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Tender Consciousness: Sentimental Sensibility in the Emerging Artist—Sterne, Yeats, Joyce, and Proust (review)

From: James Joyce Quarterly
Volume 44, Number 3, Spring 2007
pp. 610-613 | 10.1353/jjq.2008.0027

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Laura Jane Ress argues in this important study that such key practitioners of modernist variants of the Künstlerroman as W. B. Yeats, James Joyce, and Marcel Proust all stand as the heirs to the eighteenth-century culture of sensibility. Ress discusses here the intellectual tradition of what Laurence Sterne termed "sentimental sensibility," the capability of transforming, through the intellect and the imagination, memories of emotional reactions to sensory experiences into the raw materials of art (19). Although many scholars before her have noted the modernists' debts to the formal innovations of Tristram Shandy, Ress sees Sterne's masterwork as crystallizing the eighteenth-century aesthetic sensibility that would later be as crucial for early twentieth-century writers. In Yeats's memoir Reveries over Childhood and Youth, as well as in both Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Proust's famous "Overture" and "Combray" sections of Swann's Way, Ress sees a development of three crucial traits stemming from Sterne which characterize his sentimental treatment of budding artistic sensibility: a sensitivity to sensorial perceptions that trigger memory and spur the imagination; an attention to the profundities of what appears to be trivia to show the importance of subjective perception; and a search for the self made possible through an encounter with language's possibilities.

Ress begins her study by tracing the roots of the eighteenth-century culture of sensibility in Great Britain. In this first survey chapter, she shows the underpinnings of the sentimental tradition, which originate in a philosophical interest in the mind's capacity for sympathy and virtue spearheaded during the reign of the Stuarts by the Cambridge Platonists, and also in John Locke's interest in the psychology of the senses and in the cultivation of tastes through education. By then discussing the treatment of the sentiments by such eminent Hanoverians as Anthony Shaftesbury, Francis Hutcheson, David Hume, and Adam Smith, Ress shows how interest in sharpening the human capacity for imaginative empathy through introspection and the cultivation of the sentiments developed.

Much of this intellectual genealogy is not new to Ress: Janet M. Todd and G. J. Barker-Benfield, among others, have accomplished exhaustive overviews of this philosophical sentimental tradition before her, so the practicality of the chapter exists mostly in orienting her readers through the tangled thicket of the tradition. Yet Ress has real difficulty here providing her readers with clear markers to find their way, and she ties one thinker to another haphazardly, sometimes proceeding chronologically but at other times thematically. Her decision to add another extended discussion of the intellectual tradition surrounding the study of melancholia (beginning with Aristotle) further snarls things in this chapter. Adding to the confusion is the fact that Ress's prose here does not seem as smooth as it is elsewhere, producing such sentences as "[w]ords' ideolectic use makes Locke fret" (14).

Happily, when Ress moves away from her philosophical survey in ensuing chapters, her writing becomes much more assured. Her second, an analysis of how Tristram Shandy stands as the type for modernist narratives of aesthetic development, occupies the heart of her argument, and it is here that Ress establishes herself as a strong and sensitive literary critic, approaching Sterne's novel not simply as an exercise in formal brilliance but rather as a subtle and extended exploration of creative sensibility. She points out how the novel's famous digressions into what appears to be trivia actually demonstrate the influence of the sentimental philosophical tradition and also how the narrative's treatment of Shandy's authorial consciousness anticipates "the internalized flow of interior monologue that we find in modern novels" (3). Moreover, she shows how the wedding of the narrator's intellect to his cognizance of his, and his family members', emotional reactions demonstrates the production of the Enlightenment sense of the sentimental—here not simply an outpouring of unchecked feeling but the rational retrospection of such emotion in moments of tranquility. In this, Sterne anticipates William Wordsworth, whose poetry and theories of the aesthetic also become important for Ress's later chapters on Yeats, Joyce, and Proust.

Of these three final chapters, the one on Yeats stands as the least...

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