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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.


Linda S. Socha said...
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Linda S. Socha said...

Fascinating thoughts. I can agree how environment can shape but I had not thought of it in these terms. This, I think , is worth reading more than once! I would wonder of course the application to non geographic environments.... Does a non nurturing (i.e. cold emotional environment influence beyond what we may suspect.. Good post.I know I have said this....I like your writing!

Leon Basin said...

I really liked that post. Thanks for sharing.

scot in exile said...

thank you for the comments. i think you would be right linda. non-geographic elements would be bound to have an influence on emotions. but which ones?

Linda S. Socha said...

Ah..I would love your thoughts on that question!