BOOK CLUB In A Revolution of Feeling, Rachel Hewitt explores how our emotions have been been nutured and evolved.
EVERY ISSUE WE’LL PICK A BRILLIANT BOOK WE THINK YOU’D LOVE TO READ. THIS MONTH, WE CHAT TO AUTHOR RACHEL HEWITT ABOUT HER LATEST RELEASE
For such a simple, everyday question, “How do you feel?” has a complex history that most of us have probably never considered. Why you have the feelings you have and describe them in the way that you do is actually a complicated matter, argues Rachel Hewitt in this rich and revelatory book, one that can only be answered by looking to our history and understanding the times and people who shaped what Hewitt calls our “feeling about feeling”.
That means going back to the 1790s – a period of hope, genius, failure and loss. At the start of the era, radicals like poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge or philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft could look to the revolution in France and take inspiration for their own utopian projects. What happened in France was not just a whole new system of government, but a whole new way of living. The reforms they sought were as much emotional as political, and they were fed by scienti c discoveries that transformed popular beliefs about human behaviour and experience.
But by the decade’s end, the collapse of the French Revolution into terror had served a bitter reproach to idealism, and many personal schemes had foundered. The reaction for some was a shift into conservatism, while others diverted their energies into apolitical aestheticism, giving us the Romantic understanding of emotion that holds so much sway today: we see emotion as a purely organic, individualistic thing.
Hewitt’s book puts society back in the story of feelings, drawing acute links to the present at every turn. The lives she relates are sometimes funny (Coleridge’s hapless commune plan), often momentous, and frequently moving (she describes a sad, unconsummated love affair, which is a tearjerker worthy of its own book). Once you’ve read them, “How do you feel?” will never sound so simple again.
Q The idea that the emotions I have are shaped by culture was something I found quite alienating when I started reading. Was that something you felt while writing it?
A It was an incredibly startling, surprising and unsettling concept, that idea of emotion as something culturally constructed. Di erent countries at di erent historical periods have had very di erent ways of thinking about the emotions. It’s not to say that every aspect of how we experience an emotion is culturally determined, but the way in which we think of emotions operating, the way we conceive of emotions having a point, the expressions that go with certain emotions, and a lot of the emotions that we allow ourselves to recognise and to feel; those are culturally determined to a large degree.
Q Is it all about the language that we use to describe our feelings?
A Language is a huge part of it. It’s to do with recognising what’s going on in our bodies, and obviously you can’t do that if you don’t have a word for it. Quite a few philosophers have written about this very eloquently, that certain cultures provide us with rich vocabularies for some emotions but then a very impoverished vocabulary for others. And a large part of it is that the emotions that have very rich vocabulary are the ones that are praised within any given culture for contributing towards creating a certain type of human being.
Q What kind of human being is constructed by the sort of emotional vocabulary that we have today?
A Thinking about the particular types of emotions that we hear most about is a really interesting way into that question. The emotions that are written about with a greater richness of vocabulary and thought today are concepts such as happiness, anger, hatred and fear. Now that’s not to say that these are necessarily emotions that are praised, but they are the ones that we are most aware of. The concept of happiness as a social goal is interesting to me, because there are other types of positive emotion that we might want to sanction instead. What does it mean to praise something like happiness instead of contentment or ecstasy?
Q Is everyone in our society given permission to feel the same kind of feelings?
A I think the consequences of frustrating the male desire are seen as far, far more dangerous than the consequences of frustrating the female desire. Women are used to living in a state of continual non-satisfaction, whether it’s sexual, or in terms of economic desires, or in terms of other material wants.
Q Is it important to think about emotion as something social rather than purely personal?
A The way [18th century economist] Adam Smith saw it, society is constituted by exchanges that happen between individuals. They can take place economically, but really what drives the economy is desire. And desire is a form of emotion; emotions are in the service of our desires. If you hate something, it’s because you have a desire to be away from it. If you love something, it’s because you have a desire for it.
I think for Smith, the fundamental economy that underlaid the nancial economy was an emotional one, and that is regulated by similar laws to the nancial economy. It’s so anathema to how we see emotion now, which I think is a really post-Romantic way of seeing emotion that got revived in the sixties. We really are in thrall to this sense of emotion as naturalistic, spontaneous, organic; one that creates the individual as a genius, and that is a mark of sensitivity to the world.
Q It seems as though we’re in constant ight from the complexity and embeddedness of human existence…
A I can’t really understand the desire to see oneself as a completely unique individual. It seems isolating and lonely to me. I like the idea that if I feel a certain way and behave in a certain way, there’s going to be millions of other people feeling and behaving in that way too. The thing I really like about that 18th century philosophy is that it emphasises the use of emotion to cement society together.
Rachel Hewitt is an author and academic who lives in London with her partner, three children and cat. A Revolution of Feeling is out now (Granta Books, £25). SHARING IS CARING Realising that someone else is feeling the same as you can help you to...