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Lessons in Sympathy in 19th-Century British Literature (9/30/2009; NeMLA, 4/7-11/2010)
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In Emile, Jean-Jacques Rousseau insists on a long delay in the introduction of books, especially books of fictional literature, into Emile’s educational process. For Rousseau, Emile’s premature acquisition of knowledge of social relations through fictional literature harms his moral education by promoting a misdirected understanding of human relationships. This panel investigates various ways in which nineteenth-century British literature approached the moral/immoral function of literature, focusing particularly on the relationship between reading and sympathy. Arguably under the influence of eighteenth-century thinkers’ awareness of the impossibility of escaping their own senses and their suspicion of genuine sympathy, many nineteenth-century British writers attempted to offer their answers to how to educate readers in the proper use of sympathetic imagination. Often emphasizing quasi-Freudian mechanisms such as “projection” and “displacement” in sympathetic experiences, criticism on sympathy has gravitated towards unraveling the unconscious effects of the rhetoric of authors, and this panel seeks to reach a more balanced understanding of the power of fictional literature to affect readers’ capacity for sympathy by paying attention to the ways that authors consciously tried to teach strategies of sympathy to their readers. What are specific reading habits that authors attempted to challenge? How does the eighteenth-century consciousness that sympathy is not an immediate identification but an imagined representation affect the representational and narrative techniques used for the embodiment of sympathy in nineteenth-century British literature? What are the intellectual and emotional effects of reading about sympathetic exchanges in fictional literature? How does nineteenth-century British literature about sympathy grapple with complicated questions about relations, whether they are between humans and society, between individuals, or simply between one and oneself?