English, Department of


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The George Eliot Review 32 (2001) Published by The George Eliot Fellowship, http://georgeeliot.org/


The George Eliot Review 2019


These two books, when read together, make an exceedingly interesting comparative study of 'sympathy', that term so pervasive in George Eliot's work. Audrey Jaffe's book resituates the idea of 'sympathy' in the Foucauldian notions of spectacularization and surveillance, thus examining sympathy from a cultural studies perspective. She comments that her book is 'not an attempt to define sympathy per se ... this book rather exposes and explores the recurrent connection between sympathy, representation, and constructions of social identity in a series of Victorian texts' (8). Jaffe thus brings an entirely new perspective to bear on what critics and readers - and probably Eliot herself - have understood as 'sympathy'. Ellen Argyros works with the traditional idea of sympathy as a humanist ideal, researching the parameters of Eliot's focus in Words worth, Rousseau, Feuerbach, and Stowe. Her book is largely a close reading of sympathy in Eliot's novels and essays. Nevertheless, Argyros also produces a new perspective on Eliot's representation of 'sympathy' by looking at its limits, rather than its magnitude, in her work. The two books together, then, accomplish a very Eliotian project: they enlarge our understanding of sympathy - and this is the more admirable in that sympathy would seem to be at least an overworked, if not an exhausted, critical term by this time.

Beginning with a provocative pairing of passages from Kaja Silverman's The Threshold of the Visual World (1995) and Adam Smith's The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759/1790), Jaffe elaborates her theory that 'sympathy' and 'spectacle' are typically linked in Victorian fiction. 'The Victorian subject, as numerous studies have pointed out, was figured crucially and with increasing emphasis as a spectator ... Society becomes a field of visual cues and its members alternative selves: imaginary possibilities in a field of circulating social images, confounded and interdependent projections of identity' (3). Sympathy is not a direct response to a sufferer but rather, as Adam Smith recognized, 'to a sufferer's representation in a spectator's mind' (4). Therefore, 'the scene of sympathy in effect effaces both its participants, substituting for them images, or fantasies, of social and cultural identity' (4). The spectator may thus experience 'specular panic', choosing to look away from, rather than at, this object whose representation may generate a narrative of 'the anxiety of bodily contagion, the fear of inhabiting the beggar's place' (5). Silverman's work demonstrates how such a scene may resemble a 'negative version of the Althusserian scenario of interpellation', for it is the spectator's refusal to be 'hailed', to recognize the other and in the process the self, that here constitutes subjectivity. The difference between looking and not looking is collapsed, for the very act of looking at the 'object' displaces that object into representation. There is a 'tendency to ward off actual bodies in the sympathetic encounter, replacing them with cultural fictions and self-projections ... ' (7). Victorian representations of sympathy thus capture a 'tension' between sympathy as humanitarian value and sympathy as uneasy identification (19).