Sympathy time: Adam Smith, George Eliot, and the realist novel.
Harry Shaw, Narrating Reality (29)
SYMPATHY AND KNOWING
Talk about novel-reading and sympathy and you are likely to spend some of that time talking about omniscience. If your subject is the nineteenth-century realist novel, you will probably have something to say about the relationship between ethical feeling and free indirect discourse which suggests that peering into the secret hearts and minds of characters enables our sympathy for them, and thus that "sympathy" names that special ability to cultivate our identification with others through feeling what they feel and knowing what they know, or what they are thinking about. In this vein omniscient narration, shrinking the distance between ourselves and others, encourages sympathy: the assumption is that by knowing more--of what others know or think along with what they don't--we draw closer and more inclined to sympathize with their conditions, The link between sympathy and knowledge is all but guaranteed in this formulation, as indeed it regularly goes without saying that facilitating our sympathetic identification with characters is what many English realists' experiments in omniscience were designed to do. Sympathy in such novels, so the story goes, results from both seeing and knowing: the unique seeing into and knowledge of interiors afforded by the nineteenth-century novel's most celebrated technical innovation, free indirect discourse. (1) According to a standard claim, FID produces the effect of simultaneity by blending characters' voices with that of the speaking narrator. Dorrit Cohn refers to the narrator's "identification" with a "character's mentality" as one so complete that "narrated monologue" replaces FID as the preferred term of analysis (112).
Simultaneity emerges as the temporal equivalent of "identification," those brief pockets of time in which the voices of narrator and character merge into one, or where readers, in a taken-for-granted formulation, sympathize by identifying with characters, particularly those whose feelings are judged appropriate and can thus comfortably be shared. That "identifying with" should depend on the sort of knowing involved in "seeing into" is taken to mean that seeing and knowing a character's "inside" point of view requires a position outside it, one that (at least temporarily) must also be overcome. In a discussion of Jane Austen's Emma, Wayne Booth, by way of complicating this view, exemplified it. His comment that "only immature readers ever really identify with any character, losing all sense of distance and hence all chance of an artistic experience" carries the implicit charge that it's hard to resist the pull of identification and that plenty of readers aren't quite up to the effort (248). The suggestion is borne out in his account of the novel's transition from Austen to Henry James. Where Austen's "implicit apology for Emma said, in effect, 'Emma's vision is your vision; therefore forgive her,'" the modernist layers his characters with an irony so thick that ordinary readers, bound "tightly to the consciousness of the ambiguously misguided protagonist," cannot see beyond it (324). Many of these readers "will go sadly astray," missing ironies they ought to discover or discovering ones not there (325). By the time we get to modernism, in other words, the novel's sympathy-generating machinery has traded total knowledge for radical unknowing, figured as that "sense of distance" necessary to "artistic experience": omniscient "seeing into" from some outside position gives way to the "deep plunges of modern inside views" (324). Modernist not-knowing, the ironic effect of "deep" immersion in a character's consciousness, dispenses with the middle-man and exposes the fraud at the heart of omniscience, or at least in the naive confidence that similitude and proximity engender sympathy best.
Not much has been said to upset the conventional wisdom that nineteenth-century realism patterns sympathy on an identificatory model in which social feeling flows from the ability to stand beyond while "seeing into" others, and if modernists rejected the safety of the outside position, there has been less revision of the truism that identification is what readers undertake in order to sympathize. For Booth, Austenian "identification" meant something like shared vision, on the heels of which shared feeling is said to follow. If omniscience serves a primary ethical purpose in such works, it is assumed to do so by securing the knowledge necessary for sympathy by granting us the inside view along with the fuller horizon needed to judge the value of what we see there. Of course, this formula is complicated by the fact that omniscience, a rather clunky vehicle for explaining how narratives function, has--as James accused the novel of having--few reliable rules, a loose build, and a whole host of technical and practical problems. Applied to many sorts of narrators with differing degrees of penetrative powers, "omniscience" provides only a vague sense that narrators who possess it know more about other people than ordinary people do and that, sometimes, they tell us about it. (2) Add to this a suspicion that knowing what others are thinking can threaten rather than consolidate our sympathies--a suspicion vividly rendered in George Eliot's The Lifted Veil--and we find that the formula "sympathy = identification" has for some time rested on shaky ground. Nevertheless, it remains common to assume not only that sympathy and seeing work in tandem, and that sympathy requires us to identify with others, but also (especially so for nineteenth-century realist novels) that sympathetic identification affords a privileged, because ethical, form of knowledge.
This essay will pry apart these terms and propose a model of sympathy divested of the demands for simultaneity, identification, and knowledge. Nineteenth-century realists were alive to the possibility that omniscience posed serious problems for authors hoping to craft novelistic techniques that could train readers in the ethics of sympathy. In various ways, their novels worry the premise that sympathy requires knowing, that fellow-feeling was dependent on some measure of epistemological certainty. While novelists like Austen and Eliot took different measures to activate readers' sympathetic powers, both consolidate their ethical and aesthetic goals in relation to a sympathy of "doing" not just thinking or feeling. That is, for those novelists overtly interested in activating a sympathetic ethical response in readers, the sympathy in question was regularly imagined as an action taking place in the absence of knowledge and thus affording would-be sympathizers no recourse to the comforting reassurance of identity.
Attempts to distinguish "sympathy" from "empathy" have sometimes suggested that sympathy is a "moral emotion" associated with "prosocial or altruistic action" while empathy means something like "the spontaneous, responsive sharing" of another person's feeling (and can thus be "self-oriented and aversive" rather than "other-directed") (Keen 4). (3) These efforts have the benefit of emphasizing sympathy's social character, but definitions that rest on a notion of "moral emotion" miss the crucial fact that sympathy is equivalent to no emotion whatsoever. "Sympathy" is a mechanism of feeling-production, an activity with the capacity to generate feelings ("moral" or otherwise) but not a feeling in its own right and incapable of certifying which feelings result. "Empathy" was not an available term for the nineteenth-century novelists (coming into use in the early twentieth century), yet while "sympathy" regularly appears in their novels, we often fail to distinguish its technical features from the various emotions it may be said to engender. If "sympathy" signifies not feeling so much as an intellectual activity cultivated through form, we can begin to untangle sympathy from feeling and thus bring new focus to its rhetorical and cognitive features.
Time is central to a rethinking of how sympathy operates in realist form. Because its effects cannot be sustained, sympathy requires repeated effort: it is something one must do and do again, and it's hard work, not the sort of thing on which we want to spend much time. Moreover, sympathy takes place in time, in what we might call narrative time. Here simultaneity is replaced by more protracted, reflexive, and deliberative acts. Minds meet and reflect on each other but do not merge into one.
Or so says Adam Smith. In what follows, I will make the following central claims. First, that Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) provides its nineteenth-century realist inheritors a compelling paradigm for sympathy production through narrative. It is one whose importance has been underestimated, a result of the mistaken assumption that it offers a primarily theatrical account of sympathy production. Instead, Smith's representation of sympathy activated by intellectual and imaginative power, coupled with will, takes a self-consciously narrative form. The central argument of The Theory of Moral Sentiments is thus both ethical and aesthetic, the book a work of narrative theory. I'm suggesting that one way the realist novel bears the traces of Smith's legacy is in its foregrounding of just that sort of imaginative labor, endowed with ethical force. Hardly a "transparent window," the realism Harry Shaw describes, for instance, "is always interested in engaging the reader, not in some sort of illusion of 'direct' contact with the world, but in a dialogue in which the stakes are more rhetorical than epistemological and have more to do with the will than with a certain (inadequate) model of knowing" (39). Following Shaw and others, for whom nineteenth-century realism activates a "truly historical sense of temporality," I argue that this is a temporality fundamentally sympathetic by design (77). (4) Shaw could be describing the key features of Smith's sympathy when he insists that realist historicity requires "a grasp of the dialectical and historical relationships between language, actions in the world, and social conventions" (77). Shaw's claim that realist fiction represents situations involving "partial knowledge" and "continual approximation" reflects Smith's account of sympathy as a speculative field wherein we approximate, rather than replicate, the feelings of people whose otherness from ourselves remains intact: where we adjudicate by degrees in the absence of certainty or fact (29). The work of "continual approximation" takes place within a narrative temporality Shaw calls "historical" and that I, following from Smith, call "sympathetic," for the reflexivity it engenders and for the temporary, open-ended, and provisional quality of its solutions.
In arguing that certain nineteenth-century realist techniques may be fundamentally sympathetic--that they work in the service of a "sympathetic realism"--I am making a primarily formalist claim with regard to Smith's influence on the novelists. Following Paul Armstrong's assertion that "[the] choice between form and history is a bad one," the present essay's historicism is embedded in, and takes place through, matters of form (195). I trace certain key effects of Smithian sympathy in narrative form, focusing in the end on omniscience. While there is no question that the nineteenth-century realist project involved, in its many permutations, serious engagements with sympathy ethics--patently so for George Eliot--it no doubt drew from, modified, and rejected a whole range of conceptual models inherited from the previous century. I'm arguing that Smith's particular formulation--with its deftly theorized narrative structure, its temporal mediations, and its rejection of identity of feeling--was especially well-suited for nineteenth-century realism and that we can detect its most salient features there. Revising our conception of Smithian sympathy thus extends our ability to recognize its afterlife in the fiction of the nineteenth century, a fiction often dedicated--as was Smith's Theory--to fostering fellow-feeling through form.
Though they will never be unisons, they may be concords, and this is all that is wanted or required.
Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments (23)
Smith calls sympathy "momentary" (22). It is not long-lasting, but neither is it spontaneous. I said above that Smithian sympathy entails a more "protracted" temporal investment than is required, for instance, in the Humean model, and I want to insist that this is true for the mechanism of sympathy production despite the fleetingness of its produced effects. Whereas Hume emphasizes the greater immediacy of the "force and vivacity" of ideas converted into impressions ("If I diminish the vivacity of the first conception" Hume writes, "I diminish that of the related ideas" and "[by] this diminution I destroy the future prospect, which is necessary to interest me perfectly in the fortune of another"), Smith repeatedly describes the time necessary for cooling and tempering strong feelings into a lower pitch, as well as the time for reflecting upon them (248-49). The act of moderating one's feeling (toning down in the case of the sufferer, revving up for the sympathizer) is a crucial part of the time it takes to produce that "imaginary change of situation upon which [a person's] sympathy is founded" (22). Readers of Smith's Theory often fail to appreciate the degree to which this effort, like that of the imagination in the "imaginary change of situation;' is deliberative and reflexive, requiring intellectual exertion beyond the immediacy of the senses and thus a lengthier temporal development. An overwhelming focus on visuality is to blame for this result.
Here is a typical passage in which Smith describes that "change of situation": "In all such cases, that there may be some correspondence of sentiments between the spectator and the person principally concerned, the spectator must, first of all, endeavor as much as he can to put himself in the situation of the other, and to bring home to himself every little circumstance of distress which can possibly occur to the sufferer. He must adopt the whole case of his companion, with all its minutest incidents, and strive to render as perfect as possible that imaginary change of situation upon which his sympathy is founded" (22). Those who study Smith know this passage by heart. Yet to say that the resulting criticism from the literary side of the aisle has tended to emphasize the role of the spectator as spectator in passages like this one would be to understate the case, for such emphasis is nearly total.5 As the consensus is rooted in Smith's repeated reference to "spectators"--here, the two companions reflecting on each other, elsewhere the "impartial spectator" (a figure Smith famously dubs "the great inmate of the breast") it is worth paying closer attention to what, if anything, these spectators actually see (191). It seems evident that what's required isn't primarily, if at all, the work of actual witnessing. Putting oneself "in the situation of the other" and "bring[ing] home ... every little circumstance of distress which can possibly occur to the sufferer" requires, more than anything, imaginative labor, a point made unambiguously in the final clause, where sympathy is "founded" upon an "imaginary change." But if readers rarely downplay the significance of the imagination for Smith, they overemphasize the role of sight. Why should this be the case?
The arguments made on behalf of sympathy's visual apparatus stress theatricality along with embodiment. Thus on the side of philosophy John Dwyer describes the harmonious end-result of Smith's "spectatorial sympathy" as a set of "group norms and morals" issuing from "the culmination of a complex series of emotional exchanges within a social theatre of actors and spectators who were forever changing places" (102-103), while from literary critics we find statements like the following: "Smith's account of sympathy in the Theory stresses the element of spectacle involved: seeing suffering, joy, danger, and so forth helps generate fellow-feeling" (Harkin 437; emphasis original). Both argue that sympathy takes place in what Maureen Harkin calls the "regime of the visual" (438).
Yet Smith issues an unequivocal warning that the most likely result of coming face-to-face with spectacular suffering is sympathy's failure: sympathy "does not arise so much from the view of the passion, as from the situation which excites it" (7), he tells us, adding that while the "plaintive voice of misery, when heard at a distance, will not allow us to be indifferent about the person from whom it comes," the close proximity of another's grief will "disgust and detach us from him," for such "disagreeable and boisterous appearance never excites, never prepares, and often disturbs, our sympathy" (48; my emphasis). Seeing can be inimical to sympathetic investment. We are much more likely to pick up the pace to avoid such encounters, and Smith knows it. But that such indifference is "not allow[ed]" in relation to what one hears from a distance highlights the far more compelling claim made on us by "voice" not the least of which is its disembodiment. Similarly, while it is doubtless true that Smithian sympathy occurs within a "social" field, it is less certain that it should be conceptualized on the model of the theater. The abstraction of the plaintive voice from its origin tells us that in at least one crucial sense the so-called "scene" of sympathy is a narrative one.
After all, it is narrative, not the theater, which mandates the multiple acts of abstraction Smith describes: sympathizing with the other isn't a matter of seeing and knowing, much less being in contact with other bodies, but "situating" the other in an imaginative narrative temporality made up of every circumstance "that can possibly occur" (not those that demonstrably have) and all the "minutest incidents" comprising his "case" For Smith, the "case" is a dynamic rhetorical form useful for precisely this sort of mediating between multiple possible situations and perspectives. (6) James Chandler has persuasively shown that the case, in its Romantic permutations, is anti-casuistical, to which I add that Smith's cases afford no parallel fantasy of omniscience: jettisoning absolutism in favor of deliberation, ends for means, Smith's cases activate conjecture over authentication, law, or fact. (7) Speculation, not spectatorship, best describes the labor sympathy requires; that term registers the temporal unfolding of Smith's situated imagining in a way that "spectatorship" does not. Not even Smith's internal guide, the "impartial spectator,' renders a view from nowhere ("impartiality" as disinterestedness or detachment) nor conjures the totalizing view of omniscience, but instead signifies a crowded, sociable field. It is this field--a kinetic, affective, and heavily-trafficked abstraction--that the term "fellow-feeling" is intended to convey. (8)
Pay attention in the following passage to how Smith characterizes the shift from a more private or individuated lyric temporality into an intersubjective, novelistic one:
In solitude, we are apt to feel too strongly whatever relates to ourselves: we are apt to overrate the good offices we may have done, and the injuries we may have suffered.... The conversation of a friend brings us to a better, that of a stranger to a still better temper. The man within the breast, the abstract and ideal spectator of our sentiments and conduct, requires often to be awakened and put in the mind of his duty, by the presence of the real spectator: and it is always from that spectator, from whom we can expect the least sympathy and indulgence, that we are likely to learn the most complete lesson of self-command. (216) (9)
At first glance, this passage may seem to offer little in the way of temporal models, and entirely to contradict my argument about spectatorship; after all, Smith talks of a "real spectator" whose "presence" is presumed. Yet this passage highlights the ethical centrality of the "stranger"--he who is most unlike us, least known--and the heightened ability of strangers to prompt sympathetic abstraction. (10) Furthermore, the "abstract and ideal spectator of our sentiments" is not figured as a visual aid through which we witness others, but a mechanism for measuring the propriety of our feelings and actions in relation to whatever "indulgence" can be expected from them--which, it turns out, isn't much. While the "stranger" is he from whom we can expect "the least sympathy," it is he who most ably challenges us to moderate our "temper" to the proper pitch. (11) The "most complete lesson" of sympathy is learned in relation to another person not simply there before us, but situated at a spatiotemporal and an epistemological remove. What matters is not literal closeness--his near proximity-but figurative distance--his difference and non-identity. After all, mere presence alone does not produce sympathy, and there is nothing immediate about either the "conversation" Smith describes nor its hoped-for result, the waking to the "mind" of "duty" that most important of abstractions--the "impartial spectator"--from the sleeping latency of solitude and into the field of intersubjectivity.
It is a point Smith makes repeatedly, most famously with regard to "our brother on the rack," about whose feelings we can have no "immediate experience": "our senses will never inform us of what he suffers" Smith writes, for "[they] never did, and never can, carry us beyond our own person, and it is by the imagination only that we can form any conception of what are his sensations" (3-4). The narrative temporality of this exercise in imagining lodges in the emphasis on sympathy as process. There is no spontaneous eruption of emotion here, no unsolicited blitz of feeling vibrating (in Humean fashion) from one body to the next. Acts of narrative abstraction regularly service sympathy; from the "conversation" one has with a stranger to the effort at "conceiving" others not through the senses but the intellect, there is "no immediate experience" that can tell us what other people feel. Given that nothing can secure that knowledge, sympathy functions in its absence, requiting that our imaginative encounters with other people take the form of speculating about their conditions along with our own. The successful sympathizer "is conscious" of social conventions ("those measures of conduct which experience informs him are generally agreeable"), and "reflects" on his own actions to gauge their ethical fitness; he imagines his behavior "in the light in which the impartial spectator would view it," for "though mankind should never be acquainted with what he has done, he regards himself, not so much according to the light in which they actually regard him, as according to that light in which they would regard him if they were better informed" (169). He "anticipates" the review he will receive from others, "applaud[ing] and admir[ing] himself by sympathy with sentiments, which do not indeed actually take place" (ibid.). In short, he is a reader, and an ideal reader of fiction at that. (12)
It's true that novels play no part in the Theory, but we've seen that Smith's paradigm prefigures several key elements of narrative theory. His sympathizers are not novel readers, yet as Ian Duncan has argued, Smith's writings "promoted a structural and systematic subject-fashioning oriented to the emergent domains of modernity" ("Adam Smith" 42). (13) The "distinctive innovation" of Smith's Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres, says Duncan, "lies in their advocacy of the constitution of a new kind of modern subject through the techniques of literacy--specifically, they constitute the modern subject as a reader" (ibid. emphasis original). This sympathizer-as-reader doesn't first feel for the other but first converts feeling into an abstraction; he (always male in Smith) is a reflective subject reflecting in time. This process of situating self and other in dynamic interrelation is remarkably similar to the process which for Harry Shaw reflects the "primary mode" of experiencing realist representation: as an "evolving participation in a set of mental processes that promises to help us grasp the typical determinants of a historical situation" (35). For Smith, as for the realists, sympathy trades knowledge, identification, and reference for will, dissimilarity, and harmony, desiring not emotional "unisons,, but "concords ... and this is all that is wanted or required" (23). In framing one's access to fellow-feeling in terms of an imaginative modulation between orders, Smith highlights sympathy's facility in activating the motion of intersubjective "exchange." We might say that this motion, rather than emotion, forms the basis of his ethical system.
I have suggested that to speak of sympathy as having a fundamentally narrative design is to register the importance of its temporal qualities. Smithian sympathy is non-spontaneous, and it is also rare. His musical metaphors demonstrating the point, Smith remarks on the case of the spectator who (seeing nothing) "[finds] it much more difficult to sympathize entirely, and keep perfect time, with ... sorrow" when the other suffers at "the lowest depth of misery," guaranteeing that an "immense and prodigious" gulf yawns between them (63). "Keeping perfect time"--the rhythmic equivalent to what is elsewhere called "harmony"--cannot last for long if it can happen at all. Moreover, the impulse to avoid sympathetic involvement is powerful, the desire to engage it fleeting. Again Smith, on condolence amongst friends: we "sit down by them, we look at them" as they relate their stories, but "while their narration is at every moment interrupted by those natural bursts of passion which often seem almost to choke them in the midst of it," we ask ourselves as Smith asks of us: "How far are the languid emotions of our hearts from keeping time to the transports of theirs?" (65). The melancholy answer: far enough. We may be able to "work ourselves up into an artificial sympathy," but this is "always the slightest and most transitory imaginable; and generally, as soon as we have left the room, vanishes, and is gone for ever" (65-66).
Smith's cases, illustrated by way of short narrative vignettes like the one above, prefigure the novelists' adaptation of the case form to, for instance, produce realistic characters in the interplay between general categories and particular types. (14) Anchoring these case-making efforts is the rule of "propriety," functioning in both the ethical and aesthetic sense. Portraying sympathy as a modulation of emotional "pitch" and "degree" operating through intersubjective channels, Smith insists that measures of propriety--fitness and unfitness, approbation and disgust--are weighed on ethical and aesthetic levels at once. (15) With the same principle he anticipates the ways in which nineteenth-century realism averts the naive mimesis of which it has been accused. Propriety for the realists has regularly been conceptualized using terms like Smith's, verisimilitude, or realist probability, only one among many measures of what George Levine calls realism's effort to "make words conformable to reality, and particularly to the reality of social action" (Imagination 35). I have suggested that "realist probability" relies on negotiations similar to those engaged by the potential sympathizers Smith describes.
Focusing on nineteenth-century narrative practices, I am arguing for the ways in which realism's characteristic techniques can be said to instantiate Smithian sympathy at the level of form. My task has been to explain how realist narrative might best exemplify Smith's paradigm, and what a focus on the realist mode can yield. If harmony, rather than identity, underwrites the sympathetic operation Smith describes, it suggests that an important temporal difference obtains between models of sympathy (like Smith's) that stress willful intellectual engagement over the more physiological sympathy of bodily response associated with sensation fiction. On one level we might locate that difference between a temporality of measured deliberation and that of instantaneous shock--between the slower time of mental calibration and the quick pulse of embodiment--while on another, it might register as a difference in tone. Thus when Smith writes that while gout and toothache really hurt they are, nevertheless, "ridiculous" subjects for tragedy--or that where we cannot sympathize with actual hunger, we can with "the distress which excessive hunger occasions, when we read the description of it in the journal of a siege, or of a sea-voyage" his insistence on the abstraction of feeling (here, pain) results in a sympathy of mediation (33). (16) Drawing on Smith's model of fellow-feeling, we can conclude that nineteenth-century realism is a sympathetic realism for at least one considerable reason: because mediation (temporal and imaginative) is central to its formal process.
George Eliot is the novelist onto whom I now shift my focus, but I hope in what follows to complicate some commonly-held assumptions about how Eliotic sympathy (and thus her realism) works. Lacking the time for a fuller assessment of the realists, I have chosen Eliot in part for the unsurprising reason that she is regarded as the Victorian realist novelist par excellence, and the one whose name most often appears in conversations about Victorian sympathy. Further, Eliot's overt authorizing of the power of sympathy makes especially germane her attempts at reconciling ethical duty with narrative form. If it is true that Eliot ushers a new seriousness into fiction, holds a mirror (albeit a "defective" one) to nature, and sets her sites on humdrum weavers and shallow rills, she is nonetheless suspicious of realist narratives' ability to foster fellow-feeling in readers (Adam Bede 175). Critics never tire of talking about sympathy in Eliot, but that wealth of talk is disproportionate to the narrow fund of sympathy represented in her novels, especially Middlemarch. While the word itself shows up some thirty-odd times in one form or another, successful sympathy, Smith-style--harmoniously pitched and level-headed--is remarkably hard to come by in that novel.
It's just possible Eliot hints as much. Writing of the new doctor, Lydgate, on his arrival in town, Eliot states: "Mr. Bulstrode perhaps liked him the better for the difference between them in pitch and manners," adding, "he certainly liked him better, as Rosamond did, for being a stranger in Middlemarch" (Middlemarch 116). ff this is an in-joke for Smith fans, it's a good one. Bulstrode, the antinomian so self-satisfied he can shrug off Providence, figuring "it is only what we are vividly conscious of that we can vividly imagine to be seen by Omniscience," is more casuist than ethicist, and Rosamond's better liking of the off-pitch stranger hardly counts as an attempt at harmonizing with somebody else's equivalent self (646). Otherness isn't tolerated here, and for all this talk of difference, Lydgate is about to be eaten alive by the "young virgins" and "grey-bearded men.., often in haste to conjecture how a new acquaintance might be wrought into their purposes" and a town that "counted on swallowing Lydgate and assimilating him very comfortably" (144). But even Dorothea, whose "sympathetic motive" fuels a longing for "action at once rational and ardent," is continually baulked in her efforts by an irritating prosperity that keeps local pigs from dying and stocks a chicken in every laborer's pot (80). Dorothea's ardor is disappointed because there are too few needy objects onto which her sympathy might fix.
As it tends to do in real life, sympathy regularly fails to develop in Middlemarch, and it is, perhaps, in charting these failures that Eliot's novels do their most ethical work. Eliot's sympathetic realism emerges in the self-scrutinizing quality of her fictions, in the ways in which they test narrative's ability to foster fellow-feeling through form. We'll examine one: the relationship between sympathy and omniscience. Sympathy repeatedly founders in those characters most narrator-like in their omniscience. Insofar as they come to be or seem omniscient, these characters are unsympathetic, often doubly so in that they cannot successfully give or receive it (from Eliot or from us). That Eliot's lessons on fellow-feeling are repeatedly, and negatively, encoded in sympathy's most exemplary failures is an insight gained by looking at those characters for whom their author seems to have had no sympathy herself. Unexpectedly for these characters, omniscience does little damage to the novels' realism (a mode quite savvy at incorporating Gothic and other non-realist elements), but calls attention to how realism, and how sympathy, works, ff egoism prompts these characters to make everyone else's thoughts their own--both by assuming that everyone else shares their feeling and opinions and by assuming control over others' thoughts--it is also the case that this capacity is ordinarily available to narrators only, often realist narrators, the same ones regularly accused of exercising monologic, ideologically-totalizing control over narrative. That this is a charge brought not only against Eliot's narrators in particular but the realist novel in general makes her example useful in considering both. (17 In bringing to life characters in whom realism's signature technique is brought to life, Eliot questions the extent to which omniscience might forestall rather than encourage fellow-feeling. As we will see, these are characters inhabiting a total time which, obviating realism's partial and provisional solutions, renders sympathy virtually impossible.
TOTAL TIME: ELIOT, OMNISCIENCE, AND THE FAILURE OF SYMPATHY
It is not a matter of asking, "Are there any examples of telepathy in this narrative?"--for there are no literary fictional works that do not involve a thinking of telepathy. The question is rather: "How does this narrative engage with the telepathic, and how are we as readers already embroiled in it?"
Nicholas Royle, "The 'Telepathy Effect'" (108)
Middlemarch is the realist tour de force of which Henry James quipped, "a marvelous mind throbs in every page," and in an essay on the subject of that novel's "brain" Kent Puckett poses a question of genre: what might James have meant by asserting that his own novels should have "less 'brain' than Middlemarch, but ... more form"? (qtd. in Puckett 292),TM Comparing the "forms produced by Middlemarch's narrator as narrator versus those produced by Rosamond Vincy as narrator"--the former "cerebral," the latter anti-cerebral and "sensational"--Puckett observes that what Rosamond's style evokes is a major feature of sensation fiction: "its proximity" (295). That is, to the reader. Citing a Quarterly reviewer who wrote, "[i]t is necessary to be near a mine to be blown up by its explosion; and a tale which aims at electrifying the nerves of the reader is never thoroughly effective unless the scene be laid in our own days and among the people we are in the habit of meeting," Puckett claims that Middlemarch disavows the sensational forms producing thoughtless "electrifying effects," while at the same time--attempting to "inoculate itself" against sensation's appeal--finds it cannot dispense with those forms in practice (ibid.). Just as Rosamond's storytelling is motivated by a desire to produce physiological symptoms, it may be possible to read "brainlessly"--that is, with the body-and not just sensation fiction, but heady novels like Middlemarch, too. Farebrother's jarred anencephalous monster turns out to be a figure for the brainless reader haunting Eliot's text (297).
Puckett doesn't say so, but it may be that the proximity of sensation itself is a problem registered in Eliot's realism: that is, the problem for ethics of other people's feelings, along with the separate but related problem that, even with brains, we can't ever know what they are no matter how close we get. Puckett is well aware that the genre problem he names is, for Eliot, an ethical one: Rosamond's narrative strategy poses a "moral problem" for forgoing "the aesthetic whole in order to produce discrete feelings as a result of discrete gestures" (294). I submit that it is not just the narrator's, but Rosamond's "marvelous mind" throbbing throughout the pages of Middlemarch. The woman who "[desires] nothing better than to tell, in order that she might evoke effects" is also resolutely single-minded, incapable of imagining a world of other minds whose thoughts do not match or cannot be made identical to her own (Middlemarch 564). On the one hand, we're told that she's a "thoughtless girl" with "no consciousness" that her "action[s] could rightly be called false" (326, 627). As if to prove the point, Eliot writes that when she is "conscious," she is "conscious of forgiving" Lydgate for, among other things, their mutually-incurred debt (557). But on the other, this thoughtlessness signals something other than embodiment-say, sensation trumping mind--for in her iron-willed self-confidence Rosamond is in a sense nothing but mind. Rosamond doesn't lack thoughts, of course; she is thoughtlessly inconsiderate of other minds. Yet hers is a particularly brutal single-mindedness, signaling a massive failure of imagination and a serious flaw in her sympathetic machinery. Coolly annihilating any ideas and perspectives that do not accord with hers, she is unsympathetic not (like Bulstrode) for her hypocrisy but for quite an opposite problem: Rosamond can never be of two (or more) minds. She simply assimilates all minds into her own.
This failure to imagine is coded as a problematic form of knowledge. After all, even if we know that what Rosamond thinks she knows is wrong from another point of view, there's no stopping her conviction that all the world's plots will bend to her imagining. And she's usually right. Her thoughtlessness turns out to represent not sensational empty-headedness so much as an aggressive mentality. "Educated to a ridiculous pitch" (157)--and thanks to Smith, we know what bad pitch can signify-she is described as a kind of tutelary spirit, a "sylph caught young and educated at Mrs. Lemon's" (150), a woman whose "idea[s]" have such a forcefully "shaping activity" they can turn all others into "counter-idea[s]," a "mere negative," or the "shadow cast by other resolves which themselves were capable of shrinking" (255). While an "idea in her mind" tends toward "a more solid kind of existence, the necessary materials being at hand," Lydgate's "counter-idea" (of remaining unengaged until there is money to marry) morphs into a "jelly-fish which gets melted without knowing it" (255). Rosamond's ideas alone have the power to negate every other, her unshrinking will making "shadows" or worse of all the rest. If Rosamond is "thoughtless" for neglecting others, she is nothing if not "mindful": full of the "more solid" "materials" of her own "ideas," and not much else.
Indeed, she is narrator-like in not quite having a "self," in being something like mindfulness entire. This seems tied to the weird temporality her mind projects. It's quite ordinary to talk of especially singular characters as having dropped in on realism from some other genre or plot (compounded in Rosamond's case by the parallel to Madame Laure), but Rosamond's belonging to the realist novel despite this strange power is of a piece with our sense that omniscient temporality is one of the novelistic conventions it is her purpose to unsettle. The "more solid kind of existence" enjoyed by Rosamond's ideas, given how they cancel every other, ill suits them for the sorts of imaginative negotiations required by sympathy. It's not that Rosamond cannot imagine anything so much as that her "more solid" mental materials signify a rigid hardening of that intersubjective, temporally dynamic circuit in which a specifically sympathetic imagining takes place. "By nature an actress of parts," even "act[ing] her own character, and so well, that she did not know it to be precisely her own," Rosamond needn't decide which "character" is "precisely her own" because she is master of all "parts" and plots (109). But if in this the novel makes explicit the connection between Rosamond and Lydgate's first romantic interest, the cold-blooded actress Laure, it also intimates her narrator-like conscription of all characters alike, which in turn explains her difficulty in assuming a character "precisely her own."
While both Rosamond and Laure might seem plucked from the other genres of sensation fiction and melodrama, that fact doesn't explain the comparative prosperity they enjoy: both thrive while other and better people around them perish. When her aunt labels her a "thoughtless girl" she means to call attention to the petted Rosamond's bringing-up, a view from which Rosamond is perhaps less melodramatically one-note than utterly common (after all, time spent thoughtless of other people's feelings is surely the bulk of ordinary life). Yet the commonness of her egotism does not make it less dangerous, for Rosamond's omnipotence is mirrored in the murderous Laurels: both take a total view that annihilates time along with other people. The over-fullness of the account Laure gives of her husband's death exemplifies the point. She exerts such mastery over plot that it's as if all plots are equally hers to own. Laure first tells Lydgate, "My foot really slipped" then adds "I meant to do it," finally claiming, "I did not plan: it came to me in the play" (43-44; emphasis original). Whereas Lydgate seems nearly powerless to control his plot, Laure's narrator-like power puts all plots and apparently all time at her disposal, from the lengthier time of planning and intending to the spontaneity of unthinking action. Likewise, Rosamond's prosperity issues in the deathless power of her narrative to renew itself, a product of her ability to incorporate other plots into her own. One of the last things we hear of her is that Lydgate had before dying begun to refer to her as "his basil plant" for her ability to "[flourish] wonderfully on a murdered man's brains" (782).
Laure and Rosamond seem to share a monologic power over plots that murders otherness while guaranteeing for themselves something like a narrator's infinite fife. After all, if Rosamond's flaw is her colossal ego, it's a lot like omniscience, a totalizing view that just won't quit. True, she could care less what's really going on in the minds of others, but we may still call omniscient her ability to consolidate every other mind into a centralizing consciousness, a move which also totalizes plot. Thus her longing to marry a stranger can never be satisfied, for there are no strangers in Rosamond's world: everybody is what she makes of them, every story one she already knows. In her first encounter with Lydgate the narrator makes this plain, up to and including "falling in love, [which] was just what Rosamond had contemplated beforehand" (109). Indeed, we're told that "[strangers], whether wrecked or clinging to a raft ... have always had a circumstantial fascination for the virgin mind," and that therefore "a stranger" of one kind or another "was absolutely necessary to Rosamond's social romance" (109). The sympathy occasioned in Smith by reading accounts of distressing sea-voyages, which assumed that readers would "imagine [themselves] in the situation of the sufferers" then feel "in some degree of those passions," has been swapped for another kind of reading, one that in cancelling time cancels narrative suspense, never pausing to produce the occasion for sympathetic investment (33). (19)
Eliot had developed an analogue to Rosamond in an earlier novel. The Lifted Veil features its own version of the "heartless girl" in Bertha Grant, and as the one person Latimer's mind cannot penetrate she is, "thoughtless" in her own way, a likely prototype for the insuperable Rosamond (Veil 33). But it is Latimer Rosamond resembles most, and most conspicuously in their shared dominion over others' thoughts. This will seem strange given that, while Rosamond annihilates the thoughts of others, Latimer's problem is a clairvoyant power he can't turn off. But Latimer's clairvoyance is like Rosamond's thoughtlessness in that both are portrayed as failures of sympathy keyed to a lack of imagination. Their speculative problems rendered as problems for sympathy, each is unsympathetic in relation to the total view they represent. Neither can inhabit what I called, in the last section, "sympathy time" because neither engages reflexive thought; the traffic between minds that constitutes sympathetic motion in Smith deadens, in Latimer's case, into stasis. Where Rosamond's single-mindedness was totalizing in its refusal to imagine other minds, Latimer's many-minded clairvoyance is similarly total and unimaginative: he cannot imagine what others are thinking because he already knows. For Latimer, such knowing produces not a crowded field of sociability, but a static timelessness wherein neither narrative nor sympathy prospers. (20) The "strange telepathic reality" that, according to Nicholas Royle, characterizes all narrative fiction--more as "literary phenomenon" than "psychological problem"--is especially pronounced in these two novels, representing two approaches to the same problem (109; emphasis original). The Lifted Veil's "preternaturally heightened sense of hearing, making audible to one a roar of sound where others find perfect stillness" (22) turns into Middlemarch's more famous worry that "[i]f we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like heating the grass grow and the squirrel's heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence" (182). Both make the argument for abstraction, portraying as excruciating anything close to unmediated (and immediate) access into other minds.
"Prevision" is the name Latimer gives to his uncontrollable sensitivity to the "mental processes going forward in first one person, and then another," processes frustrating largely to the extent that they are the dull and "trivial experience of indifferent people" leaving him "wear[ied] and annoy[ed]" (Veil 16). Though he claims to experience a more "intense pain and grief" when heating the thoughts of his close relations, it isn't for the reason we might imagine. Seen "as if thrust asunder by a microscope vision" their "[open] ... souls" are most ugly not for their hidden aggressions and hypocrisies but their commonness: in them, Latimer finds "intermediate frivolities," a "struggling chaos of puerilities," and "vague, capricious memories" along with "indolent make-shift thoughts" (ibid.). Perhaps this is what it's like to be the narrator of a realist novel, with all its low-grade egotism and petty ordinariness, a fate Latimer (a failed Romantic poet) would despise. In any case, Latimer's "prevision" prefigures Rosamond's. Riding in her carriage after meeting Lydgate, it takes Rosamond "a mile" to have "determined on her house in Middlemarch, and foreseen the visits she would pay to her husband's high-bred relatives at a distance," for through the sheer force her of thoughts Lydgate "suddenly correspond[s] to her ideal." Confirmation that this "foreseeing" marks a Latimer-like power follows, as we're told there was "nothing financial, still less sordid, in [Rosamond's] previsions" (Middlemarch 110). But if these "previsions" are thoroughly idealizing in expurgating "sordid" concerns, they are realized, too: everything Rosamond foresees, she gets. Moreover, the materialization of Rosamond's previsions is tethered to her narrator-like status, for while "the basis for her structures had the usual airy slightness," Rosamond "was of remarkably detailed and realistic imagination when the foundation had been once presupposed" (ibid.). An altogether "airy" character, Rosamond's "remarkably... realistic imagination" presupposes narrative foundation, materializing the very ends of plot.
In The Lifted Veil, the tension between sympathy and omniscience is readily recognizable, but easily misconstrued. Sympathy is as serious a concern here as it is in other Eliot novels; indeed, Latimer claims he's telling his story in the hopes that someone will feel sympathy for him once he's dead. Yet for many readers he is unsympathetic and unreliable, his story more Gothic than realist, and the whole result rather more disappointing than not. As Jill Galvan put it, his is a case of "misregarding," a specific kind of narration that is unreliable with regard to ethical values: "the fault turns on Eliot's favorite theme of sympathy" she writes; "Latimer ironically reverses this emotion, in that it fuels his egotism rather than his altruism" (44). (21) But the problem isn't that Latimer "reverses [the] emotion" of sympathy, which, as we've seen, is no "emotion" at all. Instead, feeling cursed by omniscience, Latimer loses the distance from others requisite to the sympathetic exchange. Knowing what others think and feel turns out to be, as Smith had argued, the worst impediment to sympathy imaginable. Critics who seek to disprove Latimer's clairvoyant powers in order to argue that the novel is realist thus miss the point, for it is realist exactly to the degree that Latimer's extraordinary powers of insight develop: to the degree that Latimer literally brings omniscience to life. The technique supposed by many of the realists to effectively prompt sympathetic identification and imagining has here been considerably depleted of that very potential. (22)
Suffering clairvoyance, Latimer wishes for a sympathy that would forward his Romantic, lyric ambitions while keeping real people's thoughts and feelings at bay. His disgust for his brother is fueled by the fact that Alfred's pettiness and stupidity are "seen not in the ordinary indications of intonation and phrase and slight action, which an acute and suspicious mind is on the watch for," but in their totality, what Latimer calls "all their naked skinless complication" (Veil 18). People aren't easier to understand, much less sympathize with, when we know their hidden thoughts and motives, for this results in "skinless complication;' not clarity. Bertha Grant, her mind blocked from his, is the only person about whom Latimer is happily able to "speculate" and for whom he can feel "the real interest of ignorance" (ibid.). Just as "real interest" is only possible in a state of "ignorance:' "suspense"--with its important temporal dimensions--is, as Latimer seems to know, "the only form in which a fearful spirit knows the solace of hope" (28). Caroline Levine has claimed that for nineteenth-century intellectuals "a doubtful pause was absolutely essential to the pursuit of knowledge" (3), and while Latimer, comprehending the value of suspense, pursues "the real interest of ignorance" instead, this is because he lacks that well-wadded stupidity that could promise sympathy rather than "skinless" knowledge. A first-person narrator with a third-person problem, Latimer demonstrates how easy it is to confuse sympathy with omniscience, just as he realizes the deadliness to sympathy of the fantasy omniscience promises.
Latimer seems to know that, being omniscient, sympathy is unavailable to him. Unquestionably, Latimer is a puerile, self-pitying sort of man, but we should recognize that his morbid self-fashioning critiques the terms with which we would condemn him, making it impossible to assume that our sympathy for others is the product of either our altruism or our better understanding. Latimer insists that what he misses most is not knowing, and he is positively Smithian when he claims: "[my] consciousness was heightened to that pitch of intensity in which our own emotions take the form of a drama which urges itself imperatively on our contemplations, and we begin to weep, less under the sense of our suffering than at the thought of it" (Veil 30-31). Note that the narrative dimensions of this "drama" are explicit. By abstracting his "own emotions" into "form," Latimer's feelings become "contemplations," and "we" can respond with sympathetic weeping at the "thought" (but emphatically not the "sense") of "suffering" Latimer confirms again that the human soul depends on "something hidden and uncertain for the maintenance of that doubt and hope and effort which are the breath of its life" (Veil 37). Truth and certainty are deadly not just for his poetry but also for the "breath of... life," an outlook corroborated in a passage that seems to come directly from Eliot: "Conceive the condition of the human mind if all propositions whatsoever were self-evident except one, which was to become self-evident at the close of a summer's day, but in the meantime might be the subject of question, of hypothesis, of debate. Art and philosophy, literature and science, would fasten like bees on that one proposition which had the honey of probability in it, and be the more eager because their enjoyment would end with sunset" (ibid.).
This is more than mere hypothesis, for the "honey of probability" underwrites the realist aesthetic. Latimer knows that "one of the vain thoughts with which we men flatter ourselves" is the thought, born of "bitter regret," that pride and passion might give way to pity, that "some softening influence" might come along to temper selfishness into sympathy: "[we] try to believe that the egoism within us would have easily been melted," he says, "and that it was only the narrowness of our knowledge which hemmed in our generosity, our awe, our human piety, and hindered them from submerging our hard indifference to the sensations and emotions of our fellows" (Veil 27-28). But it isn't the "narrowness of our knowledge" preventing us from fellow-feeling; sympathy is impossible in the presence, not absence, of that knowledge. The ignorance necessary for fellow-feeling mirrors the "honey of probability" required for realist art. (23)
If The Lifted Veil suggests that omniscience is the murderer of sympathetic fellowship, it is also a story about the nineteenth-century realist mode. We've assumed that getting to know what goes on inside other people's heads is--at least when reading fiction---the surest guarantee of our sympathy with them, that the more we know the better we can sympathetically identify with them. But Eliot had reservations about the degree to which such intimacy with others' thoughts prompted ethical responses in us. The Lifted Veil is deeply cynical about the marriage between sympathy and knowledge. No doubt omniscience might serve an ethical purpose in fiction that would be disastrous for ethics in real life, but Eliot questions the extent to which putting her readers inside the minds of others provides them with a template for ethical action. That these concerns are undiminished in some of Eliot's more recognizably realist novels the example of Rosamond began, I hope, to show. Eliot continually tests the validity of Smith's insight that it is only by abstracting human feeling from actual bodies and felt emotions--by imagining, not knowing, what others think and feel that sympathy can enable an ethical economy of exchange. Critiquing the notion that sympathy requires identification, Eliot sought to test the capacity of realist principle to prompt sympathy in her readers: a sympathy articulated in the pause between minds that Latimer and Rosamond lacked.
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"With special thanks to Ian Duncan, Jonathan Elmer, Monique Morgan, Rebecca Stern, and the anonymous reader and editors of Narrative.
(1.) In an essay on Austenian style indirect libre, Frances Ferguson claims that "indirect style is the novel's one and only formal contribution to literature" (159). See also George Levine's "Literary Realism Reconsidered" for a discussion of how FID differs from omniscience: an "ingenious compromise between first person narration, whose limits and unreliability have been part of novelists' problems since Pamela (1740), and full omniscience," FID allows the author to "disappear," can allow "interiority without constricting the reader to the full bias of the characters" desires and prejudices," and "encourages the reader to be an active participant in the narrative ... and thus further gives the sense that the narration is like life, in which there are no omniscient narrators to help us decide what to think about what we experience" (19). Omniscient narrations are "far less illusory," "monologic" not "dialogic" and "constrained by a single consciousness rather than revelatory of the free play of alternative voices" (ibid.). For my purposes, the single term "omniscience" names a fantasy of all-knowingness discoverable in several types of narrators, including characters. I use "omniscience" to describe a will to omnipotence available to third-person narrators and realistically-drawn characters alike.
(2.) For a spirit ...debate on the subject of omniscience, see Culler, "Omniscience," and Sternberg's recent (and massive) response, "Omniscience in Narrative Construction" Recent accounts of omniscience in the nineteenth-century novel include those by Nelles and Jaffe (Vanishing Points). In 1957, Richard Strang claimed that "all" of George Eliot's narrators are omniscient because all her characters' consciousnesses are significant; he argues Eliot would have considered single-perspective narration "immoral" (954).
(3.) In 1957 M. H. Abrams distinguished between "sympathy" and "empathy," but a quick survey of novel criticism shows the distinction is largely ignored. For Abrams, "empathy" signifies "a spectator's identification with a person or object" with an emphasis on physiological effects, while sympathy is "not a feeling-into, but a feeling-along-with the state of mind and emotions of another human being" and thus denotes "fellow-feeling" but not identification (48-9). For the writers with whom I'm concerned, "sympathy" contained many qualities now designated as empathetic.
(4.) Dismayed that Paul Ricoeur finds that "what's truly historical about realist fiction has nothing whatever to do with the depiction of the historical milieu, but arises instead from experiments with temporality," Shaw joins temporality with adjudication (75; emphasis original). He is interested not in how individual words in realism point to an extraliterary "real" but how sentences force us to recognize that "language is already past any one incarnation of itself, and already past single-observer epistemology" (71).
(5.) The major statement of this position with regard to Smith is Marshall's, in The Figure of Theater; see also his The Surprising Effects of Sympathy. Critics of the novel who link sympathy to theatricality and the visual include Litvak, Hinton, and Jaffe (Scenes of Sympathy).
(6.) The major work in English on "the case" form is Chandler's England in 1819, but interest in cases has recently exploded: see both Summer and Autumn 2007 issues of Critical Inquiry, both dedicated to study of the case and edited by Lauren Berlant.
(7.) See, along with England in 1819, Chandler's "The Theory of Sentiment and the History of Casuistry:
Adam Smith and the Case of the Other," a lecture delivered at the University of Chicago's Center for Teaching and Learning, and "On the Face of the Case."
(8.) Darwall refers to this field as a projection of "the first-person-plural perspective I share with all others to whom my judgment is implicitly addressed" (160).
(9.) The impartial spectator is associated with the faculty of reason. Hence, "[it] is [from] reason, principle, conscience, the inhabitant of the breast, the man within, the great judge and arbiter of our conduct" that we "learn the real littleness of ourselves, and of whatever relates to ourselves, and the natural misrepresentations of self-love can be corrected only by the eye of this impartial spectator" (Smith 194).
(10.) Smith's discussion of sympathy with the dead is perhaps the strongest proof that abstraction, along with "othemess," is required: as with fictional characters, we can sympathize with the non-living corpse not by feeling what it feels (which is nothing) but by an "illusion of the imagination," through an "idea of that dreary and endless melancholy" we only imagine it feeling (9).
(11.) Smith writes: "To see the emotions of [others'] hearts in every respect beat time to his own, in the violent and disagreeable passions, constitutes his sole consolation. But he can only hope to obtain this by lowering his passion to that pitch, in which the spectators are capable of going along with him. He must flatten ... the sharpness of its natural tone, in order to reduce it to harmony and concord with the emotions of those around him" (23). Emphasizing the non-identical quality of these emotions, Smith adds, "[w]hat they feel will, indeed, always be in some respects different from what he feels ... because the secret consciousness that the change of situations, from which the sympathetic sentiment arises, is but imaginary, not only lowers it in degree, but in some measure varies it in kind, and gives it a quite different modification" (23).
(12.) On Smith's conceiving the modern subject as a reader, see Duncan, most recently in Scott's Shadow.
(13.) Smith's originality, Duncan continues, "lies in the recognition of a subject-formation that takes place through the techniques of literacy, and is dialogical in its operation: the activation of 'sentiment' occurs in a sympathetic transaction between the representation and the reader or audience, as opposed to its being found 'in' either the text or the reader's psychology" (47).
(14.) Chandler writes that the case form--"associated at once with agency, judgment, and normativity, on the one hand, and with the working through of contradiction, on the other"--is a formal principle mediating between normative and descriptive orders, and thus bears the "very form of 'deliberation'" (England 209). For a version of this process in Middlemarch, see Gallagher.
(15.) Sympathy can only be achieved when the conventions of propriety have been met." "in the suitableness or unsuitableness, in the proportion or disproportion, which the affection seems to bear to the cause or object which excites it, consists the propriety or impropriety ... of the consequent action" (Smith 17).
(16.) Realist fiction might then be said to exemplify the discipline Smith brings to Hume's account of emotional transfer, replacing a "contagion" model (whereby feeling's "force" passes amongst bodies and produces physiological effects) with one that emphasizes reasoned self-control. See Hume's Treatise.
(17.) Lanser finds that narrators in Austen and Eliot demonstrate a sort of mastery that effectively renders those narrators male. Shaw argues against the argument that as the "realist narrator presents himself as omniscient," so "omniscience is male" (253). On the realist novel as ideologically totalizing, see Bender and Davis.
(18.) For a physiological theory of narrative, see Dames.
(19.) According to Dames, Eliot was at the center of "the theoretical terrain we might now call "temporal form" (127): narrative form (in Daniel Deronda) is "temporalized," "time itself an aesthetic and psychological problem" signaled in the novel's experiments with "lastingness," both formal and conceptual (the latter, those affiliations--racial, national, religious--"that stretch beyond merely biographical frame times") (128). I'm highlighting Eliot's efforts to represent sympathy as a process and thus as a temporalized element of realist form.
(20.) Royle points out (citing Cohn) that "narrative fiction is the only literary genre, as well as the only kind of narrative, in which the unspoken thoughts, feelings, [and] perceptions of a person other than the speaker can be portrayed" (qtd. in Royle 93). For Royle, narrative fiction's "telepathy effect" produces something other than omniscience, since these narrators are "embedded in a time-bound artifact," "not everywhere at once but now here, now there, now looking into this mind or that," both "time-bound and space-bound as God is not" (96). Royle suggests that "clairvoyance" better describes what so-called omniscient narrators know and do; the chosen vehicle of telepathy (which, says Royle, replaced the concept of omniscience in the later nineteenth century), it entails "an uncanny logic" which splits the unitary speaking subject and produces "being-two-to-speak" (or, feel), a concept borrowed from Derrida (Royle 103). The implications for narrative are clear. As Royle puts it, telepathy "introduces a literary scenario into any account or thinking of the unconscious" (100; emphasis original). I retain the term "omniscience" but find useful parallels between Royle's account of the time-bound, clairvoyant narrator and the extra-sensory intersubjectivity of Smith's narrative sympathy. Royle's Latimer suffers from "sympathetic clairvoyance," but I argue that sympathy is precisely what he cannot experience because he knows too much (99).
(21.) On "misregarding," see Phelan.
(22.) A compelling argument along these lines is Eagleton's, who suggests that the novel is realist because Latimer shares his clairvoyance with others of his type: other bourgeois social scientists, and realist fiction writers, for whom "all knowledge seems either active domination or passive empathy," since history-ending in its totalization (60). Sympathy is linked to science in that both foster "an urge to omnipotence"; "in passively possessing its object" sympathy is "powerless to affect it" (54). I'd argue that, for Eliot, sympathy and "possession" are incompatible, but agree that Latimer accedes to something like "synchronic vision," a temporality transcending mundane punctuality, because total ("you only need to worry about turning up on time if you can't foresee whether you will or won't," Eagleton writes) (56). Outside diachronic temporality, Latimer's sympathy fails to manifest.
(23.) Commenting on "that bungled bit of melodrama" concluding The Lifted Veil---where Mrs. Archer receives a blood transfusion and is raised from the dead just long enough to accuse Bertha of murderous designs on Latimer's life--Eagleton suggests that it is the very deathlessness of the narrative that betrays the particular (and particularly modern) "curse of omniscience" here "the epistemological circle of a bourgeois science which threatens to swallow the whole of Nature down its ravenous maw and so ends up knowing only its innards" (60). Omniscience registers the "terrifying omnipotence" of science threatening to "endlessly [recycle] its subjects, so that history, deprived of a closure, [ceases] to be narrative and [becomes] eternal recurrence" (ibid.).
Rae Greiner is Assistant Professor of English at Indiana University, where she specializes in Victorian literature. Her current book project is entitled Sympathetic Realism and the Nineteenth-Century Novel.
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|Date:||Oct 1, 2009|
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