Laurence Sterne’s lack of commitment to the tenets of sentimentality in A Sentimental Journey—present in his ability to mock and praise the individual capacity to feel, and more precisely, in his satirical reading of the “cult of sensibility,” the new ideological imperative to have and to showcase deep, sentimental feelings—remains as one of the central challenges for readings of the novel. To explore Sterne’s portrayal of sensibility in A Sentimental Journey, I turn to camp sensibility, and the discussions that followed Susan Sontag’s “Notes on Camp.” Sterne’s novel could be read as camp, perhaps most notably in his blending of the high and the low, but my purpose here is to raise questions about our attachments to camp sensibility, and more specifically, our attachments to camp sensibility as a gay sensibility, via Sterne’s representation of bourgeois subjectivity in the novel. Queer sensibilities provide marginalized people with a collective “essence”—a shared belief in a fundamental nature that separates and elevates members of the group. In a similar way, Yorick’s sensibility—and the performance of sentiment in eighteenth-century fiction more broadly—provides a new measure for class, conduct, and identity. I argue that the slow shift from blood to conduct as an index of value ushered in not only an increased demand for self-discipline but also the injunction to examine one’s feelings. Sensibility—a quality that signals a keen awareness of affect that demonstrates character—shows how power functions through feelings. Sterne’s representation of the sensible man’s submerged sexual desire demonstrates how the cult of sensibility both defined and restrained those aspiring to meet the demands of new definitions of respectability.
Laurence Sterne, A Sentimental Journey, camp, sensibility, class
"Sterne’s Sentimental Temptations: Sex, Sensibility, and the Uses of Camp,"
ABO: Interactive Journal for Women in the Arts, 1640-1830: Vol.9: Iss.1, Article 2.
Available at: https://digitalcommons.usf.edu/abo/vol9/iss1/2