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Monday, 26 January 2009

Five sisters

On the south Kintail ridge, a panorama from the east shoulder of Creag Mhaim (947m). from the left, Loch Cluanie, mist filled Glen Loyne then to the snow covered Glen Quoich hills; Spidean Mialach (996m), Creag Coire na Fiar Bhealaich (1006m) and Gleouraich (1035m). This is the Glasgow Uni medical faculty's mountaineering page.

Expressions of love

You'd think I'd be posting more whilst not working but it's amazing how everything slows down. Anyway...

The mainstream of emotion history suggests that in the pre-industrial period life was much more angry, with less love in everyday relationships, despite some wonderful art describing passion in many different amorous flowers. Rarely though is affection described for one's husband or wife and often violence seemed ubiquitous throughout Western European and American society.

However perhaps there was more love out there in the medieval air than early studies suggest. John Gillis has written eloquently on the subject in an essay entitled from 'Ritual to Romance: Toward an Alternative History of Love'. (from the book 'Emotion: Toward a New Psychohistory', edited by Carol and Peter Stearns).

His point is that love as it's defined now is about love as internal feeling and intimacy, when this is something from the beginnings of the 19th century. Francesca Cancian described it as the 'feminisation' of love, where emotion became to be associated with women in the domestic sphere and men lacked such things in their quest for rationality in the world of work and power.

It is a standard that exists today and is still recognisable though Gillis feels it inappropriate for judging emotions before the 19th Century. He suggests that love had many definitions and forms across cultures, classes and time we find a range of expressions of love that can surprise us.

In a sense it should come as no surprise. Psychologists viewed emotion as a private, internal matter and historians sought out historical examples of expressions of this through diaries and letters and the like. Yet anthropologists have for decades been studying emotion as a social construct designed to deal with the relationship between group and individual behaviour. Whilst both yield insight and have weaknesses, it is only recently that viewing emotion in the latter form has been applied to our own Western History.

The visible behaviours tell us much about love back then. For example kissing was not so private as it is now, and kissing as an expression of love was apparently more public, and more painful with a likelihood of blood being drawn. These were public marks and intended as such, as declarations of emotion felt. Bodily fluids were also key to this, as the body was not just expressing emotion but was the emotion.

Two examples, both astonishing to the modern heart and mind:

"In Wales, a young man proved his love to a girl by urinating on her dress, a practice known locally as rhythu." (p92)

And even in the 19th Century, courting in the French countryside was a violent affair.
"First they exchange glances, then casual remarks, then heavy witticisms. The young man shoves at the girl, thumps her hard on the back, takes her hand and squeezes it in a bone cracking grip. She responds to this tender gesture by punching him in the back." (p92)

As a physical and not psychic condition, love was treated to the same controls as other physical urges and love magic became immensely popular despite its pagan roots. And the major rituals of love were far more public affairs than they are now. These days we give lovers privacy to nurture private feeling. Then, love through courtship, betrothal and marriage was a far more social experience that the whole community engaged in and this was necessary to establish legitimacy in the absence of written contracts. Indeed the couple themselves were at the centre of a virtual festival of action that centred on them only partly.

Perhaps our assumption that certain things are constant and unchanging is the only constant in a world that has changed so much...

Thursday, 15 January 2009

Romantic love below the desert...

saw this today, and must go...

The British Academy
10 Carlton House Terrace, London SW1
Thursday 26 February 2009

The history of romantic love in sub-Saharan Africa: between interest and emotion
Raleigh Lecture on History
Professor Megan Vaughan, FBA

The societies of sub-Saharan Africa do not feature prominently in the growing literature on the comparative history of the emotions, and when they do it is often to confirm the fundamental difference between African emotional regimes and those of the 'West'. Though many pre-colonial African societies recognised the existence of powerful feelings of passionate love, most of them did not idealise this emotion. Romantic love was not simply a colonial import, however: love, money and intimacy combined in complex ways in the changing economic and political conditions of twentieth-century Africa. This exploration of the history of romantic love in Africa is also a critical exercise in the history of the emotions.
About the speaker

Megan Vaughan is Smuts Professor of Commonwealth History in the University of Cambridge and a Fellow of King’s College. She was elected a Fellow of the British Academy in 2002. Her research covers the social, economic and cultural history of Africa, including the history of medicine and psychiatry, slavery in the periphery of the Indian Ocean, history and anthropology. One of her latest publications is: Creating the Creole Island: Slavery in Eighteenth Century Mauritius (2004).

5.30–6.30pm, followed by a drinks reception.
Registration is not required for this event. Seats will be allocated on arrival.

Sunday, 11 January 2009

Skye is filled with snow

The Red Cuillin above Broadford in winter from Skye images. A wonderland in winter.

The Soviet Union of Emotions

The history of the Soviet Union was about many things, not least a story of totalitarianism and of a failed dream in the equality of humanity. We may be equal but Soviet state socialism was not the way to realise that dream.

Perhaps it was also a failure of our flawed belief in the dualism of rationality of the mind and the passions of the body. It is a belief that has permeated our philosophy, our institutions and our behaviour for several millenia. Perhaps it is the failure of a system that was founded on ideas and policies that denied our emotional selves and which was rooted in a fundamental misunderstanding of what that emotional self was.

The Soviet Union was an attempt to run a society by laws discerned by reason, freed from bourgeois morality for the improvement of all. Many of its leaders spoke of the 'scientific' application of reason at the service of socialism. It was also on occasion barbaric in its application of that reason, exterminating millions of its own citizens in the belief that it was protecting the whole.

Though not a Soviet citizen himself, Arthur Koestler wrote about this inhuman application of reason in his novel, 'Darkness at Noon'. For those that don't know, it is the story of the arrest of a senior revolutionary figure, Rubashov, of an unnamed government and country who is arrested by his own side and charged with counter-revolutionary activities. This event in the book happens during a period of show trials akin to the Soviet show trials of the 1930's and indeed the novel itself is set in 1938.

Rubashov is required to confess fully to all crimes even though he did not commit them. Physical torture was considered inappropriate for him although some force is used. The key to his confession was to use logic and reason to make him confess to the crimes, because it serves the higher purpose of protecting the Party and its regime, which ostensibly is there to protect society as a whole.

Therefore, for the good of the Party and the Revolution he must confess to falsehoods and betray himself as he himself has betrayed others. His submission is total and he is executed, following reason to its conclusion and his own destruction.

Reason has no inherent compassion and knowing this, he accepts his fate.

Though a novel, and one written by someone not living in the Soviet Union, Koestler was a Communist and knew some of those executed at those Moscow show trials of the Thirties. He had been imprisoned himself and lived with threat of execution for being a Communist captured by Franco's fascists in the fall of Malaga in 1937. In other words, his novel clearly has some understanding of what was going on in Soviet Russia and of the real life equivalents of the characters that he describes.

This is not to say the history of the USSR was a history of an emotionless people, or a people whose emotions were entirely subsumed by the requirements of the revolution. Barbara Rosenwein describes 'emotional communities' existing within the medieval period and I think the term holds true throughout history as a whole.

In other words, the peoples of the Soviet Union not only experienced a wide range of emotions but lived within a range of emotional communities that had lots of different dynamics going on. Obvious examples would be families and lovers or friends and colleagues displaying different kinds of love and affection, or scientists and workers displaying pride in their Stakhanovite labours in the cause of Soviet progress.

But central to the ideology of Soviet state socialism was the inhuman logic that everything, including our private lives and our public relationships, our various expressions of emotion, everything was to be in the service of building a Communist ideal. This was the ultimate expression of logic and reason separated from emotion. There was to be no compassion in a society that was willing to slaughter or sacrifice so many in the cause of its survival.

And yet it failed. Reason alone did not triumph. Was this a flawed application of reason? Or did the dualistic model of reason separate from emotions provide the best framework for advancing mankind and creating the new 'Socialist Man'?

The USSR failed mainly through economic collapse, partly from external pressures, but mostly from internal ones. The system was riddled with flaws as people responded differently from the way reason as expressed through their economic model expected them to. An inhuman reason failed because amongst other things, it gave no account to emotional lives, and because it did not understand that reason itself is not separate from our emotions. By believing it was necessary to eliminate emotions like compassion from the 'scientific' reason behind its policies, it alienated itself from its population.

Cognitive scientists have shown that emotions involve reason, and that reason involves emotion. In ignoring this, the Soviets were setting themselves up for a fall as their system could never do what it originally aimed to do, to create a perfect human society based on an emotionless reason that subsumed all to the greater progress of the whole. Individuals may sacrifice themselves to the whole but their reason is often guided by powerful emotional forces in those moments.

The dualism of reason and passion is a mistake and no society can be guided by separating what is ultimately inseparable.

In believing that man could live on a flawed notion of reason alone misunderstands our human nature and the nature of reason, and ultimately leads to an inhuman world. Though hopefully an impermanent one as it collapses on its own contradiction. A bitter irony for Marxists who believe that all societies and their economic systems would do just that until communism was finally reached.

Friday, 2 January 2009

The Emotionless Greenlander?

In 2008's conference on the Cultural History of Emotions in Premodernity, held at Umeå University, Sweden, there were a range of interesting papers presented and abstracts published. I would love to read the full papers as unfortunately I had the minor matter of a day job to attend to and missed out on a Scandinavian sojourn...

One of the abstracts stuck out for me. It's called 'The Story of a Greenlandic Girl Who Could Not Stop Crying' by Allan Sortkær. (You can download the pdf from the abstracts section the Conference website.)

The point was that in such an extreme climate as Greenland's, the indigenous population (the Inuit) were perceived to have no emotions and in effect be as cold as ice. As Sortkær writes:

"The first missionaries in Greenland met a land full of ice, and inhabitants characterised by their semi nomadic lifestyle, varying settlements, fast moving sleds and kayaks. According to the missionaries, it was as if, signalled by their tents and nomadic lifestyle, that they could not manifest themselves in the landscape. Instead the landscape was manifest in the Greenlanders.

Still according to the missionaries, the Greenlanders could not distinguish themselves from the surrounding nature. In agreement with antique thoughts on climates influence on mans behaviour, the missionary Hans Egede described the Greenlanders as coolheaded (Danish: koldsindig). Coolheaded is to be taken literally: The outer ice becomes inner ice. The Greenlanders had no capacity of emotions at all."

Lots of thoughts spring out from this, but the one I wanted to focus on was that it reminded me of a topic I have written about previously, on a lack of anger in the Inuit of Northern Canada (This comes from anthropologist Jean Briggs's fantastic book 'Never in Anger: Portrait of an Eskimo family' and is also referred to In Keith Oatley's fine book 'Emotions: A Brief History').

Obviously I'm not trying to conflate the apparent lack of one emotion from one Inuit society and a missionary's description of another Inuit society as having no emotional expression, nor am I saying a cold place breeds a 'cold' society. However, it does make one wonder if emotional expression is connected to extremities of climate.

If a society lives in a precarious environmental balance, does that require a society to diminish or shape some or all of its emotions in order to function harmoniously within itself and also within that environment. That would certainly make sense in the wake of Jean Briggs' findings on her time with the Inuit.

And to stretch the point further (in a way that would I like to think would have made Bruce Chatwin proud), I would draw a broader parallel with Jared Diamond's book 'Collapse', which talks about why societies and civilisations fail. When he is talking about the reasons for failure of the Norse settlement in Greenland (p273-276), he speaks about the role of their values in their downfall.

Ultimately their pride in being Norse gave them a formidable durability in surviving, but then also contributed to their downfall. They considered the Inuit population as wretches and refused to adopt their lifestyle, which was a more symbiotic one with their precarious environment. The insistence on luxury items and the taboo on eating fish bear this out. Their pride in being Norse meant that they would not adapt to the differences between the climate and environment of Greenland, preferring to import their Scandinavian identity in its entirety.

If we are to survive climate change as well as possible, and with the realisation that we do not control the environment in the way that our modernist heritage teaches, then amongst the many pressures we face perhaps our emotions must learn to be more in tune with our environment.