Emotions in history and literature
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- Bolens, G. Postmedieval (2017) 8: 120. doi:10.1057/s41280-016-0033-z
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Michael Champion and Andrew Lynch, eds.
Understanding Emotions in Early Europe. Turnhout, Belgium, Brepols, 2015, ix + 357 pp., €90.
Frank Brandsma, Carolyne Larrington, and Corinne Saunders, eds.
Emotions in Medieval Arthurian Literature: Body, Mind, Voice. Cambridge, D.S. Brewer, 2015, viii + 210 pp., $99.
Andrew James Johnston, Russell West-Pavlov, and Elisabeth Kempf, eds.
Love, History and Emotion in Chaucer and Shakespeare: Troilus and Criseyde and Troilus and Cressida. Manchester, Manchester University Press, 2016, viii + 208 pp., £70.
The very first word in the first surviving European narrative, The Iliad, is menis [‘wrath’]. The Iliad tells the story of Achilles’s wrath, its cause, form, and consequences. In the beginning was the emotion. Literature is hardly thinkable without emotions. Through all its protean forms and transformations, literature was and still is mainly about those strange phenomena that yoke cognition and embodiment, and which are so complex and important that mankind has been wondering about them since records began and probably before. Emotions are central to literature: there is nothing new in that. What is new is the current pervading focus in the humanities on emotions qua emotions. There is no longer a need to advocate such an interest: given their constant and overriding impact, emotions deserve massive attention. To try to ignore them or ward them off is itself already emotional. What is more, this current attention to emotion is interdisciplinary and aims at bringing complementary research fields together (e.g. literature and history with psychology, psychiatry, and neuroscience), by establishing the fact that emotions cannot be dissociated from the historical, cultural, material, and social forces that elicit and shape them.
What is clear about remote periods also applies to the present. The subtitle of Champion and Lynch’s introduction to Understanding Emotions in Early Europe is ‘The Things They Left Behind,’ referring to tokens of emotions, be they recorded practices, texts, or artefacts. Champion and Lynch’s collective volume perfectly grapples with such issues over a considerable historical period (from antiquity to the eighteenth century). But I would borrow their subtitle to raise a tangential question. Central aspects of our own historical period can possibly be ‘left behind’ or may turn into a blind spot, if they remain unproblematized. Via its impeccable historical perspective, Understanding Emotions in Early Europe offers tools that may also be used to address the complex issue of emotions today and in current research.
however biologically instrumental and prelinguistic emotional responses may be considered to be, and however contested they are by contrary definitions, they are manifested in particular places and times, and in particular words, deeds, and things; in that important way, emotion – past and present – is always historical. Equally, although the contemplation of emotions allows a human capacity for sympathy – ‘feeling with’ – as in any other domain of historical inquiry there is no direct access to the sources and thus no timeless or natural understanding of emotions goes unchallenged, and no approach can be treated as unmediated by particular intellectual, emotional, rhetorical, socio-economic, and institutional formations and their effects, especially in relation to emotionally charged historical questions of whose emotions matter, and which, why, how, and when. (Champion and Lynch, 2015, x)
Independently from the mediatisation of artefacts, an emotion, whether its manifestation is witnessed in another human being or experienced in oneself, is mediated by the means we have to relate to it and to appraise it. As pointed out by Champion and Lynch, any instance of appraisal is always already historical, even if it is spontaneous, pre-reflective and unchannelled by explicit or implicit discourses. To say this is not to undermine the reality of emotions. Simply, emotions necessarily take place in contexts. They are understood via systems of communication and of relevance that pertain to given periods – today possibly via all sorts of media (TV, the Internet, smartphones), marketing, and neuroscience; in other periods, possibly via religious and communal discourses and practices. Indeed, religious discourse and high-tech media may interconnect today. A person’s joy or anger, for instance, may be prompted and appraised by traditional religious discourse while also shaped by mass media, engineered for marketing purposes in ways informed by neuroscientific findings.
To adopt a historical perspective implies that we also question what we do with emotions today, how we deal with them. In this regard, an interesting contemporary object of study would be the institutional creation of the new academic discipline called neuromarketing. How do we ‘manage’ and ‘market’ emotions today? In what ways are research projects on emotions part of an effort to accommodate, or to question, the managerial era in which we live? How is the efficacy or applicability of a research project on emotions measured? If indicators of success or failure are developed, do they include applied knowledge? What does that mean? Are we supposed to help to develop new ways of eliciting, foreclosing, or evaluating emotions? What are the right and wrong emotions, and according to whom? These are awkward questions surely, but topical. The humanities have a crucial role to play in raising issues regarding what is at stake when emotions become a focus of inquiry – and of action and, possibly, manipulation. What do we do and what do we want when we place emotions at the centre of our attention? To repeat the last sentence in the quotation above, ‘whose emotions matter, and which, why, how, and when?’ Academia has a reflexively ethical and epistemological role to play in increasing society’s understanding of emotions, and of what humans do with them. It matters that the humanities are part of this research movement because such questions are essential to developing collective self-awareness and informed debate about not only emotions, but also research on emotions. The point is to better understand what we are participating in. This in itself is one primary social function of academia and the reason why its intellectual autonomy is indispensable.
The remarkable case studies offered in Understanding Emotions in Early Europe show the high level of expertise required in answering any question on emotions. The volume is divided into three sections (‘Intellectual Traditions,’ ‘Literature,’ and ‘Social History and Material Culture’), which provides coherence to the book. They offer impressive coverage, both historically and theoretically. I wish to focus on the first section to give an example of this fact. ‘Intellectual Traditions’ encompasses several topics: the origin of a moral emotion, remorse, which is identifiable through sets of ‘narratives and scripts’ (in the contribution by David Konstan; Champion and Lynch, 2015, 11); how ‘status and gender norms colour acceptable emotions and suggest ways in which emotional display is constrained or generated by expectations surrounding different family roles at different life stages’ (in the contribution by Michael Champion; Champion and Lynch, 2015, 27); the imagined consequences of emotions, in general but also when construed in a religious register: if devils are thought to weep, suffer, and feel sad, then they are liable to repent, which creates a considerable heretical problem (in the contribution by Juanita Feros Ruys); and the monumental challenge that language represents in our access to emotions, for example, with the Old English adjective fægen, which may mean ‘happy,’ ‘servile,’ or ‘overconfident’ and therefore calls for a thorough philological, linguistic, cultural, and literary approach (in the contribution by Daniel Anlezark; Champion and Lynch, 2015, 93). Whether in antiquity (Konstan), eleventh-century Byzantium (Champion), or the western Middle Ages (Feros Ruys and Anlezark), such problematics are crucial to the study of emotions in all historical periods, including ours.
The two other sections of the book are equally fascinating, with a great variety of historical contexts (up to the eighteenth century), textual genres (e.g., diaries, newspapers), invested objects (inheritance, legacies), and theoretical issues (e.g., embodied cognition in reader’s reception, the treatment of the deceased). The richness of the collection is well exemplified in Dianne Hall’s essay. In the section on ‘Social History and Material Culture,’ Hall insists that in ‘using emotions as a tool to analyse historical communities the explicit language of emotion in testimonies, propaganda and official reports needs careful analysis. Use of words for emotions always needs textual contextualisation and consideration of the societal uses of those texts’ (Champion and Lynch, 2015, 216). She shows that in ‘seventeenth-century Protestant communities in Ireland, fear of Catholic violence was embedded in historicized narratives of threats against women and the vulnerable’ (Champion and Lynch, 2015, 228). Interestingly, ‘the same vocabulary and meaning of fear also meant that while women were expected to be fearful when faced with violence or the threat of violence, when they did not they were described as lacking in essential civilizing femininity’ (Champion and Lynch, 2015, 229). Because what humans do with emotions is so tightly linked with their use of language, with their discursive regimes and rhetorical agendas, research on emotions needs to scrutinize this facet of the field. And when it comes to language and emotions, literature is clearly a goldmine.
Literature has often been the vehicle of social and affective scripts. A proper woman or an adequate man not only looks and behaves but also feels in a certain way – for example, fearful if feminine and bold if masculine. However, and crucially, literature can also be disruptive and offer the possibility of new forms of reactions, allowing new affective manifestations and experiences to become conceivable. Literature constitutes a vast and rich field of inquiry regarding the explicit and implicit imperatives of a culture’s dominant emotional scripts, including its self-contradictions and the way it affords the possible emergence of unexpected emotional paths.
The essays in the volume grapple with such topics in ways that are all the more interesting in that they engage in ‘dialogue between medieval and modern, theoretical and experiential’ (Brandsma, et al., 2015, 9). For example, Jane Gilbert brings the Prose Lancelot and Sartre together to discuss emotions, affect, and magic. The subtitle of the volume – Body, Mind, Voice – foregrounds an important aspect of the book, namely, its attempt to account for ‘the special significance of embodiment in medieval understandings and representations of emotion, the affective quality of the construction of mind, and the intermediary role of voice as both embodied and consciously articulating emotion’ (Brandsma, et al., 2015, 9).
Literature, then, if read with appropriate methodological orientations, can tell us much about emotional norms within different medieval societies at different times: the courtly, the learned, the bourgeois, from the twelfth to the fifteenth centuries, and all across Europe, participate in ever-changing, intersecting and differentiated emotional communities. Literary texts, in particular romance texts, not only represented characters as experiencing emotion and reacting emotionally to the behaviour of others within the text, but they also, intentionally, evoked and played upon emotion in the audiences who heard and saw them performed or read. The so-called ‘basic emotions’ of anger, disgust, happiness, fear and surprise, the events and perceptions that elicit them, the somatic responses and the behaviour that results from them, the social contexts which allow us to read and interpret them, are all well evidenced in romance and other literary texts. And a whole range of subtler emotions such as resentment, Schadenfreude, vicarious shame, or nostalgia may also be delineated or suggested in literary contexts, more often perhaps than in other kinds of documentary sources. (Brandsma, et al., 2015, 7–8)
Another significant aspect of medieval emotions in Arthurian literature is their variable association with action. An emotion is part of an enacted process: it may be caused by an action and it may lead to another, or to the necessity to control a possible action. Meanwhile, ‘spontaneous emotional expression, what Malory often calls “cheer”, can run counter to expected action’ (in the contribution by Andrew Lynch; Brandsma, et al., 2015, 61). The primary meaning of ‘cheer’ is ‘face,’ but it rarely means just that. ‘Cheer’ is ‘inextricably linked to an emotional evaluation of the preceding action and to the potential within emotion for further action, but also retains a spontaneity that can exceed both the prescriptions of emotionology and of political utility or any situated “goal-oriented” behaviour’ (Lynch in Brandsma, et al., 2015, 62).
The general topic of Rikhardsdottir’s essay is ‘the translatability of literary representation of emotion across linguistic and cultural boundaries’ (Brandsma, et al., 2015, 162). It aptly shows how, within the European shared corpus of medieval Arthurian literature, variations in emotions, emotives, and emotional communication call for acute attention.
Medieval Icelandic authors and audiences seem to have preferred to deduce the internal emotional life of their fictive characters through acts (but not through gestures), through somatic indicators [such as blushing] (but not through bodily behaviour) and through verbalisation [e.g. a dialogue meant to conceal emotions] (but not through verbal expression). (Rikhardsdottir in Brandsma, et al., 2015, 177)
While Emotions in Medieval Arthurian Literature focuses attention on the cultural geography of emotions, the temporal dimension of textual, readerly, and authorial relationships is at the core of Love, History and Emotion in Chaucer and Shakespeare. This remarkable book aims at disturbing the traditional and artificial divide between the supposed death of the medieval era and the so-called ‘renaissance’ of early modernity. The editors – Andrew James Johnston, Russell West-Pavlov, and Elisabeth Kempf – argue in their introduction that this divide has been unchallenged by ‘New Historicist critics, who have, by and large, been content with leaving intact the established period boundaries we have inherited from the nineteenth century’ (Johnston, et al., 2016, 1). In their view, New Historicism’s tendency ‘to embed a text in a purely synchronous context […] helps to obscure a variety of aspects which fundamentally constitute the nature of the historical text and the range of meaning(s) it is capable of generating’ (Johnston, et al., 2016, 1).
A meaningful continuity between the medieval and the early modern eras is observable in Shakespeare’s response to Chaucer’s poem Troilus and Criseyde. Love, History and Emotion in Chaucer and Shakespeare grapples with this relationship by advocating a queer sense of history. Instead of the traditional view of a ‘sequentiality of history, and the segmentation upon which that sequentiality [depends] (that is, periodization),’ queer history ‘allows for temporal relationships which work against the flow of time, constantly recreating the past that they [the temporal relationships] assemble out of the detritus of archival and material cultures piling up behind them. Queer historiography is non-linear, running in different directions at once, both backwards and forwards, and is driven by affect’ (Johnston, et al., 2016, 2, 5). This affect-driven historiography is how the question of emotions primarily intervenes in this volume. It aims not to identify a set of emotions and their historical makeup, but to acknowledge the fact that our relation to the past is already affective in one way or another.
Indeed, ‘literary texts, attached to their own intertextual precursors by powerful affective valencies, unceasingly strive to rewrite their own textual pasts’ (Johnston, et al., 2016, 5). ‘The Troilus tradition presents us with a unique case where the Middle Ages battles aesthetically with its classical heritage, just as much as the Renaissance battles with the ancient past it ostensibly endorses and the medieval history against which it seeks to define itself through a stance of intensely felt ambivalence’ (Johnston, et al., 2016, 7). It is therefore particularly relevant to address the history and historiography of the Troilus tradition in queer terms. Finally, emotions in the Troilus tradition are the ‘necessary complications’ that resist ‘all attempts at establishing ideologically prescribed links between the literary and the historical, between the history of a love affair and the history of an empire’ (Johnston, et al., 2016, 7).
each reading of affect, driven itself by a new configuration of affect, rereads and rewrites, often reinscribing in a structure ever more powerful in its authority, earlier accounts of affect. Such a process moves forward from reading to reading, while in fact always working backwards to effect ever-new revisions of the archive upon which it depends. (Johnston, et al., 2016, 5)
This challenging collection, as with all good scholarship, also provides readers with the means to challenge its own limits. I will answer this call by wondering why some of the most problematic emotional complications in the Troilus tradition are ignored, thus highlighting the fact that critical reception as well as the reception of criticism are part of the queer historiography foregrounded in the volume.
Simpson provides compelling evidence, intratextual and extratextual (for example, about the Earl of Essex, compared by Chapman to Achilles), before reaching this conclusion. The key connection between the intra- and extratextual registers is the concept of defacement, taken literally and metaphorically. In Shakespeare, Cressida promises to deface herself, and the play ‘represents scenes of men brutally losing face: think of Ulysses’ account of the mocking, private theatre of Achilles and Patroclus in 1.3.142–84, in which Patroclus cruelly mimics, to degrade the “abilities, gifts, natures, shapes” of the Greek lords; or think of Menelaus and Ulysses being humiliated as Cressida enters the Greek camp in 4.6’ (Simpson in Johnston, et al., 2016, 194). In this truly impressive and convincing essay, the sentence above forced me to pause.
Shakespeare works as a medieval author in Troilus and Cressida: his commitments are most obviously to the late-medieval ephemera tradition, which, like Shakespeare, is hostile to both Virgilian and Homeric accounts of Troy. He uses the possibilities of the ephemera tradition to demolish the pretensions of the classical traditions, just as he demolishes the enclaves of the late medieval tradition created by Chaucer. (Simpson in Johnston, et al., 2016, 202)
Menelaus’s and Ulysses’s ‘humiliation’ – in part due to Cressida’s reply to avoid being kissed by them – is not what seemed striking to me in this moment of emotional horror. Cressida’s fate has been decided and executed in an instant by men who, upon her arrival in the enemies’ camp, kiss her face, even probably her lips, one after the other, until she uses her wit to escape the last mouths in the queue, those of Menelaus and Ulysses. Who is being defaced here? To return to Champion and Lynch’s introduction, ‘whose emotions matter, and which, why, how, and when?’ An easy move would be to downplay the gravity of mere kisses, potentially seen as welcoming. Yet, Cressida, in her intervention, protests against the act of taking, instead of giving, a kiss. In Stephanie Trigg’s terms, this scene is the one in which Cressida is ‘passed in greeting from one to another among the leaders of the Greek host’ (Trigg in Johnston, et al., 2016, 105). A woman passed from one man to another is indeed what this scene is about, with all the connotations of abuse it may convey.
As this volume of essays advocates, a text must not be divorced from the literary historical continuity in which it participates. The Trojan tradition begins with the Iliad, and the Iliad opens on Achilles’ wrath. The superhero is angry because another man took his sex slave away from him. War rape in the Iliad is normal. Queer history should help us un-forget the violence in such a cultural fact, which we have learned to expect and hence possibly to ignore. For Troilus and Cressida may conceivably be a critique of such normality. War rapes were common in the late Middles Ages and early modernity as much as in antiquity–one more bridge between the divided periods. They were certainly part of Chaucer’s and Shakespeare’s political awareness. In the Hundred Years War and its famous chevauchées, rape was business as usual. And the times had not so radically changed at the turn of the seventeenth century. Thus, could it be that Shakespeare’s vehement action on Chaucer’s text – well demonstrated in the volume – brings this central problem to the surface? His sensitivity to it is clear in The Rape of Lucrece. Might he not have expected his audience to be alert to the normalization of such practices of violence? In this case, his display of it, of the rape threat that looms over Cressida’s head, because it is so gross and persistent, may be a critique of its normalization via the overriding repulsive atmosphere of the play – another fact well explained in the volume. The dialogue between Troilus and Diomedes when the former hands Cressida to the latter is suggestive in this respect (Shakespeare, 2005, 4.5.117–135). Both men discuss the ‘usage’ of her.
Cressida is a Trojan woman traded for a more valuable man. She finds herself without protection in the enemy’s camp: her father is more a menace than a protection, and the truce will soon end. She is surrounded by men, all depicted as spiteful and despicable, who force kisses upon her. This is a group of men who implicitly are free to go one step further and rape her if they so wish. The rape threat borders on the explicit, when an unkissed Ulysses describes Cressida as a slut (Shakespeare, 2005, 4.6.55–64). Ulysses is a manipulator in this play as in the literary tradition. His tirade is immediately followed by a flourish while Cressida walks away led by Diomedes, and ‘ALL’ cry out ‘The Trojans’ trumpet’ (Shakespeare, 2005, 4.6.65), the pun turning Cressida into a strumpet, a whore. Thus, all men upon her very arrival, before she can do anything but try to protect her lips, suggest that Cressida is a whore – a woman forced into repeated unwanted sex for survival. Of course, the fictional intention of characters may simply be to demean and insult – an act of verbal violence that will be reiterated, notably by Thersites, who calls Cressida a whore several times. But Shakespeare places the insult at a juncture of the plot that ought to have an impact on its reception: Cressida is not unfaithful and yet is already called a whore.
Is it inconceivable that in a late medieval and early modern imagination, for a woman in Cressida’s situation to find one male protector to yield to is an understandable way to lessen the threat presented by all men? Better one rapist than many. After all, marriage was sometimes just that. And so Cressida, after struggling, yields to one, thereby complying (as a good daughter is supposed to) with her father’s implicit prompting to welcome Diomedes. Indeed, as soon as the latter comes to Calchas’s tent and asks for Cressida, her father says, ‘She comes to you’ (Shakespeare, 2005, 5.2.5) and disappears. Strohm highlights the difficulty of attaining privacy in medieval and early modern urban environments, a fact thematized in both Chaucer’s poem and Shakespeare’s play. It ought therefore to be highly striking that Cressida is left alone so readily with her predator – all the while being secretly spied upon by an upset yet passive Troilus and a manipulative Ulysses.
And everybody does forcefully make her leave Troilus, Troilus included, and within a few minutes at that. Falsehood in this context is interestingly redistributed.
O you immortal gods! I will not go.
I will not, uncle. I have forgot my father.
I know no touch of consanguinity,
No kin, no love, no blood, no soul, so near me
As the sweet Troilus. O you gods divine,
Make Cressid’s name the very crown of falsehood
If ever she leave Troilus. (Shakespeare, 2005, 4.5.20–27)
In the same way that Icelandic sagas organize information so that the audience may infer emotions rather than be told what they are, Shakespeare’s play organizes information so that audiences may infer emotions that seem to encourage something more complex than a straightforward vilification of fickle Cressida. This in itself is an important Shakespearian intervention. Cressida is the victim of extreme and character-defining violence, in the plot and in literary tradition. So I wonder if, in accordance with queer history, we shouldn’t pay closer attention to affective and expressive denials, and pause before taking an insult at face value. A woman described as a slut by a man who asks for a kiss and doesn’t get one is not necessarily a slut. Do we still need to point this out? In fact, apart from the comments of an upset man, which Trigg rightly calls an ‘almost hysterical account’ (Johnston, et al., 2016, 106), nothing in the play suggests that Cressida does behave ‘sluttishly’ when arriving in the Greek camp. Sluttishness is in the eye of the beholder, and beholding – that relational affective act – has an impact. Emotions are active. All the other men promptly react and insult the ‘strumpet.’ Consequently, when her father leaves her alone with Diomedes (whose intentions are clear), we, audience and readers, are not surprised. We do not affectively and cognitively react. To this day we already know and hence easily accept that she might well be guilty as charged.
The little benefit he wants, he says, is ‘to buy my daughter’ (Shakespeare, 2005, 3.3.28). And the offered deal is spelled out thus:
I do beseech you, as in way of taste,
To give me now a little benefit
Out of those many registered in promise
Which you say live to come in my behalf. (Shakespeare, 2005, 3.3.13–16)
Desire management, an effective business deal, buying a woman, a father trading his child: Shakespeare’s chosen mercantile vocabulary is clear. Of course, no anachronistic shortcut must be permitted here. But queer history makes it possible to question our own affective appraisal when overlooking that kind of ‘management.’ Furthermore, in both the late medieval and early modern periods, political high treason was synonymous with guaranteed execution, prologued by the latest tortures in town. So why does Calkas/Calchas remain unscathed, while his daughter is to this day readily dismissed into whoredom? By flourishing this repulsive problem under our noses, Shakespeare perhaps calls for a reaction other than an insulting pun, the shaking of heads or shrugging of shoulders.
Oft have you – often have you thanks therefor –
Desired my Cressid in right great exchange,
Whom Troy hath still denied. But this Antenor
I know is such a wrest in their affairs
That their negotiations all must slack,
Wanting his manage… (Shakespeare, 2005, 3.3.20–25)
One of the greatest qualities of Love, History and Emotion in Chaucer and Shakespeare is to invite its readers to acknowledge our participation in the web of historical relations analysed in all of its excellent essays. Such relations also include our role as critical readers. Criticism is yet another form of participation in the historical literary tradition traceable back to the Iliad. Reading and responding to criticism are part of this as well. My remarks and questions above are tokens of my admiration for all three volumes considered in this review. To summarize their largest points, emotions and what humans do with them must indeed be taken seriously. Today, it is the case in only some countries that women are free to choose whether they are kissed or not, without running the risk of being literally and metaphorically defaced for their wishes. Research on emotions could be a way to challenge habits of thought and feeling, including those of researchers and their readers, so that we may differ from a passive Troilus, who watches Cressida struggle, and says, ‘I will not be myself, nor have cognition / Of what I feel’ (Shakespeare, 2005, 5.2.64–65).