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Saturday, 16 October 2010


In an occasional series of emotions that English does not have a specific translation for but has syntheses of recognisable emotions or may in some cases be arguably distinct. My own favourite is saudade....

These come from here.


Russian – Vladmir Nabokov describes it best: “No single word in English renders all the shades of toska. At its deepest and most painful, it is a sensation of great spiritual anguish, often without any specific cause. At less morbid levels it is a dull ache of the soul, a longing with nothing to long for, a sick pining, a vague restlessness, mental throes, yearning. In particular cases it may be the desire for somebody of something specific, nostalgia, love-sickness. At the lowest level it grades into ennui, boredom.”


Yagan (indigenous language of Tierra del Fuego) – “the wordless, yet meaningful look shared by two people who both desire to initiate something but are both reluctant to start” (


Czech – Milan Kundera, author of The Unbearable Lightness of Being, remarked that “As for the meaning of this word, I have looked in vain in other languages for an equivalent, though I find it difficult to imagine how anyone can understand the human soul without it.” The closest definition is a state of agony and torment created by the sudden sight of one’s own misery.


Japanese – “A mother who relentlessly pushes her children toward academic achievement” What mix of emotions is this?

Tartle (didn't know this one!)

Scottish – The act of hestitating while introducing someone because you’ve forgotten their name.


Tshiluba (Southwest Congo) – A word famous for its untranslatability, most professional translators pinpoint it as the stature of a person “who is ready to forgive and forget any first abuse, tolerate it the second time, but never forgive nor tolerate on the third offense.”

German – Translated literally, this word means “gate-closing panic,” but its contextual meaning refers to “the fear of diminishing opportunities as one ages.”
Japanese – Much has been written on this Japanese concept, but in a sentence, one might be able to understand it as “a way of living that focuses on finding beauty within the imperfections of life and accepting peacefully the natural cycle of growth and decay.”
French – The feeling that comes from not being in one’s home country.
Pascuense (Easter Island) – Hopefully this isn’t a word you’d need often: “the act of taking objects one desires from the house of a friend by gradually borrowing all of them.”
Danish – Its “literal” translation into English gives connotations of a warm, friendly, cozy demeanor, but it’s unlikely that these words truly capture the essence of a hyggelig; it’s likely something that must be experienced to be known. I think of good friends, cold beer, and a warm fire.
L’appel du vide
French – “The call of the void” is this French expression’s literal translation, but more significantly it’s used to describe the instinctive urge to jump from high places.
Arabic – Both morbid and beautiful at once, this incantatory word means “You bury me,” a declaration of one’s hope that they’ll die before another person because of how difficult it would be to live without them.
Spanish – While originally used to describe a mythical, spritelike entity that possesses humans and creates the feeling of awe of one’s surroundings in nature, its meaning has transitioned into referring to “the mysterious power that a work of art has to deeply move a person.” There’s actually a nightclub in the town of La Linea de la Concepcion, where I teach, named after this word.
Portuguese – One of the most beautiful of all words, translatable or not, this word “refers to the feeling of longing for something or someone that you love and which is lost.” Fado music, a type of mournful singing, relates to saudade.
I love the fact that the Brazillians apparently have an annual day of suadade, January 30. Can we imagine a day of love, or a day of yearning?

Friday, 17 September 2010

The anatomy of melancholy

the anatomy of melancholy

Why do we love a certain kind of sadness so much that we crave it so in our music, in our books, in so much of our society? This is something that we westerners are not alone in.

The erudite anthropologist and online Guardian columnist Wendy Fonarow writes of a classic piece of ethnography, The Sorrow of the Lonely and the Burning of the Dancers by Edward L. Schieffelin:

"Now a more overt manifestation of the value of melancholia can be found amongst the Kaluli of Papua New Guinea. In the Gisaro ceremony, recounted in The Sorrow of the Lonely and the Burning of the Dancers, visiting dancers and chorus perform songs designed to bring their hosts to tears. The chorus sings of the places on their host's land and eventually about the places where loved ones have died.

Upon the experience of intense sadness, the hosts become enraged and descend upon the dancers, grabbing lit torches to burn them to avenge the suffering and pain the hosts have been made to feel. As Schieffelin puts it, "It is the very beauty and sadness that he (the dancer) projects that cause people to burn him." Sadness, here, is not an inward experience of depression, it is the encounter of grief, nostalgia, and sorrow in a public spectacle that requires violent retribution."

This reminds me of those examples of love and other emotions that we ourselves used to play out external influences and not internal feelings. When love was a sweet sickness like a malady to be cured. When anger came upon one, rather than feeling it inside. Is there a benefit to internalising or externalising our emotions? Are externalised emotions more or less sophisticated? Does internalising them lead to excessive egotism and shape the emotions themselves? what do the examples of different emotional cultures and histories tell us there?

Friday, 25 June 2010


A curious tale from the BBC. Archaeological remains in England show a mass grave of around 97 new-born infants from a Roman building, believed to be a brothel. To modern ears a heartbreaking tale is heard, where lacking contraception Roman prostitutes practised infanticide on a widespread scale.

"Archaeological records suggest infants were not considered to be "full" human beings until about the age of two, said Dr Eyers [of Chiltern Archaeology].

Children any younger than that age were not buried in cemeteries. As a result, infant burials tended to be at domestic sites in the Roman era."

There is a brutal and tragic logic to this, painful as it is to comprehend. Indeed in many subsistence societies through history, infanticide is considered a necessary practice where deformities occur - a small community may not be able to provide adequate care without destroying the group itself.

Is the horror in modern emotions rooted in luxury and development rather than any sense of eternal morality? I would not go back to such dark practices but it takes a dispassionate eye to learn from the past.

Sunday, 13 June 2010

Emotional Freedom

Ok so I'm only doing this about 2 months later than intended. Sigh...

It is not enough for historians of emotion to merely document the emotional lives of those who have come before us. Questions must be asked that require judgement. For example, what system of government creates the best emotional balance in its individuals?

One of those questions which occupies historians is which societies have given us the most emotional freedom? And is that emotional freedom inherently a good thing?

Recently, a reader of the blog very kindly sent me a trio of interviews of three very prominent and respected historians of emotion, Professors William Reddy, Barbara Rosenwein, and Peter Stearns. The reader, Jan Plamper, had conducted the interviews himself - he's a research scientist at the Max Planck Centre for Human Development in Berlin and an expert in Russian History.

Prof. Reddy suggested that perhaps the best way of judging that is by considering which kinds of society gave rise to the least 'emotional suffering'. This seems a useful tool to measure a society's emotional welfare. After all, it may be harder to judge happiness and well being than to see the impact of that kind of suffering.

"I would say that it remains to be seen how best to ensure that each person’s capacity for emotional suffering is treated with equal dignity. If some Western democratic regimes have come closer to this ideal than earlier European monarchies or concurrent centralized socialist regimes, it has been at least in part by accident. There is quite a bit of emotional suffering involved in conforming to the norms of the rational, self-interested individual that these regimes, in principle, have set out to “liberate” as if such “individuals” were given in nature. The amount of suffering varies enormously by socioeconomic status; by racial, ethnic, and gender identity; by the economic conjoncture;and in accord with a variety of other circumstances. There are over a hundred thousand schizophrenics who live as homeless persons on the streets of the U.S. today, without medication or care—just to take one example."

Whilst a tyranny would not necessarily deny all emotional freedom, Reddy goes on to point out the more a society tries to impose an emotional system on people the more likely it is to be unstable.

What society has given us the most emotional freedom and why? Is there a tipping point where the looseness of the emotional system contributes towards the breakdown of the society. Will contrasting and contradictory emotional regimes lives side by side in one society or must we have enough shared emotional responses to maintain a critical coherency?

And will one's own view of politics colour the opinion of a successful emotional society?

ps excerpts ©2010 Wesleyan University. Excerpts reprinted, with permission, from Jan Plamper, "The History of Emotions: An Interview with William Reddy, Barbara Rosenwein, and Peter Stearns,"
History and Theory 49, no. 2 (May 2010), 237-265.

Thursday, 10 June 2010

A question for historians of emotion

A hypothetical one - the reality would of course be impossible.

Imagine in the future, historians come to look back upon our world. If they had no primary texts, no primary written sources of any kind, what if anything could they say about the emotional lives of this Western society?

Would they see the plethora of shops, the malls and supermarkets and conclude that western society was in no small way organised through consumerism and a freudian view of the self which creates an economy based on desire and not need? How else without texts might they view those modern day temples?

Might they play old movies and discover our narratives obsessing over sex, violence and revenge? What would they make of them without writings to contextualise it all?

Who from the other disciplines would they speak to? The historians of music and art? The archaeologists? The comparative mythologists? The scientists of neurology and forensic anthropology?

So many conversations to be had for historians of emotion.

Tuesday, 8 June 2010

Torridon in the Spring

Another cracker from Steve Carter to soothe the toubled soul.

Wednesday, 2 June 2010

sniffing the tobacco swahili style

An expression of affection that astonishes this Scottish mind. However, I make no moral judgement, because I don't think it's appropriate for me to do so.

It's a great little example from Diane Ackerman's 'A Natural History of Love'. She herself quotes 'In The Customs of the Swahili People' (1903), edited by J. W. T. Allen.

"When his grandmother or his aunt or another woman comes, a child one or two years old is told to show his love for his aunt, and he goes to her. Then she tells him to kiss her, and he does so. Then he is told by his mother to show his aunt his tobacco, and he lifts his clothes and shows her his penis. She tweaks the penis and sniffs and sneezes and says: "O, very strong tobacco." Then she says, "Hide your tobacco." If there are four or five women, they all sniff and are pleased and laugh a lot."

Does it still go on? It would surprise to find such things still going on, but again perhaps that's my western mind imagining these things to appear a little inappropriately sexualised (I'm not saying it is inappropriate, just that by western Christian and even secular morals it might seem that way) and that that influence might have affected the Swahili women in a way that has made them stop doing it.

Personally I think it's harmless, especially when one considers the other taboos Allen describes which show the Swahili being acutely conscious of sexual behaviour. Amongst other things they frown upon fathers and brothers kissing daughters and sisters after a certain age. That social taboo which I think could also be described as an 'emotional regime', and one that seems quite strict in keeping potentially inappropriate feelings restricted, even to the point of inhibiting demonstrations of feeling that we might consider perfectly normal.

One positive thing that may come out of the 'tobacco tweak' (my phrase, forgive me) is that it appears to demonstrate an non-threatening way for women to discuss male genitalia and by extension male sexuality. Having a familiarity with such a thing, especially through humour, can potentially help cut through any mystique surrounding sex and sexuality and empower the women involved. This can help positively influence the emotional regimes revolving around sexuality for heterosexual women.

Consider middle class Victorian women trapped in ignorance of their partners' bodies and the corseted emotions that sprang forth from such repression without any positive channels of social knowledge or emotional script to guide them. Would such a thing have happened if they had had more familiarity with their partners' anatomies?

One assumes the young boys are too young to consider such gentle teasing as emotionally scarring!

Monday, 10 May 2010

A day of hatred

Sadly I'll be out of the country but this looks fascinating and I'm a big fan of Joanna Bourke's work...

Histories of Hatred
A London Consortium Public Event
Sunday, 16 May 201011:30-18:00
The Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA)
The Mall, London SW1Y 5AH

What are the historical records of hatred? Where in the archive should we look to discover the roots of contempt? Who are the protagonists of this history, the haters or the hated?Marking the publication of Anthony Julius's major new book, Trials of the Diaspora: A History of Anti-Semitism in England (Oxford University Press), this one day event brings together historians, artists and cultural critics to shed light on the challenges of documenting and accounting for histories of hatred. Speakers will explore the problems of documenting and representing histories of racism, anti-Semitism and periods of extreme cultural and political oppression and conflict.

Speakers include: Anthony Julius, Anthony Bale (Medieval Studies, Birkbeck), Joanna Bourke (History, Birkbeck), Steve Connor (The London Consortium), Deborah Lipstadt (Jewish Studies, Emory University) and Pratap Rughani (Media Studies, University of the Arts).

Tickets £10/£7
For tickets and information, please visit London Cconsortium - space is limited and early registration is recommended. For general enquiries, please contact Dr. Noam Leshem: lnoam@hotmail.comTel: 0778 233591

Monday, 5 April 2010

Darkness falls in stories and in our hearts

A book I asked my mother to get me for my birthday considers some questions I have wondered about for some time.

Christopher Booker's "The Seven Basic Plots: Why we tell stories" is a treatise on archetypal theory - the notion that there is only a limited number of stories or plots in the world and those story forms reflect our relationship with the world and connect our conscious and unconscious selves to the external world and community around us.

I've only just started reading this one, and am conscious there is much to be drawn from and criticised about the work. What follows therefore is by no means untrammeled eulogy, merely some questions rooted in his suggestions.

Booker suggests that our storytelling has taken a darker turn in the last two hundred years. (which is not to say it wasn't dark before) borne out of the convulsions of the French Revolution, the rise and fall of Napoleon and the Industrial Revolution with its sense of overcoming Nature. Mankind was on the threshold of something very new.

At this point in history the psychic and physical convulsions of the era helped separate our Ego (consumed as it was by power of the new science and ripped apart from its sense of morality and order by the tumults of history) from the whole of the Self.

This in his mind drove 'dark' versions of plot to become more common. Although we already had tragedy as an inherently 'dark' plot form, now other forms were being inverted. In these stories there weren't happy endings and the characters often failed to grow or be transformed by their journey.

If, and of course it is a big if, this is accepted as true then I wonder what impact this had on emotional development in the Western world.

In the last post I suggested that the Enlightenment and subsequently the Industrial Revolution had created both a sense of individualism and the economic wealth to create greater private physical space in which that individualism could grow. Is there a sense in which that private space and philosophical drive towards individualism created an Ego that became separated from the rest of our Self? It seems highly possible.

It is this I would suggest that has had a major impact on our emotions and how we relate to them. Here may be the seeds of the shift where emotions become about individual feeling and not public harmony. At the risk of moralising, I think this shift towards internal emotions was seduced by our newly fuelled Ego and pushed our emotions into selfishness in many forms.

Obviously of course, this is only speculation on my part and Booker himself focuses much more on the literature than the history of the time. And of course terms like Ego and Self in this case are Jungian and not exact representations of reality.

I don't think this conflicts with traditional historians of emotions like Prof William Reddy's ideas of societies oscillating between control and lack of control over there emotions. Nor does it contradict Prof Barbara Rosenwein's ideas about emotional communities able to have alternative themes and relationships to emotions. This idea of privacy, individualism and Ego is merely a broad brush that may impact on aspects of Western societies without overwhelming all different groups.

Thursday, 11 March 2010

The direction of emotions in history

One of the biggest questions in the study of the history of emotions is in what direction are our emotions heading? Is there a grand narrative to our emotions in the way that there is a grand narrative to the history of science or to the history of religion?

One of the first attempts to describe this was by Johan Huizanga in the early 20th century which suggested that our emotions had been 'childlike' in the Middle Ages and have subsequently been in the process of becoming more civilised and mature. This was supported by writers like Norbert Elias, and at first glance is a seductive notion.

Later writers like Barbara Rosenwein have emphatically refuted this notion both by effective descriptions of the emotional communities of sub-sections of societies in the Middle Ages that show this 'childlike' emotional behaviour to be inaccurate, but also by effectively citing research into the nature of emotion showing that it is not something that is vented by individuals unable to control it.
The respected historian, William Reddy put forward the notion that societies have oscillated between control and lack of control in their emotions. This seems interesting and deserves great scrutiny.

Against such esteemed company i hesitate to put forward any grand narrative, as my learning barely registers in reflection to theirs.

However, some thoughts have been coming together of late. One thing that strikes is that in the Western tradition, there has been a journey in science and philosophy towards a seductive sense of individualism, as we separated Mind from Body under Socrates and Plato, then promoted the individual soul in our Judeo-Christian theology, and went on to emphasise the rights of individuals on the physical plane.

This was augmented by developments in logic, then science. The invention of the printing press began to make learning more democratic, and also private. It became less about group interaction and behaviour and more about individual scholarship which in turn changed the natures of those doing the learning. We existed more in our own heads than ever before.

Peter and Carol Stearns and others have written about the impact diary keeping had on individuals in the 17th and 18th centuries and how it changed their emotions, inhibiting anger and making them more self-reflective. (I mentioned something similar previously here).

Since the Industrial Revolution there has also been an astonishing increase in privacy and our understanding of it. The increase in personal wealth led to the creation of private domestic spaces unparalleled in history.

Medicine and philosophy shared and contributed to this atomisation with the notion of the subconscious from Freud and schools of philosophy like phenomenology attempting to refute John Donne's assertion that 'No man is an island."

It could be argued that despite TV and the internet opening up communication and creating shared moments, these moments are also intensely private and occur in private spaces.

Our emotional lives have been central to this. We could have chosen to retain a greater degree of sociability and communality about our behaviour, but we didn't. Our desire was for privacy and whether chosen and/or driven by our social/philosphical/cultural traditions/even our nature, we have clung to privacy and made it sacred.

What has it done to our emotions? Previously our emotions were considered in some ways less internal than they are today. Some were considered afflictions and we retain vestiges of this in phrases like 'lovesick', which harks back to a time of love potions and cures, as though it were a condition to be encouraged or treated. Now it is a feeling, something intensely interior.

This interiorising is a dangerous thing in surfeit I fear. Whilst not denying the monuments to passion the heart can construct can be glorious and wondrous things, it moves us to a position where we diminish the communal and begin to erode trust in others. How often is the phrase 'I don't know it but I feel it' uttered, especially in justification for action?

So as our emotions become more internal they also become the most important arbiters of truth and this truly is a dangerous thing. It gives justification for selfishness dressed up as emotional truth and we see this more and more in our societies as individual rights are emphasised over common benefit.

We extend our adolescence until our thirties, and this for women is often at the risk of procreation. We talk of a 'health and safety' culture that takes common sense about avoiding injury into an excuse not to have to do anything remotely difficult. Ours is a more litigious culture that means doctors can fear operating on patients and health services must devote more and more resources away from care and towards insurance for fear of being sued. The individual's right to protection and its corollary the individual's freedom from fear to the point of absurdity. In short, we are a 'Me' culture and our emotions are both driving and being driven by that.

And if we carry on in such directions, such searches for validation of our emotions may come at the expense of social cohesion and environmental sustainability. And yet we do carry on, and there is no social movement, no major cultural trends or groups addressing the impact of the internalising of our emotions and their drive towards privacy and the selfishness that it is currently allied with.

I think our emotions must come back under control by bringing out the public and social aspects of them and not getting lost in the alluring echoes and consolations of our own head. It may be a fearful enterprise but it is no less essential for that.

Saturday, 6 March 2010

Amae dependent?

There is an emotion called 'amae', which is commonly understood in Japan as a kind of indulgent dependency that has its roots in the relationship of a mother to child. This has been described as in some ways unique to Japanese culture, and many experts have followed Japanese sociologist Takeo Doi is claiming that this means amae is unique to Japanese culture.

Obviously Japanese culture does not have the monopoly on love or dependence and a form of loving dependence could no doubt be found in other cultures, be it rooted in mother and son or daughter. The relationship between Italian boys and their mothers springs to mind here too. Indeed some sociologists have highlighted that (like Herman Smith and Takako Nomi) that amae may have close parallels with western mother-daughter relationships.

Doi did remind us that the richer more semantic readings of amae are uniquely Japanese. This may well be true, words and concepts may well have culturally specific connotations. Part of the joy of language and those who speak it is the creative response of the individual and their tongue to their environment.

But it is good to learn of such things. Like the pilots who learned to overcome their fear of transgressing authority without sacrificing their cultural identity (mentioned in Malcolm Gladwell's 'Outliers' and spoken about below), it shows how our relationship to our emotions is a creative and flexible one. There may be common responses but their cultural moulding shows how we can take them in many different ways. The trick is to learn from the good ones and see what value we can glean from them or how they can be learned in different cultural contexts.

Sunday, 21 February 2010

Fear of Flying

Somewhat later than the in-crowd, I recently read Malcolm Gladwell's 'Outliers'. The book (for those that don't know) is a really interesting study of success, filled with vignettes that highlight the deeper stories behind individual successes.

One chapter sticks out though, a study of plane crashes that argues on how cultural background has a profound relationship to accidents. Gladwell looks at something called the 'Power Distance Index' and describes how this means that the crew subordinate to the captain have difficulty in warning him or her of any incipient danger. Most accidents happen from a sequence of minor mishaps escalating into a major catastrophe.

The transcripts to two of the crashes Gladwell refers to are heartbreaking, listening to the attempts of the crew to warn the captain of their situations. The inability to communicate clearly the danger seems to be related to deference, whether it be cultural, national or for whatever reason.

But what is this to do with a history of emotions?

This transcripts are also interesting from an emotional point of view in the sense that it appears a fear of authority is overwhelming the fear of death, which sounds quite astonishing but perhaps isn't when one considers this may also be a strong theme in a military environment. Gladwell's argument also suggests this is the case in countries where there are very hierarchical social structures which lead to a high Power Distance Index. If you asked me I would have imagined we'd all fear death far more than we'd fear the irritation or even wrath of our boss. I'm not saying it was a straight choice in those cockpits but as the problems escalated and the seriousness became more evident, death was becoming a more realistic possibility.

In a strange way it's useful reminder of where our emotional priorities are not what we might expect of them and how they might be influenced indirectly by national culture. Does it suggest high power distance indexes equals a bad thing? That is another question, as a hierarchy may have value for a culture in other ways. But that it shapes our emotions and in particular our fears in some disturbing ways appears clear.

Wednesday, 3 February 2010

different emotions

From wikipedia, some of these may be familiar, others not so...
  • Abhiman is an Indian term best described as a feeling of prideful loving anger.
  • Sukhi is an Indian term similar to peace and happiness.
  • Fureai: Fureai is a Japanese term used when feeling a sense of connectedness to someone else.
  • Rettokan is a Japanese term that means to feel inferior
  • Schadenfreude is a German term defined by German philosopher Theodor Adorno as "the largely unanticipated delight in the suffering of another which is cognized as trivial and/or appropriate".
Any others spring to mind?

Friday, 8 January 2010

Toilet training?

Few emotions are more powerful or more visceral than disgust. And yet few other reactions show much the emotions can vary and as such can be varied by us. Watching some Michael Palin travelogue repeat of him in the Sahara they came to a sequence of the Python sitting on a communal latrine where Roman gentleman would sit and defecate in front of each other, probably whilst chatting away to their co-toileters. It's always described as the men who do these things, and never made clear if the ladies use the same facilities or even the same kind of facilities.

When did we become shy about such things? Billy Connolly tells a great tale about the toilets in the Glasgow shipyard he worked at being communal and how he used to send burning paper boats along the water to burn the backsides of his colleagues. This was only thirty to forty years ago. Are there other cultures/places where the public lavatory really is public for all actions?

Does the constant refinement of disgust in some areas such as toilet behaviour then have a knock on impact its other manifestations?

Apologies to the squeamish for such thoughts, i hesitate to dwell on them myself!

Thursday, 7 January 2010

Tudor emotions

Today I received an email from a man called Brad Irish, a student of English doing a doctoral dissertation on emotions in the Tudor court. He asked me to pass on his call for anyone interested in an academic panel he's putting together, and I'm delighted to do so.

Call for Papers: Emotion at the Renaissance Court, MLA 2011 (January 6-9, 2011; Los Angeles)

Proposed special session seeks papers considering emotion and affect in the early modern courtly sphere. The emotional life of a courtier, emotional displays at court, emotion in courtly literature, etc. Abstracts by Mar. 2 to Bradley J. Irish (