Davis is talking about Brigid Lowe’s Victorian Fiction and the Insights of Sympathy:
“It is a brave book, with one big simple message: all too often literary scholars merely use books (they call them "texts") for the sake of their own agendas and careers. Here's the novel; here's the ideological agenda to which it is to be fitted; and here's the critical mallet to whack it into shape. For example, here is the opening of another recent book on Victorian Sympathy from Stanford University Press which goes something like this: "The Victorians were very interested in sympathy - which was all about consolidating the male sense of identity, and an early example of interpellation in action." So that's what it's all about.
Instead Ms Lowe offers a vision of sympathy—both within Victorian novels and in the reading of them—that is too generous and too complex for prescriptive and self-righteous narrow-mindedness. A character in Mrs Gaskell will have a prejudice, a theory, a plan or a principle—and then suddenly, when confronted by a particular person in a specific human situation and moved or pained, will give it all up. That's what the novel does, and it is what novel reading helps to foster.
I was really looking forward Dr Lowe's book making a stir. But in the Times Literary Supplement on Sunday, her book was loftily dismissed by a foremost American literary scholar. Ms Lowe is a member of the "younger generation" of literary scholars, the reviewer argues, but the book is rather "dated". Apparently, all of Ms Lowe's targets in the world of literary theory—Terry Eagleton, Mary Poovey, Catherine Gallagher, Roland Barthes, Edward Said and J.Hillis Miller—are not a problem any more. We have "gone on" to new ideas.”
Actually, I don’t see how either Barthes or Said would be opposed, in principle, to Lowe’s thesis. However, I can easily see why they – and me, a distant epigone – would be repelled by Davis’ tone. Or at least fascinated by the psychodynamics of quotation and quarantine here – starting with the quotation and quarantining of the word ‘texts’, as if this word had come from Mars instead of being firmly part of interpretive history, going back through the Church Fathers to the scholiasts. Then there is the oddity of the accusation of self-interested motive in the reading – apparently, self interest stops when one finds an interpretive school one likes. Then, at that point, self-interest turns into love, disinterested love. Indeed, there is something to that – the polemic against theory often does take on the tones of the angry lover, the stalker. Love, as every cop knows, so often leads to death threats.
But putting aside that bizarre stylistic quirk, I have a lot of sympathy for reading novels in terms of sympathy, which is Davis’ point. That is, I take them seriously – so seriously that there are a series of novels which, in a sense, mark the whole course of my inner life. If the TLS reviewer sees Lowe’s viewpoint as dated, he obviously hasn’t been reading the literature on sympathy which began to appear in the late 90s – the high point of neo-liberal triumphalism – that went back to the fons et origo himself, ladies and gents a big round of applause for Adam Smith. (I myself have been working around Smith’s book on sympathy (which incidentally was translated by Cordorcet’s widow) in my research on happiness. But this post is not another variation on my usual tune).
To jump forward from Gaskell.. As a reviewer, I vaguely hear about a lot of books. I had vaguely heard of Dana Spiotta’s Eat the Document. I picked it up in a D.C. bookstore last week, and decided I should read it (and put it back and went to the library in Austin when I came back and checked it out – shocking as this news may be, I am not in the economic category that buys books I can check out of the library).
I will not give too much away about the plot of this book when I say that it traces two members of a radical collective from the seventies after the collective succeeded in pulling off a bombing. Or rather, after that bombing went wrong. One of the members, Mary Whittaker, is traced through a number of countercultural moments as she finds an uneasy place in the placid flaccid era of Reagan and beyond. Has the kid. Has the husband. Husband dies. Keeps the secret. Wonders what she is doing. Wonders if she should turn herself in. The other, Bobby Desoto, takes a course that is made less … obvious by Spiotta, and because I want you, reader, to read this book, I am not going to say too much about that.
It is necessary to know this: the bombings were directed against the executives of companies that made the weapons and chemicals that armed the American war in South Vietnam. To the collective, this was a war crime. That is a crime, of course, that contravenes a law written on the human heart. John Brown long ago recognized those letters on his own heart, and could only move forward once he had started. And so we confront something interesting here. Let’s return for a second to the characters of Mrs. Gaskell – as Davis says, “A character in Mrs Gaskell will have a prejudice, a theory, a plan or a principle—and then suddenly, when confronted by a particular person in a specific human situation and moved or pained, will give it all up.” This is the bourgeois experience in a nutshell. But let’s move this renunciation of prejudice and action into another context: that one where Gaskell’s novelistic career overlaps the famine in Ireland. That bourgeois renunciation of prejudice became enshrined in political policy, there. It was kinder to do nothing. The state should never interfere with nature. This is not to knock Gaskell, but it is to ask about the limits of that sympathy in the face of a collective act of inhumanity.
Spiotta has not written a classic, but she does take sympathy and ‘the giving up of plans’ with a bit more existential depth. How far should one go in opposing a war? That’s a good question now. And we know the answer – one should vote for a moderate democratic senator and advocate a humane withdrawal ten to twenty years from now. However, those who think that Iraq is a crime that keeps on spreading, a massive trauma that has effected both the Iraqis and the Americans – in ways the Americans have so far refused to feel – might not find that answer is particularly satisfying. They might feel that it is ghoulish, ghastly, a historic moment when, as though in a lightning flash, one sees that one is chained to a veritable corpse, a society in full disorganization. That we facing the abyss. And that there are a web of connections between America’s spoiled shopper’s trance and our incremental loss of liberty, along with the brutalization of our discourse and the increasing childishness of our national imagination – becoming a romper room version of the American Greatness project.
There’s a conversation between Mary and Bobby at the end of Eat the Document. I’ll disguise their names, which would give away too much.
“I knew someone was going to end up dead,” … said. Someone sat in the booth next to theirs. … leaned toward her a bit and spoke in a low voice. ‘There was a moment, a very clear moment, when I knew not only that it might happen but that it would definitely happen. And I was still willing to do it. And not because I really believed we would change anything for the better. I did it as a testament to my own certainty. I needed to prove to myself that I could go all the way.”This conversation isn’t really imaginable anymore. The sympathetic ethos that has won has the huge advantage that it advocates a perpetual flutter between all options, and a perpetual denial that any of the options are good, that any single act will work. This requires compartmentalizing the sympathetic ethos from the market ethos which gave it rise, for there it is explained that all acts should be viewed in terms of a system - which rather casts a different light on the question of what acts succeed, and how they do so. Myself, I think the Weather underground and all the sixties era guerilla groups failed partly because they became incestuous - the goal quickly became freeing their members when their members were scooped up by the cops. And they were unattached to any larger movement. But did they fail? I am more suspicious of that. I think it was certainly noted by the establishment that plunging the country into a war that had to be fought by a draft would lead to a spiral of violence inside the country. And I have a theory that the governing class does learn things. So I am not so sure that the collective of those acts failed. But I do know what the triumph of the sympathetic ethos has wrought. It has lead to no acts at all.
“I didn’t realize we could kill someone,” said …
“Let me ask you something. If we had killed one of the targets, one of the board guys who knowingly developed land mines or antipersonnel devices, dioxin poison or napalm. If we had taken out someone like that …, how would you feel about it.
‘It would feel no different. It still would have cost everything and probably changed nothing. Nothing for the better, anyway.”
“I’m not sure. I’m more culpable, see? You are excused. I am not.”