Trials of empathy: the drama of suffering in James and Cather
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The recent rise of "The Affective Turn" has acknowledged the importance of affect in literary interpretation, while also polarizing debates about literature's affective abilities. One camp claims novels indispensably cultivate solidarity; the other narrowly limits the power of "embodied" reading to the intellectual resources brought to bear upon it at a given historical moment. My dissertation explores how American authors such as Henry James and Willa Cather anticipate and complicate such questions by registering a level of affective friction resistant to any single civic purpose or scientific theory. Particularly skilled at the level of style in tracing the slippery contradictions of historical and political identity through habits of sensibility and perception, they make affect central to their literary ventures. And yet, their work questions the standard of "sincerity" predominant in much post-sentimental, realist aesthetics, using the concept of theatricality to explore suffering as a situation: a social happening not limitable to the experience of either bearers, or administrators, of pain. After an introduction canvassing the theoretical and historical questions informing my project, Chapter One turns to the fin-de-siecle stage to demonstrate the significance of James's dramatic experiment in the conception of his late style. This meant turning what was revealed to be his deep-seated anti-theatricality--emblematized by his reaction to Ibsen's portrayals of female grief-into the theme ofhis drama, a process yielding the formula for his late fiction. Chapter Two reads James's post-dramatic work as dramatizing the failure of the empathetic encounter. Revising the presumptions behind the social reform efforts of Jane Addams, he forecloses the enabling potential assigned to invalid women's charity. Instead, he presents suffering as psychologically negotiable--mediated, traded, and transformed between subjects. In Chapter Three, two of Cather's post-war novels are understood as jointly expressing disillusion with the viability of a sentimental worldview in a post-sentimental age. There, male spectators of female suffering fail to convert their passive ideals of empathy into ethical imperatives toward social transformation. The Epilogue briefly considers Tony Kushner's Angels in America as evidence of the continued interest among American authors in suffering's theatricality, or affective trial.
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