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Sympathy in modernist literature

By Kirsty Martin

In Virginia Woolf’s 1931 modernist novel The Waves her character Neville, looking around in a chapel service at school, is suddenly transfixed by his friend Percival:

But look – he flicks his hand to the back of his neck. For such gestures one falls hopelessly in love for a lifetime.

Neville is captivated, and overwhelmed, by Percival’s gesture here. Capturing this moment, Woolf’s language becomes gesturative too – it points the reader to Percival and suggests an undefinable quality to his movement through the vague, charged use of ‘such’: “such gestures”. This heightened awareness of gesture, and of bodily movement and posture, pervades Woolf’s novel, and pervades modernist literature.

Descriptions like Woolf’s account of Percival’s gesture raise questions about the nature of love itself, and about how we might understand each other. Neville’s response to Percival taps into questions about how we might feel for gesture, and indeed about what it might mean to respond in this way to gesture: how far might, or should, mere gesture be a basis for love?

Such concerns about gesture, and movement, have become increasingly important today in thinking about how we might understand each other. There has been a growing amount of neuroscientific research into how the brain responds to bodily movement. In particular, the discovery of mirror neurons – neurons which respond to the gestures and movements of others as if the watching subject were performing the same movements – seem to suggest that gesture might be one of the things that bind us together, that the details of movement and posture might form connections between people at a basic bodily level.

This idea – that love and sympathetic understanding might be forged by bodily gesture – might seem a troubling way of thinking about human connection. The word ‘gesture’, after all, carries hints of theatricality and posturing: ‘sympathetic gestures’ might not be the same thing as sympathy itself. Neville’s response to Percival, too, might sound like hyperbolic infatuation. Yet as he reports being ‘hopelessly’ in love the moment does also suggest inevitability, that this response to gesture might be an inextricable part of what it is to feel and be alive.

At stake here are complex questions about what it is that we respond to in people, and about what might be an adequate basis for love. Thinking about gesture, one must consider whether understanding others need always involve an attempt to understand other minds, or whether there’s a way of responding to another’s individuality that might just consist of attentiveness to the details of the ways their body moves.

Woolf’s work taps into all of these concerns, and in doing so it’s characteristic of its time. Early twentieth-century literature is full of moments where characters pay careful attention to gestures, postures, movement.  Modernist literature is full of scenes like that with Neville and Percival, where gesture can prompt wonder and desire – in D.H. Lawrence’s novel The Rainbow Tom Brangwen is shown falling in love with his future wife Lydia because of the manner of her movement: “it was her curious, absorbed, flitting motion […] that first attracted him”. There’s a subtlety to this moment in The Rainbow – there’s sexual attraction here but also a quality of thoughtfulness as Brangwen considers the nature of Lydia’s movement, considers how much might be conveyed by gesture. At other moments modernist literature demonstrates anxiety over gesture, a sense of the difficulty of decoding it – as in The Good Soldier where Ford Madox Ford’s narrator wonders in retrospect about the over-the-shoulder glance directed at him by his wife Florence, or when Conrad’s Marlow contemplates Lord Jim’s flourishing farewells.

Besides involving itself in the intricacies of interpreting gesture, modernist literature is also marked simply by its intense awareness of how we do respond to gesture, by its recognition of how life might be punctuated by these sudden moments of intense attention. An interest in gesture is frequently bound up with an interest in epiphanic moments of wonderment. One might think, for instance, of the intense focus on arms in T.S. Eliot’s poetry: “But in the lamplight, downed with light brown hair!” (Prufrock), or the sudden sense of being undone in The Waste Land: “Your arms full, and your hair wet”.

Modernist literature is alive to gesture, and alive to our capacities to responding to gesture. And it’s the intensity with which early twentieth-century texts focuses on how we respond to gestures that is perhaps particular to modernism. There are of course many moments in literature of other periods which focus on the particularities of understanding the body – consider Milan Kundera’s sense of the “charm of a gesture” in Immortality or the pathos of Rosamond’s tightly folded hands in Middlemarch. Yet modernist writers were especially attuned to thinking about both about sensuousness and about abstraction, about the odd, tangential ways in which we might respond to things. Modernist writing like Woolf’s provides a way of thinking about ongoing debate over how we relate to each other, and it also simply draws attention to the particularities of human connection, addressing the reader: “But look”, and recognising how one might feel for such gestures.

Kirsty Martin is Lecturer in English Literature at the University of Exeter. Her book, Modernism and the Rhythms of Sympathy: Vernon Lee, Virginia Woolf, D.H. Lawrence, was published by OUP in March 2013.

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Image Credits:
1. Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s Two Girls in Black [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Leonardo da Vinci’s Study of Arms and Hands [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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