- Hardy’s “Voice” as Philosopher of Feeling
JOHN HUGHES’S The Expression of Things pursues aims similar to his Affective Worlds: Reading, Writing, and Nineteenth Century [End Page 448] Literature (2011), which was also published by Sussex Academic Press. In Affective Worlds, Hughes reads emotion and subjectivity in Hardy alongside chapters on affect in Wordsworth, Blake, Tennyson, Charlotte Brontë, and Poe. The Hardy chapter of Affective Worlds is a direct preview of The Expression of Things. His focus is, again, on vision and on the embodied subject. In both books, Hughes seeks to reunite affect studies and epistemology—to talk about the role that feeling and sensation should and does have in coming to a reasoned assessment of objects or events. His goal, in his overviews of Hardy’s prose and the laser-like precision with which he analyzes the smallest details of Hardy’s poetry, is to discover Hardy’s “voice” as a philosopher of feeling, a theorist-practitioner interested in how feeling is transmitted across time through memory and how feeling serves as the glue that makes us engage with each other rather than to detach.
After an introduction that explains the importance of motifs to the work Hughes hopes to do across genres with Hardy, we enter a book that is divided into three overlapping sections: “Music,” “Emotion,” and “Voice.” Much of the relatively wide-ranging content of the book appeared first elsewhere, which explains why broad categories such as “voice” and “affect” are required to hold all of the chapters together in one volume. In Hughes’s section on music, the motif becomes the force that “starkly signals hopes that are often set in a kind of counterpoint to the deadening types of disappointment to which they are subject in … reality.” Thus, Hardy’s turn from fiction to poetry in the 1890s is figured as a transition from the “real” to the “ideal” and towards “community and the future.” It is in this section that Hughes shows himself to be as skilled a close reader of Hardy’s fiction as his poetry; he moves effortlessly between well-known novels such as Jude the Obscure and lesser-known texts such as The Well-Beloved, “On the Western Circuit,” or “The History of the Hardcomes.” In his readings of Hardy’s prose, Hughes is less likely to allow his focus to stray from the announced emphasis of the chapter. By contrast, what he calls the “serpentine logic” of an individual poem leads him to dance into side avenues highlighted by the interplay between imagery and form. In his many digressions, we may see Hughes at his most Hardyian. In the analysis of Hardy’s major and minor prose that appears in the second third of the book, Hardy, too, is figured as one whose “narrator can often seem so engrossed [End Page 449] in literary imaginings or distracted by stray phenomena that he is heedless to the scaffolding of his text.”
The second section of the book transitions from “Music” to “Emotion,” and thus from the communitarian impulses in Hardy’s poetry and prose to how he configures distinct individuals, especially women, as minds. Yet in the turn Hardy continues to be a social writer, in that his individuals constitute themselves through responsiveness to external stimuli, such as the ability to read emotion on the face of another or to be blown by another person’s winds of affect. Here Hughes’s analysis becomes more theoretical, depending on—as with his previous book— Deleuze and Guattari’s views on Hardy and the psychology of the self in What is Philosophy? (1991). In his presentation of human emotion, Hughes argues, Hardy is at his most experimental, finding ways to configure the individual in relation to the social: “Hardy construes mind as a dynamic power of individuation, expressed through adventures of sympathy and sensation, rather than through any logically inalienable, rational core of mind and identity.”
The most self-contained section of the book is its third, “Voice,” in which Hughes allows his...