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“Affective Worlds”

Writing, Feeling & Nineteenth-Century Literature


John Hughes


Brighton: Sussex Academic Press, 2011

Hardcover. vii+180 pp. ISBN 978-1845194420. £55.00


Reviewed by Marie Laniel

Université de Picardie Jules-Verne, Amiens


Affective Worlds is a collection of six essays devoted to the centrality of feelings in the works of foremost writers from the long nineteenth century: William Blake, William Wordsworth, Edgar Allan Poe, Alfred Tennyson, Charlotte Brontë and Thomas Hardy. The originality, and great appeal, of John Hughes’ approach lies in his desire to foreground the role of emotions, as both the impulse behind a literary work, and the condition of the reader’s full engagement with it. While it is generally agreed that affective involvement is central to the reading experience, and that being moved is the best way to engage with a work of art, the study of the emotional aspect of readerly response is still widely decried in critical circles, and tends to elicit at best suspicion, if not downright criticism. Alongside recent critical works which explore “the purely affective elements of readerly response” [23], such as Susan L. Feagin’s Reading with Feeling (1996), Jenefer Robinson’s “Deeper than Reason”: Emotion and its Role in Literature, Music and Art (2005), and Suzanne Keen’s Empathy and the Novel (2007), John Hughes wishes to reassert the centrality of affects in the creative process and reading experience, and sets out to define a new mode of “affective reading” [1], that would give pride of place to emotions as the adequate response to literary works.

The central tenet of John Hughes’ study is that subjectivity is the result of a process of individuation, shaped by the subject’s bodily response to the world. It is the “physical or emotional determinants of mind” [1]—how acts of mind are generated from emotional response—that Hughes wishes to highlight throughout his six essays. As well as investigating the ways in which “affectivity is narrated, dramatized, and conveyed in a writer’s work” [1], Hughes also tries to grasp that most elusive of concepts, a writer’s “sensibility”—the significant features of his/her “affective world” [3]—by seizing “the individuating effects” that writers produce “through the stylistic, lyrical, or formal configurations of their fiction or poetry” [2]. According to Hughes, it is through the act of writing that an author embarks on a process of self-revelation, and can investigate the literary constitution of his/her own subjectivity: “Texts are taken as bound up with the dramas of reading and self-reading that they dynamically stage and express” [1]. It is therefore through the unique imprint of a writer’s literary style that his/her “sensibility” is disclosed.

Such a definition of subjectivity as a process of “becoming” owes a lot to the works of Gilles Deleuze and Stanley Cavell, who both provide the critical frameworks of Hughes’ analyses. In Lines of Flight (Sheffield Academic Press, 1996), Hughes had already acknowledged his debt towards Deleuze. Drawing on the key concepts of “affect”, “individuation” and “becoming”, Hughes undermines the traditional representation of subjectivity as “a lucid interiority transcending and preceding the physical conditions of experience” [118], but defines it as a constant process of self-change, determined by “affects”, impersonal forces shaping the specific course of one’s life, its “lines of flight”. It is this power of individuation, this unique sensibility that Hughes wishes to trace in the specific style of a writer: “Individuation is evident in literary style as the product of an original sensibility and mind that finds itself essentially in words” [6]. Hughes’ critical approach is also strongly indebted to the works of Stanley Cavell, who construes literary texts as “philosophical and verbal explorations of the possibilities of self-transformation” [9].

It was only apt that John Hughes should start this investigation of feelings with close readings of Romantic poems, by William Blake and William Wordsworth, before moving on to later nineteenth-century works in which the influence of Romanticism can still be traced: the poems of Alfred Tennyson, the fiction of Edgar Allan Poe, Charlotte Brontë and Thomas Hardy. Starting from specific feelings elicited by these works—a disquieting sense of intimacy in the case of Poe’s tales, a strong sense of empathy with Charlotte Brontë’s heroines—Hughes proceeds to explore a key motif encapsulating the unique aspect of these writers’ sensibility: musical experience in the poetry of William Blake, the recreational activity of walking in the poems of William Wordsworth, fantasies of resentment in Poe’s tales, moments of feminine identification in Alfred Tennyson’s poetry, bodily sensation in relation to social isolation in Charlotte Brontë’s novels, visual inspiration in Hardy’s fiction. In each case, Hughes makes well-informed references to previous criticism on the subject, as well as relevant use of biographical details from the writer’s life, always setting their works against their philosophical or historical backgrounds.

All six chapters bear the mark of Deleuze’s influence. Chapter 1 (‘A Bard’s Prophetic Song’: Blake and Music) examines how music becomes the vehicle of relatedness in Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience. In chapter 2 (‘He Travels On’: Wordsworth and the Walking Self), Hughes elaborates on the Deleuzian concept of “encounters”. Chapter 3 (‘The Tell-Tale Heart’: Poe and Resentment) looks at Deleuze’s analysis of ressentiment in Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals, while chapter 4 (‘All These Ladies’: Tennyson and Femininity) traces a “woman-becoming” in the poems of Tennyson. Chapter 5 (‘I Love’, ‘I Hate’, ‘I Suffer’: Feeling, Subjectivity, and Form in Charlotte Brontë’s Fiction) examines the process of “child-becoming” in the works of Charlotte Brontë, while chapter 6 (‘What I See in Their Faces’: Visual Inspiration in Hardy’s Fiction) also draws on the Deleuzian concept of “encounters”. This critical approach enables Hughes to shed new light on such canonical works as Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience, Poe’s Tales, Tennyson’s “Maud”, Charlotte Brontë’s Villette, and many of Hardy’s novels.

In chapter 1, Hughes examines Blake’s poetry in relation to the topic of musical inspiration. After shedding new light on Blake’s own music making, and his long-lasting influence on major composers such as Ralph Vaughan Williams or Benjamin Britten, Hughes offers a close reading of Songs of Innocence. As the analogue of visionary inspiration, musical experience partakes of Blake’s anti-rationalist stance, and his defence of the affective over the cognitive. As well as the best embodiment of the impulse behind creation—the visitations of the divine—musical imagery is also the best medium to represent the reader’s—or in the case of poetry—the listener’s emotional response to that impulse. This is made particularly apparent in the opening poem of Songs of Innocence: “So I piped: he wept to hear”. As the element that best represents “the connective powers of feeling and thought” [30], music also strengthens the sense of relatedness uniting a community. Here, Hughes makes enlightening references to Blake’s religious background, showing that music was also the connective medium of the Muggletonian sect.

In chapter 2, Hughes explores the walking trope in William Wordsworth’s poetry of the 1790s. A large part of the introduction is also devoted to Wordsworth’s poetry, since “A Slumber Did my Spirit Seal” is used as a case study to highlight the process of self-definition through writing. In this chapter, Hughes analyses the shift from one mode of walking to another, in Wordsworth’s poems from the early to the late 1790s: walking as wandering (originating in grief and loss), and walking as a therapeutic project of self-recovery through chance encounters: “These [later] poems narrate complex encounters with another person through which the speaker also encounters himself” [45]. These later “walking” poems contribute to a process of self-revelation, as the speaker engages in humane contact with these transitory figures. Though Hughes refers to the critical works of such Wordsworth scholars as Anne Wallace or Robin Jarvis, he provides illuminating insights on what might have proved a rather pedestrian topic.

Chapter 3 looks at the “destructive aesthetic of affective entrapment” [80], which is at the core of Edgar Poe’s Tales. Starting from the oppressive feeling of “disquieting intimacy” and “unaccountable affinity” [75] that any reader of Poe’s tales never fails to experience, Hughes tries to account for this sense of “affective contagion, even contamination” [75]. Referring to Deleuze’s analysis of ressentiment in Nietzsche, Hughes shows that the capacity for passive suffering, which characterises the man of ressentiment, is also a prominent feature of Poe’s personae, and ends up contaminating the reader. As it is transferred to his/her captivated mind, “ressentiment forges an unconscious connection, and an imprisoning circuit of feeling, between narrator and reader” [81]. Hughes highlights “this logic of malign transference” [79], which turns the reader into “a conscience-stricken doppelgänger” [81] caught up, as half-accomplice and half-victim, in the dark manipulative structure of the tale: “Entombment and metempsychosis […] can be taken not merely as dramatic obsessions in Poe’s tales, but also as symbols of the affective logic of their reading, and their effects upon the reader” [83].

Breaking away from Poe’s negative “mental worlds” [20], chapter 4 provides an interesting, new outlook on the works of Alfred Tennyson, by exploring the coexistence of male and female personae in the poems of the Poet Laureate. Showing how Tennyson steps away from traditional Victorian forms of masculinity, and enacts a “woman-becoming” “that unravels official, masculine configurations of gender” [88], Hughes singles out two modes of identification with the feminine in Tennyson’s poetry: romance as symbiosis, self-reflective togetherness, “where lovers mirror each other”, “where difference is bracketed” [100], and moments when female identity is enacted by the poetic voice. Going beyond the traditional categorisations of gender and sexuality provided by Tennysonian criticism (homosexuality, androgyny, transgression of sexual differences), Hughes shows that Tennyson’s imagination was “animated by an intra-psychic drama of identification, a ‘rapt’ or fearful fascination with female figures that was itself predicated on the surest sense of sexual difference” [105]. According to Hughes, this shift in gendered positions, this merging with the female, reveals Tennyson’s strong capacity of empathy with female characters or personae.

In chapter 5, Hughes tries to account for Charlotte Brontë’s uncanny power to draw the reader into her fictive world, wondering why “we read Jane Eyre as imaginative participants rather than socialised […] addressees” [117]. To answer that question, Hughes investigates Charlotte Brontë’s contagious power to express feelings, and to draw them out of the reader, which Deleuze summarised in his famous claim that “Charlotte Brontë designates a state of the winds more than a person” [112]. For Hughes, part of the answer lies in Charlotte Brontë’s power to reactivate “disorganised childhood potentials of seeing and feeling” [116], capacities for wonderment and “all-consuming involvement” in the world of fiction [117], similar to that experienced by the young Jane Eyre reading Bewick’s History of British Birds at the beginning of the novel. For Hughes, situations of isolation and “social liminality”, which characterise Brontean heroines, also lead the reader to engage emotionally with them: “the dedication to representing solitary experience […] becomes less an expression of isolation, than the way of establishing a fundamental type of affective bond with the reader” [118].

While in Ecstatic Sound (Ashgate, 2001), Hughes had explored musical imagery in Hardy’s novels, the last chapter of Affective Worlds focuses on “Visual Inspiration in Hardy’s Fiction”. By analysing scenes of mutual revelation—or failure of communication—through eye contact, Hughes foregrounds the “catalytic” narrative powers of vision in Hardy’s novels [153]. As a form of “physically mediated responsiveness” and an alternative to “reflexive subjectivity” [153], the experience of looking and looking back enables Hardy’s protagonists to experience a crucial form of self-revelation. Since looking entails response and response entails “an answering expression of oneself” [135], observation works both as a revelation of character (“face is fate” [134]) and a revelation of the onlooker. Like music in Blake’s poetry, eye contact in Hardy is the best medium to convey a form of involuntary relatedness, and, as such, it takes on added meaning as the best analogue of the reading experience: “Vision, for Hardy, […] is not a matter of seeing, as a static and objective recognition, but of looking, as a dynamic interaction, one in which the false unities of subjectivity and social personality are displaced, and hitherto undisclosed or forgotten possibilities of individual expression are released, for the narrator, character and reader” [153].

Though John Hughes did not include a concluding section to unify the different chapters (which were all published separately in different journals over the years), the reader still gets a strong sense of consistency from the six sections. While providing enlightening analyses of major works from the nineteenth century, John Hughes remains true to his claim that we should be “loyal” to our emotions and fully acknowledge the affective dimension of reading.



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