- Emma, Gender, and the Mind-Brain
Writing about Emma, Terry Castle analyzes a phenomenon that our fortunate fall into theory had seemed to preclude forever: a response to the "sheer pleasure-effect" of reading.1 Like all redemptive returns, this one is knowing and deliberate. Castle writes, "It is often thought to be the height of critical naiveté to say one 'identifies' with a character. . . . Yet how else to describe [Emma's Box Hill] episode?" (47). Castle's blend of daring and defensiveness is appropriate to an essay that utilizes ways of discussing literature that have not been popular since the establishment of theory as the infrastructure of literary criticism. This is especially true given that Castle's own criticism helped to create theory's hegemony within literary studies.2 Likewise other observations take this unexpected turn. Throughout the essay, Castle uses, often self-consciously, anachronistic literary terms: Emma is "patently a work of genius" (40); detractors who criticize Jane Austen for upholding patriarchy "betray the experience of reading" (40); "[a] distinction might be made . . . between knowingness and what used (in simpler days) to be called wisdom" (46). Boldest of these backward glances is her focus on the "powerful emotional effects" (47) that Austen produces in her readers, which include "anxiety (49), catharsis, "an almost visceral feeling of safety" (51), as well as "pleasure" (53). According to Castle, "[a]n understanding of the true nature of Austen's achievement" depends on our "acknowledg[ing] freely the book's tremendous emotional power" (40). And her frankly avowed intention is to analyze this power, how Emma evokes "the suffusing exhilarating, almost physical sensation of joy and well-being that Austen's image of human life provides" (40). But this is not your garden-variety, belletristic exuberance. This is criticism that combines a Janeite vocabulary of appreciation with sophisticated, theoretically informed textual analysis. As her brilliant close readings demonstrate, Castle is certainly not naïve.
Castle further suggests that Emma's appeal is widespread, perhaps even ubiquitous. Her use of the impersonal pronoun to refer to the reader ("one identifies with a character"), framed by a rhetorical question ("How else [other than identification] to describe the Box [End Page 315] Hill episode?"), implies that her own response to Emma might belong to anyone or everyone. She acknowledges that Emma must traverse cultural boundaries in order to retain its emotional cogency.3 Yet the argument that follows turns on the claim that Emma has lost none of its appeal despite the differences between Austen's world and our own. Such assertions border on claiming universality. We identify with Austen's characters because we possess certain characteristics, especially of emotional response, that transcend cultural and temporal difference, and which therefore must be innate. From here, it is a short step to claiming the existence of literary universals, that because human minds and bodies, or more accurately, mind-bodies, share certain innate ways of thinking and responding, "literature" can be found everywhere that follows certain patterns and evokes certain emotional responses.4 Because of the persistent association of emotion with women and reason with men in western culture, in Austen's day and in our own, these claims have important implications for gender, since universals of literary responsiveness are, by definition, applicable to both men and women.
Emma is to a great extent about the discovery of such universals, about distinguishing what is characteristically human from what is feminine or masculine. More specifically, Austen discredits cultural myths of the gendered personality by exposing the factitious nature of the gendering of perception. Throughout Emma, perception is figured partly in terms of metaphors of the visual. This motif serves to invoke the theory of artistic value formulated by Sir Joshua Reynolds in his Discourses On Art, in which he grounds artistic excellence in an idealizing and, as we shall see, violent re-envisioning of the world aligned with a traditional conception of active, forceful masculinity. This aggressive, transformative definition of perception counters the model suggested by David Hume's theory of sympathy, developed in his Treatise of Human Nature. While in the Treatise sympathy is defined as the ability to apprehend another person's feelings...