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part 1. sympathetic detachment Of the metaphors used to characterize nineteenth-century literary realism—its ethos and methods—the mirror is arguably the most persistent. Holding mirrors to nature, the realists are said to offer reflections of and on the world by concentrating uncommon attention on common objects and rendering them without exaggeration. For the English novelists, however, realism involved more than fidelity to the actual. Form was for them a moral matter. The mirror and the method it figured were morally satisfactory insofar as a novel tempered its presentation of sordid fact with reflective distance. At this, the French were miserable failures. Members of a “cult of the ugly,” displaying a “tenderness for crime, [an] admiration for lawlessness [and] the avowed principles of distortion,” the French realists were routinely pilloried in the English press for assaulting readers with crass realities unleavened by disinterested judgment (Blaze de Bury 395– 96). According to Mme. Blaze de Bury, Victor Hugo’s “unbounded compassion for all suffering” distorted even our sympathy by releasing a “torrent of pity for all misfortune, all disgrace” (397). Hugo’s aesthetic crime, a failure to set margins, had moral consequences for readers unable to distinguish one suffering from the next. As Blaze de Bury laments, the French think, but they are not “thoughtful”: “thinkers of thoughts” though they are (“the business of their life is to think”), they refuse to “vulgarly appl[y]” thought to action. “It would be a mistake,” she concludes, “to call the French a thoughtful race” (410). The English realists, by contrast, saw themselves as ordering the real through the reflective, moral machinery of conscience. Declaring her mirror “defective,” George Eliot explained in Adam Bede that if her portrayals were sometimes “faint or confused,” their c h a p t e r 4 Not Getting to Know You Sympathetic Detachment n o t g e t t i n g t o k n o w y o u 123 outlines “disturbed,” this was because the novel was the product of a double re- flection: “a faithful account of men and things as they have mirrored themselves in [the] mind” (159). When Adam Smith spoke of mirrors, he too was interested in the distancing effects of representational doubling. It is not only that we strive for intimacy in sympathetic encounters, by mirroring other people’s feelings in ourselves, but that others act as mirrors through which to envision our own reflections, seen as if through their eyes. Striving to inhabit other minds, we hope to gain something like a narrator’s perspective on ourselves: impersonal and faithfully rendered, viewed at a remove. As we know, in The Theory of Moral Sentiments (TMS) Smith calls upon the “impartial spectator” for this purpose, naming that “great judge and arbiter of [our] conduct” the “tribunal” of our “conscience” (130). Impartial spectatorship involves reflection in several senses. Simulating impersonality in the effort to reflect upon the situations of others also enables a “survey our own sentiments and motives” as they might seem from the outside (110). Impartial spectatorship is “impartial” precisely because it is social. And it is thoughtful, gauging in an imagined, approximate way the impressions we leave on other people and those they imprint in us. Encouraging us to consider how others perceive us, Smith places sympathy’s mirror “in the countenance and behavior of those [we live] with,” where it is “always mark[ing] when they enter into, and when they disapprove of [our] sentiments” (ibid.). The legitimacy, the very reality of subjective experience, requires this outside confirmation. Imagining what others see involves self-difference; subjectivity emerges from that divide. The images in sympathy’s mirror are the products of a virtual, social reality: they reflect what we think others think of us. Eliot has long been crowned the doyenne of Victorian sympathy, yet sympathy in her novels is surprisingly rare. The Lifted Veil has seemed to some a story that calls sympathy directly into question, rendering impartial spectatorship a cruel joke by granting its preening, unlikable protagonist superhuman insight into others’ minds. A hapless stray apparently having lost his way en route to a Gothic tale (perhaps Charles Dickens’s “The Haunted Man”), Latimer harbors a mental power that would make him an odd member of Eliot’s high realist canon were it not that clairvoyance aptly figures a problem facing the realist novelists. As Gillian Beer suggests, for post-Romantic writers the “ethic of realism...

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Additional Information

ISBN
9781421407456
Related ISBN
9781421406534
MARC Record
OCLC
822667313
Pages
224
Launched on MUSE
2012-12-20
Language
English
Open Access
No
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