Nerves, brain or heart? The Anatomy of Feeling in Russian Sentimentalism

Valeria Sobol, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign

Sentimentalism’s interest in the human emotional realm is certainly a commonplace of eighteenth-century literary histories. What is often neglected in this characterization of Sentimentalism is this movement’s intense preoccupation with the body as both the locus and the vehicle of refined sensibility. This insistence on the localization of emotions stems from the eighteenth century’s general concern with the nature of the body-soul interaction—a response to seventeenth-century Cartesian dualism.

Karamzin’s oft-quoted letter to Lavater, in which the young Russian asks the Swiss philosopher, “How is our soul linked to our body, when the former is of an entirely different substance from the latter,” exemplifies the importance of this problem for his time and highlights Russian Sentimentalism’s deep involvement with this dilemma. Russian Sentimentalist writers, as my analysis will show, strive to assign a particular organic seat to human emotions, especially love. In some cases such localization echoes debates in contemporary philosophy and physiology on the location of the soul (as is the case of some episodes in Karamzin’s Letters of a Russian Traveler); in others, it simply reflects the authors’ adherence to the fashionable vocabulary of neurophysiology or, on the contrary, their loyalty to conventional love discourse. In some particularly interesting cases we observe a rather comical mixture of various scientific and poetic traditions. Sometimes the desired union of body and soul is attained even without using any particular scientific or philosophical concept: the desired effect is achieved through pure linguistic play, by blurring the discursive boundaries between the two realms and by adjusting the traditional imagery to the new sensibility.

My paper will combine a close analysis of the descriptions of emotions found in both the major works of Russian Sentimentalism and in the numerous poems and prose narratives published in the Sentimentalist journals of the 1790s and 1800s with a discussion of the scientific and philosophical context surrounding the discourse of sensibility (e.g., the Haller-Whytt dispute in contemporary physiology). This approach not only reconstructs the Sentimentalist anatomy and physiology of emotions but also offers a revision of the traditional understanding of Sentimentalism as a movement that promotes a highly spiritualized vision of human nature anticipating Romantic dualism.