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Eighteenth-Century Studies 37.2 (2004) 296-301

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Sensibility and Human Science in the Enlightenment

Sean M. Quinlan
University of Idaho

David J. Denby. Sentimental Narrative and the Social Order in France, 1760-1820 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994). Pp. xi + 281.
Wendy Motooka. The Age of Reasons: Quitoxism, Sentimentalism and Political Economy in Eighteenth-Century Britain (London: Routledge, 1998). Pp. xiii + 282.
Roselyne Rey. Naissance et développement du vitalisme en France, de la deuxième moitié du 18e siècle à la fin du Premier Empire. Preface by François Duchesneau (Oxford: Voltaire Foundation, 2000). Pp. xii + 472. £80.00.
Gillian Skinner. Sensibility and Economics in the Novel, 1740-1800: The Price of a Tear (London: Macmillan, 1999). Pp. viii + 232. $89.95. [End Page 296]

In recent years, literary critics and historians have transformed the study of sentimentalism and the culture of sensibility in the Enlightenment. The pathbreaking works by Janet Todd, G. J. Barker-Benfield, John Mullan, and Ann Jessie Van Sant, amongst others, have taught that the eighteenth century was neither "an age of reason" nor "an age of sensibility"; quite the contrary, it was both—sensory experience constituted a fundamental basis of the human self, subjectivity, and sociability. Clearly, Isaiah Berlin's classic distinction (bordering upon caricature) between the overly rational, mechanistic, universalist Enlightenment and an irrational, organicist, particularist Romanticism has been abandoned. Yet what has proven so compelling about the culture of sensibility remains its "polysemous" or "polyphonic" nature; the fluid knowledge boundaries characteristic of sentimental thought entice critical studies that are profoundly interdisciplinary and comparative in nature. As Markman Ellis has shown, sentimentalism encapsulated a bewildering array of traditions and modes of inquiry, including moral sense philosophy, aesthetics, religion, economic thought, science and medicine, sexuality, and publicity and popular reading practices, all which crystallized in the eighteenth-century novel. Within this context, following G. S. Rousseau and Christopher Lawrence, recent works by Elizabeth A. Williams, Anne C. Vila, and Jessica Riskin have focused upon the fascinating cultural intersections between sensibility and science. The following four books—most from a literary perspective—expand upon this scholarship in important and meaningful ways, showing that concepts of the human body, sensibility, and the human sciences (particularly political economy) were central to Enlightenment projects of reform and improvement, and that sentimentalism helped redefine notions of corporeality, citizenship, and rights.

David J. Denby's study examines how French sentimentalism articulated a "progressive discourse linked to the political and social project of the bourgeoisie," shaping public attitudes about victimization, pity, and sympathy (11). This is an extraordinarily important book. Although victimhood was not an original literary theme, its cultural centrality in the Enlightenment was strikingly new. Sentimental writers fetishized victimization, "deculpabilizing" victims and bestowing them with a "positive moral charge." As such, sentimentalism sought to incarnate the interior experiences of the self in order to fashion a new social morality. Like scholars such as Chris Jones, Markman Ellis, and Lynn Hunt, Denby finds that sentimentalism harbored democratic and egalitarian impulses because it placed everyday "moral and emotional meaning" at the forefront of the literary imagination (57). From particular instances of misfortune and injustice, sentimental writers enabled their readers to generalize about human experience and thus posit universal rights.

Denby's analysis encompasses beautifully crafted readings of sentimental writers such as Baculard d'Arnaud, Jean-Claude Gorjy, François Vernes, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, idéologues Pierre Cabanis and Destutt de Tracy, and post-revolutionary thinkers such as Germaine de Staël. Denby first isolates the "metastructure" of sentimental texts, identifying three major characteristics. First, sentimental texts included a pictorial, spatio-temporal dimension (of which J. -B. Greuze's paintings provide a striking visual analogy). These so-called "tableaux" froze the sentimental narrative's climactic moment, providing a synecdoche that wrung out all possible sympathetic effect; at the same time, the tableau exalted quotidian experience, underscoring fraternity and democratization. Secondly, sentimental objects or "signs" constituted important textual devices: they served as material symbols of distress and loss and provided a semiotic approach to decipher [End Page 297] corporeal ("prelinguistic") gestures and experience...


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