A History of Insensibility

British Society and Culture between the Eighteenth and the Nineteenth Century

Kerstin Maria Pahl

A reader opening a British newspaper or a book around 1840 would encounter many scenarios where feelings were, allegedly, missing. Socially engaged writers, journalists, and philanthropists decried the unfeeling abandonment of the poor as not befitting a civilized nation. Social reformers were appalled by the callousness of factory owners, slave traders, and the workers’ mental dullness. Drug users immersed themselves in mind-numbing intoxication. In countless memoirs, soldiers described their gradual hardening due to the horrors of battles, captured by the emerging war photography. British missionaries spoke of "Chinese apathy" when they found the inhabitants of China unresponsive to Western spiritual teachings, while English Christians were said to be "habitual neglecters of the public ordonances of religion". Literature from novels to broadsides delighted in unfeeling characters and, increasingly, detached modes of writing. Social realist paintings provided awareness-raising, but also picturesque ideas of poverty.

Enrique Simonet Lombardo, Una Autopsia (1890)

Few things make the meaning and importance of feelings so apparent as their absence. This project enquires into the history of insensibility, its rhetorical evocations, visual framings, and practical purpose in Britain between roughly the 1780s and the 1870s, examining questions such as: what did feeling nothing mean in political, economical, social, and literary contexts? And what do we learn about history by exploring a lack of emotions?

Four different kinds of insensibility, i.e., indifference, callousness, numbness, and apathy, provide this study’s focus, each highlighting a specific unemotional attitude that was (or was believed to be) prevalent in British culture at that time. To fully investigate the intertwining of politics and social history with the cultural imagination, this study combines methodologies from history, literary studies, and visual culture. The salience of insensibility sits uncomfortably, and often deliberately so, with the culture of sensibility that flourished in the eighteenth century. Denouncing insensitive behaviour often meant denouncing groups, which could mean drawing attention to social ills, fearing social disintegration, or supporting empire building and the "civilizing mission." Apathetic and indifferent were often the others; those, British or not, who were not interested in their physical and spiritual welfare and in the good of the country. Drawing on sources from social theory, political rhetoric, literary and visual culture, and medical texts, this project argues that in the nineteenth century, public evocations and expressions of unfeelingness became a specific form of social and political communication.

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