The Importance of Feeling Nothing

A History of British Insensibilities, c. 1780 to 1870

Kerstin Maria Pahl

"The feel of not to feel it, /When there is none to heal it/ Nor numbed sense to steel it,/ Was never said in rhyme."
John Keats, In Drear-Nighted December, 1817

Enrique Simonet Lombardo, Una Autopsia (1890)

This project approaches the history of emotions from the perspective of the lack thereof, exploring literary and visual representations of the absence of feeling in nineteenth-century North-Western Europe. Examining a variety of media, including popular and functional media (Gebrauchsgattungen), such as newspapers, conduct books, reader’s digests, and caricatures, I am particularly interested in how insensibility reflects an approach to individuality, subjectivity, and the organisation of society on the one hand, and to aesthetics and the writing of history on the other. Plato defined insensibility as "want of perception," and, more precisely, as "the affections of our body [that] are extinguished in the body before they reach the soul" (Philebus, 33d), meaning it prevents memory from the outset. Adam Smith would later note that pain is forgotten the moment it disappears, so that by separating witnessing from tellability, unfeelingness relates to the ordering of knowledge: it actively prevents the "preservation of perception" (Plato), which is at memory’s and history writing’s core, as well as a tool of image-making.

Employing an interdisciplinary approach that draws on literary studies, art history, and cultural and conceptual history, this project will look at concepts, narratives, and settings of representations of insensibility: in which contexts does "feeling nothing" occur? How is it represented, negotiated, and connoted across the media? What are the implications for mores, morals, ethics, and for cultural formations through gender, race, ethnicity, and class? How is insensibility formed, shaped, developed, and, eventually, performed, and how do its isolating abilities relate to hierarchies and power?

Additionally, with general anaesthesia being introduced in 1842, mental insensibility received an empirical counterpart, and their intersection points at the ethical organisation of society: who was allowed to induce insensibility and who had to develop it? Which people were supposed to steel themselves against emotions and who was required to resist insensibility?

Known under various names, such as insensibility, unfeelingness, indifference, numbness, or stupidity, and metaphorically likened to stone, snow, or ice, the lack of feeling – understood as the absence of emotions or (partial) unconsciousness – was considered to isolate and detach individuals from social contexts, turning them into unrelated and non-relatable figures who were unable to be moved or to move others, thus undermining the foundation of society: to the Scot Francis Hutcheson, lack of feeling showed "plain neglect to the Good of others" (Inquiry, 1726); the German K. Ph. Moritz described it as a religious ideal according to which mind and soul were prepared "to return again into their nothingness" (Anton Reiser, 1782); to Charles Dickens, indifference was a "looseness respecting everything" (Night Walks, 1857); and the French Prosper Mérimée had Carmen take part in her own murder by challenging social conventions and ideals of femininity: "I now don’t love anything anymore and I hate myself for having loved you" (Carmen, 1847).

Due to the intersection between empirical and aesthetic aspects and the different settings and representations, I am particularly interested in the role that different media play in negotiating, but also producing mental numbness: aesthetics and anaesthesia share the same linguistic root and my project aims to explore in what ways and at what point art may have been both an anaesthetising tool – through, for instance, constant repetition or repeated exposure, which might have led to potential originality becoming dull and feelings becoming numbed – and yet could still entail the pleasurable experience of self-voiding and tranquil serenity. "One," writes Adam Smith, "who has been witness to a dozen dissections, and as many amputations, sees, ever after, all operations of this kind with great indifference, and often with perfect insensibility" (Moral Sentiments, 1759).

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