Compassion and Literature. Neo-Sentimentalism in Literary Theory
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In our paper, we present a review of recent developments in literary theory especially in the theory by Martha Nussbaum focusing on a role of compassion in literary studies. Our main thesis is that neo-sentimentalism is visible in three areas of Martha Nussbaum’s thought: first, in her views of emotions (she try to persuade readers that this stance is neo-stoicism, but it should be properly called neo-sentimentalism); secondly, in her theory of the literary genres, in which she represents the anti-formalist turn in literary studies; thirdly, in her theory of compassion and love in the reception of literature, in ethics and in social thinking. In order to characterise Martha Nussbaum’s literary theory, we try to summarise the motive of empathy occurring in 18th century sentimentalism and in many forms of the later aesthetic sentimentality. We interpret so called ethical criticism (involving, besides Martha Nussbaum, Stanley Cavell, Wayne Booth, Martin Price) as a political movement using, as its rhetorical device, reference to sentimental motives of absolute empathy (G. Lakoff and M. Johnson’s concept). We also argue that in the current era we should abandon an ideal of apolitical criticism and theory of literature. Literary scholarship has many ethical and, subsequently, political dimensions and empathy is a basic term in literary studies which associates itself with other sociological and political issues. But recent developments in cognitive science make us to treat empathy as a basic term of understanding human behaviours and language, so the neo-sentimentalism has a solid grounds in science.
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