Sam Tett responds to Rachel Hollander
Hollander characterizes Albrecht’s method as a form of “radical empathy” that is achieved through “inhabiting Eliot’s thought.” This description crystallizes some of the methodological questions that occurred to me while reading the book, but that I couldn’t fully articulate. Albrecht’s steadfast commitment to radical empathy dials down the literary critical voice in order to privilege that of its object, George Eliot. As Hollander points out, this method very successfully “sheds new light on [Eliot’s] novels” and “highlights [her] ultimate embrace of an ethics of uncertainty.”
On the other hand, privileging Eliot’s point of view over and above historical and critical framing seems to absolve Albrecht of some responsibility when, as Hollander puts it, “the stakes of the ethical argument are highest.” I, too, felt that the book ended on a strange note, and turned over the last page in search of an explicatory or contextualizing conclusion. But as Hollander points out, “Albrecht is not enlisting George Eliot’s novels in service of a larger argument about Victorian literature and morality”; rather, he “prioritizes Eliot’s body of thought over any particular historical or theoretical agenda.”
It is perhaps an inevitable result of its method, then, that the book declines to prescribe what readers might do with the insights it offers; to do so would be to step beyond Eliot’s point of view, and to take on a more authoritarian role than radical empathy permits. Or perhaps Albrecht models the difference imperative by refusing to confine the payoffs of this research to his own academic field, interests, or agendas; I can see how this move might make the research amenable to a broader range of applications. Nevertheless, I would have been glad to see the motivations behind this choice explicitly acknowledged and theorized.
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