Sightlines and Sensibility
In this ultra-ironic age, sentiment gets short shrift. One may be smarmy or smug, snarky or snide, but it’s just not hip to feel. Sentiment’s bad rap is partly due to narrow, misguided definitions of the term: corny, schmaltzy, Spielbergian—choose your epithet. But true sentiment is much more this, and it requires some digging.
James Chandler’s An Archaeology of Sympathy: The Sentimental Mode in Literature and Cinema is a deep dig. Chandler, a Distinguished Professor at the University of Chicago, has chosen an apt title, as his book excavates vast cultural strata through four plus centuries. With discussions ranging in scope from proto-novelist Laurence Sterne, philosophers Friedrich Schiller, Adam Smith and Lord Shaftesbury, novelists Charles Dickens, Joseph Conrad and Mary Shelley, and filmmakers D. W. Griffith, and Frank Capra (then back through Sterne), the book may seem culturally crowded—any one of these figures is august company, any three a towering crowd—but Chandler is so learned, his prose so modestly lucid, that he weaves together all these figures with impressive dexterity.
Despite all the big names, the book’s primary touchstones are Sterne, Dickens and Capra, with Sterne as figurehead. Launching off from Schiller’s definition of “the sentimental mode” as one “constituted at once by ambivalence and reflexivity […], a mode or mood defined not by a simplistic form of sincerity but rather by a complex form… that brings difficult questions of virtuality and fictionality into play,” Chandler analyzes what he terms “one of the most celebrated episodes in eighteenth-century sentimental culture” from Sterne’s Tristram Shandy.
Chandler’s extensive quotes from this early work take on new light under his notions of sentiment as a complex action and reaction, a double reflexivity. So what one may initially have read merely as an early “novel” becomes a striking model of subtle emotional attunements (“I… felt the kindliest harmony vibrating within me…”), inter-narrative sightlines (“…leaning his body on one side to let me see her, for he was in a line betwixt us…”), and overall “internal spectatorship”.
Chandler summarily compresses these elements “most crudely” (though I would say succinctly) as “something like distributed feeling. It is emotion that results from social circulation, passion that has been mediated by a sympathetic passage through a virtual point of view. It involves a structure of vicariousness. […] the result of a projective imagination across a network or relay of regard. By ‘regard,’ I mean attention, respect, heed, care, but I also mean something closer to the French sense of regard: a look or a gaze, an act performed with the eyes.”
I emphasize that last phrase as it in many ways provides the book’s progenitive through-line. Whether in Sterne or Capra (or even Mel Gibson’s Braveheart, just one indication of the book’s scope), visual exchange stands as a mechanism for the exchange or manufacturing of sentiment. This visuality may be actual (as in cinema) or implied (as when reading literature) but it is mostly virtual. Rendered “internal spectators”, we experience an attunement with and conveyance of like-feelings for subjects that seem to embody for us specific emotions linked to our own experience. Despite or because of such virtual empathy, sentiment in this context is also, even mostly, a “self-discoursing practice” with a “textualized spectator defined by the capacity to produce an affecting reflection both on/of himself and on/of the world of everyday affairs.”
Sentiment then is what Chandler, drawing from his disparate sources, reveals as a “structure of feeling”, but a structure capable of “motion and emotion”, of moving and being moved. In short, a journey, and one which only becomes “sentimental” upon or through reflection, “of passing into points of view not one’s own.”
This “vehicular” conveyance, this alignment of sight-lines and sensibility, becomes acutely fulfilled through cinema, “a particularly apt vehicle for representing sentimental vehicularity,” especially, as Chandler argues persuasively, the cinema of Frank Capra.
Capra, building on such crucial innovations of D. W. Griffith as the close-up and shot/reverse-shot (and both Griffith and Capra inspired by the highly visual prose of Dickens—the digging goes deep), was able to express or indeed invent a new kind of “sentimental” in cinema, “a mood, or mode, or tone, or genre, or style… One searches for a term because it is hard to know just what category best captures the sentimental.”
Linking the 18th century Sterne to the 20th century Capra in a breathtaking leap of continuity, Chandler analyzes in detail a series of illustrative scenes from a selection of Capra films, from It Happened One Night (1934), to Mr. Deeds Goes To Town (1936), to the director’s most beloved film, 1946’s It’s A Wonderful Life (he even draws from the director’s autobiography and its “corrective” biography by Joseph McBride). His close readings mine the ways in which sentiment, in both Capra and Sterne, gets encoded or reinforced or iterated through relays of looks and gazes, a migration of human empathy through “fictional vehicles.”
The heady result is “a sense of the human world as defined by the incoming motion of perception and the outgoing motion of action, with ‘affection’ as the name for the interval of their transduction.”
As is no doubt clear, An Archaeology of Sympathy is academically dense and exhaustive. At times, one feels like one is tunneling headlong through layers of granite or marble in a kind of archaeology of reading. But down there, or in there, surrounded by solid stone, as it were, live some fascinating finds. Just be ready to dig.