Skip to main content
Open Access Publications from the University of California

Sympathetic Constellations: Toward a Modernist Sympathy

  • Author(s): Miller, Monica Jean
  • Advisor(s): Abel, Elizabeth
  • et al.


Sympathetic Constellations: Toward a Modernist Sympathy


Monica Jean Miller

Doctor of Philosophy in English

University of California, Berkeley

Professor Elizabeth Abel, Chair

This dissertation examines five modernist writers' revisions of sympathy in response to modernity's changing theories of subjectivity, knowledge, and ethics. I argue that the dominant narrative of modernism as an aesthetic movement that values impersonality over interpersonal interaction overlooks the modernists' interest in developing new theories of emotion and its transmission, an interest inseparable from their aesthetic and philosophical goals. The guiding principle of their explorations of emotion is not empathy, a relatively recent concept whose popularity reflects our contemporary valorization of embodiedness, affect, and fluidity, but rather sympathy, which is currently dismissed as an antique from the Scottish Enlightenment further encumbered by its importance to the Victorians, with their sentimentality and imperialism. In using sympathy as the starting material for their experiments with fellow feeling, however, the modernists not only situate themselves in an ongoing literary and intellectual tradition, but also emphasize sympathy's structure, distance, and social relationships over the inward-directedness of pity or the immediacy of compassion. The preservation of space is fundamental to sympathy: by maintaining rather than collapsing the distance between the sources and recipients of emotions, sympathy creates an opportunity for experimentation much like that opened by the indeterminacy of language. Taking advantage of this parallel, modernist writers revise sympathy through formal experimentation. The development of new conceptions of emotion and theories of aesthetics were not, as has been assumed, independent processes, but rather two intertwining threads of a complex story about the nature of subjectivity, representation, and experience.

I begin with two Bloomsbury writers, E. M. Forster and Virginia Woolf, because their revisions of sympathy are motivated largely by ethical differences with the Victorians. In "How to Connect," I trace Forster's development from a grudging Victorian liberalism to a quietist liberal irony that leads him to favor negative over positive liberty. To this end, he settles on a passive sympathy that demands tolerance of the other's point of view rather than attempts to improve her station. The next chapter's title, "Putting Ourselves In Mr. Ramsay's Boots," refers to a formal method by which Woolf allows us to experience the "pathos, surliness, ill-temper, charm" of the boots' owner detached from "his concentrated woe; his age; his frailty; his desolation." Faced with sympathy's tendency to balk at the gulfs between the classes or genders, Woolf borrows a technique from Cubism, spreading the traditional content of subjectivity across arrays of common objects in order to form landscapes of emotion detached from individual owners and thus accessible to anyone.

In "Unfastening Feeling," the relationship between subject and object, button and button hole, comes undone: Gertrude Stein lifts the Bloomsbury writers' concern with the nature of the subject and the relative position of the object out of an ethical framework and considers them in terms of aesthetics, countering the limitations subjectivity and objectivity impose on the representation of emotion by breaking down the distinctions between subjects and objects until she is left instead with interchangeable subject-objects. Emotion in Stein's work is no longer a coherent cognitive response to be transmitted between subjects, but a perpetually shifting transmission that arises out of the differences between representations and requires multiple points of origin.

For James Joyce and Samuel Beckett, the barriers to sympathy are epistemological. In "An Uncertain Sublime," Joyce reformulates sympathy so that it no longer depends on certainty but rather on a Kantian concept of negative presentation. However, even as Kant's sublime models a means by which Joyce can avoid reformulating the unknown other in terms of the self, it reduces the other to the Other - to the idea of an enigma. Thus Joyce buffers a totalizing unknowability with the humbler space of error, locating the other's emotion at an indeterminate point within the larger space of the unrepresentable. For Beckett, the minimalist structures of mathematics replace the messiness of human relationships, so that sympathy is an emanation not of individual subjects, but of symmetry. However, because perfect symmetry is no better an antidote to solipsism than a glance in the mirror, we must learn to feel "Sympathy for Surds": for irrational numbers rather than ones or zeroes, rough approximations rather than fully realized subjects or Gayatri Spivak's "originary nothingness." In fact, what creates company and thus the possibility of emotional transmission is the tension between a conception of the real and an imperfect approximation; sympathy is impossible without a feeling of friction or opposition, even if the other who provides it turns out to be a fragment of the self.

One narrative of modernism took T. S. Eliot at his word and banished ethical criticism and the study of emotion from the academy; it seems useful, then, as those outcast fields regain critical attention, to excavate another narrative of modernism, one that is messy, ambivalent, and often tacit, but that reveals the fissures and internal contradictions in our understanding of emotion and its transmission and, in turn, lays the groundwork for a revision of our own conception of sympathy.

Main Content
Current View