BOOK CLUB In A Revo­lu­tion of Feel­ing, Rachel He­witt ex­plores how our emo­tions have been been nu­tured and evolved.


In the Moment - - Contents - Words: Sarah Di­tum

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).



Re­al­is­ing that some­one else is feel­ing the same as you can help you to ac­cept and process the emo­tion. Ex­plain your

feel­ings to oth­ers to see how di er­ent

things then seem.

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