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Tender Consciousness: Sentimental Sensibility in the Emerging Artist—Sterne, Yeats, Joyce, and Proust. Laura Jane Ress. New York: Peter Lang, 2002. Pp. ix + 285. $55.95 (cloth).
Laura Jane Ress's Tender Consciousness proposes an unexpected genealogy for a select group of Modernist writers, namely Yeats, Joyce, and Proust. Ress argues that several of these authors' crucial works (Yeats's Reveries over Childhood and Youth, Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and Proust's Swann's Way) demonstrate more of an elective affinity for the eighteenth-century sentimental tradition than for Romanticism or Symbolism. According to Ress, it is Sterne's Tristram Shandy that, above all, represents the fons et origo of a number of supposedly Modernist literary principles—from the idea of narrative as an internalized flow or stream to the project of capturing the experience of epiphanic moments.
In her first chapter, Ress effectively surveys the British milieu in which the sentimental tradition arose and prospered. She reminds us that the Cambridge Platonists inaugurated the sentimental tradition by focusing on human goodness and spontaneous affection, investigating the work of the senses and proposing sympathy and benevolence as the supreme moral values. Ress recalls the insistence of eighteenth-century British writers from Shaftesbury to Hutchinson on the harmony of beauty and morality. She also points out the linkage of sense perception to refinement of feeling in Hume's notion of imaginative empathy and Locke's psychology of the senses. That a cultivated sensitivity and introspection make the artist susceptible to disillusionment and melancholia is a conviction held, in Ress's opinion, not only by eighteenth-century writers such as Sterne, but also by her preferred exemplars of Modernism. The sentimental tradition is important to Yeats, Joyce, and Proust, she argues, because of their efforts to balance imagination and reality, to find a median that eluded both the Romantics and the Symbolists. The Romantic and Symbolist withdrawal from reality was antithetical to the Modernists, who were much concerned with the life of the senses. In support of this reading, Ress notices Yeats's hostility to the Symbolist idea that art should remove us from life (109).
The second chapter forcefully argues for the influence of Sterne's Tristram Shandy on Yeats, Joyce, and Proust. Of the three, we only know for sure that Joyce had read Sterne. The interest of Ress's argument, however, resides in its elucidation of how a particular cultural tradition may have an afterlife long after its historical death. Indifferent to the strictures of genetic criticism and conventional literary periodizations, Ress's project is itself an exercise in sympathy. She incisively demonstrates how the sentimental tradition inspires many of Sterne's fundamental devices such as Tristram's touchingly melancholic conversational tone and the author's effort to win the reader's sympathy through banter and digression. Ress's analysis of Tristram Shandy reminds us that the dramatic interest of the sentimental novel resides not in action, but in the mind of the characters. Indeed, she suggests it would be improper to consider Tristram a real character, since he plays the role of a kind of disembodied consciousness, thus anticipating the Modernist stream-of-consciousness effect. On her view, even Tristram Shandy's moments of suspended action look like prototypes of the states of intensified awareness that Modernism later describes as epiphanies, moments of being, involuntary memories, or, as Yeats calls them in A Vision, a "moment of moments" (89).
The third chapter interprets the Irish poet's Reveries as a work of creative self-justification through a sentimentalizing of the poetic vocation. To express his own artistic identity, he establishes an interesting synthesis of Bildungsroman and Künstlerroman—a mode operative in Joyce and Proust as well—that follows a distinctly sentimental pattern. His aesthetic sensibility seems to arise from innate spontaneous impulses and physical sensations that lead to acts of memory, [End Page 395] imagination, and melancholic withdrawal. Quoting James McConkey, Ress maintains that for Yeats, as for Proust, memory...