The Yale Journal of Criticism 15.2 (2002) 293-314
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Philosophy in the Bedroom:
Middlemarch and the Scandal of Sympathy
While "sympathy" is a privileged ethical term in many nineteenth-century novels, it acquires a new kind of critical density as a term with both ethical and epistemological value in the writings of George Eliot. Sympathy, Eliot writes in her first published novel, is "the one poor word which includes all our best insight and our best love." 1 Here sympathy functions not only as a principle of social practice ("love") but it also carries a distinct epistemological charge—"insight" being a word Eliot associates with concepts, abstractions, and mental representations. Signifying both "our best insight" and "our best love," sympathy does not seem to be a poor word at all. Calling it "poor" draws attention perhaps to the humility traditionally associated with sympathy, an association that sticks even when sympathy becomes representative of such grand human potential. Yet its poverty is also suggestive of its singular expansiveness, because it stands alone as the only word in the language ("the one poor word") signifying both love and insight. The poverty Eliot calls attention to in her description of sympathy is perhaps not the poverty of sympathy at all but the poverty of language, a language traditionally signifying insight or ideas in isolation from love or social practices.
That love and insight are intimately connected for Eliot, as her description of sympathy suggests, is also evidenced in the routine pairing throughout her writings of such words as "love" and "knowledge," "thought" and "passion," "ideas" and "feeling." We should not be surprised by an artist aligning, for instance, "ideas" and "feeling," since this alignment functions as a hallmark of aesthetics, from Baumgarten and Schiller to Gadamer in our own time. 2 When Eliot writes in "Notes on Form in Art" that "Poetry begins when passion weds thought by finding expression in an image," she is not saying anything new. 3 She is reformulating the Schillerian idea that representation negotiates the formal and the sensuous drives, generalizing reason and particularizing feeling—what E. M. Forster will later call the prose and the passion. 4 What is new and striking, however, is Eliot's use of a social figure, "marriage," to clarify the genesis of figuration itself. Eliot's novelistic realism signifies its difference from an antecedent [End Page 293] aesthetics by making marriage, in the sense of social relationship, matter to the "marriage" of reason and feeling effected by representation. It situates its discourse of representation not only by reference to feeling, as the aesthetic tradition more generally does, but also, in distinction from the aesthetic tradition, by reference to a feeling for social others.
In what follows I will argue that Eliot's juxtaposition of love and insight, marriage and poetic image, signals a distinctively "social" understanding of representation. Implicit, above all, in her claims on behalf of sympathy, this representational understanding vectors her realism in a crucial normative direction and calls into question the traditional association of novelistic realism with a positivist science of society. Eliot's realism, I will suggest, is more productively situated in a tradition of social thought that, broadly construed, extends from Hegel and the Left Hegelians to such critical social theorists today as Seyla Benhabib. This tradition, as Benhabib describes it, has its origins in a critique of the disembodied and disembedded cogito of Cartesian epistemology for which it substitutes "the view of an active, producing, fabricating humanity, creating the conditions of objectivity by forming nature through its own historical activity." 5 A core feature of this critique, moreover, as Benhabib underscores, is its attempt to bring ethical and epistemological questions under joint consideration: here "conceptions of self, reason and society and visions of ethics and politics are inseparable." 6
Since my objective is to offer a new perspective on the philosophical underpinnings of Eliot's realism, I will be concerned not only with the novel but also with philosophy. In particular, this will entail rereading Feuerbach, the Left Hegelian best...