Face to Face with the Sublime: Empathy and Alienation in Romantic Literature and Art

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Sullivan, Jenny
portraiture , faces , philosophy , art history , empathy , sublime , life writing
My thesis explores the primacy and power of the human face, in both its ability to cultivate compassion and to enforce distance between persons. Engaging with eighteenth-century sublime theory, I argue that the face is a source of a sublime, capable of provoking awe and terror in the beholder. The face has disruptive potential, and can transport the person beyond the bounds of self, revealing a likeness as well as an unbridgeable gap between self and Other. The sublime facial gaze thus presents a paradox: while it can evoke empathy, it also exposes empathy’s inevitable limits. In my discussion of the face’s power, I draw on the philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas. While the face-to-face encounter can have a pragmatic effect, producing a sense of “Responsibility for the Other” (Levinas 83), it can also be subverted through a rejection of the ultimately unknowable Other, who poses a threat to the self. The face acts as an entry point into the person as a whole, confronting the beholder with the mystery and complexity of a being both like and unlike the self, and demanding a response. In my thesis, I begin with discussion of the shift in late eighteenth-century portraiture towards greater subjectivity, and forge a connection between Romantic-era art and literature. I then examine the sublime face’s potential to empower women through consideration of the works of Jane Austen and Mary Hays, looking at both verbal and visual portraits in the texts. Lastly, I analyze Thomas De Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium-Eater for evidence of the face’s transformative effect as well as its ability to provoke sublime terror.
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