Beth Bevis Gallick responds to Rachel Hollander
I’m grateful to Rachel Hollander for introducing the concept of “radical empathy” as method, a critical approach that allows itself to be shaped by the subject under examination. Aside from any interpretive advantages or disadvantages it might offer, such an approach to literary analysis shares with other recent anti-suspicious methodologies a kind of critical humility—an attempt to engage the works on their own terms, and an openness to being implicated by their ethical investments. This is particularly fitting when it comes to The Ethical Vision of George Eliot, since Albrecht’s subject is the ethical imperative to set aside the ego in encounters with the other.
As I returned to the chapters on Impressions of Theophrastus Such that Hollander calls our attention to, however, I found myself wondering how much empathy-as-method is at play here. I agree that Albrecht’s chapters on Eliot’s fiction seem to be more responsive to their subject than to any particular theoretical agenda. But the discussion of Theophrastus felt to me more filtered through Albrecht’s own interpretive lens. I can’t imagine, for example, reaching his conclusion in Chapter 5—that “The Modern Hep! Hep! Hep!” represents a critique of the nationalism that it seems, on the surface, to celebrate (158)—without having already accepted the book’s thesis that Eliot’s ethical vision moves toward a respect for difference. Perhaps this methodology—reading an author’s more challenging later works in light of what we have gleaned from her earlier (and more ethically accessible) writing—still counts as a form of empathetic criticism. It is rooted, after all, in the author’s own investments, and it attempts to present a faithful picture of her ideas. But as the concerns that Hollander raises brought home to me, the picture is doubtless defective, a sort of critical version of Eliot’s mirror, emphasizing some things while blurring the outlines of others.
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