In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

part 1. sympathy and the case for realism The previous chapter characterized the reality represented in nineteenth-century fiction as irreducible to objects that may be said to exist outside human language and thought. Devoted instead to portraying the texture of experienced life—the grain of historical reality, in the past and in the present—the realist novel highlighted sympathy’s role in maintaining social reality, from the seamless routines of ordinary living to the imaginative ability to inhabit other minds and distant places and times. By illuminating the sympathetic side of its historical project, we began to trace realism’s attempt at making absent worlds come alive by enabling readers to “go along with” the mentalities of others, an ability that in turn made readers’ own worlds the object of historical scrutiny (Smith, TMS 83). And we saw that the closer we regard all that conditions our experience of the real, the more the usefulness of affect, and fiction, increases: these become the privileged modes through which we communicate reality. As Wolfgang Iser has shown, the early nineteenth century saw a shift in empirical thought, wherein fiction was “upgraded” after a long association with mere lies (117). Depicting a world inaccessible to direct cognition, Humean skepticism ushered in a depreciation of knowledge that in turn granted imaginative processes increased significance. In such a world, reality requires fictive forms for its expression because conditions, not realities, are all that can be expressed. Softening the blow leveled by Hume’s insight, Adam Smith emphasized the social character of meaning by turning sentiment into social currency. Feeling, he saw, tells us what is, insofar as others can be said to share it. For the realist novelists writing in the aftermath of such conclusions, reality would depend on the practice, and the central proposition, c h a p t e r 2 The Art of Knowing Your Own Nothingness Bentham, Austen, and the Realist Case t h e a r t o f k n o w i n g y o u r o w n n o t h i n g n e s s 51 of sympathy—that what is true in a given moment is that which is collectively thinkable and can be felt as such. This democratic imperative runs throughout the nineteenth-century realist novel, in part because its attention is focused on common people living ordinary lives, but also because the reality it represents relies for its existence on imaginative agreements of mind born of sympathetic thought. Thus, it is through sympathetic practices that these novels demand to be read. This chapter considers the relevance of Smithian sympathy to three authors connected by the innovations they brought to bear on “sympathetic realism” in several forms: in Jeremy Bentham ’s linguistic philosophy, Jane Austen’s social realist fiction, and, in the twentieth century, in R. G. Collingwood’s historical method. All three describe historical reality as a phenomenon for whose understanding sympathy was paramount. It is sometimes said that the realist novel educates its readers, and that realism, as “an instrument of moral education,” enhanced understanding “by nurturing sympathy,” “confirmed above all in the power to feel a common humanity at work in humble modes of life, petty aspirations, thwarted desire” (Adams, History 189). Populated with naive protagonists with hard lessons in store, there can be little doubt that providing a moral education is key to the realist novel’s tutorial aims. But to argue that nineteenth-century realist form generates a sympathetic representational economy is to suggest that the education it provides is, like that of Bentham’s Chrestomathic School, less focused on the objects of knowledge than on evaluative and reflective processes, sympathy first among them.1 Training readers to hone their interpretive powers in an effort to decide what to think, how and how much to feel, the realists conceptualized “the real” relative to social feeling. Once reality is designated as that which humans have a hand in deciding , the real begins increasingly to consist of whatever ideas, sentiments, and attitudes can be (and are) held in common at a given moment. The “case,” a rhetorical form central to Smith’s sympathetic operation, facilitates the realist project of imaginatively feeling out other places and times, other selves, and the alternative realities they imply. What Smith called putting yourself “in the case” of the other becomes vital to the experience of social reality as the realist novelists sought to depict it (TMS...


Additional Information

Related ISBN
MARC Record
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.