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Tuesday, November 13, 2007


Philip Davis, in a blog or something internetty I came across a few days ago, More Intelligent Life.com, offers a complain about the lack of suspicion of the hermeneutics of suspicion. Since I am in the latter camp, I should say: I dislike it too. How often have I read articles that start out from the ‘facts’ established by a relativism that proposed to undermine facts. More suspicion about the hermeneutics of suspicion, please.

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.”

“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.”

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.


Le Colonel Chabert said...

In North and South, she, the gentry lady, throws herself between the angry millworkers and the ungenteel caitalist, the man manufactures, she loves. And this is how he learns she loves him....Her prejudices are not, however, those of the angry workers; but the angry workers in the text sort of slip into their place, to embody them, to embody her irrational contempt for that man. A strange scene in this sense, a balance of signifying planes. The angry workers are "dealt with" by Gaskell through this use of them as faintly allegorical embodiments of the heroine's psychology. So we see here really how sympathy functions ideologically in novels; not in this crude sense, an advised position, a manipulated emotion, but in ordering the hierarchies of metaphors which fictions construct, and in ordering the displacements of historical and political conflicts into sentimental and psychological ones, etcetera. A small glimpse of the embryonic hyperreality perhaps. (I like Gaskell.)

roger said...

LCC - a marvelous comment.
I hope I don't give the appearance that I am dissing Gaskell, but rather, thinking about sympathy and passivity. I especially like this part of your comment:

"The angry workers are "dealt with" by Gaskell through this use of them as faintly allegorical embodiments of the heroine's psychology." Because I think that there is a moment - one that, I notice, infuriates you when it emerges in the theory crowd - when a pragmatic stance gets transformed into a narcissistic satisfaction - an issue that is dealt with between self and self, as though to be 'on the left' is simply to define oneself as a consumer group - I like this writer and this funky restaurant. Etc. That passivity has been a long time coming, but I am trying to see - maybe narcissisticly myself! - where it comes from.

Le Colonel Chabert said...

She threw the window wide open. Many in the crowd were
mere boys; cruel and thoughtless,--cruel because they were
thoughtless; some were men, gaunt as wolves, and mad for prey.
She knew how it was; they were like Boucher, with starving
children at home--relying on ultimate success in their efforts to
get higher wages, and enraged beyond measure at discovering that
Irishmen were to be brought in to rob their little ones of bread.
Margaret knew it all; she read it in Boucher's face, forlornly
desperate and livid with rage. If Mr. Thornton would but say
something to them--let them hear his voice only--it seemed as if
it would be better than this wild beating and raging against the
stony silence that vouchsafed them. no word, even of anger or
reproach. But perhaps he was speaking now; there was a momentary
hush of their noise, inarticulate as that of a troop of animals.
She tore her bonnet off; and bent forwards to hear. She could
only see; for if Mr. Thornton had indeed made the attempt to
speak, the momentary instinct to listen to him was past and gone,
and the people were raging worse than ever. He stood with his
arms folded; still as a statue; his face pale with repressed
excitement. They were trying to intimidate him--to make him
flinch; each was urging the other on to some immediate act of
personal violence. Margaret felt intuitively, that in an instant
all would be uproar; the first touch would cause an explosion, in
which, among such hundreds of infuriated men and reckless boys,
even Mr. Thornton's life would be unsafe,--that in another
instant the stormy passions would have passed their bounds, and
swept away all barriers of reason, or apprehension of
consequence. Even while she looked, she saw lads in the
back-ground stooping to take off their heavy wooden clogs--the
readiest missile they could find; she saw it was the spark to the
gunpowder, and, with a cry, which no one heard, she rushed out of
the room, down stairs,--she had lifted the great iron bar of the
door with an imperious force--had thrown the door open wide--and
was there, in face of that angry sea of men, her eyes smiting
them with flaming arrows of reproach. The clogs were arrested in
the hands that held them--the countenances, so fell not a moment
before, now looked irresolute, and as if asking what this meant.
For she stood between them and their enemy. She could not speak,
but held out her arms towards them till she could recover breath.

'Oh, do not use violence! He is one man, and you are many; but
her words died away, for there was no tone in her voice; it was
but a hoarse whisper. Mr. Thornton stood a little on one side; he
had moved away from behind her, as if jealous of anything that
should come between him and danger.

'Go!' said she, once more (and now her voice was like a cry).
'The soldiers are sent for--are coming. Go peaceably. Go away.
You shall have relief from your complaints, whatever they are.'

'Shall them Irish blackguards be packed back again?' asked one
from out the crowd, with fierce threatening in his voice.

'Never, for your bidding!' exclaimed Mr. Thornton. And instantly
the storm broke. The hootings rose and filled the air,--but
Margaret did not hear them. Her eye was on the group of lads who
had armed themselves with their clogs some time before. She saw
their gesture--she knew its meaning,--she read their aim. Another
moment, and Mr. Thornton might be smitten down,--he whom she had
urged and goaded to come to this perilous place. She only thought
how she could save him. She threw her arms around him; she made
her body into a shield from the fierce people beyond. Still, with
his arms folded, he shook her off.

'Go away,' said he, in his deep voice. 'This is no place for

'It is!' said she. 'You did not see what I saw.' If she thought
her sex would be a protection,--if, with shrinking eyes she had
turned away from the terrible anger of these men, in any hope
that ere she looked again they would have paused and reflected,
and slunk away, and vanished,--she was wrong. Their reckless
passion had carried them too far to stop--at least had carried
some of them too far; for it is always the savage lads, with
their love of cruel excitement, who head the riot--reckless to
what bloodshed it may lead. A clog whizzed through the air.
Margaret's fascinated eyes watched its progress; it missed its
aim, and she turned sick with affright, but changed not her
position, only hid her face on Mr. Thornton s arm. Then she
turned and spoke again:'

'For God's sake! do not damage your cause by this violence. You
do not know what you are doing.' She strove to make her words

A sharp pebble flew by her, grazing forehead and cheek, and
drawing a blinding sheet of light before her eyes. She lay like
one dead on Mr. Thornton's shoulder. Then he unfolded his arms,
and held her encircled in one for an instant:

'You do well!' said he. 'You come to oust the innocent stranger
You fall--you hundreds--on one man; and when a woman comes before
you, to ask you for your own sakes to be reasonable creatures,
your cowardly wrath falls upon her! You do well!' They were
silent while he spoke. They were watching, open-eyed and
open-mouthed, the thread of dark-red blood which wakened them up
from their trance of passion. Those nearest the gate stole out
ashamed; there was a movement through all the crowd--a retreating
movement. Only one voice cried out:

'Th' stone were meant for thee; but thou wert sheltered behind a

Mr. Thornton quivered with rage. The blood-flowing had made
Margaret conscious--dimly, vaguely conscious. He placed her
gently on the door-step, her head leaning against the frame.

'Can you rest there?' he asked. But without waiting for her
answer, he went slowly down the steps right into the middle of
the crowd. 'Now kill me, if it is your brutal will. There is no
woman to shield me here. You may beat me to death--you will never
move me from what I have determined upon--not you!' He stood
amongst them, with his arms folded, in precisely the same
attitude as he had been in on the steps.

But the retrograde movement towards the gate had begun--as
unreasoningly, perhaps as blindly, as the simultaneous anger. Or,
perhaps, the idea of the approach of the soldiers, and the sight
of that pale, upturned face, with closed eyes, still and sad as
marble, though the tears welled out of the long entanglement of
eyelashes and dropped down; and, heavier, slower plash than even
tears, came the drip of blood from her wound. Even the most
desperate--Boucher himself--drew back, faltered away, scowled,
and finally went off, muttering curses on the master, who stood
in his unchanging attitude, looking after their retreat with
defiant eyes. The moment that retreat had changed into a flight
(as it was sure from its very character to do), he darted up the
steps to Margaret. She tried to rise without his help.

'It is nothing,' she said, with a sickly smile. 'The skin is
grazed, and I was stunned at the moment. Oh, I am so thankful
they are gone!' And she cried without restraint.

He could not sympathise with her. His anger had not abated; it
was rather rising the more as his sense of immediate danger was
passing away. The distant clank of the soldiers was heard just
five minutes too late to make this vanished mob feel the power of
authority and order. He hoped they would see the troops, and be
quelled by the thought of their narrow escape. While these
thoughts crossed his mind, Margaret clung to the doorpost to
steady herself: but a film came over her eyes--he was only just
in time to catch her. 'Mother--mother!' cried he; 'Come
down--they are gone, and Miss Hale is hurt!' He bore her into the
dining-room, and laid her on the sofa there; laid her down
softly, and looking on her pure white face, the sense of what she
was to him came upon him so keenly that he spoke it out in his

'Oh, my Margaret--my Margaret! no one can tell what you are to
me! Dead--cold as you lie there, you are the only woman I ever
loved! Oh, Margaret--Margaret!' Inarticulately as he spoke,
kneeling by her, and rather moaning than saying the words, he
started up, ashamed of himself, as his mother came in. She saw
nothing, but her son a little paler, a little sterner than usual.

'Miss Hale is hurt, mother. A stone has grazed her temple. She
has lost a good deal of blood, I'm afraid.'

'She looks very seriously hurt,--I could almost fancy her dead,'
said Mrs. Thornton, a good deal alarmed.

'It is only a fainting-fit. She has spoken to me since.' But all
the blood in his body seemed to rush inwards to his heart as he
spoke, and he absolutely trembled.

'Go and call Jane,--she can find me the things I want; and do you
go to your Irish people, who are crying and shouting as if they
were mad with fright.' He went. He went away as if weights were
tied to every limb that bore him from her. He called Jane; he
called his sister. She should have all womanly care, all gentle
tendance. But every pulse beat in him as he remembered how she
had come down and placed herself in foremost danger,--could it be
to save him? At the time, he had pushed her aside, and spoken
gruffly; he had seen nothing but the unnecessary danger she had
placed herself in. He went to his Irish people, with every nerve
in his body thrilling at the thought of her, and found it
difficult to understand enough of what they were saying to soothe
and comfort away their fears. There, they declared, they would
not stop; they claimed to be sent back. And so he had to think,
and talk, and reason.

Mrs. Thornton bathed Margaret's temples with eau de Cologne. As
the spirit touched the wound, which till then neither Mrs.
Thornton nor Jane had perceived, Margaret opened her eyes; but it
was evident she did not know where she was, nor who they were.
The dark circles deepened, the lips quivered and contracted, and
she became insensible once more.

'She has had a terrible blow,' said Mrs. Thornton. 'Is there any
one who will go for a doctor?'

'Not me, ma'am, if you please,' said Jane, shrinking back. 'Them
rabble may be all about; I don't think the cut is so deep, ma'am,
as it looks.'

'I will not run the chance. She was hurt in our house. If you are
a coward, Jane, I am not. I will go.'

'Pray, ma'am, let me send one of the police. There's ever so many
come up, and soldiers too.'

'And yet you're afraid to go! I will not have their time taken up
with our errands. They'll have enough to do to catch some of the
mob. You will not be afraid to stop in this house,' she asked
contemptuously, 'and go on bathing Miss Hale's forehead, shall
you? I shall not be ten minutes away.'

'Couldn't Hannah go, ma'am?'

'Why Hannah? Why any but you? No, Jane, if you don't go, I do.'

Mrs. Thornton went first to the room in which she had left Fanny
stretched on the bed. She started up as her mother entered.

'Oh, mamma, how you terrified me! I thought you were a man that
had got into the house.'

'Nonsense! The men are all gone away. There are soldiers all
round the place, seeking for their work now it is too late. Miss
Hale is lying on the dining-room sofa badly hurt. I am going for
the doctor.'

'Oh! don't, mamma! they'll murder you.' She clung to her mother's
gown. Mrs. Thornton wrenched it away with no gentle hand.

'Find me some one else to go but that girl must not bleed to

'Bleed! oh, how horrid! How has she got hurt?'

'I don't know,--I have no time to ask. Go down to her, Fanny, and
do try to make yourself of use. Jane is with her; and I trust it
looks worse than it is. Jane has refused to leave the house,
cowardly woman! And I won't put myself in the way of any more
refusals from my servants, so I am going myself.'

'Oh, dear, dear!' said Fanny, crying, and preparing to go down
rather than be left alone, with the thought of wounds and
bloodshed in the very house.

'Oh, Jane!' said she, creeping into the dining-room, 'what is the
matter? How white she looks! How did she get hurt? Did they throw
stones into the drawing-room?'

Margaret did indeed look white and wan, although her senses were
beginning to return to her. But the sickly daze of the swoon made
her still miserably faint. She was conscious of movement around
her, and of refreshment from the eau de Cologne, and a craving
for the bathing to go on without intermission; but when they
stopped to talk, she could no more have opened her eyes, or
spoken to ask for more bathing, than the people who lie in
death-like trance can move, or utter sound, to arrest the awful
preparations for their burial, while they are yet fully aware,
not merely of the actions of those around them, but of the idea
that is the motive for such actions.

Jane paused in her bathing, to reply to Miss Thornton's question.

'She'd have been safe enough, miss, if she'd stayed in the
drawing-room, or come up to us; we were in the front garret, and
could see it all, out of harm's way.'

'Where was she, then?' said Fanny, drawing nearer by slow
degrees, as she became accustomed to the sight of Margaret's pale

'Just before the front door--with master!' said Jane,

'With John! with my brother! How did she get there?'

'Nay, miss, that's not for me to say,' answered Jane, with a
slight toss of her head. 'Sarah did'----

'Sarah what?' said Fanny, with impatient curiosity.

Jane resumed her bathing, as if what Sarah did or said was not
exactly the thing she liked to repeat.

'Sarah what?' asked Fanny, sharply. 'Don't speak in these half
sentences, or I can't understand you.'

'Well, miss, since you will have it--Sarah, you see, was in the
best place for seeing, being at the right-hand window; and she
says, and said at the very time too, that she saw Miss Hale with
her arms about master's neck, hugging him before all the people.'

'I don't believe it,' said Fanny. 'I know she cares for my
brother; any one can see that; and I dare say, she'd give her
eyes if he'd marry her,--which he never will, I can tell her. But
I don't believe she'd be so bold and forward as to put her arms
round his neck.'

Le Colonel Chabert said...

certainly you do not seem to diss! - i meant to say "another great post"; i like gaskell novels, but they deserve much dissing if that is how we must now characterise really reading novels, not just to gape admiringly at their craft. I think it was cunning of her to reproduce the Irish famime in this way, with capitalism as a saviour, and the gentry needing to cut itself off from some imaginary organic alliance, via stodgy romantic traditional eeengland, from the expropriated population, now wage workers. Enclosures, dispossession, ideologically, narratively, with the catastrophe of the Irish manipulated to stack the deck in this curious way; this the famine is also assigned to "tradition" and the "old ways", alongside miss hale's landed gentry outmoded class snobbery and luddite and insurgent wage workers. The gentry is through the story wrenched from that contellation and placed on the side of capital, masculinity, productivity, the future, "univeralism" and a solution to two great rvaenous needs, the Irish need for the means of survival and capital's hunger for cheap labour.

traxus4420 said...

thanks for posting this roger, i found you from the linked-to article, imagine my surprise.

i think it's a good thing that anti-theory polemics take the tone of an angry lover. it gives you some indication they know what they're talking about.

also have been enjoying your series on sympathy, just registering that now.