Academic journal article Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation

The Impossibility of Sympathy

Academic journal article Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation

The Impossibility of Sympathy

Article excerpt

I know no book or system of moral philosophy written with sufficient power to melt into our affections.

- Wordsworth1


At the time that Bertolt Brecht and Walter Benjamin were warning of the political dangers of empathy (Einfühlung), the North American academy was embracing the eighteenth century as a century of feeling, sensibility, and sympathy.2 In From Classic to Romantic (1946), Walter Jackson Bate had made the case for the "age of feeling," and in the 1950s Northrop Frye introduced his influential notion of the "age of sensibility" as a broad description of literature after Pope and before Wordsworth.3 More recently, G. J. Barker-Benfield has characterized the eighteenth century as a period dominated by "the culture of sensibility," or what he calls a "new psychoperceptual paradigm" which accounted for the volatile relation between consciousness, gender, and consumerism.4 For BarkerBenfield, such prominent critics of sensibility as Mary Wollstonecraft were also part of this wider "culture of sensibility."5 This suggests there was an economy of sensibility that included, and was sustained by, critiques of sensibility.6 John Mullan, in his 1990 work, Sentiment and Sociability, describes this economy of sympathy as an ongoing tension between the limitations of an ideal public sociability and an increasingly fraught private sensibility.7 Whether celebrated or charted by its political, economic, and social failings, since at least the 1940s it has been taken for granted in eighteenth-century studies that "sympathy," the ability to be affected by or to enter into the feelings of others, is the concept patexcellence of the eighteenth century.8

In The Poetics of Sensibility: A Revolution in Literary Style (1996), Jerome McGann accounted for a recent interest in sensibility by noting the decline of the modernist rejection of sensibility and sentiment." McGann offers a broad outline for a narrative of sensibility and sentiment in the eighteenth century. Sensibility, or what he calls "the mind in the body," can be distinguished from sentiment, or "the body in the mind." From 1740 to 1780, he argues, sentiment "overtakes and subsumes" sensibility. According to McGann, the poetics of the eighteenth century can be described through a refined and discriminating materialization (sensibility) being displaced by an excessive materialization (sentiment). A constative sympathy is displaced by a performative sympathy that we happy few, we readers of T. S. Eliot, then forgot how to perform.10

There is something very attractive and beguiling, even sympathetic, about this narrative of sensibility as the move from a discriminating to an excessive materialization, and it certainly has an echo of the sweep and dynamic of Bate's "age of feeling" and Frye's "age of sensibility." Though McGann begins with Locke, this fall from sense as a kind of refined and refining act of discrimination recalls Aristotle's definition of touch as an "exactness of discrimination" in On the Soid (Peri psukhës). "While in respect of all the other senses we fall below many species of animals," Aristotle observes, "in respect of touch [aphen] we far excel all other species in exactness of discrimination [diapheróntos akriboi]. This is why man is the most intelligent of animals."11 McGann begins with the assumption of a discriminating sense - of a sense that can then be dulled and defused in effusions of sentiment. It is perhaps not fortuitous that McGann's distinction recalls Wordsworth's warning in the preface to the Lyrical Ballads (1798) that the "present state of the public taste in this country" is blunting "the discriminating powers of the mind."12

In the midst of trying to keep "sentiment" away from "sensibility" to support his narrative, McGann argues that today the only way we can read the literature of sensibility and sentimentality in the "spirit" of the eighteenth century is "by entering into those conventions, by reading in the same spirit that the author writ. …

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