Newborn Imitation: The Stakes of a Controversy. Ruth Leys and Jan Plamper in conversation.

Ruth Leys is Henry Wiesenfeld Professor Emerita of the Humanities (Johns Hopkins University). Her pathbreaking research has critically interrogated the history of the modern concept of psychic trauma (Trauma: A Genealogy, 2000); examined the post-World War II vicissitudes of the concept of ‘survivor guilt’ and its displacement by notions of shame (From Guilt to Shame: Auschwitz and After, 2007); and traced the history of experimental and theoretical approaches to the study of the emotions (Ascent of Affect: Genealogy and Critique, 2017).

In this interview for The History of Emotions blog, she talks to Professor Jan Plamper (Goldsmiths) about her latest publication, Newborn Imitation: The Stakes of a Controversy (CUP, 2020). Part of the Elements in Histories of Emotions and the SensesNewborn Imitation is available as a free download until the 21st July.


Jan Plamper: What was the hypothesis of newborn imitation, first put forward by Meltzoff and Moore in 1977?

Ruth Leys: The hypothesis was that babies can imitate certain facial and other movements at birth. According to Meltzoff and Moore, newborns are able to imitate what are called “opaque” movements: If an adult sticks out her tongue, the baby can see the adult’s tongue moving but can’t feel it for herself; similarly, the baby can feel her own tongue protruding but can’t “see” or picture her own tongue (because she has yet to see herself in a mirror). This is the so-called “correspondence problem”: If newborns can make the match, how do they do it?

For decades the consensus, influenced especially by the Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget, was that newborns couldn’t make such imitations. According to Piaget, imitation of this kind is only achieved at a later time, after the infant has gone through considerable learning and related cognitive changes.

But in experiments starting in 1977 Meltzoff and Moore appeared to demonstrate that very young babies could indeed perform such imitations, including babies who were only a few hours old. Their claims were widely hailed as inaugurating a revolution in the understanding of infant development. It seemed that human babies were born with far greater innate cognitive skills than those for which they had previously been given credit.

JP: How has the hypothesis been contested in recent years? 

RL: Although there was always some skepticism about Meltzoff and Moore’s claims for neonatal imitation, it tended to be swept aside in the general enthusiasm for the new findings. But in an especially important longitudinal study published in 2016 by Oostenbroek and colleagues, the validity of the experimental findings was again called into question and the issue of neonatal imitation has become a major topic of dispute. We are living at a moment when there is a widespread replication crisis in the psychological and social sciences, and the debate over the validity of neonatal imitation claims is part of that wider context.

JP: What are the larger ramifications of this debate?

RL: It is understood by present-day critics that if neonatal imitation is a chimera, the several theories that have been premised on the phenomenon will have to be modified or abandoned. This is the focus of my book. I examine and critique four theoretical claims that I identify as especially important: (1) Claims regarding the Active Intermodal Mapping (AIM) mechanism proposed by Meltzoff and Moore to explain newborn imitation; (2) Alternative mechanisms proposed to explain the phenomenon, such as mirror neuron mechanisms or various associationist theories; (3) Theories about the newborn’s sense of self based on its capacity to imitate; and (4) Claims about the non-conceptual content of the newborn’s perceptions and mindedness also based in part on the hypothesis for neonatal imitation.

The question I ask is: What will happen to all of these theories if it turns out to be the case that claims for the existence of neonatal imitation are an illusion?

JP: How does the debate relate to issues at the center of the emotions field?

RL: Soon after Meltzoff and Moore published their findings, Field et al. suggested that infants could not only imitate tongue protrusion and other facial movements, as had been reported previously, but could also mime facial movements associated with specific emotions. Their experimental approach was closely modeled on Paul Ekman’s “Basic Emotion Theory” (BET), which assumed the existence of a certain number of universal, evolved, discrete “basic emotions” governed by subcortical “affect programs” and linked to characteristic or signature facial expressions. Field et al.’s proposition was that when an adult posed the specific facial expressions held to be associated with happy, sad, and “startle” emotional states, babies were able to copy them, even babies who were only a few hours old. So one could say that the claims for an innate capacity for imitation at birth and the claims for the existence of an innate set of evolved emotions and their associated expressions reinforced each other.

I think it is clear by now – the topic is the focus of my recent book, The Ascent of Affect: Genealogy and Critique (2017) – that the BET theory is empirically unsound and theoretically confused. Indeed, one can argue that the story of the unraveling of neonatal imitation claims and their associated theories, and the unraveling of the basic emotion paradigm and its associated assumptions, go hand in hand.

Leys’ 2017 volume, The Ascent of Affect: Genealogy and Critique, examines the post-WW2 historical development of the emotions as an object of study (Credit: Chicago University Press).

JP: How does this book fit in your larger oeuvre? Would it be an exaggeration to say that this is the fourth instalment in a tetralogy, encompassing TraumaFrom Guilt to Shame, and The Ascent of Affect? All deal with psychic phenomena that have been debated in bifurcated terms you have labeled “intentionalist” vs. “anti-intentionalist,” the latter downplaying signification, volition, object-directedness and consciousness. 

RL: It’s true that I’ve always been interested in what have seemed to me certain deep “structures” in the history of the human sciences. By this I mean certain tensions or oppositions that can be shown to have influenced and indeed organized a specific field, with the result that the structure constantly surfaces in certain debates over large stretches of time.

One such structure, which concerned me when I wrote my book on the genealogy of psychic trauma, was the tension between a “mimetic” versus an “anti-mimetic” understanding of the nature of imitation. This opposition concerned competing ways of understanding imitation – whether imitation involves the trauma victim’s defensive, immersive-hypnotic identification with the perpetrator to the point of the subject’s radical unconsciousness, or whether in defensively imitating the perpetrator the victim is nevertheless able to witness or spectate herself and her situation. These competing ways of theorizing imitation led to different consequences as regards the possibility of witness testimony, and so on.

In my subsequent books I became especially interested in the tensions in theorizing the emotions between intentionalist versus non-intentionalist approaches. The issue is whether it makes sense, as Ekman’s BET theory proposes, to conceive of emotions as non-intentional states that, under the right conditions, can be triggered to discharge involuntarily with characteristic autonomic responses and facial expressions without the subject’s cognitive involvement or indeed understanding of the object that triggered the emotional state; or whether, instead, emotions should be conceived in intentionalist terms as ”about” real or imagined objects in the world, in which case issues of cognition, meaning, and signification are central concerns.

The two sets of oppositions are indeed related, but they are not equivalent – they are not on all fours. By this I mean that the tension between mimesis and anti-mimesis is not absolute: historically each term of the opposition has been so implicated in the other that they can’t be completely separated – rather, again and again they tend to collapse into each other. In contrast, the opposition between intentionality and non-intentionality is absolute in the sense that one cannot, without incoherence, simultaneously believe that emotions are meaningless and that they are meaningful.

Professor Leys’ latest work, Newborn Imitation: The Stakes of a Controversy, part of the Cambridge Elements Histories of the Emotions and Senses series, is available as a free download until 21st July.

The Emotional Contagion: Feelings, Emotions, and the Pandemic. An interview with Tiffany Watt Smith

On 15th May 2020, Marie-Sklodowska-Curie Research Fellow at Queen Mary Paolo Gervasi interviewed Tiffany Watt Smith about the emotions surrounding the Covid-19 Pandemic for the Italian journal Che Fare. It can be read here in Italian,
https://www.che-fare.com/gervasi-contagio-tiffany-watt-smith/, and the original English version is below.


If until a few months ago we thought we were living in an era of high emotional intensity, in a “nervous state”, according to the title of William Davies’ recent book, the explosion of the pandemic has literally thrown us into an ocean of emotions. The emotion that seems to prevail, understandably, is fear. But what kind of emotion is fear? What history does it have, what physiological and psychological reactions does it associate with?

 
It’s true that there is a lot of fear about. Though I also hear people report that their initial intense anxiety during lockdown has been replaced by a sense of calm.
We talk of fear as if it’s a single basic response to an external trigger, but perhaps it is useful to distinguish between different varieties or textures of fear. There is the heart thumping fear which makes you want to run away, when you sense some immediate danger. But that is different from a feeling like terror which the Italian 19th century physician Angelo Mosso described as immobilizing people: ‘even the most intrepid men do not think of flight; it seems as though the nerves of defence were severed and they were left to their fate’. There is the panic which can cause stampedes or panic buying. And then there is anxiety, linked to our collective existential uncertainty, which leaves one feeling constricted and breathless – as I imagine many people have experienced while reading about the symptoms of Covid!
Actually, the kind of fear I vividly remember at the beginning of the pandemic, when we in the UK saw what was happening in China and then in Italy, was dread – a feeling of some encroaching danger about which I could do nothing at all. I remembered an account I had read by a 14th century Welsh poet Jeuan Gethin, about seeing the plague approaching from town to town, as if a coil of smoke snaking across the land, a ‘rootless phantom’. He describes being frightened but also helpless. I also remembered something I had read years ago in Giovanni Boccaccio’s accounts of the plague in 14th century Florence – not about the panic buying, or self-isolation, but about people who succumbed to a kind of listlessness or apathy in the face of this fear, abandoning their crops, gambling their fortunes away, as if nothing could matter anymore.

I just had to break off to join the clap for carers – which of course reminds me that, as you say, fear is only one of the many strong emotions of this time.

An etching of the 1348 plague ravaging Florence, inspired by Boccaccio’s The Decameron.  The bubonic plague – also known as the Black Death – is estimated to have wiped out 60 – 80% of Florence’s population between 1348 and 1351. Image credit: Wellcome Collection.

What does an emotional regime dominated by fear imply from a social and political point of view? In what condition does it put citizens and how does it change relations between rulers and the ruled?

We were already living in a society dominated by fear – in the UK at least – ours is a pretty ‘fear-averse’ society, our public spaces covered in security cameras, warnings to be vigilant playing on public transport, signs to remind you that here is a step or there the ground could be wet. The sociologist Frank Furedi talks of ‘fear entrepreneurs’ who capitalize on our fears to sell us things, but so much of advertising and many clickbait articles in newspapers work like this. Since becoming a parent 6 years ago, I have felt more than ever bombarded with the terrible things that might happen to my children due to my conduct/the food I give them/my home/our neighbourhood. Is it as bad in Italy? Or Barcelona? The usual argument is that these discourses of fear make a population more docile and easily manipulated, and legitimize war and other extreme defensive responses such as border control. This was certainly discussed in relation to Bush’s rhetoric after 9/11: ‘it is natural to wonder if America’s future is one of fear’, he said, and so mobilized the spectre of fear in his ‘war on terror’ – the ultimate fear entrepreneur.
But we are perhaps in a more peculiar situation now. On the one hand, fear of the pandemic has caused us quickly to relinquish all kinds of rights, and gives the police unprecedented powers. But of course, it can go the other way too. Right now, in the UK, the government is keen to ‘reverse-engineer the fear’ – one civil servant made the claim recently that the UK govt communications team has been too good at scaring us over Covid, and now no one wants to go back to work or school. The truth is more that the government have lost a lot of people’s trust – partly due to terrible and confusing communications – and so people are more likely to listen to their own possibly rational fears rather than be persuaded by the government.
 

What other emotions associated with the pandemic have you seen emerge? How do you interpret, for example, a phenomenon that struck me a lot, namely the coming out of a kind of competition to appear peaceful, relaxed, even happy within the quarantine, represented by many as an opportunity to reconnect with themselves and with their inner life?

I was just having a socially distanced chat with my neighbor on the street, and she said exactly this – that she feels much calmer, she appreciates the time to be more interior, away from the rush of ordinary life. Of course, this sense of peace is really about privilege. The privilege to feel relaxed because you do not have money worries, you have enough space to practice social distancing, you are not ill or grieving. The pandemic has exacerbated existing social divisions. I have my shopping delivered so I do not have to go to the shop, my feeling of peace and security depends on another making themselves vulnerable.
Perhaps this is peculiarly British, but the emotion I feel a lot of personally right now is awkwardness – awkwardness is an interesting feeling which Adam Kotsko has written about. He describes it as the experience of being caught in a situation where you don’t quite know the rules, or where two different sets of rules might be in conflict. Will I insult the postman if I don’t want to take the letters directly from his hand? Is it wrong to allow my kid to accept a gift of a flower from another child she knows when we bump into that family on the street during our daily exercise? Should I wear a mask? ‘How should we behave?’ is a question which I think preoccupies a lot of people at the moment here.
I see a lot of shame – in the UK there has been a lot of excitement about shaming people who flouted social distancing rules, for instance there was a photograph of a woman who put a sign in her window telling everyone her upstairs neighbour had been having friends to visit. People have been calling the police for the smallest infractions – and I certainly feel ashamed if I inadvertently break the rules. People have talked a lot about loneliness, particularly people who are living alone, or grandparents missing the touch of their grandchildren.
But most of all I see moments of solidarity and kindness between neighbours – I personally have benefited from that as my family was in quarantine for 7 weeks due to illness (we are all recovered now) – and a lot of gratitude for the neighbours and friends I have and optimism about beginning to re-connect with those people even in very socially distanced ways.

Signs attached to the railings of a park in East London offering messages of appreciation and encouragement to NHS workers. The covid-19 pandemic, and lockdown imposed by the UK government, has prompted a vast – and very vocal – outpouring of support for the NHS, with many households decorating their windows with brightly coloured messages of gratitude and solidarity, and widespread participation in the #clapforourcarers campaign.

What role have emotions played and continue to play in the political choices made to manage the crisis? Have you noticed significant differences in the emotional management practiced by different national communities in different parts of the world?

I’m not sure about emotional management in different parts of the world. Certainly here we are only just catching up to the idea that the experience of Covid may create serious mental health issues including PTSD, but as yet there has been no serious national or unified attempt to practice any emotional management.
Certainly, one can see differences in the emotional style practiced by leaders. Jacinda Ardern, for instance, is perceived as being more empathic, her rhetoric emphasizing caring for those who were vulnerable, and acting as a family. Contrast that with the rhetoric of Boris Johnson in the UK who has spoken about a ‘fight against coronovirus’ and about war, an approach which has been underlined by the British monarch whose speech to the nation used tropes from the Second World War (including the lyrics of a Vera Lynn song ‘we’ll meet again’). The British government has fallen back on tropes of ‘The British Spirit’, and The Blitz, enlisting national pride and nostalgia and aggression, without recognizing the ways this rhetoric, shot through with colonial sentiment, excludes or alienates so many people in the country, especially those who appear to be most vulnerable to COVID.

 

What role do the media play – both traditional and social media – in building the main emotional states associated with the pandemic? According to what prevailing strategies and rhetorical devices have they acted?

I had to avoid media at certain point. I logged off Twitter, and try to limit my consumption of rolling news, since this seems to exacerbate the anxiety. It seems obvious that the media is playing a very powerful role, both in disseminating government communications and, hopefully, holding the government to account (in emotional terms, however, this can feel even more anxiety-provoking).

 Emotions are traditionally associated with the presence, the closeness of bodies, the psycho-physical reactivity that is triggered in direct confrontation with contexts and external agents. How does social distancing modify the experience and the elaboration of emotions?

The new distance is interesting. Of course it creates all kinds of peculiar emotional glitches, like the awkwardness I just spoke about, or else, indignation, for instance when a jogger zooms past your ear. At the beginning of the lockdown, there were people who would scowl at you when you moved out of their path, as if you were accusing them of being contagious. At the beginning people didn’t really get social distancing. But I started going out again last week after 7 weeks inside, and the difference is phenomenal –people have learnt, habits are changing, no one hesitates to move or scowls when you move.

What we are going through is a very rapid change of physical habit. It’s not the first time that physical relationships to one another have changed, though usually it’s not so dramatic. I am currently doing some research on friendship, and have been looking at early Twentieth century girls’ boarding school fiction in Britain. In books published in the 1900s, the girls have very romantic attachments to one another – they kiss and hold hands, cuddle and share beds – by the time Enid Blyton published Mallory Towers (a schoolgirl series) in the 1950s, this entire culture of physical affection between young girls had disappeared. In her books, the characters sometimes link arms or hug when they win at sports, but that is all. The change in this culture happened gradually. It was partly because of fears around lesbianism which only really emerged as a distinct idea in sexology in the early twentieth century. Headteachers banned girls from kissing or holding hands – in one school they were even not allowed to wash each other’s hair (seen as particularly erotic/intimate!). But there were other reasons that girls were encouraged to show less physical affection. Between the wars, people learnt to fear the mob and contagious emotions – and saw girls as particularly susceptible to these. There was also a lot of worry about epidemics of illnesses such as scabies, and holding hands was regarded as unhygienic and was discouraged among women who were working in factories. My phd student David Saunders has uncovered this in his research on contagious disease in Britain in the Second World War, and found evidence of a medical officer called G.P.B. Whitwell, who feared the invasive presence of young women in factories believing them to be carriers of scabies – “these young girls… probably contract their disease through their affectionate habit of walking around with their arms round one another’s necks’ he wrote. We can assume the ‘affectionate habit’ was discouraged.  

Physical habits do change, and what we think of as natural is often learnt. I have heard some people on twitter hoping that this will spell the end of social kissing in Britain. For Italians it is easy, you know how to greet people by kissing them. For British people it is very awkward and we often get it wrong!

 From the political point of view, there is a sort of anomaly in the emotional structure of the pandemic that intrigues me: the populist movements in Europe and the world, which base their search for consensus on the manipulation of strong, violent emotions, at a time like this, dominated by very intense emotions, almost seem to be overwhelmed, seem unarmed and incapable of taking advantage of the situation, even ridiculous. Or they end up showing their fragile side, which is usually concealed, as in the case of Boris Johnson. People, although emotionally shaken, seem to prefer political responses marked by rationality, firmness, emotional attenuation. Do you confirm this impression and, if so, how do you explain this phenomenon?  

This is a very interesting observation. To me it is so astonishing that there could be protests in America against the lockdown, and they are happening here in the UK too. I agree that they seem ridiculous – a motley collection of anti-vaxxers and other conspiracy theorists. But I also have learnt to fear my own limited perspective. There is Trump, who was encouraging the protestors and sowing mistruths with his China-baiting. What seems ridiculous and implausible to me is terrifyingly real too.
 

One of the most surprising consequences of the lockdown, especially at the beginning, was the triggering of a great sense of solidarity, a strengthening of the sense of community and the need to stand together. As the quarantine progressed, however, a more unpleasant feeling began to emerge, the people’s tendency to blame each other, to identify and denounce the “transgressor” of the rules, in order to shift the responsibility for the continuing emergency onto the individual. How do you interpret the coexistence and interaction between these two opposing emotional states? 

It makes sense that fear and the need to protect ourselves has resulted in stronger hostility to perceived transgressors, and a desire to shame them. In many ways, this antagonism was deliberately stoked by our government in the UK, who persistently have been cagey or vague about the details of rules and allowed people to ‘use their judgement’– very clearly shifting responsibility and placing it on the individual, leaving things more open to interpretation, and people more touchy about the rules.
I see great solidarity around me – neighbours helping each other out buying shopping, people organizing food banks for local people in need.
However, I get the impression that there was also a rush to blame each other in the UK right from the start. For instance, a woman was shamed in the supermarket for buying so much food – people assumed she was panic buying, but actually she had a large family and is a single parent so it was hard for her to get to the shops (and also the government had just told us to prepare for possible 2 week quarantines). On our local whatsapp and facebook groups, huge battles have broken out between gardeners who want to have bonfires and other residents who say bonfires will compromise people’s respiratory systems. My husband was telling me today that on Twitter, a friend of his who is a single parent tweeted a joke that she couldn’t wait for the schools to re-open – and received so much abuse she had to take the tweet down. I’m not immune from this either – I can understand teenagers cooped up in flats having parties in parks, but I do find I have lost a great deal of respect for friends who have perfectly large houses with gardens in London, but have left to go to their second homes in the countryside.
 

What kind of emotional discourse do you think will prevail afterwards? Will fear still dominate our lives for a long time? What emotional approaches do you think could help the exit from the crisis? 

Honestly, I’m sure like everyone, I find it really hard to make sense of where we are at the moment. It’s like being in a storm and not being able to see the horizon where the rain stops. I imagine, if the virus continues to be a significant part of our lives, we will learn to manage the risk, and those risks will be experienced in different ways for different people. Those of us – I include myself – who have had the privilege of being in strict lockdown will have to adjust to going back into the world.
I suppose what I hope beyond hope is that a level-headed discourse of kindness will prevail – a discourse which privileges neighbourliness, care, mutuality and respect for others, protecting those more vulnerable than us, environmental responsibility and critically, inter-species responsibility. Certainly, I believe it’s only those things which will help us make sense of our future together.

Conspirituality – on the overlap between spirituality and conspiracy-thinking

April is the cruellest month, breeding

Lilacs out of the dead land…

What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow

Out of this stony rubbish?

I want to talk about trying to make sense when things are breaking down.

This April we’ve seen some conspiracy theories blooming out of the dead land.

Sports-presenter turned conspiracy-theorist David Icke took centre-stage a week ago, appearing in a video for London Real, in which he claimed COVID19 was caused by 5G, as part of a global plot run by a secret order of alien lizards. The video was watched millions of times on YouTube and on LondonLive before YouTube and Ofcom stepped in to get it taken down.

Four days ago, a documentary appeared called Out of Shadows, recycling the 2016 ‘Pizzagate’ conspiracy theory that a secret order of Democrats and Hollywood celebrities run a paedophile ring centred on two Washington pizza restaurants. The documentary got two million views in a day.

We’ve also seen a conspiracy theory that COVID19 is part of a plot led by Bill Gates and the World Health Organisation to get the world to take his vaccine and implant his chip surveillance. Conspiracy theorists like Alex Jones of Infowars have claimed for over a decade that Gates’ huge funding for vaccines is actually a eugenicist plot to reduce the world’s population. This theory was taken up and enthusiastically spread this week by an anti-vaccine entrepreneur called Dr Shiva, who claims he invented email. A TV interview with him has been watched six million times this week.

Now in some ways this is predictable. The pandemic has led to a breakdown in knowledge and certainty. We don’t know much about the virus or the best way of dealing with it, but we know it’s killing a lot of us and we’re afraid. This is happening to the entire human race at the same time, and we’re all connected on the internet.

This is creating a unique opportunity for fringe beliefs and fringe thinkers to take centre stage. Some might be interesting — Universal Basic Income, say — but some really belong back on the fringe.

I have been disheartened to see leading influencers in my community — that’s to say, western spirituality — spreading the conspiracy theories I mention above. I want my community to be of service to humanity during this crisis, rather than actively spreading bad ideas (particularly anti-vaccine conspiracies — finding a vaccine seems our best hope for getting out of this without 1% of the population, 75 million people, dying of the virus).

It makes me question the worth of my culture. Is spirituality particularly prone to conspiracy thinking?

On the term ‘conspiracy theory’

As various New Age influencers have said this week, ‘conspiracy theory’ is a charged term. It can be a way of simply dismissing a topic without considering it.

Some things dismissed as ‘conspiracy theories’ might really have something behind them. UFOs and extra-terrestrials, for example, are dismissed as conspiracy theories, but to me it seems probable there is life on other planets and that some of it is more intelligent than us.

The idea there was a plot behind JFK’s assassination is another ‘conspiracy theory’ which I think may be more than a theory. Child abuse in the Catholic church is another scandal that could have been dismissed as a conspiracy theory when it really was a conspiracy — ie an epidemic of abuse covered up by the Vatican.

Still, one needs a powerful torch of critical discrimination in these murky and liminal swamp-lands. When you get to Pizzagate, we seem to be very much in the subconscious realm of archetypal, magical thinking — secret symbols and codes, hidden orders of powerful and evil perverts. We are in Dan Brown territory here.

The personality traits behind spirituality and conspiracy thinking

I wondered this week, why should there be an overlap between my community — western spirituality — and conspiracy theories?

My first thought was, there are certain personality traits that make one prone to being ‘spiritual but not religious’ — free thinking, distrust of authority and institutions, a tendency to unusual beliefs or experiences, a tendency to detect ‘hidden’ patterns and correspondences, and an attraction to alternative paradigms, particularly in alternative health — which would all make one more prone to conspiracy theories.

There seems to be some evidence for this. This 2018 study by Hart and Graether, from the Journal of Individual Differences, found, in two surveys of 1200 people, that the strongest predictor of conspiracy thinking was ‘schizotypy’, which is a personality trait that makes one prone to unusual beliefs and experiences, such as belief in telepathy, mind-control, spirit-channelling, hidden personal meanings in events etc. People who are ‘spiritual but not religious’ have been found to score more highly in schizoptypal personality traits than both the religious and the non-religious.

We have to be a little careful here, as there is a risk of tautology. The scientific definition of ‘schizotypal’ basically includes ‘having spiritual beliefs’, so it’s not surprising spiritual people ‘score highly in schizotypy’. So this paper is not really telling us anything other than the sort of people who have spiritual beliefs and experiences are often also into conspiracies. It doesn’t mean they’re wrong or mentally ill. But it may mean they don’t score highly in belief-testing and critical thinking.

This article found that being into ‘spirituality’ and alternative medicine correlated with being anti-vaccines, while this article found both anti-vaxx attitudes and pro-alternative medicine beliefs were connected to magical thinking. You can be pro-vaxx and into spiritual thinking as well, by the way — Larry Brilliant, the epidemiologist who helped eradicate polio, was given his mission by Ram Dass’ guru, Neem Karolio Baba, as he recounts here.

On conspirituality

Finally, two important articles from religious studies. The first is a 2011 article by Ward and Voas from the Journal of Contemporary Religion (behind a paywall alas), on what they describe as the surprising new phenomenon of ‘conspirituality’ — the overlap between New Age spirituality and conspiracy thinking. They describe ‘conspirituality’ as

a rapidly growing web movement expressing an ideology fuelled by political disillusionment and the popularity of alternative worldviews. It has international celebrities, bestsellers, radio and TV stations. It offers a broad politico-spiritual philosophy based on two core convictions, the first traditional to conspiracy theory, the second rooted in the New Age: 1) a secret group covertly controls, or is trying to control, the political and social order, and 2) humanity is undergoing a ‘paradigm shift’ in consciousness. Proponents believe that the best strategy for dealing with the threat of a totalitarian ‘new world order’ is to act in accordance with an awakened ‘new paradigm’ worldview.

This 2015 article, by Egil Apsrem and Asbjorn Dyrendal, responds to Ward and Voas’ article by suggesting ‘conspirituality’ is not a new or surprising phenomenon, but instead emerges from the historical context of the 19th and 20th century ‘occult’. They write:

The cultic milieu is flooded with “all deviant belief systems” and their attendant practices. Moreover, the communication channels within the milieu tend to be as open and fluid as the content that flows through them. The resulting lack of an overarching institutionalized orthodoxy enables individuals to “travel rapidly through a variety of movements and beliefs”, thus bridging with ease what may appear on the surface as distinct discourses and practices. Political, spiritual, and (pseudo)scientific discourses all have a home here, and they easily mix. Joined by a common opposition to “Establishment” discourses rather than by positively shared doctrinal content, conspiracy theory affords a common language binding the discourses together.

In other words, the Occult is a Petri dish for the breeding of all sorts of mutant hybrid memes, some of them helpful, some of them toxic (depending on your worldview).

Ecstatic globalism versus paranoid conspiracy

Let me add to this emerging discourse by suggesting that conspirituality theories are a form of mystical or ecstatic experience. I want to compare two forms of mystical experience.

The first is a sort of extroverted euphoric mystical experience: ‘Everything is connected. I am synchronicitously drawn to helpers and allies, the universe is carrying us forward to a wonderful climactic transformation (the Rapture, the Omega Point, the Paradigm Shift) , and we are the heroic warriors of light appointed by God / the Universe to manifest this glorious new phase shift in human history.’

The second is a paranoid ‘bad’ trip version of the euphoric ‘good’ trip. ‘Everything is connected, there is a secret order being revealed to me, but I am not part of it. It is an evil demonic order, and it is trying to control me and everyone else. They have a Grand Plan and it is taking shape now. But perhaps I, and one or two others, can wake up to this Grand Plan, and expose it, and at least hide from it.’

The first trip is a euphoric ego-expansion (I am the Universe!) and the second is paranoid ego-persecution (The Universe is controlled by Evil Demons who are against me!)

In both, the individual awakens to this hidden reality. But in the first, they are a superpowered initiate in the hidden order and a catalyst for a Millennarian transformation, in the second they are a vulnerable and disempowered exposer of the powerful hidden order. (Millennarian, by the way, means that, like Robbie Williams, you believe in a coming Millennium, or Age of Love).

These are two sides of the same coin, two sides in the same game. Both are examples of schizotypal magical / dream thinking. In both, the ego is part of a grand cosmic drama — in the first, they are the divine appointed catalyst for Phase Shift / humanity’s rebirth, in the second, they are the heroic exposer of the Hidden Order.

If we look at the history of the occult (I recommend Gary Lachmann’s Secret Teachers of the Western World as a popular intro), ever since the Reformation there have been secret orders of spiritual-political enthusiasts dedicated to a Millennarian project of global transformation. That’s what Rosicrucians were into, and the Masons, and the Illuminati. So was HG Wells and his ‘Open Conspiracy’— he was supposedly a rationalist, but really he was preaching a sort of occult-scientific polyamorous universalist new religion. So were Theosophists like Annie Besant. So were New Age pioneers in the 1960s like Marilyn Ferguson (author of The Aquarian Conspiracy, one of the best-selling books of the 1980s) and Barbara Hubbard, champion of a globalist evolutionary spirituality. You can probably think of people into this sort of scene today — spiritual-political enthusiasts waiting for a golden New Age of justice, perennial philosophy and polyamorous love.

Globalist Millennarians tend to be quite optimistic and quite well-connected — they connect together with fellow globalist Millennarians through think tanks, associations, conferences, networks and festivals. Barbara Marx Hubbard, the indefatigable champion of ‘evolutionary spirituality’, is an example. She thought homo sapiens was about to ‘phase shift’ into homo universalis, on December 12 2012 to be precise, and she thought she and her friends were the divinely-appointed catalysts for this Millennarian transformation. She was extremely well connected and spread her ideas through all kinds of organisations and networks like the Committee for the Future and the Centre for Integral Wisdom. Indeed, networking was part of her spirituality (she called it ‘supra-sexing’.)

Barbara Marx Hubbard, champion of evolutionary spirituality, believed humanity was about to evolve into ‘homo universalis’ and she was the divinely appointed catalyst for this phase shift. She was surprisingly well connected.

On the other hand, you have conspiracy thinkers who are anti-globalists, like Infowars’ Alex Jones or evangelical Lee Keith (his book cover is below), who may see Millennarian globalists as an evil and demonic hidden order pulling the strings of global events. Anti-globalist paranoid conspiracy thinkers trace the very networks that ecstatic networkers like Barbara Marx Hubbard work through. ‘See!’, they say. ‘They all know each other through these think-tanks and informal organisations.’

False Dawn, by Lee Penn, is an example of paranoid anti-globalist conspiracy thinking — it suggests Barbara Marx Hubbard and other ecstatic globalists are demon-controlled all-powerful hidden order

Where one group are ecstatic, optimistic, super-empowered, insider (and entitled) conspirators, the other are pessimistic, paranoid, disempowered outsiders.

But their thinking styles are in some ways quite similar — schizotypal, magical, prone to seeing secret influences, hidden connections, and Grand Plans. And both massively over-estimate the influence and power of these networks and underestimate the randomness of events.

I think it is possible to be prone to both these forms of magical thinking, to switch between ecstatic, optimistic Millennarianism and paranoid persecutory conspiracy thinking. From ‘everything is connected and I’m a central part of this wonderful cosmic transformation!’’ to ‘everything is connected and I’m at risk from this awful global plot!’ I think someone like Robert Anton Wilson, perhaps, was prone to both sorts of thinking.

The value of the two forms of conspirituality

Now we can dismiss this sort of thinking as simply bullshit religious enthusiasm. Both forms of it. And I feel a strong tendency at the moment to do that, to simply call bullshit on both ecstatic phase-shifters and paranoid conspiracy theorists, and instead try to be as rationalist, sober and un-enthusiastic as possible.

However, this is probably not a very helpful attitude. There is, in fact, a value to both these forms of mystical thinking.

The value in mystical globalism is it can lead to positive things — HG Wells’ ecstatic globalism helped to inspire forms of global governance like the UN Declaration of Human Rights, for example.

However, ecstatic globalism can lead to self-entitlement, to an inflated sense that you are the appointed vanguard of humanity, and that history and the Universe is definitely on your side. That’s dangerous. There can be a dangerous over-concentration of privilege and power, working mainly through informal or undemocratic channels.

The value of conspiracy thinking, meanwhile, can be that it holds power to account. Power can be over-concentrated — the World Health Organisation is excessively reliant on funding by Bill Gates, and the Gates Foundation should be more transparent and accountable, considering the massive influence it has over global public health.

Scientific authority can be awfully, horribly wrong sometimes — many ecstatic globalists in the 20th century supported eugenics ( including HG Wells, Annie Besant, Julian Huxley and Teillard de Chardin). They thought the world should be run by an elite of spiritually enlightened scientists who would decide who was enlightened and who was ‘unfit’ and therefore deserved to be sterilized, locked up, or exterminated. There was no secret conspiracy about this — they proudly declared their opinions. So you can see why paranoid anti-globalists might have their suspicions of secret eugenic plots today.

Balancing the Socratic and the Ecstatic

In general (and in conclusion), there is a value in non-rational forms of knowing, such as dreams, intuitions, inspiration and mystical experiences. These can be important sources of wisdom and healing. Many great scientific discoveries and cultural creations have come from ecstatic or schizotypal inspiration, from Newton’s discovery of gravity to Milton’s Paradise Lost.

I am prone to this sort of ‘benign schizotypy’ myself, and on the whole it enriches my life and work. There is a reason schizotypal thinking has survived for millennia — sometimes it is highly adaptive. It has played an important role in our cultural evolution.

However, it is crucial to balance the capacity for ecstatic / magical / mythical thinking with the capacity for critical thinking. That’s what I’ve tried to do in my books: balance the Socratic and the ecstatic, or the left and right brain, if you’re into that sort of thing.

Too much Socratic thinking without any ecstasy, and you end up with a rather dry and uninspiring worldview. Too much ecstasy without critical thinking, and you may be prone to unhealthy delusions, which you then spread, harming others. You may be so sure you’re right, so hyped in your heroic crusade, you may block things that are really helpful and spread things that are really harmful.

One should be free to believe whatever you want, but in this instance — a global pandemic in the internet age — our beliefs and behaviours profoundly impact others. We need to try and be extra careful in what we believe and what we share, so as to practice mental hygiene.

There is so much fake news out there — I was taken in yesterday by a story that the IMF had cancelled almost all its developing country debt. The story was on a website called IMF2020.org (since taken down). It looked totally reliable. And I so wanted it to be true! I so wanted to share some good news. But alas, it was fake.

We can do a basic test, equivalent to washing our hands.

1) What’s the source? Is it a reliable media organisation? Is it backed up by other reliable sources?

2) How likely is the fact? The less likely, the greater the burden of evidence.

3) Is there anything out there suggesting it’s fake? Rather than looking for evidence to support our beliefs, can we search for evidence against our beliefs?

4) Can we emotionally accept our belief might be wrong?

We can try to practice that sort of mental hygiene on ourselves, but how does one practice effective public communication to counter-act conspiracy thinking? It seems very hard. One’s instinct can be, like Skeptics and New Atheists, simply to call the other side names: ‘idiot, moron, woo-woo, bullshit’ and so on. That sort of shaming probably doesn’t work.

The introduction to the European Journal of Social Psychology’s special ‘conspiracy theory’ issue suggests conspiracy theories are emotionally grounded and socially supported— so an outsider calling you names won’t have much impact. Instead, like de-radicalization or de-culting programmes, perhaps it takes a trusted friend from inside your network to challenge the beliefs in a sympathetic and non-threatening way. That is slow work when one in three Americans believe COVID-19 was made in a laboratory, and one in five Brits say they might not take a COVID-19 vaccine. Our herd immunity to bullshit may be breaking down.

Developing Emotions

Developing Emotions is a pioneering programme of lessons designed to promote emotional literacy and emotional awareness in school children. It has been developed as a collaboration between the Centre for the History of the Emotions at Queen Mary University of London and TKAT Multi-Academy Trust.

In February and March 2020 the lessons were piloted in eight TKAT schools. Today, as the current school closure continues we are making the lessons, activities and resources available to other schools, and to parents teaching their children at home

You can find out more by reading the rest of this blog post below and also by listening to this podcast episode, in which Thomas Dixon visited one of the participating schools to talk to teachers there about the way the lessons support emotional learning:

There are six units in Developing Emotions, covering topics including sadness, joy, tears, laughter, anger, revenge, fear, worry, love and friendship. It is a cross-curricular programme with an emphasis on the history of emotions, literacy, vocabulary, and the creative arts. It also covers topics in PSHE, science, and philosophy.

Activities include art, writing tasks, debates, music, dance, and a final quiz for each unit. Children will encounter blues music, Shakespeare, the philosophy of utilitarianism, Romantic poetry, Charles Darwin’s ideas about emotions, modern dance, and more.

Each of the six units is made up of three lessons. Each lesson is 30-40 minutes in length. At present, materials have been developed for use with Year 3 and Year 5 classes (children aged 7-8 and 9-10), although they could of course be adapted for other age groups.

We hope you and your children enjoy them! We would love to hear from you about your experience of using the lessons, or if your school would like to take part in a future pilot. When you sign up you will receive a welcome email letting you know more about how to stay in touch.

The rest of this blog post includes all the links and information you need to understand and use the materials. When you are ready, you can sign up here to get access to all the resources.


What will I get when I sign up for these resources?

You will receive a login and password to give you access to all the teaching materials on the schools pages of our website The Emotions Lab.

There you will find the teaching materials divided into two pages – one for Year 3 and one for Year 5 children. On each page you will find the PowerPoints and teaching materials. Each of the six units has a PowerPoint and a PDF document. The PowerPoint walks you through the lessons, with video and audio clips and images. The PDF includes a briefing for teachers, a one-page plan for each lesson, and all the necessary worksheets and print-outs.

Can you give me a rough idea what is covered in the lessons before I sign up?

Yes! We have prepared a one-page overview of the programme for each of the two year groups to show you at a glance the content of the 18 lessons in each. Here they are:

Is this a PSHE programme?

No, although it could be used as a central strand of a PSHE curriculum. This is a cross-curricular programme using history, literature, art, drama, music, science, and philosophy to provide children with an enriched understanding of how words, images, and music can represent human emotions.  This is a programme rooted in history and with an emphasis on vocabulary and the arts.

Is this suitable for children with special educational needs or disabilities?

We hope that all lessons will be suitable for all children. They are not designed to initiate discussions of particular children’s emotions, or emotional problems, but to help all children learn more about a wide range of human experiences. It will be for you to think about whether any particular child might encounter issues in a lesson about, say, anger or sadness. You should take the usual precautions and consult with the safeguarding, pastoral, or counselling staff in your school about any concerns.

Do you know if the lessons work?

Yes! We have piloted them in TKAT schools and received positive feedback from the class teachers, who told us that children are really engaged by them and enjoy learning all about words, images, and ideas to do with emotions.

What other feedback did you receive from teachers?

There were two main things that teachers told us, which we will feed into future versions of the materials. First, they said that the lessons take longer than the 30-40 minutes we estimated – in some cases they could be extended to up to an hour each. Secondly they pointed out that at present there is no differentiation in the activities between children in each year group with different levels of ability and attainment.

The history of emotions sounds interesting! Where can I learn more?

We recommend browsing the blog posts and listening to the podcasts about different emotions on The Emotions Lab to get a flavour of the research behind Developing Emotions – and checking out our two games.

What if things are still unclear or I have other questions?

Please feel free to contact the project team at Queen Mary at any time by sending a message to emotions@qmul.ac.uk.

Thank-you for your interest in Developing Emotions!

You can now sign up here to get access to all the resources.


 

Dr Thomas Brown (1778-1820)

In this post for the History of Emotions Blog, Professor Thomas Dixon looks back at the life and influence of the man he has suggested was the ‘inventor of the emotions’.


Dr Thomas Brown, 1778 – 1820. Professor of Moral Philosophy, by William Walker. Edinburgh University. Image credit: National Galleries Scotland.

Today is the 200th anniversary of the death of the poet, physician and philosopher, Dr Thomas Brown, Professor of Moral Philosophy at the University of Edinburgh from 1810 to 1820.

Brown collapsed while lecturing in December 1819 and was sent to London by his physician for a rest and change of air. It did not have the desired effect, and he died there on 2 April 1820, at the age of only 42. The first edition of his Lectures on the Philosophy of the Human Mind was published before the end of the year, and it reached its 20th British edition by 1860.

Thomas Brown is now a little-known figure, and his grave is in disrepair, but at the time of his death, and for some decades afterwards, he was a hugely celebrated philosopher of the human mind. I first came across Brown while researching my PhD, and I found out much more about him over the following few years as I worked on a multi-volume edition of his life and works. I came to think of him as a friend, in the way that sentimental historians sometimes do when they spend too much time with their subjects. So, I didn’t want to let this 200th anniversary pass without paying a small tribute to my old friend Dr Brown.

When I was actively working on Brown, I frequently had to explain that my subject was neither the seventeenth-century English physician and man of letters, Sir Thomas Browne, author of Religio Medici, nor the Scottish physician Dr John Brown, creator of the Brunonian system of medicine, which enjoyed popularity around the same time as Thomas Brown’s Edinburgh career.’No,’ I politely seethed, ‘not that Dr Brown.’ This added to my protective feelings towards ‘my’ Dr Brown and my determination to help carve out more of a niche for him.

Dr Thomas Brown took on a major role within my PhD research because of his significance in the emergence of ‘the emotions’ as a psychological category in the nineteenth century. Indeed, I came to think of Brown as ‘the inventor of the emotions’ – the key figure responsible for the theoretical terms ‘passions’, ‘affections’, and ‘sentiments’ being gradually displaced by the psychological category that we now predominantly use to describe love, hate, jealousy, anger, joy, sorrow and so on, namely ‘the emotions’.[1]

As I put it in a short open-access article, summarising my research into the history of ‘the emotions’, for centuries, theorists have debated what should be considered the true seat of the emotions: the soul or the body; the heart or the brain. My suggestion is that the true seat of the ’emotions’ was in fact the University of Edinburgh, circa 1820.

Extract from The Morning Chronicle obituary for Thomas Brown, 13 April 1820.

But leaving my own particular interests aside, what do we know about Thomas Brown? He was the poetical and intellectual youngest child in a family of 13 children born to a clergyman and his wife. Brown seems to have been an endearing, earnest, sensitive, and somewhat eccentric character. Recollections and obituaries are full of warmth and praise, along with comments on his poetical style and unusual manner. The Morning Chronicle’s obituary in April 1820 claimed that Brown had ‘left no equal behind him in metaphysical acumen’.

Brown’s Lectures were widely acknowledged to be the most successful and popular work of their kind ever to have appeared. Henry Cockburn, in his Memorials, wrote of Brown’s Lectures as one of the most ‘delightful books in the English language’. Writing at the end of the century, the British philosopher Robert Adamson wrote of the book: ‘It is no exaggeration to say that never before or since has a work on metaphysics been so popular.’[2]

What would it have been like to attend Brown’s lectures in person? Thanks to Sir Walter Scott’s son-in-law, John Gibson Lockhart, we have some idea. Lockhart included an account of a lecture by a ‘Doctor B_____’, clearly intended to be Brown, in his fictionalised portrait of Edinburgh society, Peter’s Letters to his Kinsfolk (1819). The Professor arrives ‘with a pleasant smile upon his face, arrayed in a black Geneva cloak, over a snuff-coloured coat and a buff waistcoat’ with a ‘physiognomy very expressive of mildness and quiet contemplativeness’. Brown’s elocution is ‘distinct and elegant’, his delightfully flowing metaphysics enlivened by quotations from the poets.

Thomas Carlyle also wrote about Brown, recalling him as ‘an eloquent acute little gentleman, full of enthusiasm about simple suggestions, relative, etc.’ which Carlyle found dry and uninteresting. Carlyle described the ‘immaculate Dr Brown’ as ‘a really pure, high, if rather shrill and wire-drawing kind of a man’. [3]

Brown did not marry or have children and seems to have devoted himself with quite extraordinary ardour to his work – both as a physician working alongside Dr James Gregory – then to his poetry, and finally to his role as Professor of Moral Philosophy.  His first series of lectures – a hundred of them (yes, one hundred lectures over the course of his first year in the post!) – was delivered in 1810-11. He wrote them out by hand and they totalled over half a million words. Thomas Chalmers wrote, that these lectures had been ‘gotten up with something like the speed and power of magic’.[4] Brown made further alterations to the lectures in subsequent years, while continuing to work on his treatise on cause and effect, which reached its final form in 1818.

Brown’s writings on cause and effect were an influence on John Stuart Mill, and indeed Brown has a claim to particular importance and originality as the first true proponent of the ‘regularity’ or ‘uniformity’ view of causation. In other words, when it came to causation, it was Thomas Brown and not David Hume who was really the first Humean. Among contemporary philosophers, Stathis Psillos has made a particular study of Brown as an important philosopher of causation.

Thomas Brown’s career as Professor of Moral Philosophy was cut short by illness but his legacy was still remarkable. His Lectures had an international impact and shaped several fields of philosophy and psychology. To take just one more final example, William James, when delivering his legendary Gifford Lectures on The Varieties of Religious Experience (published in 1903) in Edinburgh recalled:

The glories of the philosophic chair of this university were deeply impressed on my imagination in boyhood. Professor Fraser’s Essays in Philosophy, then just published, was the first philosophic book I ever looked into, and I well remember the awe-struck feeling I received from the account of Sir William Hamilton’s class-room therein contained. Hamilton’s own lectures were the first philosophic writings I ever forced myself to study, and after that I was immersed in Dugald Stewart and Thomas Brown. Such juvenile emotions of reverence never get outgrown and I confess that to find my humble self promoted from my native wilderness to be actually for the time an official here, and transmuted into a colleague of these illustrious names, carries with it a sense of dreamland quite as much as of reality.

Brown’s Lectures are poetical and sometimes prolix, but full of energy, clarity, and originality too. As the Cambridge polymath William Whewell wrote to a friend, while still a young man, ‘Have you read Brown’s books? They are dashing, and on some material points strongly wrong, but about cause and effect he has an admirable clearness of view and happiness of illustration.’[5]

It is now over twenty years since I first became immersed in the writings of Thomas Brown – the first Humean, the inventor of ‘the emotions’, and a dashingly poetical metaphysician – and I have not yet outgrown the ‘juvenile emotions of reverence’ I first felt towards him.

 

Further reading

I have written at greater length about Brown in my Introduction to the 8-volume collected life and works I edited in 2003 (now a collector’s item). I rewrote that piece slightly as the Introduction to the 2010 paperback selections of his writings, still in print from Imprint Academic, and finally modified it lightly again as a chapter on the life and philosophy of Brown in Gordon Graham’s 2015 edited volume on Scottish Philosophy in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries.


[1] Thomas Dixon (2003), From Passions to Emotions: The Creation of a Secular Psychological Category. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, pp. 109-127.

[2] Dixon, Passions to Emotions, pp. 111-112.

[3] James Froude (1882). Thomas Carlyle: A History of the First Forty Years of his Life, 1795-1835. 2 vols. London, Longmans, Green and Co., vol. 1, p. 25; Richard Herne Shepherd (1881). Memoirs of the Life and Writings of Thomas Carlyle, with Personal Reminiscences and Selections from his Private Letters. 2 vols. London, W. H. Allen and Co., vol. 1, pp. 16-17.

[4] Thomas Chalmers (1846). ‘Preface’, in Thomas Brown’s Lectures on Ethics, ed. by T. Chalmers. Edinburgh, Tait, p. x.

[5] Quoted in Laura Snyder (2006), Reforming Philosophy: A Victorian Debate on Science and Society. Chicago, University of Chicago Press, p. 47n.

Michael Murphy on Esalen, Huxley, and Alan Watts

One of the highlights of my September 2018 trip to California was the chance to meet Michael Murphy. With his friend Dick Price, Mike co-founded the Esalen Institute, a cross between an adult education college and a spiritual retreat centre on the cliffs of Big Sur. Esalen is the spiritual home of transpersonal psychology, where psychologists like Abraham Maslow, Stanislaf Grof, and Fritz Perls developed their ideas. So many contemporary practices and ideas – from holotropic breathwork to ecstatic dance to somatic therapy to Authentic Relating to the idea of ‘spiritual emergencies’ – were born in that cultural incubator.

murphy.jpg

It is still going, 57 years later, which is a remarkable feat when you think how quickly and spectacularly other spiritual experiments went wrong. Mike Murphy is still going too – at 88, he is a picture of good vibes, with an incredibly well-stocked memory, bags of energy and a remarkable generosity of spirit (we spoke for three hours). I met him to discuss the so-called ‘mystical expatriates’ – Aldous Huxley, Gerald Heard, Alan Watts and Christopher Isherwood – who all moved from England to the US in the 1930s, settled in California, and helped inspire contemporary spirituality. Watts and Huxley in particular are modern prophets, and it’s amazing to meet someone who was friends with them, worked with them, and developed their ideas so influentially. It’s also fascinating to learn from Murphy what he thinks made Esalen such an enduring success – no guru, no religion, an emphasis on quality of teachers, and a balance between the aesthetic Apollonian and the messy Dionysiac elements.

You’re one of the few people who knew all four of the ‘mystical expats’ and who was very influenced by them, and friends with them.

Isherwood I didn’t know so well, but I’m deeply fond of the three I knew. They all came to the States before the War. None of them seemed to have any guilt about fleeing and getting out of harm’s way, and I can’t see Heard or Huxley in the British military. All four of these guys were full of life, and not crippled by footnotes in their writing, but still deeply informed, with great judgement and intuitive vision. People asked William James if he was a mystic and he said ‘I wouldn’t call myself a mystic but I have a substantial mystic germ’. Each of your four had a strong mystical germ though they weren’t practicing contemplatives.

Who did you encounter first?

Alan Watts. I encountered him through Frederic Spiegelberg and the American Academy of Asian Studies [which later became the California Institute of Integral Studies]. Spiegelberg was a lecturer at Stanford University in comparative religion, probably the greatest lecturer I ever heard. I stumbled into his class by mistake at Stanford in 1950.  In 1951 he recruited students on the Stanford Campus for the new Academy of Asian Studies, and he claims I was the first to sign up. I took a quarter off at the end of my junior year and took the train up to San Francisco to attend classes there. Alan had moved West and was a full-time teacher at the Academy. He, Spiegelberg and Haridas Chaudhuri would do symposia there and became hot items in the City during the blossoming of the San Francisco renaissance..

There was an Indian renaissance at the end of the 19th century, mainly based in Bengal  and led in large part by religious innovators such as Vivekananda, Ramakrishna, Rabindranath Tagore, and Sri Aurobindo. Influenced by Spiegelberg I was inspired especially by Sri Aurobindo and his ideas on evolutionary spirituality. Spiegelberg had experienced darshan with both Sri Aurobindo and Ramana Maharshi, and he helped transmit that spark of the Bengali renaissance into the San Francisco renaissance – as did Alan, Huxley, Isherwood and Heard.

[That’s a very interesting point, by the way. Part of the Bengali renaissance was the idea of the Perennial Philosophy – the idea there is a common core found within the great religions, particularly in their mystical teachings. Vivekananda and others helped to preach that in the Bengal Renaissance, and then Huxley, Watts and others helped to transmit that idea into the San Francisco Renaisance and the Sixties counter-culture. It’s interesting to note how often the Perennial Philosophy is found within eras of cultural flourishing called ‘renaissances’ or Golden Ages.]

Spiegelberg was more than just a scholar.  He had genuine mystical insight. You know, it’s very hard to measure the degree of mystical realization in a person. But I think I was close enough to Watts, Huxley and Heard to make a guess. Alan was never a disciplined meditator, and he did have a drinking problem at the end of his life, but he often spoke as one who knew.

What was Watts like? 

Alan was a huge influence on Bay Area culture because he was so insightful, funny and witty. But not saracastic. He was generous and very playful. His weaknesses were on the side of impulse control,  not on the side of  cruelty snark. He was fun and he was brilliant.  Aesthetics were huge for Alan – he could have been a professor of aesthetics like John Ruskin. He was a great appreciator of beauty – costume, cooking, architecture, Feng Shui, clothes, costumes, poetry.

So his influence was feeding out into the Renaissance, into the music of John Cage and so on.

Yes. Anyway, by 1962 Dick Price and I were launching Esalen on a property in Big Sur my grandfather had bought in 1910.  Along the way, Alan had wanted to buy a house  there.  The first lecture that happened at the site after Dick and I took it over was by Alan and when Esalen got fully underway he was a principal participant. And we used his mailing list to advertise our first seminars.

Tell me about Gerald Heard.

My inspiration to start Esalen arose in large part from the evolutionary thinking of Sri Aurobindo, much of which Heard shared in principle – I call it evolutionary panentheism.  It can, I believe, be seen as part of an emerging canon, in league with the German Idealists, Henri Bergson, Teillard de Chardin, Alfred Whitehead and Aurobindo. That’s how I encountered Heard before hearing Huxley’s lectures on human potentialities, which he started giving in 1959.

You’ve heard of the Sequioia Seminars?  They were run by a Stanford professor, Harry Rathburn and his wife, and  attracted the elite of Silicon Valley, before it was so named. I lived in Palo Alto and got to know them and started to hear about Heard through their programs. His influence was spreading through various circles. Gerald was extremely charismatic and became a kind of guru. For example, Clare Booth Luce, the wife of Henry Luce, founder of the Time Life empire, was a super-celebrity in her own right and was taking LSD with Gerald Heard on the site of Esalen.

Anyway, I met Dick Price at Stanford, and he told me about Huxley’s lectures, from which we took a language which helped  to frame our brochures for Esalen, the language of ‘human potentialities’. We contacted Huxley, and he suggested we meet Gerald, who had experimented with a spiritual community at Trabuco, near Los Angeles. So Dick Price and I went to see Gerald. He lived in a cottage at Pacific Palisades with his companion, Michael Barrie. After that meeting, it was all go for me when it came to starting Esalen. I would call it a second turning in the way my first lecture with Spiegelberg had been in 1950.

I’m sure he did that for a lot of people. There have been characters like him throughout history. In the Christian tradition, Francis de Salle had huge influence in the courts of France. Or a healthier version of Rasputin. A charismatic influencer. He certainly had the mystic germ. There’s a Sanskrit term, diksha – transmission. A transmission can come through a book, a word, a touch, a look, or from a distance. He transmitted a fire to us.

Gerald Heard (left) with Aldous Huxley and Captain Al Hubbard, after one of their 1950s psychedelic sessions. Heard was a big influence on many in his generation, including WH Auden, Christopher Isherwood and Huxley – who he inspired to abandon atheist materialist and explore empirical spirituality in the 1930s.

Heard had obviously tried something similar to Esalen at Trabuco. He wrote about wanting to set up something halfway between a college and a monastery, to learn different spiritual techniques.

That’s why Dick and I went to meet him. Gerald added huge fuel to the fire. And he even gave us a geological reasons for siting the project at Big Sur!  He knew about the mountains behind our property, still pushing west. He got into his deep Irish and pretty soon the wee people were appearing – ‘this is a spirit-infested land’ he said. He was  a spontaneous  bard, and could weave an enchanting spell. He was very Irish and had some pretty wild ideas. We invited him to come up when the programme started, for the first set of lectures in the Fall of 1962. He gave a lecture and then came up again for three weeks. He was there when Huxley died in 63, and gave a vigil for him.

But you didn’t model Esalen on Trabuco?

There were three or four big differences. First, he was the big teacher at Trabuco. We did not want to be an ashram. No gurus, no one captures the flag, an open centre. That was our commitment.

Second, Trabuco was sort of a commune, with permanent residents. We didn’t want to be a commune. That’s been a long struggle for decades – is it a commune or not. We had 100 people on our staff, and people coming from all over the world. We didn’t want to franchise it either – by 1969 there were 100 centres modelled on Esalen.

Third, we were very much in the California culture which wasn’t as conflicted about sex as Gerald seemed to be. He claimed he was celibate, which I am willing to believe. Gerald was a peculiar mixture of wild and inhibited. Wild in his ideas and inhibited in his (homo) sexuality. We didn’t suffer from that, and we had those baths. They were segregated by gender initially but finally we had joint bathing. What’s the big deal? Alan was right in the middle of it. He embraced sex rather than asceticism.

Fourth, we were much bigger. Now, 15,000 people a year come through it.

And finally, we’ve been going 57 years, whereas Trabuco only lasted a few. Gerald was not temperamentally suited to run an organisation. He didn’t have a lot of tolerance for interpersonal ambiguity. He didn’t have the patience. He was a flaming meteor and turned a lot of people, a hugely catalytic figure who did not leave an enduring canon in his writing, as Huxley did. One still reads Huxley’s books, unlike Gerald’s. His influence has melted into history, but it was very important. Only a few are selected by historians to last in our memory.  90% of history melts away. But it’s good to remember what actually did happen.  Gerald was a significant part of our history.

Esalen has a different funding model too – paying for short intense courses, which is a very influential model now at retreat centres.

That’s how universities started – Hegel and the great German professors got paid for how many students turned up. That’s how Esalen started too. We were a non-profit, but we charged. And we got grants, right from the beginning. Gerald never aspired to that.  For example, I got the Ford Foundation together with Professor George Brown of UC Santa Barbara to research educational methods. That led to the department of confluent education at UC Santa Barbara, which resulted in 500 graduate degrees and a new curricula for schools from kindergarten through the 12th grade.

We were brokers, like a venture capital firm for individuals and research programmes. That was way beyond what Heard was doing. We did it with medicine too. The first legislation on holistic health in the US was written by the Esalen staff. We’ve run invitational conferences on psychology, medicine, diplomacy, religion.  We have  similarities with Silicon Valley. There’s more freedom for all this out here than there is in most other places. We have a regional advantage, one might say. We’re more mobile intellectually and spiritually. Part of that is the Californian culture.

Let’s talk about Aldous Huxley. He was an influence on the early vision of Esalen through his lectures on human potentiality. Did you meet him?

Yes.  When I met him, in the summer of 1962, I was hugely nervous. I was just starting Esalen, I was 31. I was still a virgin. I had met  famous people growing up, but still, having read him, I was awestruck. I was an enormous fan, having read After Many A Summer, Time Must Have A Stop, Brave New World, his essays, Doors of Perception, and much else. He was a grand figure, a celebrity.

Did you read Huxley’s last novel, Island?

Yes. He was writing that when we met.

He was a grand figure, but accessible – you just wrote to him and he came.

Well, there I was in a broken-down motel at the end of nowhere, but he like many others joined us. Arnold Toynbee came – I sent him $100 for the travel. It was the flag we raised, and how I explained the vision in my letters. George Leonard said ‘boy, you know how to seduce people with these letters’. I hadn’t written anything at that point.

Huxley…well, I fell in love with him. He’d heard about our butterfly trees and wanted to see them. He walked along with these huge loping steps. We fell into this easy repartee, and had an easy conversation. He and Laura stayed overnight. This was just after his house had burned down, so they were thinking of moving nearby. He was a great conversationalist, different from Gerald, who was much more animated and intense. Aldous was cool, highly cultivated. Think about his family – Matthew Arnold on one side, Thomas Huxley on the other, talk about to the manner-born!

He was no hippy, in the way that Watts was.

Not at all. Aldous had huge tolerance of ambiguity though. He was no snob when it came to sex or anything, it seemed. But he wouldn’t have been doing any of the movement exercises, and he was used to politeness and good form. I can’t see him in an encounter group – first of all, he couldn’t see well enough to see across a room. I can’t remember if he went to the baths or not. And he made helpful suggestions for us. He made us aware of Gestalt therapy, and of somatic awareness, and the ‘non-verbal humanities’.

A photo taken of Huxley on his first mescaline trip, looking out over Los Angeles. The photo was taken by the psychiatrist Humphrey Osmond, who later coined the word ‘psychedelic’

He was very into the idea of physical training, despite being this rather gangly, half-blind intellectual.

He was never destined to be an athlete. He was six foot four, and walked with these loping steps. He was already 68 when we met. He said a number of things to us that were kind of prophetic. He said words to the effect of ‘one of your challenges will be the conflict in you and your guys between your aesthetic and critical judgement on one side, and your compassion on the other. You are going to have to get your hands dirty.’ And boy has that been true.

Tell me more about that.

Well, it’s things that are not respectable. And things that are on the edge of not working. At Esalen, by 1970, we were resolutely confessing our sins in public – don’t do this, don’t do that. I mean…Tim Leary was wrong – the idea you can take LSD every Sunday. Now there’s a whole return of psychedelics. But it’s not like Tim Leary and everybody stoned every day.

So Huxley was talking about getting your hands dirty, because you’re working with the subconscious. Human development is messy.

Yes.

And it was an ecstatic model of education, so stuff is going to come up.

Right. Managing the unconscious, the Id. If you’re going to do group work, you have to work with what emerges. And we’ve learned certain things don’t work.

Freud and Jung were doing one-on-one therapy. You helped create the model of week-long deep-dive group courses in self-exploration.

Yes. It was very much in the air. But people working at Esalen helped to invent it – Fritz Perls developed his approach at Esalen. Stan Grof invented holotropic breathwork there. Huxley said you have to have both sides – you need to keep your critical judgement and your aesthetic sensibility. He was out of an upper class academic family. You get good manners, aesthetic judgement. And here’s this messiness, looking at it, accepting it. It’s not good form.

Dreaming of the future of humanity in Esalen’s hot springs

And it’s sometimes dangerous. We had a split at Esalen, we called it the Dionysians and the Apollonians. I moved up to the city in 1967 to start a centre in San Francisco. My closest friends, crystallizing around me, were more Apollonian. We were doing events at Grace Cathedral. At Big Sur it got wilder and wilder. It led to conflicts. We used to groan when we heard about some of the stuff happening at Big Sur. Free love was in the air.  There were experiments with drugs. With any drug there are limits. So the place had become a living laboratory. The media caught up with this – but they didn’t see a laboratory, they saw a sometimes wild place.

It’s amazing you survived. Think about what happened at Osho’s ashrams at Pune and Oregon.

Dick Price for a while got very enchanted with Osho, then he went over to Pune and he was horrified. They were having encounter groups, and then one discovered he had syphilis and yet slept with seven or eight people. Then Dick watched a wrestling match, and saw a guy get his leg broken. So he flipped and came back lambasting Osho, while Osho started lambasted Dick. Dick gave an interview to Time magazine, so we got caught up – as we did with Scientology – in saying no to these crazier movements. We were exploring, finding our way.

How did you maintain quality control in the Esalen programmes?

For the most part, we’ve conducted public programms (which included professional training seminars) rather than research. The head of programming chooses the leaders. The program is edited all the time, and it starts before anyone comes. That’s how we’ve done it from the start, in 1962. A lot of what we did in the early days came out of psycho-drama – it came out of theatre games and improvisation, like Second City. In those days there was a meeting room next to the dining room. Suddenly there were blood-curdling screams. Eventually a guy came out on all fours, and some people came out and dragged him back in, then more screams. So, to cut a long story short, I told them they couldn’t come back and got a letter from every participant saying ‘Murphy you have no balls at all. You tell us to explore boundaries, then you kick us out’. So we had to use our intuitive judgement and not judge leaders only by what our seminar participants say . Now it’s easier because we hear about programmes before they come to Esalen – it’s like theatre, you get good in smaller theatres before you step up to Broadway. We only accept about a quarter of the leaders who want to do programmes at Esalen.

So, as a group, clearly the mystical expats had a big influence on you. How much on Californian spirituality?

Huge! First, they helped transmit this global lineage, the religion of no religion, experiential comparativism. Not just reading and writing about it, but experiencing it first hand. I would say it’s a global lineage. It comes in large part from the Bengal Renaissance – out of Ramakrishna, Sri Aruobindo, and Vivekananda coming to the US in 1893 and establishing the Vedanta centres, such as the one in Los Angeles where Huxley, Heard and Isherwood practiced.

It’s a lineage in the making that people have given voice to in different ways, particularly Heard and Huxley. They were both very strong on the marriage of science and mysticism, and the importance of depth psychology. They were very influenced by William James and Frederic Myers, as we were at Esalen. We’ve had a 15-year research project on James and Myers.

I love that. I dedicated my last book to Myers because I feel he deserved more credit. He’s barely known in contemporary British psychology or culture.

To add a footnote to perennialism, Jeff Kripal, in his book on Esalen, argues that, mid-century, there was a massive turn from the asceticism of Vedanta to the more full-bodied spirituality of Tantra. Esalen was in the middle of it. You can see it in the difference between Gerald and Aldous. Gerald had a strange relationship to his homosexuality, quite unlike Christopher Isherwood.  Jeff Kripal used that story as an example of the move from Vedanta to Tantra in the West at mid-century. Tantra is a vast meta-theory that says the divine is both transcendent and immanent. It’s there in Feng Shui and architecture, in martial arts, in sex. It’s much earthier than much Vedanta and asceticism generally East or West.

In terms of evolutionary spirituality, both Heard and Huxley – like Sri Aurobindo – thought homo sapiens could potentially evolve into a higher spiritual species, and places like Esalen could help catalyse it.

Yes, we could be midwives. This is why I go back to Francis Bacon. He said that science in its basic sense is the acknowledgement that you have to conform your understanding to nature, and not try to get nature fit your understanding. This is the problem with materialist reductionism – it ignores facts like telepathy. I call them supernormalities of everyday life. We started a project years ago on supernormal experience. I’ve believed that we must collect the data of the inner life, like good natural scientists, then get taxonomies, then theories about human nature, in a manner analogous to that process in the physical and biological sciences.

It sounds in the tradition of Frederic Myers and Edward Gurney’s work at the Society of Psychical Research, at the end of the 19th century.

Exactly. I feel in this field we a long way to go. We haven’t done enough natural history. Supernormal capactities are hiding in plain sight, in all sorts of human activity, in the arts, in sport, in every day life. Again and again people have out of the box experiences, but they have no framework or vocabulary for it. My argument is that every human attribute gives rise to supernormal expressions. Myers was onto it – he called it evolutionary buds.

Huxley and Heard had a lot of interest and faith in paranormal research, but it seems like it’s really faded from academic psychology.

It’s almost like Sisyphus – you roll the stone up and it rolls down again. Look at the Society of Psychical Research – it went far ahead of us but now very few people have even heard about it. You need institutions to establish a new scientific paradigm. There are places and programs exploring the edges of our latent supernature but there’s a general resistance to such efforts in mainstream science and academia .

But in other ways, these are good times for transpersonal psychology, no? The boom in contemplation and contemplative science, the renaissance in psychedelic research…

Yes we’ve breached the fort of reductionism.  But we’ve got a long way to go.

You could say that such exploration has been helped by Huxley, Heard, and Watts. They were popularizers – bridges between elite spirituality and the masses.

That’s true. They helped drive the democratization of all this, and to some degree an acceptance of it among intellectuals and some scientists.

We have to be careful about thinking scientific spirituality is somehow free from dogma. It’s who controls the power, the funding, the journals, the conferences.  

Right – did you read Thomas Kuhn’s book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions? It’s crucial. Physics is supposed to be free of dogma, but what’s with string theory – there’s no experimental results because they haven’t proposed an experiment. Yet it’s considered a mainstream theory. Lee Smolin argues that seven universities and 32 chairs in academia control theoretical physics. And 29 of those chairs are occupied by string theorists.  And there’s a book out, by the historian of science Peter Galison at Harvard – how big science is requiring some things that did not exist before, like ‘trading zones’. At CERN – English is the dominant language, but not everyone speaks English. And not everyone speaks the same theoretical language. In the trading zone you use pidgin languages. That’s pure Esalen. In a sense, Esalen is a trading zone to find a common language for different traditions and experiences.

Esalen has probably paved the way for where we are now – a sort of open-source, de-centered, democratic spirituality. Let’s learn from each other, rather than signing up to one dogma or guru.

Specialization with a single teacher works sometimes, let’s say in music, or in physics. You need specialization, but you also need conversation across boundaries. That’s a regional advantage of Silicon Valley.  And Esalen.

What do you think of the rise of national tribalism and the tribalism of identity politics with regard to the Esalen project?

George Leonard started black-white encounter groups at Esalen in 1967. We did that for a few years. We did one recently between Democrats and Republicans. But our main thrust in this regard has been through work on US-Russia relations and Arab-Jewish relations. We organizied a conference in Russia, working with Russian and American students.  The theme was ‘who do you trust?’ Why can’t we talk together like these kids did? We want to cultivate the impulse to talk across divides and not be afraid to be messy, and to have faith that there’s a common ground of goodness. Our first black-white encounter groups – black-white encounter as transcendental experience, it was called. There were black folks who’d never had a white friend and white folks who’d never had a black friend. We have Democrat friends who won’t let their daughters go out with Republican men. Can you believe it?

It sounds quite Quaker, what you’re doing.

Quakers are kissing  cousins.The contemplation, the good works.  I love them.

Is there a left bias among the people at Esalen?

Yes, but we have many conservatives—and even Republicans!—among our leaders and seminarians. And we get criticized from both the left and right!

 Esalen is still very much in the news. Here’s an Economist article from November 2019 on how Esalen helped take the counter-culture mainstream. Here’s a New Yorker article from April 2019 on how Esalen is now part of the Silicon Valley ecosystem and is trying to help tech CEOs find their conscience. And here’s an extraordinary excerpt from a new book on how Murphy researched superhuman powers, or ‘sidhis’ in sport and advised the US government on mind control. For more on the mystical expatriates, here’s an article I wrote. A shout out to QMUL colleague Jake Poller for his excellent new book on Aldous Huxley and Alternative Spirituality.

And if you want a taste of an Esalen seminar from the heady days of 1968, here’s one featuring Alan Watts, Allen Ginsberg, Claudio Naranjo (a pioneer of psychedelic therapy) and John Weir Perry (a pioneer of work on treating spiritual emergencies), talking about poetry and madness.

To Lose the Physician

Biography
Stephen Pender is Professor of English at the University of Windsor, Ontario, in Canada. He is a specialist in early modern literature and intellectual history. This post is derived from an October 2019 lunchtime seminar at the QMUL Centre for the History of the Emotions, and is part of chapter four of his forthcoming monograph, Therapy and the Passions: Rhetoric, Medicine, and Moral Philosophy in Early Modern England.


This year, for the first time on record, average waiting times for seeing a general practitioner (GP) in the UK exceeded fourteen days. Yet an appointment is a fleeting affair, a mere brush with prescription and counsel: the average time of a visit to one’s GP is amongst the lowest in Europe, just over ten minutes, as compared with, say, Sweden, in which patients spend more than twenty-five minutes during a typical appointment. The situation is similar in Canada. When did ‘brief encounters’ with GPs, their offices functioning as entrepots for yet further bookings with specialists, become the norm? Certainly not in the seventeenth century, when ‘clinical’ medicine, the medicine of the bedside, was a protracted, voluble affair, with friends and relatives, doctors, divines, and other healers lingering over the figures — what one ate, how one slept, the qualities of stools — in a patient’s variegated regimental ground. Compared with today, time spent with sufferers was ample: in practice if not always in theory most early modern physicians subscribed to categories first mooted by the Roman physician Galen, the so-called ‘non-naturals,’ which describe and disclose relationships between the body, the will, and the world. The number varies, depending on period and practitioner: air (or environment), food and drink, exercise and rest, excretion and retention, sleep and waking, the passions (emotions), with ‘frictions’ or massage, coitus, dreams, and therapeutic baths receiving uneven attention.

A physician should be, or should pretend to be, a friend

Without x-ray, fMRI or what the 1580s French essayist, Michel de Montaigne, calls a “speculum matricis,” a ‘mirror’ for seeing “our braine, our lungs, and our liver,” physicians were in part dependent on conversation about these components of regimen, on illness narratives, as they have come to be called, in addition to scanning the face and body, evaluating urine, palpation, discerning temperature and pulse. How best to elicit the fullest, most robust sense of a sufferer’s condition? to tease out condign signs and symptoms? to hasten recovery? The answer may surprise, given the impersonal interactions that often condition contemporary care: a physician should be, or should pretend to be, a friend.

Enquiring into eighteenth-century conceptions of passion for a chapter that eventually appeared in a six volume history of emotion from Bloomsbury, I alighted on the Scottish physician John Gregory’s work. He insists that physicians sympathise with patients, that they feel “the distress of … fellow creatures,” for “affection and confidence” in a patient have “utmost consequence” to recovery (Lectures on the Duties and Qualifications of a Physician, 1772).

A painting of John Gregory, the Scottish physician and medical writer. Gregory’s Lectures on the Duties and Qualifications of a Physician were published in 1772, a year before his death.

Affection and confidence point Gregory towards friendship, as he muses on a doctor’s character and comportment: since “there is often a feebleness and depression of spirits attendant on sickness,” he impugns solemnity, urging instead “propriety” and “an easy, cheerful, soothing behaviour,” so that sufferers “forget the physician in the friend.” The physician lost in the friend: a physician’s “presence and assistance as a friend may be agreeable and useful, both to the patient and his nearest relations.” Gregory recognises an expansive province for amicable bedside rhetorical work.

The history of this notion — that physicians should adopt the armaments of friendship — is long, and neglected, unlike the history of friendship itself. Tellingly, Hippocrates advises physicians to direct a patient’s “mind” to “theatrical performances, especially those that cause laughter.” In speech and in conduct, doctors should be “serious, artless, … graceful in speech, gracious in disposition,” and must comfort patients with “solicitude and attention.” They must be affable, “ready to reply,” and know the “use of what conduces to friendship.” Galen’s psychological treatises, too, recommend finding a friend and counsellor, unafraid to offer frank, seasonable advice. It is necessary, he writes, “to find some older man who is capable of seeing [emotional] faults, and to beseech him to make everything evident to us quite freely …” Cicero, famously, agreed: frank counsel is the heart of true friendship. This notion was not lost on the middle ages, with the most famous therapeutic, bedside advice offered to Boethius by Philosophy, with Aquinas’ treatise on friendship.

From antiquity through to early modernity, the ideal friend heals, divides our griefs and doubles our joy; so, too, the physician

Notions of licit friendship and ideal physicians are entangled: most physicians were certain that remedying physical suffering meant conjuring “pleasing words,” for a “good speech is a Physitian for a sick mind” (Lemnius, Secret Miracles, 1559). William Vaughan recommends that physicians “invent and devise some spirituall pageant to fortifie” a patient’s “depraved” imagination (1617). Since patients suffer vexatious thoughts, they are to be “wrought into an Imagination quite contrary” to strong passions that accompany distemper (Jonstonus, Practical Physick, 1657). The popular divine and casuist William Fenner reports that “Galen sayes, he met with many sick patients, if he had not cured their affections, he had never recovered them” (1650). There is dissent from this opinion — one practitioner insists that physicians should not study ways of “satisfying … the indiscreet Patient …” (Bolnest, Medicina Instaurata, 1665) — but most agreed with Francis Bacon, who in 1623 avers that “there is no physician of any skill who does not attend to the accidents of the mind” as essential to both remedy and recovery.

The sixteenth-century French physician Laurent Joubert, still read in the seventeenth century, is succinct: “the good opinion patients have of their physician gives them a certain confidence that helps them to recover better.” In Joubert’s apothegm, “He in whom many trust heals more patients,” while a taciturn healer makes the patient weak, ‘dashing’ the spirits because “fear and mistrust have seized his heart” (Popular Errors, 1578). Desire, hope, and trust enliven; sadness, diffidence weakens. Joubert’s contemporary, the Salisbury physician John Securis, agrees: a doctor must possess a good disposition, a fine reputation, and persuade his patients gently, with “a lively & merry countenance” (1566). As Joubert concludes, some patients report “that the presence of the physician consoles, rejoices, and gives them courage, making them feel the illness give way and their strength grow.”

‘Cheer up,’ you might say, pointedly, next you visit your GP. ‘It might do me good.’

Rob Boddice, A History of Feelings, Q&A

Dr Rob Boddice is a historian of science, medicine and the emotions, based at Freie Universitaet Berlin and McGill University, Montreal. His previous books include Pain: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2017) and The History of Emotions (Manchester University Press, 2018). His latest book is A History of Feelings (Reaktion, 2019), and he kindly agreed to discuss it in this special Q&A for The History of Emotions Blog. Asking the questions is the blog’s editor, Professor Thomas Dixon


Thomas Dixon: Thank-you so much for agreeing to this virtual chat! You have been a prolific and influential contributor to our field in recent years. Could I start by asking you – for the benefit of those who have not yet read them both – what is the difference between your two recent books – The History of Emotions and A History of Feelings?

Rob Boddice: The History of Emotions was commissioned to provide something that was missing at the time, namely a general introduction to the field, its principal works, theories and methods, while also looking at where we might go next. There were so many potential entry points, but no one-stop shop, as it were. Of course, in putting that together, and in taking the temperature of a field whose growth was pretty feverish, I realised that I had to do this in a critical manner. It is overtly not a neutral survey. I realised early on that I would have to walk the talk and show that one could do the history of emotions along the lines I was setting out. A History of Feelings, therefore, is an exemplification of the theories and methods set out in the first book. It’s an attempt to show that the critical methods are good for all periods and, indeed, to disrupt orthodoxies of periodization. Through a series of case studies or micro focuses, I offer one possibility for how a history of emotions – in a sort of epic mode – might look. It’s not the last word, by any means, and it has its limits, but it’s ambitious enough, wandering from ancient Greece down the present, and dealing along the way in Greek, Latin, Italian, French, German, and, most tricky of all, English.

TD: If it’s possible in a couple of sentences can you summarise the take-home messages that you would hope other historians of emotions would get from reading A History of Feelings? Would it be a new method, a new narrative, or something else?

RB: Underlying this book as well as The History of Emotions is a deeply critical stance in opposition to a still powerful psychological orthodoxy that emotions in humans are universal, automatic, non-cognitive, natural, and so on. There are good reasons to think that the foundations of this orthodoxy have been thoroughly undermined, but it lingers nonetheless in the popular imagination, not least because it’s just so convenient. The premise that we understand something about human feeling in the past because, after all, we are human too, is almost overwhelming, but it’s fraught with problems. In A History of Feelings I reconstruct the felt past episodically in order to present past human experience as something unfamiliar or alien, understandable only through an appreciation of carefully reassembled context.

That word, ‘experience’, is also key. I’m trying to leave off the word ‘emotions’ – hence the title – to allow for the full play of situated experience, which does not necessarily fall into neat categories like ‘emotion’, ‘sense’ or ‘reason’. The book takes seriously the notion (borrowed from an increasingly culturally aware critical neuroscience) that the concepts available to a person are formative of experience, and that means treading carefully with contemporary conceptual categories. I want, above all, to avoid that easy projection of our own situated emotion knowledge onto past experience.

I suppose the last big message is connected to this. I am exhorting historians and general readers alike to become more critically reflexive about our own emotions: where do they come from? Who has a stake in shaping or directing them, and to what ends?

TD: You’re right that the universalist approach is still alive and well – as evidenced in this recent essay in Aeon magazine.  In terms of your own approach to the history of emotions in this book, would it be fair to say that it is first and foremost by way of Western intellectual history? 

RB: Partly, yes, but let me answer by way of another question that was put to me by Professor Brian Cowan when I launched the book in Montreal. He thought the book followed a sort of standard ‘western civ’ canon, not quite Plato to Nato, but near enough, and wondered why I’d structured the book in this way. My answer was to point out that I subvert the standard ‘western civ’ narrative at almost every turn. I employ a structure that follows the usual suspects – Homer, Thucydides, Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, von Bingen, Castiglione, Machiavelli, Descartes, Spinoza, Wollstonecraft, Smith, Paine, Darwin, etc – but I unpick the common understanding of ‘emotions’ in the works of these luminaries (understandings reached through modern translations that fall into the trap of thinking through a universal human nature) such that their affective content is almost unrecognisable. The narrative therefore implicitly undermines the logic of this ‘western civ’ structure and disrupts the standard periodization. I hoped to have written a sustained critique of ‘western civ’ by appropriating its outward form and messing royally with its content. There’s also a fair bit in here which goes beyond intellectual history to a history of affective practice, of sensing and emoting in discrete and contingent worlds. I try, throughout, not to lose sight of the doing of feelings. I do acknowledge, however, and I do so explicitly in the book, that the scope is geographically limited to the ‘west’, more or less. Given that so much of the emphasis here is in taking original languages seriously, that was a limit that I had to own. For now.

TD: Would you like to give an example of the way you try to subvert the standard periodisation?

RB: There are several devices. Following Barbara Rosenwein’s complaint about the artificial characterisation of a pre-modern age of uncontrolled emotion — a childlike state — in contrast to a modern age of restraint, I upturn standard period references like ‘the age of reason’ and ‘the age of sensibility’. Both labels suggest an emergence out of this immature phase into something more refined and more civilized, and ‘the age of reason’ pits rational thinking against irrational emotion. I find that both characterizations privilege a certain view at the expense of a more textured intellectual and affective history. Hence, in A History of Feelings, I re-entangle thinking with movement, reason with sense and passion, to better represent lines of continuity with the past, but also to show that a significant rhetorical break toward reason was still steeped in affective construction.

The Age of Reason, by Thomas Paine – one of the texts which is remembered as emblematic of the rationalism of the 18th century

By re-styling ‘the age of reason’ as the age of unreason, I gesture at the tendentiousness of recent celebrations of enlightenment rationality and highlight what gets overlooked by so doing. Reason, in this view, is an affect, or a sense, constructed for the times. Similarly, the ‘age of sensibility’ tends to focus on certain elite modes of feeling, at the expense of a tide of callousness. I don’t know anyone else who has stitched together the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as the age of ‘senselessness and insensibility’, but I think I make a good case for it. But aside from these kind of sweeping takes, I also focus tightly on the particulars of certain moments, showing that a forensic reconstruction of concepts and context can reveal acutely situated histories of feelings. They perhaps fit into a broader pattern, but they reward microhistorical attention.

TD: One of the points on which I completely agree with you is that historians of emotions needs to pay careful attention to the language used by those they study, and to try to avoid anachronism. Could you maybe pick out one example of this from A History of Feelings that you think makes the point particularly well?

RB: The book begins with Homer’s Iliad. I’d be prepared to bet that anyone who has heard of this epic can tell you that it is principally about the ‘rage’ or ‘wrath’ of Achilles. ‘Wrath’, therefore, is famously and literally the first word in the western canon. Except that it isn’t. The first word is menis, and its translation to ‘wrath’ does something to the story that, to me, makes no sense at all.

Achilles and Agamemnon in a 1st-century fresco at Pompeii

Achilles’ wrath is associated with all the murderous and merciless killing he carries out in the last books of Iliad, as well as his extended desecration of Hector’s body. But the section of Iliad in which Achilles is active in this way comes after he has explicitly relinquished his menis. He is practicing something like ‘grief’ in these chapters (but ‘grief’ also underplays what is going on). In his menis, which lasts for the better part of the work, he is passive and withdrawn, and it is this that Homer asks the muses to ‘praise’ (the second word of Iliad) as a virtue. Achilles literally does nothing at all in his menis, which is praised as godlike, and which receives the sanction of Zeus. Whatever we call menis in English (I plumped for the rather clunky ‘Godlike menace’), we cannot call it ‘rage’ or ‘wrath’. To see Iliad as a long story of extreme anger that culminates in violence and death is a mistake wrought from a long-standing problem of reception (especially in Christian contexts): how can murderous, merciless Achilles be the hero? The history of this mistake is, in itself, interesting to pursue. But to begin again with the premise that Achilles is indeed the praised hero of Iliad has far-reaching consequences for our understanding of Homer’s cultural and political influence, especially in classical Athens.

TD: I totally agree about needing to rethink Achilles and menis, and I wonder what you think about the conundrum that I’ve found myself puzzling over in relation to my own work on “anger” – namely that if I am saying that orgē, and ira, and colère, and so on are not the same thing as the modern anglophone emotion of “anger” – then I need to explain why those other terms would feature in a history of “anger”. Our present day categories still seem to be setting the agenda, don’t they? I also wondered about this when you discuss, for instance, Aristotelian eudaimonia, or the American Declaration of Independence, alongside modern notions of “happiness” and subjective wellbeing. Aren’t you in danger of anachronism too?

RB: The danger is ever-present, and there is no perfect solution. But we are in a process of undoing, of making unfamiliar that which has been assumed to be readily accessible. A colleague asked me something along the same lines, noting that I must have begun with the master English emotion categories in order to select the material I cover, and to some extent that is correct. The intent behind these selections, however, is to read the sources anew and, in some cases, to disrupt them beyond recognition. Most students never encounter sources in the original languages, and my intention has been to show exactly what gets sacrificed when we indulge the convenience of contemporary English translation — when we say Iliad is about ‘wrath’ or that Spinoza wrote an ethical treatise about ‘emotions’, for example. The effect, hopefully, is to de-essentialize the starting point — ‘anger’, in your example — and to make visible the assumptions that tend to be implicit in these master categories.

The Declaration of Independence (1776) refers to the rights to ‘Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness’

What follows is that we become circumspect about English as well, and treat it as an historical artefact in itself. I’m clear on this with respect to eudaimonia/happiness. The translation of ‘eudaimonia’ into ‘happiness’ in modern renditions of Aristotle is a convenience that ought not be countenanced. I follow the happiness agenda of positive psychologists to show how it is built on bogus assumptions, to ask what’s left of that agenda when it has been properly interrogated. Similarly with ‘happiness’ in the Declaration of Independence and Wollstonecraft’s exhortation to her lost love, ‘be happy’, I go to some lengths to say that if we mistake this word for what tends to be understood by ‘happiness’ today, then we make a grave error of interpretation. Concepts are situated, and that behoves us to understand their situation.

TD: Similarly, you try – again, for reasons I totally support – to avoid using the potentially misleading and anachronistic category of “the emotions”. But are other phrases you use such as “affective experience” or “affective life” any better from that point of view?

RB: On the face of it, no, but in practice yes. There will always be a gap between the reconstructed experience of the historical actor in its own terms and the analytical language of the historian that is at a distance from it. The risk with ‘emotions’ is that the general reader assumes, a priori, to know what they are. Quite a few historians of emotion are guilty of this too. By using the adjectival form ‘affective’ in this way I’m consciously shaking up what most psychologists understand by the word ‘affect’ (valence, arousal, etc., something non-cognitive, automatic, natural), trying to employ it in such a way as to send the reader’s attention back to the historical situation at hand in order to define what I mean by ‘affective experience’. I realise, as I am working on a major theoretical shift to the history of experience, that ‘experience’ itself has its own tricky intellectual history, but compared with ‘emotions’ I prefer its breadth and flexibility, its capacity to include emotion, sense, reason, and practice, among other things. Further justification is forthcoming, in next year’s Emotion, Sense, Experience (Cambridge University Press), written with Mark M. Smith of sensory-history fame.

TD: This is really interesting and I am sure that others will want to follow-up on these ideas and respond to your work on this point. I look forward to seeing your CUP book with Mark M. Smith when it comes out. A History of Feelings is packed with thought-provoking re-readings of texts and images from the past and I thought I’d end by inviting you to say a few words about one that I found especially intriguing – a seventeenth-century French document called the ‘Map of Tender’. What is the significance of that example to you?

RB: I was put onto the Carte de Tendre by Professor Michele Cohen, whose kitchen-table conversation has often proved inspirational for me. I’m not sure I read it in the same way she did, but I was gripped by this document — actually a kind of board game for the Parisian salonières — which shows various routes to the land of Tendre, either through the social practices of service or of courtship, or else via the dangerous direct route of inclination.

The map is loosely structured on the anatomy of the uterus, and the route of tendre d’inclination — i.e. following one’s feelings — risks overshooting into the Dangerous Sea — a turmoil of hysteria. It’s fascinating for so many reasons, not the least of which has been the loose translation of tendre into ‘love’, which misses more than it reveals. I render it more straightforwardly as ‘tender(ness)’, but that entails a long explanation. The map not only showed how to cultivate this feeling (and its risks), but also showed how to do it, such that feeling and convention, affective relations and social practices, are absolutely entangled. I then employ the map for a discussion of the ‘tender emotion’ over time, which was for a long period a master category that included love, but much else besides, and which is now seemingly lost and alien to us. This is all the more surprising given its centrality to the work on emotions of such luminaries as Alexander Bain, Herbert Spencer and Charles Darwin. It was a part of the fabric of elite social life, relationship building, and essential to the understanding of civilised society. Yet by the twentieth century it had virtually disappeared. I think it’s a great example of why work in this field is important.

TD: Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts about your fascinating book!

Developing Emotions in the Classroom: Teacher Workshops

This summer the Living with Feeling project launched ‘Developing Emotions’, a new schools engagement programme. Over the next year and beyond, we’ll be working with primary and secondary school teachers to develop educational and pastoral resources about emotions, with the aim of improving children’s emotional literacy and wellbeing. To launch this programme, we held three workshops with teachers, to share our research and explore how we can support those working at the coalface. This blog posts summarises some of the main things we learned from the teachers, headteachers and other educators who attended.

These workshops were a timely intervention, tapping into an increased appetite for discussions about emotional health in UK schools. The Ofsted Inspection Framework 2019 includes a new judgement category of ‘personal development’, which refers to the importance of character and resilience, while emotional wellbeing remains a central topic in relationships and sex education and health education. New statutory guidance mandates teaching the links between physical and mental health; exploring what constitutes a ‘normal’ emotional range; and developing children’s emotional literacy and vocabulary.

While recognising these important changes to the educational landscape, we’re also keenly aware of their possible limitations. Does a focus on building resilience ignore the systemic injustices children and their families might be facing? Do we risk introducing a ‘one-size-fits-all’ template that pathologises certain behaviours or feelings – such as loneliness – as ‘unhealthy’ or ‘abnormal’? We want to reflect that pupil wellbeing and the emotional culture of schools are much more complex than new mandates might suggest. Further to this, we want to avoid being prescriptive about emotions, and champion a child-led approach, that prioritises students’ own experiences, ideas, and feelings. What is a “normal” and “healthy” emotional range for one child in one school will not necessarily feel healthy or normal for another child or in a different school.

In July and August 2019, our workshops – held at the QMUL campus  at Mile End – brought together 23 teachers from different schools, including primary and secondary, state and independent. The events attracted heads, teachers in subjects ranging from languages to art to geography, and many with a direct responsibility for pastoral care and wellbeing. We were also joined by a sexual health facilitator from a counselling centre for young people, and a teacher from Turkey who was staying in the UK.

The workshops were shaped by Thomas Dixon’s research into various aspects of the history of emotions and were facilitated by Jenny Pistella, a museum and heritage learning consultant currently completing a PhD at the Centre for the History of the Emotions. The workshops were also supported by Engagement and Impact Manager Alison Moulds, Project Manager Agnes Arnold-Forster, Research Fellow Emma Sutton, and PhD candidates Evelien Lemmens and Dave Saunders. Together, we sought to gauge appetite among the teachers, build partnerships, and measure the impact of these initial scoping events.

Each of the workshops ran along the same lines, and comprised research-led presentations, group activities and discussion. We began each day by asking attendees ‘what is emotional health?’. We discussed how it might encompass recognising and managing one’s own emotions and those of others, and how it might be a broader category than mental health (and thus a less scary and less medicalised way for children to talk about their feelings). Balance, self-awareness, and emotional literacy were recurring themes. We considered how emotions are a spectrum, and that one person’s version of emotional health might not be the same as another’s. We also asked attendees what they wanted to get out of the day – they were typically looking for new resources, strategies and approaches to teaching emotional wellbeing.

We asked our participants these key questions at the start of the day. Photo: Jenny Pistella.

We then invited attendees to participate in a ‘three corners’ debate. They were presented with provocative statements such as ‘crying in public is a bad thing’ or ‘people are less content or happy than they were in the past’. Attendees had to decide whether they agreed, disagreed or were unsure, and then defend their stance and attempt to persuade others of their perspective. The exercise stimulated debates about gender stereotypes, displaying emotions in public and private spaces, nostalgia, and nature vs nurture.

Thomas then gave a series of presentations derived from his research on anger, tears, and friendship – all themes which resonated with teachers’ experiences in the classroom. Thomas described the etymology of and history behind various terms for anger and anger-like emotions, showing how a richer vocabulary could reveal more nuanced or even different feelings. He also explored how the history of friendship – which was originally seen (in a European context) as the preserve of the male elite – might encourage children to re-evaluate their own preconceptions about making, maintaining, and expressing friendships. The purpose of the historical talks was to push beyond the idea of a universal set of basic human emotions and to present a historically and culturally informed view.

The presentations sparked some in-depth discussions about the challenges teachers faced and where they had opportunities to make a difference. They spoke about how they managed and displayed their own emotions in the classroom. Is it okay for teachers to cry in front of children? Can they model healthy emotional behaviours for their pupils? Participants explored the shifting landscape of childhood friendships, including how they are influenced by age and gender, and how they are enacted both in the classroom and in less supervised spaces like the playground. We also discussed the difficulties of problematizing basic emotions when children and teenagers might be struggling to identify their feelings or lack confidence expressing themselves. At the same time, identifying the complex interplay of emotions that might sit behind common behaviours like bullying, aggression, sadness or withdrawal was seen as a key priority.

In groups, teachers discussed how our key themes – anger, tears, and friendship – manifested among school pupils, and how they could be taught in the classroom, using some of the insights derived from Thomas’s presentations.

Alison chats to teachers about how different emotions are displayed in the classroom. Photo: Jenny Pistella.

After lunch, we came back together to explore the difficulty of defining emotions, through a series of activities. We used Tiffany Watt Smith’s The Book of Human Emotions, inviting attendees to guess what less familiar emotions words might mean. Teachers felt such word games would translate well to the classroom, with children able to enhance their vocabularies and learn synonyms, etymologies, and root words. Participants were then asked to pick from Jenny’s wonderfully rich collection of artistic postcards to find an image that reflected how they were feeling. In pairs, we then decoded our partner’s mood, based on the image they were displaying.

Two teachers try to decode how the other is feeling by interpreting their choice of postcard. Photo: Jenny Pistella.

After this, we road-tested our new ‘What Are They Feeling?’ game with the workshop participants. Available through our public-facing website, The Emotions Lab, this game asks players to look at historical images of emotional expressions and designate what they think the subject might be feeling. There are no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ answers – although we reveal the original historical designations, the purpose is to show how difficult it can be to ‘read’ emotions, particularly outside of any context. The game also reveals how other players have interpreted the emotions, to convey how varied such responses might be. If you haven’t played already, you can have a go here.

We closed the workshops by discussing ‘next steps’, asking participants to draw up a wishlist of what resources, materials, and support they would like from the Living with Feeling team. There was a huge appetite for further involvement, from us producing tailored lessons plans to delivering whole school assemblies, and even the idea of us running an ‘emotionally healthy school’ accreditation scheme, to recognise best practice. Some teachers reflected on the challenges of ensuring buy-in and engagement across the school, particularly in the face of other pressures such as exams and Ofsted. Some schools offered to test-run or trial our resources, gauging their suitability for use in the classroom setting and with different age groups. We also explored how we might evaluate the success of the Developing Emotions programme, whether that be through measuring children’s emotional intelligence or tracking their behaviour and attendance over the course of their involvement.

Thomas joins a group of teachers discussing next steps. Photo: Jenny Pistella.

At the end of the day, we asked all participants for their feedback on the workshops. We received an overwhelmingly positive response. Many teachers indicated that they felt a historical approach to the subject was particularly powerful because it presented a ‘safe’ and ‘non-threatening’ way for pupils to discuss emotions at one remove from their own feelings. Another teacher added that history ‘helps pupils to identify that they are not alone’. Asked what they would take away, one headteacher remarked, ‘I now feel that with the correct staff training it can be taught successfully throughout the school. It will make a HUGE difference to the children’. A secondary school teacher said the workshop had ‘motivated and inspired’ her, while an assistant head suggested it had provided ‘creative and practical ideas’ for teaching, as well as ‘more confidence in delivering sessions’ that will gain staff ‘buy-in’.

This is just the beginning. We’re now setting up a network of interested teachers (and related professionals), who would like to work with us to take forward the ‘Developing Emotions’ programme. If you’d be interested in finding out more, please get in touch with us Thomas Dixon at: t.m.dixon@qmul.ac.uk or follow us on Twitter @DevelopingEmo.

Affective Accretion: Reconciling the Material and the Emotional in Studies of the Victorian Era

Rosalind White is an AHRC funded PhD student at Royal Holloway, University of London. Her thesis is an intimate exploration of natural history that examines the lives of its practitioners beyond the impact of conventional watersheds, and you can follow Rosalind on Twitter @rosalindmwhite

Rosalind’s article ‘”What of her glass without her?” Prismatic Desire and Auto-Erotic Anxiety in the Art & Poetry of Dante Gabriel Rossetti’ has recently been published in the Journal of Pre-Raphelite Studies Vol. 28 (Spring, 2019) She also has a forthcoming chapter, ‘Crawling at your feet, you may observe a Bread-and-Butterfly’: Insects in Literature and Language’ in A Cultural History of Insects in the Age of Industry 1820-1920(Bloomsbury Academic, 2019).

In this post for the History of Emotions Blog, Rosalind ponders how the histories of emotions and of material culture can come together, especially for scholars of Victorian culture.


How do we approach an age that, increasingly, feels unanchored from our emotional present? Why do the outsized passions and curious habits of the past, often evade faithful restoration? As we take what has been termed a ‘material turn’[1] in Victorian studies, appraising an object’s function has become secondary to uncovering an object’s emotional afterlife. We are still interested, for example, in a fossil’s paleontological value, but are perhaps more eager to learn that they were routinely licked by enthusiastic geologists tongue-testing for mineralisation. Our concern with the affective capacity of an object has led to an intersection between the study of materiality and the burgeoning field known as the ‘history of emotions.’

Thomas Dixon stresses that by ‘anatomising the feelings of the past – pulling apart the beliefs, physical places and material cultures of which they were composed’ we can use ‘history imaginatively to inhabit the worldviews and mental pictures’ of the people we study.[2]  A marked area of common ground is the desire to intimately enquire into that which lies on the periphery of grand narratives. But what does it mean to reconcile the material with the emotional, and why does this augmented approach, in particular, resonate with studies of the Victorian era?

Marcus Stone, ‘Mr Venus Surrounded by the Trophies of His Art’, in Charles Dickens, Our Mutual Friend (London: Peterson, 1865), p. 112.

The Victorian novel, bursting at the spine with newfangled utensils, cursed heirlooms, unsavoury curiosities, and priceless knick-knacks, is infamously crammed with detailed particulars. Infamously dubbed a ‘baggy monster’,[3] the genre showcases how materially-minded Victorians lived by a process of affective accretion: whereby an object might amass an array of attachments in its ‘lifetime’. The emotional infrastructure of the novel, comprised of stray limbs, stuffed canaries, and dust mounds[4] in buoyant circulation, is mirrored in numerous nineteenth-century ventures. The library, for example, thrived on the principal that ‘books, like coins, are only performing their right function when they are in circulation’.[5] Equally, pursuits such as natural history prospered under an attitude that encouraged the passing on of infinitesimal observations. An eye for fossils, today an expert affair, was in the nineteenth century mastered with mimetic fervour. The printing press provides us with perhaps the most obvious example of affective accretion. Advances such as steam-powered printing machines, cheap woodcuts, the penny post and the railway brought about a staggered revolution, whereby an increased consciousness of simultaneity pulsated across the populace. Writing by steam in the nineteenth century, like the digital revolution of today, foreshortened physical borders, allowing concepts, emotions, and products to inexplicably ‘go viral’.

Today, in an effort to manifest the material world, scholars have, somewhat ironically, turned to the technical wizardry of various digital sources. Digital facsimile software available at many libraries[6] and on sites like Google Books or Archive.org provide readers with the chance to flick through rare first editions, or even sepia-stained original manuscripts. This has also allowed scholars to dredge up all manner of hidden curiosities that recur in a text, whether through a simple search, or through more specialised concordance-based digital humanities projects, such as the CLiC Dickens project.[7] Victorianists, like the Victorians themselves, seem determined to make sure that the ephemeral endures.

Recent advances in digital humanities have coincided with an increased interest in retaining a sense of past readership. Academics and librarians who in the past may have removed a dried fern creeping up a margin would today always keep some record of the specimen for posterity (whether through a photo or the inclusion of a protective barrier.)[8] More attention is now afforded to extra-textual information than ever before. University courses or book clubs now frequently choose to read a Victorian novel in serialised format, in an attempt to reconstruct the psychology of a work’s original audience. Special attention is paid to the visual vernacular of the common people, and how it may have shifted: for example, as chromolithography took off, the book became an aesthetic object. Likewise, marginalia provides us with, perhaps, the most obvious extra-textual additions.

Paintings by Elizabeth Hood in the margins of the un-illustrated edition of Bentham’s Handbook of the British Flora, (1858)

Anonymous paintings in Edward Sydenham’s The New Botanic Garden (1812).

The practice of leaving ample space for a reader’s additions is part of a long held convention in my own field of natural history. Naturalists, when greeted with an uninspired wall of text, frequently lavished their books with hand painted illustrations. I have come across a number of triumphant annotations alongside a rare specimen; ‘(!!!)’ for example, follows the label ‘Bryum roseum in fruit’ in William Henry Fox Talbot’s botanical specimen album.[9] Similarly, comments such as ‘partout’ (everywhere) or ‘where is it not’ pepper the journal of the young naturalist Emily Shore: indicating, perhaps, her frustration that her illness prevented her from collecting more exciting specimens that lay further afield.[10].

The methods, sub-fields, and software that reconcile studies of materiality with research into the history of emotions, increasingly, allows us to access the unguarded minds of the people whose lives and ideas we study. This short post is written in the hope of prompting further scholarship that will question the rubric of this, emerging, inter-disciplinary field.


[1] Pykett, Lyn, ‘The Material Turn in Victorian Studies’, Literature Compass, 1.1 (2004), <https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1741-4113.2004.00020.x>

[2] Dixon, Thomas quoted in ‘The Emotional Turn in the History of Medicine and the View from Queen Mary University of London’ by Colin Jones, Social History of Medicine, Virtual Issue Emotions, Health, and Well-being, (2012), p. 1.

[3] Coined by Henry James in the preface to the New York edition of The Tragic Muse (1908) (1:x).

[4] See Silas Wegg and his marauding leg, Mr Venus’ den of taxidermy, and the Harmon dust mounds in Charles Dicken’s Our Mutual Friend (1865).

[5] Thomas Greenwood, Public Libraries: A History of the Movement and a Manual for the Organization
and Management of Rate-Supported Libraries (London: Simpkin Marshall, 1890), p. 5.

[6] The British Library’s ‘Turning the Pages’, for instance, offers readers the ability to leaf through and magnify various pages of rare items (like Lewis Carroll’s original manuscript of ‘Alice’s Adventures Underground’.)

[7] The CLiC Dickens project demonstrates how computer-assisted methods can be used to study nineteenth-century texts. The project started at the University of Nottingham in 2013, it is now a collaborative project with the University of Birmingham.

[8] See, for example, Geoffrey Belknap’s ‘A Thing of Beauty’ for the ‘Constructing Scientific Communities’ blog <https://conscicom.org/2015/01/02/a-thing-of-beauty//>

[9] See the botanical specimen album of William Henry Fox Talbot at The British Library MS 88942.

[10] The Journal of Emily Shore, [1831-1839] ed. by Barbara Gates, (University Press Of Virginia, 1991).