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part 1. harmonizing in other words We began our investigation of sympathy’s formal protocols by focusing on its qualities of abstraction, noting sympathy’s deep dependence on the strength or weakness of our ideas. “To conceive or to imagine” pain, writes Adam Smith in The Theory of Moral Sentiments (TMS), “excites some degree of the same emotion , in proportion to the vivacity or dullness of [our] conception” of it (9). Raising our feeling to a level that approximates the feeling of another first requires representation, for only as a “conception” does the other’s feeling become vividly real to our minds. And though much has been made of the spectatorial elements of his sympathetic scene, when it came to portraying optimal sympathy Smith frequently turned to metaphors of sound. Sympathy at its most operative moments achieves a “concord” of different, yet coordinated, ideas and emotions, a “harmony of sentiments and affections,” not an identical match (22, 19).When sympathy fails to develop, it is often the fault of bad “pitch”: an off note or tonal misfire, a minor error in a major key (22). Though Smith uses the term loosely, its psychoacoustical properties are part of the appeal: “pitch” is subjective in that it involves a listener’s (or reader’s) perception, and it is objective in its concern with how the mind categorizes and orders a perceptual field. In Smith’s account, excesses of pitch are usually caused by sufferers unable or unwilling to hold back, while the puny, half-hearted effort of some would-be sympathizers kills sympathy before it starts. A sufferer’s “violent and disagreeable passions” impede the process by hindering our ability to feel “any thing that approaches to the same degree.” Until he “flatten[s] . . . the sharpness” of its “natural tone,” his feeling and ours will not “beat time” together (ibid.). Finessing variations tonal c h a p t e r 3 Dickensian Sympathy Translation in the Proper Pitch d i c k e n s i a n s y m p a t h y 87 and rhythmic is simply what one must do to sympathize with others. One needs a good ear to make it work. Given this, Charles Dickens’s rowdy cast of characters, with their trademark noise and extravagance, seem so prohibitive of a Smithian brand of sympathy one might suspect they had been invented for the purpose of demolishing it. Peopling his worlds with all things loud, frenetic, and absurd, Dickens creates environments that seem inimical to the rational, well-mannered sympathy Smith prescribes, an up-tempo riot to Smith’s slow jam. Dickens’s characters speak at decibel levels painful even to read about. The most popular Dickensian mode of utterance is the “ejaculation,” “astonishment” a common expression. Being shocked into or out of countenance is a frequent occurrence in a world where characters find it hard getting away from their own words (especially if Fagin is nearby, for he will likely repeat them). Verbal tsunamis spill forth from Mrs. Nickleby, Toots, Uncle Pumblechook, accosting their hearers. Flora Finching punctuates her sentences “with nothing but commas, and very few of them,” until even they finally desert her—and so it goes, ad nauseam (Little Dorrit 166). Stifled, endlessly talked-to characters vent their frustrations on themselves: Mr. Pocket yanks his hair out; Caddy Jellyby stings her inky face with vinegar; infants and children, their flesh “notched memoranda of their accidents,” tumble down stairs, brain themselves with nutcrackers, swallow pins, reach for scissors and fire (Bleak House 78). If a model of sympathy prevails in Dickens, it appears to be David Hume’s, not Smith’s. Humean emotional contagion, vibrating unstoppably from one body to the next, seems to animate the typical Dickensian text. If we are disinclined to sympathize with anyone whose pitch is off, or with displays of feeling any more robust than a trembling lip and moistened eye, it’s hard to imagine getting very far in Dickens before manifesting a Smithian sense of disgust . I wonder whether perhaps that isn’t the point. For Dickens hardly expects us to sympathize with every blunderbuss and hysteric who comes our way; he knows very well that we cannot. Tears and treacle notwithstanding, Dickens presents us with a world in which sympathy is difficult to accomplish, precisely because it is all too easy to judge other people’s sentiments preposterous and unfounded. A committed realist despite evidence to the contrary, Dickens defended himself...


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