This talk will illustrate the practice of cognitive historicism as it develops the theoretical foundation for a new reading of P. B. Shelley’s The Cenci. Rather than inquiring into the morality of Beatrice Cenci's murder of her father, as numerous readers have done, Richardson will consider the efficacy of Count Cenci’s program for corrupting his daughter and turning her into a version of himself. Count Cenci, he will argue, engineers a perverse kind of empathic identification, one that Shelley calls, in Prometheus Unbound, “loathsome sympathy.” Richardson understands “loathsome” sympathy in turn as an extreme or inverted form of the sympathy that plays so crucial a role in Shelley's poetic and ethical theory and that he develops from 18th century writers including Hume, Rousseau, and Adam Smith.
Twenty-first century research on empathy and “mirror neurons”—whether or not it ends up holding up scientifically—provides a number of partial and provocative analogies with eighteenth century sympathy theory and may help open up new perspectives on the tradition that leads from Hume to Shelley. He is especially interested in how mirror neuron research emphasizes the embodied, visual, intersubjective, and unconscious workings of empathy. To what extent does Shelley, and the theorists he relies upon, develop a comparable sense of sympathy? And how might this comparison lead to a new reading of The Cenci?