restricted access Performances of Suffering and the Stagecraft of Sympathy
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264 Performances of Suffering and the Stagecraft of Sympathy JENNIFER REED In the mid- to late eighteenth century, the so-called Age of Sensibility, questions of how individuals were to relate to one another in civil society were increasingly theorized. Jonathan Lamb posits that these questions—questions of sympathy—arise in situations of “comparative powerlessness in which the function and tendency of social roles is no longer directly apparent to those who fill them.”1 His analysis persuasively describes the postfeudal , post-Reformation landscape of the eighteenth century, in which the rise of mercantile capitalism and revolutionary politics caused significant upheaval in social interactions. Enlightenment philosophers thought and wrote a great deal about sympathy, questioning the circumstances and conditions under which someone might care for another or act on his behalf . This culminated in what Lynn Hunt calls “the sudden crystallization of human rights claims at the end of the eighteenth century”2 The rise of the novel can be seen as a broad cultural reflex to this newly galvanized concern with identifying with others. I contend that although theories of sympathy in the eighteenth century are rightly characterized as primarily spectatorial, the emphasis that falls on ocular centricity fails to consider the importance of space and of spatial metaphorics . The literature and philosophy of the period conflates ocular metaphorics and spatial metaphorics in its thinking about sympathy, but they are nonetheless distinct. Attention to these spatial metaphorics gives particular insight into where the limits of sympathy can be found and what images of containment and incursion tell us about the conditions required for sympathetic engagement. A consideration of how sympathy works in space is particularly important in that supposedly ideal sphere of sympathetic engagement : the theatrical space. I will explore the figure of the spectacle often invoked to illustrate sympathetic engagement in eighteenth-century philosophy and unpack the often overlooked components of stagecraft—theatrical technologies and spatial considerations—to identify their importance Performances of Suffering and the Stagecraft of Sympathy 265 in facilitating sympathy. I argue here that eighteenth-century theories and representations of sympathy required that the spaces of suffering and spectation be distinct but that there also be some measured reciprocity between the two. I will be arguing that theatrical spaces and technologies are used in the eighteenth century to think through these requirements of successful sympathy. I will consider Laurence Sterne, the English novelist who helped define the sentimental in fiction, and Henry Fielding, the dramatist who in his final work presented his dying body as an object of sympathy. The centrality of the metaphor of the theater has become a commonplace in discussions of sympathy. As Jonathan Lamb writes, theater “has been supplying metaphors and illustrations for the discussion of sympathy” throughout its exploration in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century philosophy .3 To elaborate, Lamb articulates a quick review, beginning with Descartes ’s soul, perched on the pineal gland and surveying the representations of the passions clustered below it. In this example, it is worth noting that it is the observer who is elevated, not those figures that represent the players: the passions. Lamb also considers Hume’s theater of the mind and finally the carefully tuned performance that Smith’s victim must give in order to win the approval of a skeptical audience.4 However, it is the technologies employed by the theatrical space itself that seem most interesting in terms of exploring the somatic and spatial relationships that permit sympathy or in which sympathy fails. A performance of suffering that successfully elicits sympathy pays close attention to where the limits of sympathy are to be found—these limits often have spatial properties—and navigates these limits using careful stagecraft. In The Theory of Moral Sentiments Smith begins his discussion of sympathy with the seminal example of “our brother upon the rack” and describes the change of place that successful sympathizing necessitates. Smith concludes that it is “by the imagination [that] we place ourselves in his situation . . . we enter as it were into his body, and become in some measure the same person with him.”5 We should consider the implications of the spatial metaphorics of moving “into” the body of another, set up by the rather theatrical technology of the rack, which elevates the object of suffering and distances him from the spectator. On the next page, Smith turns to another example of the spectator and the object of his sympathy in which the experience is, once again, mediated by a specific technology, as...