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Saturday, 27 December 2008

In the bleak midwinter

Something a little bleaker from Steve Sharp, this is part of the Five Sisters of Kintail out on the road to Skye.

According to this site:
"Legend relates that two Irish Princes washed ashore during a storm, fell in love with two of the seven daughters of the King of Kintail. Having promised to send their five brothers for the remaining sisters, the Princes married the two youngest Princesses and returned to Ireland. The five sisters waited in vain, and eventually asked the Grey Magician of Coire Dhunnaid to extend their vigil beyond life itself, whereupon he turned them into mountains."

Friday, 26 December 2008

A reading list pt2

Just to finish off this reading list... (ok i know these will never be my most exciting posts, but any thoughts on any of the titles much appreciated)

I should add some of the text is from Keith Oatley's mails, as it's useful context. Though bits I've added or messed around with.

Understanding emotions through fiction down through the ages.

Erich Auerbach's Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature.

Patrick Hogan 'The mind and its stories'. He has found that the two principal emotions around which stories all round the world are fashioned are love and anger

On the idea of restraint as a grand narrative to western concepts of emotion.
Norbert Elias ( 1978). The civilizing process: The history of manners. He does talk about restraint: restraint of what we might now think of as male uncouthness, by a process of shame, when women started to enter male society. (Courtly love is also a version of the same idea, but it may be better thought of as a rechannelling of male aggression into deeds of valour and chivalry, than a restraint on aggression.)

Johan Huizinga, 'The waning of the middle ages', in which he argues that the late Middle Ages were a period of weariness, pessimism and decadence.

A reading list pt1

I have been fortunate recently to have been in email conversation with Keith Oatley, author "Emotions: A Brief History".

He has been patiently and kindly talking me through some of the parameters of the field and helping me see what's out there in the way of research. Whilst i knew a little of the broad themes upon which he elaborated, his years of experience and erudition leave me blushing at my ignorance - anyone who knows me knows this is not something i do often.

Here amongst others is a reading list by him of suggested works I should have a look at. It covers anthropology, psychology, literary criticism and other fields. Such is the nature of this nascent field of the History of the Emotions.

If anyone has read any of these works and cares to give an opinion I should be most grateful. I'll post thge full list over a couple of posts, it's quite long though there's some fascinating books there.

From anthropology:
A society apparently without emotions:
Howell, S. (1981). Rules not words. In P. H. A. Lock (Ed.), Indigenous psychologies: The anthropology of the self (pp. 133-143). London: Academic Press.

A society in which no-one gets angry:
Briggs, J. L. (1970). Never in anger: Portrait of an Eskimo family. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

A society in which people are angry a lot of the time:
Chagnon, N. A. (1968). Yanomamö: The fierce people. New York: Holt Rinehart & Winston.

How societies, and their communal emotional qualities, can be destroyed by Western colonialism and modernization, e.g.
Turnbull, C. M. (1973). Human nature and primal man. Social Research, 40, 511-530.

A society living in the way in which it is thought that all our human ancestors mostly lived until urbanization began around 10,000 years ago:
Thomas, E. M. (1989). The harmless people (revised edition). New York: Random House.

Nowadays, with globalization we live in a world that is becoming more homogeneous. Some common emotional characteristic are satisfaction in relationships, even in the worst circumstances:
Biswas-Diener, R., & Diener, E. (2001). Making the best of a bad situation: satisfaction in the slums of Calcutta. Social Indicators Research, 55, 329-352.

Thursday, 25 December 2008

Merry Christmas folks

Season's greetings to one and all...

Wednesday, 17 December 2008

Assynt again...

Assynt again, posted by someone called OldSch00l on Flickr. This is Stac Pollaidh from Cul Mor

Tuesday, 16 December 2008

Emotional narrative

I've had this post on draft for a few weeks and spoken about this topic on several occasions when tipsy in hostelries up and down the land. And then some scientists from Heriot Watt University in Edinburgh go and prove my point for me. (ok it's not really my point, but I would have looked a wee bit prescient writing about it and basked in the smugness)

Anyway the study they were publishing claims that romantic comedies create unrealistic expectations in relationships and contribute to their failure.

On a wider level, films and other media influence our emotional lives. And arguably more than we realise. All stories do as we like our lives to have structure and the narrative of stories does that for us. We can identify with characters, respond to their situations and then relate it to our own lives.

The report cites the notion of a belief in destiny and fate as creating unnecessary pressures on relationships in trying to make them 'perfect'.

One of the points I always used to raise was the notion of 'closure' at the ending of a relationship, as in "I need closure on this."

What rot! Life goes on somewhat relentlessly and does not always provide closure. People are not two dimensional fictional characters and despite artistic and poetic truths existing in literature, our lives are not like some Dickensian plot neatly tied together at the end.

Our emotions are held to ransom by false narratives and we create much unhappiness in these dishonesties.

(for the record i have been known to enjoy the odd rom com and witnesses have noticed a lump in my throat at the end of even the most saccharine guff)

Tuesday, 9 December 2008

The problem of dualism and how it relates to emotions

It may sound odd blaming Socrates for many of the world's ills, and more than a little unfair. However the wily old fellow may have inadvertently had a hand in more than he bargained for.

Plato first described a dualism between body and mind/soul and attributed it to Socrates in Phaedo. The idea was that these two concepts were fundamentally distinct. In many ways it became something of a truth held as self evident and it served mankind's progress down through the centuries.

Indeed in the Christian era of the West and in Islam, this split has been reinforced by philosophers, influencing everything from science to ethics.

In recent years science has finally challenged this notion, advancing ideas on the nature of consciousness that suggest even without the unprovable notion of a soul, consciousness and the mind are products of the entirely physical brain.

However, even if one were to set aside such arguments about consciousness, one does not need science to challenge the dualism of body and mind. Eastern philosophy has often emphasised the unity of all things. As a distinction the dualism serves a purpose but has blinded us to other truths. Dualism is at best a metaphor, not a fact. And metaphors are not an exclusive description of that which they seek to describe.

How does this impact upon the subject of this blog, the History of Emotions? Simply so - that the distinction between body and mind quickly took on moral force as the Greeks and their intellectual and spiritual descendants sought to eulogize reason and damn their passions. And in damning the passions, so millenia of tension between that which need not be at opposed combined with religion to create ethical systems that doomed mankind to failure in its attempts to be 'good'.

For example, systems of dualism were the philosophical tools that allowed the passions to be used to demean women as sources of baseness and therefore sin, and creating or exacerbating envy, jealous and fear in our relationships. Men in seeking dominance over women blamed them for what lay in them both and which a system of dualism taught them was base and impure and therefore sinful.

Then in Victorian era, women were put one a false pedestal as angels of virtue, as man sought to control his own passions and keep women in check by binding them with chains of modesty and passivity.

This is not to say dualism was the sole root of all our problems, nor that those feelings described as passions were fine until trammeled in a dualism. But as a system, it was a flawed attempt to understand our humanity and as such stopped us from creating something wiser.

Is this my attempt to reclaim the passions as inherently natural or good? No, rather something else.

As reason has been reduced to maths to describe in a value free way the logic it claims to represent, the truth of Socrates mistake lies bare. Our communication is never in pure maths, be it written or verbal.

The very notion of distinct reason and passion is flawed. Whilst useful in describing some situations, they miss out on the full nature of our reality, just as Newtonian physics failed to understand the quantum world.

Emotions have judgement, like reason. What one person finds repugnant, another may find joyous. Emotions are bound up in what we consider reason. Otherwise reason can be used to justify the most abhorrent acts. I have always loved Arthur Koestler's Darkness at Noon for this reason - it exposes the inhumanity of reason in all its utilitarian brutality. Emotion can and does on occasion restrain reason!

By carving the mind/body dualism into stone we placed a terrible and flawed moral judgement on our emotions which binds us still.

A different Glencoe

Glencoe looks very different in this one from Online Scotland

Monday, 8 December 2008

good grief

Grief is one of the strongest emotions that we can feel, a force that can overwhelm all thoughts and render life completely meaningless in a instant. Surely such an elemental force is ubiquitous to all mankind, so basic a response is it to death.

And yet it is not so. I make no value judgements about the rights and the wrongs here, nor accuse any person of lacking feeling. I would not condemn Mersault for failing to cry at his mother's funeral.

Take for example, Japan (from the Encyclopaedia of Death and Dying and an essay entitled 'GRIEF AND MOURNING IN CROSS-CULTURAL PERSPECTIVE'):
"There is no equivalent to the term grief in some other languages; indeed, in some cultures, as in Japan, the concept of emotions that are only in the individual seems foreign. For the Japanese, individual identity is a function of social harmony. Emotions are part of family or community membership, sensed among the members so as to create a harmonized atmosphere. The term mourning does have a Japanese equivalent, mo, which refers both to the ritual responses to death and the emotions—commonly defined in the West as "grief"—that attend them. Hitan, the Japanese word that comes closest to the English word grief, means "sadness and sorrow," but the word does not imply that the emotions were brought about by death or loss. Hitan cannot be used in a way that refers to a self-evident inner reality. One translation into Japanese of the English phrase "She was in grief" might be "Kanojyo-ha hitan no naka ni iru," ("she grief of inside being there"), but that is not a complete sentence. A complete sentence might be "Kanojyo-ha hitan ni sizundeiru." (She grief to sinking.) An infinitive like "to sink" is needed because in Japanese Hitan cannot be a complete state on its own."

This does not mean the Japanese do not feel sadness and great sorrow at the death of a loved one. But we should be careful of prescribing a model of behaviour and a response to it that may not be appropriate for someone from that culture.

Another example from the same source:
"Anthropologist Unni Wikan, for example, compared the rules in Egypt and Bali, both Islamic cultures. She found that in that in Bali, women were strongly discouraged from crying, while in Egypt women were considered abnormal if they did not incapacitate themselves in demonstrative weeping."

So our internal and our external responses can vary across cultures, even with the same religion. Who would be a fool to condemn one as behaving inappropriately?

If one can respond in different ways emotionally to death, which cultures (at which time in history) can be said to have dealt well with death?

We in the West have become terrified of death. Many atheists and agnostics fear the non-existence and even believers in a hereafter do not go gently into that good night. And yet it is inevitable. Surely then, it behooves us to learn about grief and death with fortitude and without hysteria to give the Reaper his proper respect.

Sunday, 7 December 2008

the shock of the old

Work has required me to read a very interesting book, 'The Shock of the Old: Technology in Global History Since 1900' by Prof. David Edgerton of Imperial College, London. (Indeed i have the pleasure of speaking to him tomorrow and hopefully persuading him to take part in the film I'm working on).

The idea behind it is rather simple: we hold it as axiomatic that life is move ever faster in a technological blur, becoming almost dizzying in its rate of change. Except in many ways, as Prof Edgerton points out, it isn't. We often confuse invention with utilisation and even the mobile telephone is merely an innovation on phone technology that has existed for a century. The triumph is in the marketing, not the product. Most of our life is based on technologies that have endured, not technologies that have exploded like fireworks onto our consciousness and then disappeared again, having failed to latch on to our lifestyles and consciousness in more permanent ways.

Is there a parallel for emotions? Are we obsessed with new treatments particularly for negative emotions
or old problems by pharmaceutical or therapeutic means? This is not to denigrate either field completely, it's just that I can't help but wonder if we are too blinded by some shiny modern chimera. The notion of medicalising grief springs to mind as an example of this, or perhaps diagnoses of conditions like social anxiety disorder where perhaps the term shyness might be as appropriate and a pill definitely not the answer...

Saturday, 6 December 2008

stoned in wonder

i think Steve Carter has excelled himself with this one of the Torridon Hills in November

Tuesday, 2 December 2008

a brief story of love, and its lack

Browsing through t'internet i came across this about love and marriage through the ages:

"1690s U.S.: Virginia wasn't always for lovers—Passionate love between husband and wife is considered unseemly: One Virginia colonist describes a woman he knows as "more fond of her husband perhaps than the politeness of the day allows." Protestant ministers warn spouses against loving each other too much, or using endearing nicknames that will undermine husbandly authority."

It is accepted amongst historians that love was not always the arbiter of marriage that we so treasure in the West. But what of the future of love and marriage? Will they be constant and faithful companions?

In two hundred years time surely our conceptions of such things will have changed again? It is surely vanity and false pride to suggest we have alighted upon the sole eternal solution that will hold a relationship through truth and time. Given the fraught nature of modern marriage and relationships, this surely reinforces the notion that much will change still further... Marriage has lived throughout the ages by its very adaptability so surely it will adapt further.

I should add, in case anyone thinks i am damning or denying the power of true love, that is not my intention. My personal belief in the coruscating power of love remains, but history marches on relentlessly....

The silence of Glencoe

Sometimes i fear i lack originality. But once again Ian Cameron's transient light series provides another gem. This is Glencoe and despite being a regular stop off for tourists, is a place overwhelmed by a deep silence and wonder.