Five Questions: Ildiko Csengei on Sympathy, Sensibility and the Literature of Feeling in the Eighteenth Century

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Ildiko Csengei - Sympathy, Sensibility and the Literature of Feeling in the Eighteenth Century

Ildiko Csengei is a Senior Lecturer in English at the University of Huddersfield.  After completing her doctorate at the University of Cambridge, she held an R. A. Butler Fellowship at Pembroke College, Cambridge.  Before taking up her current post, she was a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow in the Faculty of English at Cambridge and Director of Studies in English at Newnham College.  Her research focuses on the literature and culture of sensibility, Romanticism and war, the history of emotions and the intersections between science, literature and history.  Below, we discuss her wide-ranging and fascinating first monograph, Sympathy, Sensibility and the Literature of Feeling in the Eighteenth Century, which was published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2012.

1) Sympathy, Sensibility and the Literature of Feeling in the Eighteenth Century focuses particularly on ‘the darker side of sympathy’, examining its ‘morally and politically charged ambivalence’.  How did you first become interested in this area?

During my very first term as a PhD student I came across Albrecht von Haller’s A Dissertation on the Sensible and Irritable Parts of Animals in Cambridge University Library’s Rare Books Room.  This text drew my attention to an interesting ambivalence in the very definition of eighteenth-century sensibility.  Albrecht von Haller was a Swiss physiologist, who examined sensibility in various parts of the body in 1752 by dissecting live animals.  In this treatise he depicts the acute torments he put his animals through for the benefit of mankind, while claiming to feel for them the strongest compassion.  Haller defined sensibility as a capacity for feeling pain, and he therefore tried to determine the sensibility of various organs through the animal’s “evident signs of suffering”, such as their cries and squirms.  What I found really intriguing, however, is how the text itself bears the marks of his author’s ambivalent position.  Haller’s method of definition, based on the foreclosure of emotion, creates a traumatic text that is structured by symptomatic fissures.  Despite its erasure in the process of experimentation, however, affect re-emerges in the tropes of the medical text.  From then on I proposed to formulate my main research questions around how sensibility and its definition could become inseparable from violence and cruelty and pursued these questions at the intersections of ethics, science, literature and politics.

2) How did the book evolve as it traversed its road to publication?

I always wanted my PhD dissertation to become a book one day, so I wrote it with an ambitious scope in mind.  Driven by a passion for the sciences of the psyche, I worked with a theoretical framework that puts the age of sensibility into a broader history of feeling and explores connections with more recent ideas of emotional response in psychology, psychoanalysis, philosophy and the neurosciences.  Yet, when the dissertation was finished I thought of it as a skeleton that needed to be fleshed out, and therefore the biggest transformation the project went through was from PhD dissertation to book manuscript.  This involved a large volume of added historical, philosophical, psychological and political material, a rearrangement of the structure and the refinement of the argument.  As the project evolved I realised that an important aspect of my argument is to shift the focus of scholarship to highlight the vicissitudes of mechanist and materialist veins of thought that persist on the margins of a predominantly vitalist culture of sensibility throughout the eighteenth century.  These often overlooked trends are important, because they open up a space for socio-political critique and for resistance to violence and to dominant structures of power.  Once I had submitted the manuscript to Palgrave Macmillan, I was lucky to have had a straightforward route to publication.  The editors were always prompt, helpful and professional and they showed great enthusiasm for the project from start to completion.  Working with them was a pleasure.

3) The book falls into two halves, one examining the philosophical and bodily aspects of sympathetic response, the other focusing particularly on literary texts, including both popular published works and private manuscripts.  Why did you select this particular structure, and how did you come to choose your major case studies?

The structure of the book follows the ways in which discourses and concepts that constitute the language and culture of sensibility emerged from the fields of physiology and philosophy and gradually permeated literature, politics, and also everyday speech, life and manners.  This structure also enabled me to fully outline and develop the book’s broader theoretical framework and to explain my approach to sympathy in the first half of the book.  When organising the material I took a thematic approach and explored forms of emotional and physical response to stimulus, including sympathy, tears, swooning and melancholia through a range of eighteenth-century contexts.

Before I settled on my chosen case studies I had read through a vast number of primary texts based on my thematic searches in the library catalogue.  I wanted to understand the boundaries, extremes and margins of sensibility: fainting and loss of consciousness, moments when feeling turns into insensibility, when sentiment borders on madness and hysteria, when sympathy fails and when sensibility is just another name for the pains of torture.  The concept of irritability, denoting the body’s involuntary contractions, is sensibility’s materialist “other”; however, it was not only important for eighteenth-century physiologists, but also for the language of political writings and for the swoons of eighteenth-century sentimental heroines.  I was intrigued by the novels of Oliver Goldsmith and Henry Mackenzie, where excessive sympathy and generosity endangers the very integrity of the self.  In the course of my research I came across a few real gems, for instance, La Mettrie’s L’Homme Machine, Henry Mackenzie’s letters and Godwin’s diary.  Close reading a few helped me form my initial research questions and presuppositions.  In the end I included core literary texts of sensibility (by Sarah Fielding, Laurence Sterne, Oliver Goldsmith, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Henry Mackenzie), works by its most central philosophers (Shaftesbury, Francis Hutcheson, David Hume and Adam Smith), medical writings about sympathy, sensibility and irritability (Albrecht von Haller, Robert Whytt, La Mettrie), late eighteenth-century critiques of sensibility by Mary Wollstonecraft and Elizabeth Inchbald, along with William Godwin’s papers, letters and diary.

4) How has the process of writing this book changed the way you approach eighteenth-century literature, both in your research and in the classroom?

Apart from understanding the contextual specificities of eighteenth-century sensibility, this book made me think about the continuities of eighteenth-century cultural phenomena with modern sciences of the mind.  Two ways of questioning operated in my book: whilst performing contextualised readings of individual texts, the book argued for the necessity of establishing relations between eighteenth-century and modern ways of understanding feelings and the human mind.  When it comes to affectivity I found that a strictly contextual understanding was not always sufficient for explaining the workings of feelings and their ambivalence.  I argued that the typical symptoms of sensibility such as fainting, crying and melancholia form part of a complex psychopathology that often reaches beyond the concerns of contemporary medicine.  I came to see the age of sensibility as part of a long history of feeling, where connections and continuities can be found in the ways in which feelings have been experienced, expressed, conceptualised and studied from the eighteenth century to the present.  In this respect, the history of sympathy is closely interrelated with the history of psychiatry and psychoanalysis, creating a framework in which the age of sensibility and that of Freud and his successors are theoretically and historically linked.

But also, the book made me think about the relevance of eighteenth-century sensibility to our current practices of reading and emotional response.  The success of Henry Mackenzie’s The Man of Feeling at the time of its publication in 1771 and the subsequent ridicule of its tearful scenes only a few decades later well illustrates the transformation of the way in which audiences related to sentiment.  We do not cry over sentimental novels any more.  Instead, we produce scholarly analyses from a safely detached perspective.  Today’s dominant academic practices cut themselves off from direct affective engagement.  Both formalist and historical approaches to literature tend to facilitate detachment, and the experience of emotional response is thus excluded from serious academic discussion.  Reconciling the obvious tension between critical, historical detachment and the immediacy of emotional response is the challenge students of literature today need to face.  In our age, texts exist that – as sentimental novels once did – compel us to absorb the values and ideologies of a culture by directly appealing to our tears or our feelings.  A detachment from our own feelings (whether conscious of involuntary) does not help us to evaluate critically the cultural and political messages that surround us, but nor does an unreflected, purely sentimental response prove helpful.  Making us conscious that our emotional responses do exist is a task that needs to be addressed by future practices of critical reading, which need to negotiate a space for the experience of affectivity within the framework of its theory.  This does not mean returning to a purely affective reading practice, but the acknowledgment of our emotional responses and a simultaneous preservation of our critical and historical insight.

5) What projects are you currently working on?

I am now writing a new academic monograph, War and Feeling in British Romanticism.  I am focusing on the role feelings and emotions play in the process of experiencing, understanding, and representing conflict during the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars.  A number of articles are also in preparation on specific battles and contemporary technologies of warfare.  I have found that my long-standing interest in the history of emotions comes in handy with this project too.