Sunday, August 12, 2007

Thoughts on The Man of Feeling

by Sarah Cote (Cornell)

Today, the sentiments in Mackenzie's The Man of Feeling seem déclassé. They are the stuff Oprah dreams are made of – the middlebrow, matronly, mawkish. Nevertheless, the sentiments are securely embedded in even the most uber-“masculine” texts – Rocky, Star Wars, mafioso bildungsromans – thus, sentimentality and sentimentalism are permitted, nay, encouraged, so long as they are suitably dressed. So, the “new” masculinity endorsed in The Man of Feeling is certainly alive today, though the form is a bit adulterated – perhaps this makes one more element worthy of inclusion in Joseph Roach’s concept of the “deep” eighteenth century. Both then and now, it can be admirable, humane, human to enjoy feeling deeply – so long as the sentiments in question are disguised by allegedly palatable frame narratives involving, say, sports, terrorist anxieties, or bad fathers.

But, someway, somehow, I think that many of the unwitting sentimentalists who choke up during Rudy would be turned off by Mackenzie’s novel, even if the text opens with two sportsmen, is rife with emotional ‘terrorism,’ and Edwards can pinch-hit as the proverbial bad father. The Man of Feeling has not aged particularly well as a readerly text. It takes a great measure of self-discipline to read it today without sniggering – it is difficult to take its sincerity sincerely. But even if it’s not quite as “good” (and I welcome more discussion about this) in modern standards as Sterne, its semi-snarky narration renders it more plausible than The Vicar of Wakefield. Why might this be?

Even though The Man of Feeling is an acquired taste, it, like so many of its contemporaries, also seems eerily “modern.” It is pointedly not writing to the moment but tries instead to present writing that transcends any particular moment. Indeed, the novel has no time or place, really – and its hero is protected from picky chronologies by the framing narratives of a careless curate, the presumed ‘editor,' an uncertain hunter-gatherer of sentimental bits who is incidentally “ashamed to be pleased with the works of one knows not whom” – this whom being, quite simply, “Charles,” the only one of the three who has actually interacted with Harley. Thus, the hero’s supremely (over)wrought benevolence, the epitome of the new masculinity for the romantic era, provides a good example of Barthesian myth, an open secret of fiction natural(ized). Of course, we readers are turned into authors, for we take note of several gaps and omissions. Charles’s broken narrative is more extreme than the “mere” aposiopesis seen in A Sentimental Journey or the coy “avert your eyes” omissions featured in Joseph Andrews. Those two novels, among many others in the mid eighteenth century, “leave out” parts in order to tease us, to satirize our expectations. Does The Man of Feeling? The Man of Feeling is, at times, an occasional piece – almost a commonplace book of collected sentimental vignettes. Does the fact that its omissions do not matter, well, matter? We can still more than follow the simple progress – of both the hero and the plot. Is this part of the myth of sentimentality, of the ideology that champions “the moment that signifies more than a moment” but a lifestyle, an ethos, a brand?

Virtually all scholars who discuss eighteenth-century sentimental novels agree that the genre depends on the ocular. The sentimental hero or heroine watches a particularly moving scene, which then sparks a visceral reaction visibly performed for the triple benefit of said character’s conscience, the other characters in the frame, and, of course, our eagerly reading eyes. Sensibility – the refined susceptibility or receptiveness to the sentiments – is the ne plus ultra of cultural capital around the mid-eighteenth century, of course. Janet Todd points out that, generically, sentimental novels prefer action to description because simply constative speeches are too banal or flat: “Words are not left to carry a message alone, but are augmented by other heightening devices” (Sensibility: An Introduction 5); for her, this means that “readers are to some extent prevented from indulging in an identifying fantasy with a character or an author and are forced to respond to the emotion conveyed” (6). However, in novels, words are essential to the medium, a fact hammered home to us through the devices of missing chapters, missing pages, missing sections. No, we cannot be sustained by overwrought gesture alone; (our) explanations and discourse must fill in the gaps sooner or later.

This is where we come in, for the reader of The Man of Feeling is both allegory and participant. Most critics recognize that Harley makes for a curious sort of hero in that he is continually destabilized and undermined by his bathetic, picaresque situations and/or his frank narrator(s) – Charles and ourselves. In that classically titled chapter “The Man of Feeling in a Brothel,” for instance, the narrator makes a characteristically wry comment about Harley’s supposedly pure benevolence or innocence: “From what impulse he did this [walked the prostitute into a tavern], we do not mean to inquire; as it has ever been against our nature to search for motives where bad ones are to be found.” What would be suspect in anyone else must be admirable in Harley, right? Or not; instead, Charles hints that his subject is “protected” (or make that baited) by his playful half-disclosures of compromising situations. So if one refrains from looking into motives, does that protect or harm the benevolist’s reputation? By the chapter’s end, Harley is called a cully – picking up on the notorious cullibility of Yorick, likely – for giving away a watch. Are we supposed to agree? And what do we do if we agree? For what good can come out of our observation of his notoriously impotent observations, after all?

I owe a lot to one of my advisors, Rick Bogel, for highlighting the problem with reading sensibility with a binary system of good/bad or admirable/foolish, etc.: “Whether critics view the novel as endorsing or criticizing Harley, however, they share the belief that the spontaneous and the mechanized can be reliably distinguished” (unpublished manuscript). That is, it isn’t quite right to worry too much about whether, through its winking “slips” or disclosures, the narration is damning or praising Harley’s flaws, for it’s not like anyone has the authority to say for sure that a reflex of charity is bad or unthinking – or vice versa. Nor is it easy to tell the difference between what acts are purely good and what are rote, not to mention the meaning of the signs that allegedly direct us – especially when so many of the signs are tantalizingly missing. Priceless wadding, indeed.


dave mazella said...

Greetings, and welcome to Cybermaville, Sarah. Enjoyed the essay a great deal.

Lots of interesting points in the essay, and all the more so because of the questions it raises. For me, at any rate, these surround what I'd call the indeterminacy of the sentimental.

First of all, you very nicely capture the aesthetic indeterminacy that we, as 21st c. readers, experience as we move through texts that seem all too mawkish. Your essay made me wonder whether HM's contemporaries experienced this lingering "Is this any good?" sentiment as they read through it? We assume univocal responses in the past, but sometimes the evidence is more mixed.

Sentiment is also famously devoted to the shading or attenuation of certain moral polarities, to heighten its effects. (this is accompanied by even more stylized polarizations of good and evil in other aspects) Harley in a brothel is a good example, because he is not there for the reasons others suspect, and we as readers are supposed to know it. (this trope of the misleading "discovery" of a character in mid-act seems like an important sentimental device; how do such devices affect the "ocular" dimension you describe?)

Finally the novel's resistance to a strictly linear chronology and narrative structure also seems important to its impact. It's what distinguishes HM and Sterne from Goldsmith, say. I wonder whether such narrative structures help to intensify readerly responses, or diminish their immediacy. Any ideas?

Thanks, and best wishes,


George Justice said...

I enjoyed this essay a great deal, too. It helps me think not only about The Man of Feeling and other mid-to-late c18 texts, but also a pre-history of sentiment, including a character like Sir Roger de Coverley in The Spectator. Sir Roger--like Don Quixote and others before him and since--is both ridiculed and admired for ideals--even sentiments--that

In Harleian fashion, I break off, my car service work having been completed