Community is an ambiguous concept and a hotly debated issue within both
the literature of sensibility and the body of critical work which responds
to it, both of which ask that we, as readers and as individuals,
interrogate the possibility (or even desirability) of true community.
Sensibility is frequently figured as a retreat from the world, a movement
from the often corrupt masculine spheres of politics and commerce (and
sexuality?), a withdrawal into the private and idiosyncratic space of the
emotions. But a retreat of this kind does not necessitate a rejection of
community per se; community is not, after all, synonymous with society: it
is a fellowship, an identity, a commonness between people, a sociality.
This kind of solidarity may be natural (e.g., a humanistic feeling based
on beliefs about natures and essences), or it may have to be cultivated
(e.g., a fellow-feeling wrought out of shared experiences, responses,
sensations, and fears).
Issues of community are tied up with those
of communication and knowledge: is it possible to know the other? how is
this knowledge achieved? must we rely on the words the other communicates
to us or is it possible to gain knowledge of the other via the body, the
senses? The constitution of selves (subjectivity), the relations between
selves (intersubjectivity and mutual recognition), and the relations
between selves and society (the politics of inclusion and exclusion) are
all at play when we think about the meaning of community.
Solidarity and sympathy are expressed via a communication of feelings, by
awareness of or participation in what Yorick, in A Sentimental
Journey, describes as the "great, great SENSORIUM of the world" (141),
the most optimistic figuration of the communal possibility of sensibility.
Heightened faculties of fellow-feeling are posed, in the literature of
sensibility, as "a capacity for sociability" (Mullan 17), but are often
manifested through illness, distemper, melancholy, or hysteria (e.g., in
Richardson, Goethe, Sterne, and Mackenzie). The fact that sensibility is
so often written on a physiologically delicate body is a problem for the
possibility of community: in many cases there is no productive social
space in which this sensibility can act. Spontaneous emotion, regarded as
a mark of virtue and wisdom, and once cultivated as a means to an end,
risks becoming an end in itself, an indulgence, an illness, if it is not
properly harnessed. By the end of the eighteenth century, critics of
indulgent sensibility were arguing about the effects this kind of ethic
could have on society: conservative critics, such as Burke, worried that
an ethic based on sentiment could undermine established social
institutions, whereas radical critics, like Wollstonecraft, were more
concerned that it would reinforce the status quo by giving the appearance
of emancipation (for women, in particular) without effecting any real
social or political change. Some twentieth-century critics see
sensibility as politically charged-- in particular, as an attempt by the
bourgeoisie to carve a space for themselves, whether by retreating from
politics all together or by endeavoring to "wrest a degree of ideological
hegemony from the aristocracy" (Eagleton, 4).
In any case, the debate is ongoing. Should sensibility contribute to social and political reform, or is it enough for individuals to focus on small acts of benevolence? Is the quest for community or solidarity a lost cause, the only cause, or both? Should individuals desire integration into a social whole? Can reading literature help us answer any of these questions? Can it (or, can sensibility) help us with our own project of community-building if such a thing does or should exist?