- The Structure of Sentimental Experience
Further Responses to Marianne Noble on Stowe, Sentiment, and Masochism
The politics of sentimental culture can arguably be boiled down to one crucial but ambiguous phrase from Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Near the end of her novel, Harriet Beecher Stowe responds to her own question “But, what can any individual do?” with her most famous injunction: “they can see to it that they feel right.” What does it mean to “feel right” about slavery in particular, or about the other forms of physical and emotional suffering that mid-nineteenth-century sentimentalism took upon itself to represent? Does it mean to have the right feelings, to follow an identifiable set of affective instructions that implicitly inform a viewer how to respond to a given scene of suffering? Does it mean to feel strongly and well, to have the forms of response characteristic of “sensibility,” whatever the content of those reactions might be? Does it mean to feel correct, as if one were doing the right thing, based in a moral “common sense” inherent in human beings in general? 1
This series of definitional questions leads to a larger set of questions about the politics of affect in general. If, with Shirley Samuels, we define sentimentalism quite broadly as “a set of cultural practices designed to evoke a certain form of emotional response, usually empathy, in the reader or viewer,” do these practices and responses have a politics intrinsic to them? 2 Did the act of empathizing with a suffering slave lead the novel’s readers to any concrete action aimed at the relief of that suffering? Did it absolve the predominantly white and Northern readers of Uncle Tom’s Cabin from responsibility for their actions, leaving them “feeling good” about themselves for their imaginative extension of sympathy to subjects previously excluded from both citizenship and humanity itself? Did the spectacle of suffering provide a kind of self-affirmation—even a sadistic pleasure—to its viewers, one that paradoxically reinscribed the hegemony of the readers’ subject position and the subordinate position of the object of sympathy? Was even Stowe’s antislavery politics of affect another version of what one of sentimentalism’s historians has called the “disciplinary intimacy” that enforced bourgeois norms on and for the benefit of the newly dominant white middle class, underpinning what another calls the “tender violence” of the institutions and practices of nineteenth-century U.S. imperialism, internal and external? 3
Marianne Noble’s rich and provocative essay on “The Ecstasies of Sentimental Wounding in Uncle Tom’s Cabin” has implications for many of these questions. In Noble’s interpretation of Stowe, to “feel right” is to feel pain—or, better, to feel someone else’s pain. Sentimental “feeling” is premised on the possibility of a perfect intersubjectivity of affect, an ability to experience another’s anguish; at the same time, it is designed to elicit or incite the desire for such emotional transparency. Noble’s essay works out with admirable care and creativity some of the complex dynamics of sentimentalism’s paradigmatic act of interpellation, the way sentimental discourse addresses and constitutes its subjects as “embodied, affective person[s]” rather than as the abstract individuals of “universal humanism.” Through the figure of the “sentimental wound,” she gets at the paradoxes of this identificatory structure, pushing sentimentalism’s logic to its limits in order to make visible its potentially sadomasochistic dynamic. Sympathetic identification is masochistic not only [End Page 146] in the psychoanalytic case studies she cites (in which Freud’s and Krafft-Ebing’s patients use the torture of Tom as a masturbatory aid), but in any responsive reading of a novel whose plotted pleasures recur to scenes of whipped, weeping bodies whose wounds indicate their openness to being phantasmatically if temporarily inhabited by readers. As Noble concisely describes Stowe’s “literary method,” Stowe “thrusts into readers’ pre-existing wounds, forcing them to ‘feel for’ slaves by re-experiencing their own painful separations and other forms of suffering.” Though at moments like these Uncle Tom’s Cabin sounds oddly like J. G. Ballard’s Crash, Noble argues persuasively that the violence of Stowe’s “thrusts” is sadomasochistically transformed...