scholarship on Romanticism: the work of Thomas Paine, for instance, occupies a supporting role in Steven Goldsmith's study of Blake's anti-establishment poetry and politics; Martin Priestman also puts skeptical writers like Paine and Richard Payne-Knight at the center of his study on Romantic atheism. Hegel's account of the secular has dominated the study of English Romanticism at least since M.H. Abrams's Natural Supernaturalism, with its view of the secular as an internalized apocalypse, a naturalizing or psychologizing of the supernatural or spiritual.
As valuable as these accounts have been, they are just as remarkable for the ways in which their theoretical approaches to the secular often seem inappropriate for the texts they consider. Priestman's Romantic Atheism makes religious belief and political affiliation blend into each other, so that atheism looks like the guarantee of political progress. Meanwhile, authors like Anna Laetitia Barbauld and Mary Robinson are said to have "stopped short of atheism" and thus look like half-way points on the way toward political liberty (rather than simply different accounts of what political liberty might look like [Priestman 224]). Wollstonecraft's work, in which religious belief stands as a crucial motivation for an essentially secular political reform, would be too problematic for this account to give it any more than passing notice. The results of Abrams's appropriation of the Hegelian account of the secular are similarly mixed. One needn't even investigate the general theoretical merits of his views (as so many critics have done) in order to see that the paradigms it yields are in fact inadequate to describe many of the poets he discusses. The local claims that Abrams makes about the deep affinities between the account of growth in Wordsworth's Prelude and the growth of spirit in the Phenomenology of Spirit for instance, are questionable at best (236). The progressive dialectic in Hegel cannot address specific difficulties in Wordsworth's text, in which the growth of the poet's mind eludes any grand dialectical synthesis. Extending analysis to the Phenomenology of Right only confirms how far Hegel is in his account of subjectivity and politics from English writers of the same period. Although Jon Klancher and Forest Pyle tend to view Coleridge as engaged in a (failed) ideological project aimed at establishing a sufficient level of universality, it is not clear that this is Coleridge's aim to begin with; the relation between Church and State in his later writings provides for the effective management of contending forces rather than for a realization of a spiritual-political whole.
Another way of stating the problems with these two models for their descriptive value for Romantic literature is that the enlightenment argument mischaracterizes the weight of belief in politics, while the Hegelian argument mischaracterizes the relative weight of unifying structures—whether Spirit or State—on individual belief and practice. The enlightenment account makes institutional structure look like the outcome of belief, while the Hegelian account makes belief look like the outcome of institutional requirements. These modes of describing the secular need to be distinguished from the way in which it was described by a series of Romantic writers in England and beyond, whose precise influence on the history of secular institutions still hasn't been accurately measured. For these writers religious belief, rather than presenting an obstacle, becomes the focus of inclusion and redirection into the facilitating schemes of secular institutions. Joel Barlow thus defends secular government as an "artificial aid" and "artificial industry" providing political subjects of all beliefs with an "art or trade" while securing "personal protection and public happiness" (77, 134, 124); Jeremy Bentham's plans for schools and prisons are extensions of similar ambitions. Tolerant government is envisioned as a structure of belonging more capacious—and more powerful—than any single religious community. And by these means the opposition to enemy ideologies can in one sense be overcome with a commitment to the notion that inclusion increases safety: "the more political liberty [the people] have, the safer is their civil liberty," Priestley writes. The ability to include Catholic and dissenting beliefs provides the possibility for the ultimate avoidance of large-scale "civil dissentions" (33, 42).
The achievement of safety and order through inclusion curtails a certain kind of illiberal political fear, and thus departs from a prominent mode of political thought influenced by Thomas Hobbes. One of the constitutive tensions of Leviathan is to be found precisely in the way that the "Liberty" of the subject is to be found in her subjection to the "Artificial Chains" of "Civill Lawes" (264). But at the same time, the subject's "fear" is finally not simply elicited by the specific application of the law itself, but rather by the "Sovereign Power of life, and death" (264), which is itself motivated solely by the desire to eradicate any "defect" in opinion as defined by the sovereign's own understanding (337). From this arises the perfectly confessional character of Hobbes's sovereign, whose political authority is constrained only by the injunction that the sovereign cannot make the subject kill herself (269). The "enemy" in its clearest conception in Hobbes's text is therefore to be feared in the Satanic figures of "spiritual error" (628), which is in turn most clearly embodied in the spiritual error or "darknesse" (627-715) of Roman Catholicism.
Following from Hobbes, enlightened and Hegelian secular ideologies have their different ways of mobilizing fear. In the enlightened version, we can see even late eighteenth century writers like Richard Price opposing the toleration of Catholics, Jews, and a host of other adversaries. Paine's The Age of Reason associates the entire "Christian system" of belief with "superstition" and "fraud" to be avoided at all costs—what is demonized is not simply Catholicism but religion's irrationality in general (50, 51). Meanwhile, the Hegelian realization of concrete freedom seems to be so perfectly cleansed of fear that it can be located only in a failure of reconciliation caused by the subject—a "fear of dying" that would cause one to refuse one's duty to defend the cause of freedom—or caused by the ruler who governs by "caprice" and produces terror in those bending to his will (210, 167). While having no obvious role in the proper Hegelian conception of right or of the state, fear at the same time eerily accumulates into a threat that lurks in the shadows beyond the state's reach: fear paradoxically becomes, in itself, a magnified object of fear.
In the Romantic texts I'm interested in, fear is neither omnipresent, as in the Hobbesian state and its continuation in enlightenment secular ideologies, nor is it simply pushed to the margins in order to secure the ontological account of the state in Hegel, (although one can hear traces of that logic in the kind of reading that Geoffrey Hartman pursues in his account of William Collins's "Ode to Fear," which—in his reading—is positioned in a literary history leading to a marriage of rationalism and supernaturalism [311-36]). Fear is instead reinstalled in the arena of the moral-political: it is the register of a relation to law, designating the newly opened space of negotiation between subject and secular institutions. It is an affect solicited by the specific articulation of offenses and the penalties that arise as the result of their commission. Thus the problematic of secularization, with its basis in the expansion of tolerant institutions guaranteeing both freedom and public safety, increased inclusion and increased order, cannot be separated from the late eighteenth century opposition to the death penalty and the reform of penal law, a prominent subject in the work of virtually every Romantic writer from Blake to Byron.
We thus find Bentham arguing against the cruelty and inefficiency of the Hobbesian sovereign when he criticizes Louis XIV's "mischief" of intervening in the religious and ethical lives of his subjects in order to assure the "conversion of heretics and the confirmation of true believers" (Introduction 321). And yet this mobilization of despotic terror is replaced by a new kind of relation born out of the specification of the expository and imperative elements of penal law—the specification of agents and their offenses by the "artificial body" of reformed legislation (Introduction 332). That new form of legislation, most clearly found in the application of lenient punishments minutely calibrated to the severity of offenses, is designed to do two things, which find their way into Bentham's numerous defenses of new legislation to replace transportation and capital punishment with humane incarceration—legislation aimed at increasing the "safe custody" of criminals while measuring the "terror" that punishment would inflict upon that criminal (View 10).
Penal structures, as they are defended in tracts like A View of the Hard-Labour Bill (1778), have gained particular fame from Michel Foucault's account of the internalization of discipline at the level of the individual. But they are actually less striking for imposing a uniform discipline on prisoners than for another quite different reason: for their entirely new institutional disposition toward belief. This new disposition in fact solicits an inquiry into the work of juridical forms that Foucault's account of internalized discipline occludes. Bentham had little taste for religion himself, and his admiration for the scientific advances of his day often makes him seem like a quintessential child of the Enlightenment and thus like an enemy to all forms of irrationality and superstition. Still, he consistently supposes that an ideal plan for institutions would embrace a diverse number of believers and in fact work with and upon the dispositions held by the persons within them. Such institutions would not "be permitted to oppose the main ends of religion, innocence and peace" (19). And they do something more, which is particularly plain in Bentham's fanciful suggestion that Sunday church services in workhouses should be stretched out longer so that worship would be caught up in the punitive mechanisms of the institution, or in his equally intriguing recommendation that Catholics and Jews would have commensurate systems of punishment that would simultaneously appeal to their religious orientations. What Bentham proposes is not that prison plans would need to be fractured according to different systems of belief, but that the same general structure could be formulated in such a way that certain kinds of religious "attention" would be "engaged" by the patterns of movement produced by the communal structure—a structure that co-opts belief within a newly choreographed set of interpersonal obligations (18).
Bentham shifts focus to the more precise effects this has on the moral-political subject when he turns to the secular institution as an innovative mode of fear-production. Toward that end, he modifies John Howard's prison schemes, important as they were as a source of inspiration for the View which was written as a defense of William Eden's prison bill, passed in 1779. Eden's Bill provided for the construction of two new prisons, overseen by Howard himself. Bentham, while supporting the bill in general, registers a sustained resistance to making prison look like the reiteration of religious prejudices: Howard's plans for dark and submerged interiors risked making confinement look like a lame attempt to reproduce conventional notions of hell. Bentham's very opposition to this dimension of the plans, in the midst of general political support, looks like the perfect instantiation of secular institutionality itself. But we must also appreciate the particular modifications of Howard that he has in mind in order to see how that commitment to inclusion is inseparable from a refined commitment to soliciting fear and distress. When Bentham meditates on how to make the "gloomy" aspect of punishments work upon the "imaginations of the bulk of men" in order to play upon their "idea of the scene of punishment in a future life," the true impact of secular reform can be seen in all of its complexity (10). For the aim of reformed government is not simply to encourage or rehearse the religious fears of an earlier age, and not simply to eliminate them, but instead to capture belief within a new framework of measured "circumstances of distress" dispensed by legislators as the sanction for each offense (11). Bentham's effort to retrieve Howard's plan, in other words, is simultaneously an attempt to retrieve yet further systematize that plan's appeal to religious terrors. Religious fears are acknowledged as a source of punishment's meaning and yet only figuratively connected to the organized distress dispensed by the institution itself.
It is for this reason that capital punishment appears like the enemy of reform in the work of Bentham—and in the work of those who influenced him and were influenced by him. For the custom of imagining death as the ultimate punishment appears flawed from the reformer's perspective precisely because its effects are immeasurable on the criminal (who would simply be dead) and so variable on the audience of political subjects as to seem virtually meaningless. The ability of the legislator to craft the "distress" of punishment is precisely what ratifies it in the eyes of penal reformers—a distress that works not only upon the beliefs and attitudes of prisoners themselves but also upon those of the population that might contemplate punishment without actually being able to view it. The secular thrust of punishment is aimed not at the rationality of individuals (interpreters of Bentham are always wrong when they call him a rationalist) but at the "susceptible minds of the giddy multitude" who would contemplate the "horrors" of prison in all of the ways that might be "suggested by imagination" (23). The attempt of institutions to appeal to a religious sense of a future state—in the "imagination" of political subjects generally—becomes inseparably allied with the institutional attempt to bring the work of imagination in line with the shaping of new futures within constructed schemes of cooperation.
Perhaps my invocation of imagination within the realm of institution-building might seem to bring us into contact with the Althusserian account of "ideology." But I am pointing to that realm less as an occasion for a scene of recognition between subject and state authority (obviously in line with the Hegelian view) than as an unresolved oscillation between belief and what Richard Moran, from a philosophical perspective, identifies as the "binding" of belief into an "external form," "commitment," or "avowal" of belief (94). Imagination names, that is, the negotiation between belief and the discourses, mechanisms, and procedures in which social movements are organized. This is one of the many moments in which we can hear the decisive influence of Claude Adrien Helvétius on Bentham. Albert O. Hirschmann is clearly right to have emphasized the massive importance of Helvétius in the history of political theory in England, but by saying that he is a philosopher of "interest," Hirschmann misses the degree to which Helvétius is a philosopher of the political solicitation and organization of passions—the paramount of which is fear (32).
For Helvétius in his De L'Esprit (1758)—a book with the distinct honor of being publicly condemned by the Sorbonne and burned by the parlement of Paris for seditiously attacking the religious basis for political authority—it is only the despot (like Hobbes's sovereign) who imposes his own particular judgments and prejudices on his people (294). The "intelligent prince," in contrast, does not impose his interest but organizes the disparate interests among his subjects (299). The intelligent prince's intelligence is considerable here, and it is the key to the whole text. For the work of the proper legislator is first of all to observe, close at hand, the different "passions" that motivate his subjects, of which religion is one single, highly significant but potentially disruptive, element (226). Passions are crucial in De L'Esprit because of the way the legislator immerses himself in them and works on them; Helvétius has impatience only for traditionalists (and rationalists) who say that the passions are frivolous.
Second, then, the intelligent prince studies the connection between passions and the "interests" animated by and figuratively connected to them—interests that are defined either as the achievement of pleasure or the avoidance of pain. Third, in order to cultivate public good in the form of "general interest" (119), the legislator devises rewards for interests that should be encouraged and punishments for those that should not (214). Like the poet, Helvétius says, the wise legislator's work of "imagination" (380) should concentrate on the imaginative resources of his subjects: on "kindling the passions" in appropriate ways that will connect to the interests he wishes to inspire (332).
Helvétius explicitly ties the poetic imagination to the observation, inspiration, and organization of the passions and all the attitudes and beliefs attending them. His work is continually devoted to emphasizing that the legislator ideally should both know and accept the different passions harbored within his subjects—while poetically, imaginatively, connecting those passions to felicitous schemes of legislation. Both great poets and great legislators must thus compose their thoughts and writings in solitude, reflecting on the affective resources that they simultaneously submit to rigorous new juridical configurations (476). While theoretically both pleasure and pain have an equal weight in the systematizing of interests, it is actually pain and the fear of it that occupy a more crucial role in the argument, primarily through a series of contrasts. The despot employs merely a "salutory fear" that supplies "the defects of government"; he must rule by sheer force that excites a constant yet mystified sense of fear in his subjects (144). Heroism is the counterpart of despotism, moreover, since it bolsters a courage that is merely a contempt for the pains of the world, "the effect of a man's not having a clear view of the danger he confronts" (345) to such an extent that the hero irrationally chooses suicide over submission to punishment, since "it is better not to be than to be unhappy" (346). The reformed legislator, in contrast, employs fear less as the unseen threat of an ever-present violent power, than as part of the syntax of institutional action, in which disparate passionate fears are encouraged and brought into line with appropriate fears of institutionally inflicted-pain or hardship, which "bind the private to the general interest" (214). While the despot imposes punishment on everyone arbitrarily, the reformed legislator submits punishments to the order of the law.
Helvétius's linking of fear to passion, interest, and imagination helps to reinforce a point already more or less evident in Bentham's argument in the View and scattered throughout his other writings. The secularization of fear—its shift from the confessional mode of Renaissance sovereignty to its new position in the lexicon in penal law—is made possible precisely through the extension of passionate belief into an imaginative legislative schema, which would link the intractable religious views of the subject to the political workings of the apparatuses of the state. Fear becomes less significant as a mental attribute—a psychology wrenched out of the subject by the sovereign's threatening power—and more significant as a formal accompaniment to the sanctions that compose a capacious public order.
The position of imagination in relation to fear can lead us to reconsider a range of Romantic writings in terms of their formal commitments to the secularization of fear—a commitment that unfolds neither through a merely formal reading nor through a reading of their political "context." Consider Coleridge's poem "Fears in Solitude: Written in April 1798, During the Alarm of an Invasion" (1798) as an example. The secular move of the poem is not contrary to, but rather elaborates on, its initial premise, arising from the speaker's meditative lines on the "green and silent spot, amid the hills": namely, that the "forms of Nature" set before him confer "Religious meanings" (1, 24). Exactly what is religious about the landscape will remain to be seen, since its religiosity cannot be resolved within any conventional confessional account of religious establishment.
The calm sense of religious purpose is upset by the reach of the poem in the following stanza, which shifts from the lyrical to the topical. What disturbs this sense of calm is the threat of invasion from France, which is provoked to attack by the fact that England has "offended most grievously, / And been most tyrannous" (42-43). Coleridge does not simply rouse paranoia about Napoleon's preparation to cross the channel with his "Army of England." Rather, an invasion from France is close at hand because England has "offended": "passionate for war" (89), England has declared war against France and engaged in battles with Napoleon's fleets. The break in the calm, moreover, is not merely caused by the threat of physical violence echoed by the poet; it is in fact ignited by him. The poet must rouse his audience's fear, since that audience's unshaken confidence in a politically enforced religious authority has in fact foreclosed its own access to the appropriate kind of emotion. The poet urges the reader to fear in the right way.
The fact that the poem is explicitly directed at institutional critique becomes entirely clear in this stanza and the one following it, where Coleridge goes on to denounce, precisely in the fashion of Gothic novels and of Bentham, the "one scheme of perjury" whereby religious oaths, tests, and ceremonies produce a kind of religious consolidation of belief against an enemy. England is "tyrannous," that is, not only because it has declared war and thus threatened itself, but also because it manipulates "the sweet words of / Christian promise" as mere "falsehoods" supporting the cause of military violence (63-64, 69), and because it makes even the Bible itself into a "superstitious instrument" to support its political ambitions (71). In this quintessentially Gothic scenario, religion is both a motive and cover for violence and bloodshed. "Passionate for war," England's citizens rouse themselves against their demonized enemy with "big preamble, holy names, / And adjurations of the God in Heaven" (101-2).
But if religion is used here in order to consolidate belief, making a mockery of the English "justice court" (74), the cost is a conspicuous immunity to action and its consequences, which is why the poet must sound the alarm. The poet must register a sense that belief itself cannot exonerate the poem's audience from a sense of guilt for its violent action, an acknowledgment that is inseparable from—because articulated through—a fear of the impending consequences of that action. What is particularly remarkable about the articulation of fear in the poem, then, is the gradual figurative modification and consolidation of that emotion to suit the poet's reworking of retributive justice. At first the fear called upon by the poet is simply a fear already felt because it is the result of prejudice, a fear utterly removed from a sense of action. The poet's fear at first, that is, appears to be a generalized fear of the other, a fear directed towards France merely as demonic enemy. The French are an "impious foe" and a "light yet cruel race" to be opposed because of France's sheer ontological difference from the British (139). This is in keeping with the notion briefly entertained here that France may have been sent by "Providence" as a way of making Britons "feel / The desolation and the agony / Of our fierce doings" (127-29). And yet even at this moment the account of Providence and the fear it inspires give way to a new kind of fear: one that is metonymically connected to other fears, while simultaneously, relentlessly, and persuasively sharpened into a single fear of having done wrong. After having defended itself, the speaker urges, Britons should "return / Not with a drunken triumph"—not, that is, with a confident sense that they have acted out the will of Providence. They should instead return "with fear, / Repenting of the wrongs with which we stung / So fierce a foe to frenzy!" (150-53).
The poem proceeds to move fear away from political theology and ultimately toward a secular account of legitimate retributive justice—in which fear is invoked as a highly specific accompaniment to the notion of deserved punishment for the "fratricide" that Britons simultaneously commit and deny (113)—and this is the condition of the poem's intelligibility. Enlisted in the formation of what Helvétius terms "general interest," the poem reveals Coleridge's subterranean connection to Bentham and the philosophes who inspired him (even though it has been the norm since John Stuart Mill to insist on their opposition). And the shift also connects "Fears in Solitude" to Coleridge's other critiques of justice—the lenient but rigorous correction of "Oppression" with an "iron rod" in the "Monody on the Death of Chatterton," for instance, which in turn leads to the emphasis on penal reform throughout Osorio. In "Fears," France is to be feared not because it is impious and not even simply because it is cruel, but because it has been stung and will rightfully sting back. This is what makes the poet's fears, finally, "filial fears" (198). Filial fears are not fears reserved for British national security but for the wider scope of actions beyond what the poet can immediately see, and this is why the poem begins and ends with nature that conveys "Religious meanings." Nature isn't religious because it makes any claims upon specific beliefs, but because the poet's ability to make natural surroundings "seem like society" (218) is the utmost reach of his ability to feel as though filiation could be extended, or affiliated, anywhere—to feel as if his actions and movements have an extensive and openly acknowledged impact. In this sense, "Fears in Solitude" must also remind us of "The Nightingale" and Coleridge's other great "conversation" poems in that the speaker's thoughts leave society in order to rediscover it in a new, more profound way. Poetry, the champion of "filial fears," now spans over the smallest community of the poet—the "lowly cottage" where the speaker's child and wife live—to the largest—the "wretched" victims of slavery and Napoleon's Egyptian campaign, mentioned earlier in the poem (45)—for which the poet's thoughts finally "yearn." To yearn for people is to fear for them: not merely for the family of the speaker, and not merely for the population of Britain but for all "human kind" (232).
I have turned to Coleridge's poem as a particularly compelling reworking of some of the basic elements of the secularization of fear that were already evident in the Gothic. What is most powerful in that reworking—and why it is even worth connecting contemporary instances of the Gothic to Coleridge—is its unparalleled engagement of the work of writing itself within the dynamics I have been discussing. More than any Gothic incarnation before or since, that is, Coleridge's writing makes it clear how vital the poet's perspective might be as a foundation and direction for all others: the poet must create the conditions of justice that would produce change. In this sense it claims an authority which the Gothic novel merely points to in its incessant attachment to monuments of culture which it takes to be the foundation for communal belonging. As constant demonstrations of that belonging, Gothic lovers always quote poetry as if it might function as a protection against the vices of oppressive religious institutions; by the same token, Brown's novel ends in the courtyard of the Louvre, now envisioned as a palace of art rather than despotism, a site of resolution rather than revolutionary conflict. The obvious shortcoming of The Da Vinci Code in relation to the inventive secular thinking of the Romantics is this: that the boundaries of community seem occasionally to be circumscribed—as they seldom are in Radcliffe or the poets she inspired—by a highly personalized and predetermined set of coordinates constituting a European cultural tradition, which are then submitted to rational decoding requiring an additional level of cultural competence acquired by experts. If Brown's novel risks adopting a more or less constrained cosmopolitanism—reminiscent of the way that Kwame Anthony Appiah understands cosmopolitanism as a rigorously educated personal attitude or disposition toward the world—Coleridge more thoroughly secularizes that cosmopolitan perspective. For Coleridge's writing does not simply recommend a particular personal disposition about cultural belonging. It makes poetic "Fears" into the exalted source of that belonging. It does this by sounding urgent alarms, raising awareness, calling attention to injuries, demanding justice, yearning for others.
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1. Although my account of punishment bears some similarity to that found in Talal Asad's work, I depart from his basic view that the development of secular penal apparatuses corresponds to an essentially skeptical moral philosophy (21-66).
7. Here my account contrasts with Jerome Christensen's view that the poem risks doubling the application of power that it denounces. But I think that this reading neglects the consistent emphasis on framings readers' perceptions within a new account of actions as guilty "combatants" (89-90).