Sagacity: The Periodic Table of Emotions

The Living with Feeling team met artist Aidan Moesby at the BBC Free Thinking Festival. In this guest blog he reflects on the place of emotions in his work. 

‘Sagacity: The Periodic Table of Emotions’ was initiated as an arts programme exploring methods of non-medical intervention for those at risk of using the health services due to mental health issues. The project, based in Dundee, tasked itself with researching and developing methods through which mood assessment processes could be used to define and influence the mood of an entire city.

There are many software tools available that aim to support individuals to measure and define their mood and to represent this in ways that might symbolically or graphically allow better self-awareness and insight – strangely none seem to use emotions as the basis of this. Sagacity does. Indeed, emotions are at the heart of Sagacity.

Image Credit: Sagacity Print – Aidan Moesby

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Emotions and Work CFP

Friday 1st November 2019

London, UK

The term ‘emotional labour’ was first coined by the sociologist Arlie Hochschild in her 1983 book, The Managed Heart. Emotional labour, as she conceived it, referred to the work of managing one’s own emotions required by certain occupations. Recently, the term’s popularity has grown. Google searches have increased, and the concept has gained currency (perhaps ubiquity) in academic and public discourse. In a 2017 article for Harper’s Bazaar,  journalist Gemma Hartley used the term to describe the household management and life admin undertaken largely by women, which she argued reflected and perpetuated gender inequalities.

In an interview published in The Atlantic in 2018, Hochschild lamented the ‘concept creep’ of emotional labour. The journalist Julie Beck summarised the concern that, ‘The umbrella of emotional labour has grown so large that it’s starting to cover things that make no sense at all, such as regular household chores which are not emotional so much as they are labour, full stop’.

This one-day interdisciplinary conference seeks to explore the troubled relationship between emotions and labour. The principal research interest of the organisers concerns the modern history and literary representation of emotions and work, but we are also keen to hear from those working on other historical periods or in other fields of study or practice.

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Rory Stewart on the cult of the hero (and how he got over it)

The only candidate for the Tory leadership that I can stand the sight of is Rory Stewart.  He reminds me of something the documentary maker (and historian of the emotions) Adam Curtis said, that a new politics could emerge which uses words like love, and which sees politics as a noble vocation.

There are similarities between Stewart and front-runner Boris Johnson – both are classically-educated Old Etonians, shaped by the public school cult of heroes and hero-worship. But the difference is Rory Stewart is much more aware of that, and has grown out of it. Boris never has.

This is an interview I did with Stewart back in 2011, as part of my research into the classical idea of hero-emulation as a method for character-formation.

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Emotions in the classroom: An invitation to teachers

The Living With Feeling project at QMUL is seeking partner schools and teachers to work with, to promote the emotional health of primary and secondary schoolchildren.


BOOK YOUR PLACE NOW :

Monday 22nd July 2019 Workshop, OR

Tuesday 13th August 2019 Workshop

READ MORE BELOW…


The emotional health of pupils is an increasingly important concern for both primary and secondary schools in the UK, and the ‘Living With Feeling’ project is offering a free workshop and free educational resources to support teachers delivering lessons in this area. This is a call for interested teachers to get in touch with us.

We are a Wellcome Trust funded humanities research project at Queen Mary University of London, led by Professor Thomas Dixon at the Centre for the History of the Emotions, exploring emotional health in history, philosophy and experience.

The new Ofsted Inspection Framework 2019 will include a new judgement category of ‘personal development’, which refers to the importance of character and resilience, while emotions and emotional well-being remain central topics in relationships and sex education and health education.

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 emotional vocabulary. There is particular attention to the effects of loneliness and isolation.

The project will be working with primary and secondary schools, supporting teachers in the design and delivery of learning materials and activities relating to emotions, emotional literacy, and emotional health.

We are offering free full-day workshops for teachers during July and August 2019, with a view to developing a series of resources, tailored to specific schools and age ranges, to be used to deliver lessons on emotions and emotional health between September 2019 and June 2020, in the first instance, and with plans to extend the project in future years and at other schools.

Our activities will draw on the project’s historical research into areas including:

  • Anger and how to talk about it
  • Friendship and love
  • Tears, crying, pain and sadness
  • Gender stereotypes and emotions
  • Emotions in animals and humans (including the evolution of emotional expressions and the work of Charles Darwin)
  • Philosophies of emotion, including ideas about Stoicism
  • Compassion, sympathy, and altruism

Aims:

  • To enrich children’s emotional vocabulary and to support them in learning to talk about their feelings, with a view to improving their emotional health and well-being.
  • To open up historically and culturally informed views of emotion rather than putting forward a narrow, restrictive vision of a few emotional states as ‘universal’.
  • To avoid being prescriptive about what emotions are normal and to respond to and be guided by children’s own experiences and ideas.
  • To support children in extending their emotional vocabularies and learning different philosophies of emotion and emotional health.

Target audience: Teachers with responsibility for PSHE and related provision in primary and secondary schools in the UK; teachers with interest in delivering lessons about emotions in other parts of the curriculum.

Previous work with schools:

  • The project’s Principal Investigator, Thomas Dixon, previously delivered a series of educational activities at Osmani Primary School, Tower Hamlets.
  • In an exercise called ‘What Are They Feeling?’, historical images were used to promote discussion about feelings, emotion, and expression, across cultures and over time.
  • The activity was conducted in the classroom in small groups and 1:1 situations, and was repeated by the students themselves, in the playground and with their parents.
  • This was not a quiz with ‘right’ answers, where children tried to guess the original historical feeling terms. Instead, they were encouraged to respond imaginatively to the images in their own words.
  • The activity was led by the children’s own experiences and vocabularies.
  • It demonstrated the children’s rich emotional repertoire. They generated over 150 different ‘feeling’ terms, from bodily sensations to moral characteristics.
  • The activity showed how we read emotional expressions not in isolation, but in specific contexts. Some of the children constructed narratives around the images.
  • Discussion ranged from whether animals had the same sorts of feelings as humans, to what situations made the children cry. The children reflected on national and gender stereotypes.

Our offer to schools in 2019-20:

To support the design, planning and delivery of PSHE (and other) lessons on emotions and emotional health, drawing on historical research and ideas.  This may include:

  • a talk from an historian on the project;
  • activity worksheets using historical images;
  • explanations of the science of emotions, especially Charles Darwin’s work and his book on the expression of emotions;
  • an online game using historical images;
  • the use of our specially produced radio dramas with lesson plans;
  • art and/or stop-motion animation class to depict emotional expressions;
  • facilitated discussions about how emotions differ across cultures and over time.

For a taster of what we do:

BOOK YOUR PLACE NOW :

Monday 22nd July 2019 Workshop, OR

Tuesday 13th August 2019 Workshop

Should universities teach well-being? (audio of panel event)

This is a recording of a May 2019 panel discussion at Queen Mary, University of London, on the question ‘should universities teach well-being?’

There is, apparently, a mental health crisis in higher education. Student referrals for counselling are soaring, and according to one study, 40% of PhDs are depressed or anxious. Students in Bristol took to the streets to demand better mental health services, while the universities minister declared the purpose of universities should no longer just be knowledge, but also well-being. What are universities’ responsibilities in this area? What should students expect and demand? Can universities teach wellbeing, and what is the role of the arts and humanities in this endeavour? You can also download this from the Centre’s podcast on iTunes, here.

Panelists:
Dr Tiffany Watt Smith, QMUL Drama (Chair)
Shamima Akter, QMSU Vice President Welfare
Prof Kam Bhui, QMUL Head of Centre for Psychiatry and Deputy Director of the Wolfson Institute of Preventive Medicine at Barts and The London
Jules Evans, QMUL Centre for the History of Emotions
Kevin Halon, QMUL Counselling Manager
Niall Morrissey, QMUL Mental Health Co-ordinator
Dr Ruth Fletcher, QMUL senior lecturer in medical law

You are not your brain

William M. Reddy is William T. Laprade Professor Emeritus of History and Professor Emeritus of Cultural Anthropology at Duke University. His many scholarly contributions to the history of emotions include The Navigation of Feeling (2001) and The Making of Romantic Love (2012). He is co-editor of the book series Palgrave Studies in the History of Emotions.

In this post for the History of Emotions Blog, Professor Reddy uses his own personal experience to shed some critical light on the idea that your brain can make you do things.


You are not your brain. This is not a point about whether or not you have a “soul,” or whether your “mind” somehow operates independently in a place outside your head. This is a completely down-to-earth, obvious, objective fact.

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Did Aldous Huxley invent the history of emotions? Sort of, yes

I’m researching a book about Aldous Huxley and his friends Alan Watts, Christopher Isherwood and Gerald Heard, and how these four posh Brits moved to California and helped to invent the modern culture of ‘spiritual but not religious’.

Of the four, Huxley is my favourite. My last book, The Art of Losing Control, owes him a profound debt. Writing a biography of someone is a bit like moving in with them – you start to notice all their annoying habits. Huxley definitely has some but, having now read pretty much everything he’s written, I can still say he’s a truly great thinker.

I think his greatest claim to fame is his analysis of humans’ urge to self-transcendence. I’ve read a lot of people on this topic – William James, Ken Wilber, Emile Durkheim, the great mystics. Huxley is the greatest analyst I know of this central domain of human experience.

He took from William James and his friend FWH Myers the idea that the conscious ego is just an island on top of a much larger ocean of human personality. There is also a ‘subliminal self’ which we carry around with us, which occasionally intervenes into our awareness. There’s all kinds of junk down there but – as Myers was the first to claim – there are also latent powers of healing and inspiration. At the deepest level, Myers suggested (and James and Huxley agreed), the not-self of the subliminal mind merges into the Atman, super-consciousness, Mind-at-large.

Huxley insisted – decades before Abraham Maslow – that humans have a ‘basic drive to self-transcendence’. We exist in our small, conditioned, utilitarian egos, cut off from our deeper selves, but it’s boring and claustrophobic in there, and we long for a holiday. Maybe the soul in us yearns to get out of the cocoon and unfold our wings.

Huxley’s genius was to appreciate all the different ways humans seek these holidays from the self: alcohol, drugs, dancing, art, reading, hobbies, sex, crowds, rallies, war. Having tried to cover this enormous terrain myself, I can tell you that no one else comes close in terms of having a bird’s eye view of the landscape. James, for example, only analysed ‘religious experiences’, which he defines as man’s solitary encounters with the divine. This is just a tiny corner of the field that Huxley covers – it doesn’t even take account of collective religious experiences, let alone all the transcendent experiences that humans have which don’t explicitly involve God.

Huxley also brought an acute historical analysis to the topic. He was an early pioneer of the history of the emotions, and the history of medicine – I could make a case that he actually invents the history of the emotions, with his essay on accidie in 1923 * . He suggested that, while humans have basic drives, such as the drive to self-transcendence, those drives take different forms depending on a person’s temperament, physique and culture.

He argued – and this was one of the principal themes of my book The Art of Losing Control – that mystical transcendence had been marginalized and pathologized in western culture, starting from around the Reformation. It became embarrassing and ridiculous to admit to the sorts of mystical experiences which were highly valued in medieval culture. ‘We keep them to ourselves for fear of being sent to the psychoanalyst’, he said.

Lacking in role models or institutions for genuine mystical transcendence, western culture instead offers us what Huxley called ‘ersatz spirituality’ – package holidays from the self, such as consumerism, gadget-idolatry, booze, casual sex, and nationalism, which Huxley thought was the dominant religion of the 19th and 20th centuries (it’s returned with a vengeance in the 21st century).

What’s the solution? Rather than preaching a return to Christian orthodoxy, as TS Eliot, WH Auden or CS Lewis did, Huxley beat out a new path, which has proved much more influential in western culture: learn spiritual practices from the world’s religious traditions, test them out using empirical psychology, and find the ones that work for you.

He outlined this approach in his 1946 anthology, The Perennial Philosophy. I’ve loved this book since I was a teenager (I still have the copy I stole from the school library). It first introduced me to the likes of Rumi, Traherne, Chuang Tzu, Hakuin and Meister Eckhart, and helped me realize how much the world’s wisdom traditions share. But now I can see its flaws.

This was a book born out of historical despair. Huxley had played a central role in the British anti-war movement, and then abruptly abandoned it in 1937 to move to the US, ending up living with his wife in a hut in the Mojave desert. He thought western civilization was heading for destruction, and that literally our only hope was for a handful of people to dedicate themselves to mysticism at the margins of the general awfulness, like the Essenes seeking gnosis in the desert.

The only hope was if the Perennial Philosophy became generally recognized and embraced by humanity. He insisted the world’s great mystics all agreed on all the core points. But this was an argument born more of political despair than calm scholarship. It over-emphasized the extent to which mystics of different traditions agreed. And it ended up ranking mystical experience – only emotionless encounters with a formless, imageless divine are ‘true mysticism’, while any encounters with the divine in a particular form are considered second-rate.

You can understand how this is important to Huxley’s political dreams (humans fight over particular forms of the divine, so it’s better if we all meet in the Clear Light). But it’s pretty outrageous for him, a new convert to mysticism with hardly any practical experience, to lay down the law as to what is or isn’t a genuine encounter with the divine. How the hell does he know?

There’s an obvious anti-Abrahamic and pro-Hindu/Buddhist bias in his vision. He hates any religions that are time-based (ie with a historical vision), and thinks Buddhism and Hinduism are more tolerant because they’re more focused on the ‘eternal now’. Odd to argue for Hindu tolerance at the precise moment millions of Hindus and Muslims were massacring each other during the Partition.

But in more practical terms, it’s a very lonely, intellectual and bookish sort of spirituality that he offers (that must be why it appealed to me). There’s no mention of the role of community, or elders, or collective rituals. Just the intellectual and his books in the desert. ‘These fragments I have shored against my ruins’.

And it’s a hard path. Huxley, in effect, says that the only possible route for humanity is straight up a sheer cliff face. Anyone can be a mystic, he says. You just need to be completely detached from all worldly things and totally focused on the divine. No biggie.

It turned out to be very difficult. He suffered several hard years of failure and self-disgust, during which he wrote Ape and Essence, his most horrible and despairing book. He admitted at the end of his life that he’d never had a mystical experience. God will not be rushed.

But by the 1950s, he’d relaxed, and moved into his mature spirituality. Rather than insisting on the sheer cliff face of ascetic mysticism as the only route to salvation, Huxley accepted there were lots of practices one could do here in this world to make yourself healthier and happier on your long, multi-life journey to enlightenment.

He understood more and more the importance of the body to well-being and realization, and was an early supporter of gestalt therapy, the Alexander technique and hatha yoga. He finally found a place for sex in his spirituality – Island includes elements of Tantric practice. He also found a new appreciation for ecstatic dance – notice the children in his utopia, Island, practice ecstatic dance to ease themselves of anxiety. This was a decade before Gabrielle Roth developed 5Rhythms at Esalen. It’s a pity we never got to hear his thoughts on Beatlemania – they were certainly into him, and put him on the cover of Sgt Pepper’s.

He was also a big fan of hypnosis, and taught himself to be a hypnotist (his friend Igor Stravinsky claimed Huxley was a healer, and had cured him of insomnia). And, of course, he discovered that psychedelics offered a short-cut to temporary ego-dissolution. Those were the only times he ever really got a glimpse of the divine – when he was high.

It was tremendously shocking that this great English man of letters should preach the chemical path to liberation. But Huxley quite rightly pointed out that humans have been using psycho-active plants for religious rituals for several millennia. Other spiritual exercises rely on alterations in body chemistry, such as chanting, fasting or flagellation. That an alteration in body-chemistry is the means to a spiritual experience doesn’t mean that experience is only bio-chemical.

In the last decade of his life, the disgusted prophet of the desert became an unlikely hit on American campuses, lecturing to thousands of students at a time on visionary experience and integral education. This is his second great claim-to-fame. He had a vision that universities could offer an integral education which avoided over-specialization and over-intellectualization, and which instead educated the whole person – their body, their subliminal mind, their intellect, their social and political self, their relationship to nature, and their higher consciousness.

That vision of education proved hugely popular with baby-boomers, and yet somehow – such is the inertia of the university system – it’s had very little impact on what universities offer in the sixty years since then. They still offer the same over-specialized and totally intellectual learning experiences to undergrads, alas. His vision was, however, a defining influence on alternative colleges like Esalen, the Garrison Institute, CIIS and Schumacher College.

Today, we are all Huxley’s children. The ‘spiritual but not religious’ demographic is the fastest growing in the US. Contemplation has enjoyed its biggest revival since the Reformation. We are all influenced by ‘empirical spirituality’ like the science of mindfulness. Most westerners say they’ve had a mystical experience. And the psychedelic renaissance that Huxley called for 60 years ago may finally be happening.

* As to Huxley inventing the history of the emotions – his 1923 essay on accidie was decades before Lucien Febvre’s 1941 article calling for a history of emotions. He also wrote a ‘History of Some Fashions in Love‘ in 1924. Huxley argued in Ends and Means (1937) that humans’ basic drives take different forms or ‘canals’ during different eras in history. His historical novel Grey Eminence (1941) analysed the history of western meditation, and drew heavily on Bremond’s Literary History of Religious Sentiments in France, which was a principle inspiration for Febvre as well – so it’s interesting to ponder whether Grey Eminence was a direct influence on Febvre’s idea. We know at least it was read and reviewed in the 1945 edition of Annals of Social History, which Febvre edited. Febvre and Huxley’s brother Julian later fell out over UNESCO’s grand ‘history of humanity’ project, but that’s another story. 

But it’s Huxley’s Devils of Loudun (1952) which to my mind is Huxley’s greatest work of history of the emotions. It’s fascinating in its historical analysis of possessions, witchcraft, and how changing attitudes altered how people perceived and experienced ecstatic phenomena. He notes, for example, that by the Victorian era possession by demons has more or less disappeared, while possession by dead souls became more common. And he notes that by the 20th century, people have started to report being possessed by machines, particularly radios. Devils also has an extraordinary footnote on the clystère or enema-pump as a medical procedure for melancholy and exorcisms, and how it entered the West’s pornographic imagination as a result. You can see it in the bottom-right of Durer’s famous engraving Melancholia, below. He also mentions a painting of a clystere procedure by Boucher, although I haven’t been able to identify this. 

Later in his career, Huxley wrote essays on the history of tension, and on the history of visionary experience and artistic culture (that essay, later published as Heaven and Hell, is unsurpassed as an analysis of the arts and ecstatic experience). He was uniquely well-placed to develop this sort of interdisciplinary endeavour, and was an early pioneer of the medical humanities, popping up to give historical and philosophical speeches at medical conferences in the 1950s and 1960s (his speech on the history of tension was given at a conference on tranquiizers). His ability to act as a ‘pontifex’ or bridge-builder between the sciences and humanities had a profound influence on psychedelic science – thanks to him, early researchers like Humphrey Osmond and Timothy Leary came to interpret psychedelics through the lens of mystical experience. 

Did Aldous Huxley invent the history of emotions? Many more traditional historians could lay a claim as well – Huizinga, Elias, Febvre, Norman Cohn. But Huxley deserves to be mentioned in the history of the history of emotions as well. 

Durer’s Melancholia, with the clystere in the bottom right corner

 

Euphoria: A Very Brief History

Dr Christopher Milnes is an early career scholar and history tutor based in London.  His book ‘A History of Euphoria: The Perception and Misperception of Health and Well-Being’ was published with Routledge in January 2019.


 

The history of euphoria reflects a great deal about the human experience.  This is a word that has belonged both to health and to sickness and which has emerged at times of both sadness and joy.  It is also part of the history of ignorance and knowledge.  What I particularly like about euphoria, however, is its breadth of meanings as well as its capacity to sometimes mean nothing very much at all – or, at least, nothing that probably does not already have a much better, more widely known name perfectly suited to it.

In Ancient Greece, to perceive the quality of euphoros (εὔφορος) in a person or a thing was to recognise the ability of that person or that thing to bear or carry something well.  The root euphoros and the words that came from it combined the Greek for ‘well’ and ‘bearing’ – eu (εύ) and pherein (φέρω).  This ability to bear or carry well could be understood in a literal or a more abstract sense.  People who danced beautifully might be thought to carry the different parts of their bodies well.  Ships that safely carried their cargoes could also be judged in this way.  Things easy to carry or wear or manageable and light, qualities of richness and manliness, a ready tongue, an ease of ability.  Abundantly fertile animals and plants.  All could have euphoros.[i]

Had it not been for the emergence of Neo-Latin in the early modern period, it is unlikely euphoros words would have entered most European vernacular languages.  Indeed, at first there was apparently little use for them.  English translations of the New Testament (originally in Greek) transformed the euphoreo of the rich fool’s fertile fields into variations on ‘brought forth plentifully’ – following the preference of earlier Latin translators for a wholly different phrase (in the Latin, uberes fructus ager adtulit).  Still, euphoros – or, rather, one of its relatives – seems to have eventually captured the attention of learned European physicians, some of whom would have read the now more widely available Greek medical texts such as the Hippocratic De fracturis, in which euphoria describes patients’ abilities to recover from their injuries:

Modes of treatment and peculiarity of constitution make a great difference as to the capability of enduring such an injury. And it makes a great difference if the bones of the arm and of the thigh protrude to the inside; for there are many and important vessels situated there…[ii]  [my italics – indicating the translation of euphoria]

When reading documents such as these, early modern European physicians would have sometimes wondered if euphoria might not be handy as a term in itself.  Whether this has ever actually been the case is debatable.  Certainly, since its first discernible emergence in the English language in the seventeenth century, euphoria (or ‘euphory’) has been so little understood it has frequently required some form of accompanying definition.  For instance, in 1684 readers of the English translation of Genevan physician Théophile Bonet (1620-1689)’s Mercurius Compitalitius were advised that ‘the most certain rule for the quantity [of mineral waters] is the Euphory, or well bearing, when the Stomach dispenses well with it…’ (Bonet 1684, 674).  I am sometimes left wondering why people bothered with this word at all.  Indeed, some writers have even occasionally expressed a degree of irritation at their contemporaries’ employment of such an unnecessary term.  The British Medical Journal complained in 1905, for example, that: ‘a Paris professor not long ago informed his hearers that ‘the cessation of the hyperthermia determines a remarkable euphoria’; would he have been less enlightening if he had said that when the fever abated the patient felt much better?’ (Style in Medical Writings 1905, 1342).

Physicians and indeed laymen did not commonly employ this word prior to the twentieth century.  Nevertheless, where it does emerge in texts from the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, euphoria usually names the experience or observation of improving or recovering health, and/or of everyday health and/or of perfect health.  Here, qualities thought to belong to health – such as pleasure, strength and ease– were perceived, named euphoria and held up an indication that health was indeed to some degree present in the patient.  Euphoria could be a feeling of health but it might also be less of a feeling and more an observable healthy action or behaviour: Bonet’s Mercurius Compitalitius appears to describe not a feeling but a state of good urination following the efficacious imbibing of mineral water.

The various meanings of euphoria across the centuries remind me of how much meaning can be shaped by context.  They also reflect what appears to be a fairly consistent desire to believe that health is a perceptible truth, and that the presence of health in both self and others is something that can sometimes be perceived with confidence.  Euphoria in European medical history is part of what appears to be an abiding wish – and one that probably extends far beyond the history of this word – to occasionally tell oneself that there is no longer any need to worry.  Everything, for the time being, is okay.  Health is here.  For most people, a simple statement such as ‘I am well’ or ‘he is a little better’ has been sufficient.  But for roughly three hundred years ‘euphoria’ was sometimes an option for European physicians who liked that sort of thing.  It was probably unique in most European languages for this ability to combine – in a single word – the cherished idea of people confidently perceiving health in their bodies or the bodies of other people.

Over the course of the nineteenth century, euphoria also began to name sickly experiences of health and wellbeing – largely in the fields of psychiatric and pharmacological research, and probably at first in German-speaking countries (Euphorie).  This sickly euphoria could sometimes be thought of as a more overwhelming experience than healthy euphoria – but not always.  The French physician Charles Féré (1852-1907) used euphorie to describe sickly experiences of varying strengths, from the intensely felt ‘euphoric crises’ of epileptics to the ‘general sensation of euphoria, of general well-being’ he claimed could sometimes be found in hysterics (Féré 1892, 190, 306).[iii]  The idea that sick people could misperceive their own degree of health was hardly new (although how much it was acknowledged in the past, or indeed in the present day, is difficult to know).  Neither was the conviction of the ‘experts’ that such misperceptions could almost always be distinguished from the ‘true’ perception of health by a sane, intelligent observer.  Euphoria became part of this history.  An identification of euphoria – even when it named a health delusion – continued to reflect the supreme confidence of the person making the identification.  There was little room for ambiguity.

Euphoria remains a medical term in the present day.  Now, it is probably a little more common for the people who use this word to question its meanings and, consequently, its value as a medical term.  In the treatment of multiple sclerosis it is sometimes pointed out that the way in which practitioners define ‘euphoria’ can significantly change the extent to which the emotions and behaviours of sufferers are pathologized and framed as an aspect of the condition.  In wider western culture, the meaning and value of this word is rarely questioned.  Here, euphoria can mean any number of things.  Often, however, euphoria now gives a name to shared hubristic enthusiasm.  ‘But this euphoria was not to last’ has become something of a ubiquitous tautology.  And still it is sometimes possible to sense the judgemental gaze, sifting false from true, and telling itself: ‘I know real health and wellbeing – and that isn’t it.’


[i] See Liddell 1940 for the meanings of euphoros

[ii] For the Greek see Littré 1973.  For an English translation, see Adams 1868.  The numbering system differs in each book.

[iii]crises d’euphorie, générale une sensation d’euphorie, de bien-être général.’

References

Adams, Charles Darwin, ed. and trans. 1868. “De fracturis – 35.” In The Genuine Works of Hippocrates. New York: Dover.

Bonet, Théophile. 1684. Mercurius Compitalitius, or A Guide to the Practical Physician.  Translated by Théophile Bonet. London: Thomas Flesher.

Féré, Charles.  1892.  La pathologie des emotions; etudes physiologiques et cliniques. Paris: F Alcan.

Liddell, Henry George, Robert Scott, Henry Stuart Jones and Roderick McKenzie, eds. 1940. A Greek-English Lexicon Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Littré, Emil, ed. and trans. 1973. “De fracturis – 36.” In Oeuvres Completes D’Hippocrate. Amsterdam: Adolf M. Hakkert.

“Style in Medical Writings.” 1905. British Medical Journal 1, no. 2320 (June): 1341-3

 

Soul Health: Feeling Better Through a Medicine of Words

Dr Daniel McCann is Simon and June Li Fellow in English Literature at Lincoln College, University of Oxford. In this post for the History of Emotions Blog, he discusses the connection between reading and healing, the subject of his new book Soul Health: Therapeutic Reading in Later Medieval England, (University of Wales Press, 2018).

McCann’s current research covers the later medieval period and is concerned with the interconnection and interplay between medical and religious texts. He is especially interested in how texts can evoke emotional responses, belief, doubt, and indeed other complex mental states through their form and style. He was awarded a Leverhulme Early Career Fellowship in 2012 and has published a number of articles that explore the relationship between emotion and healing, reading and healing, and medieval grammar and prayer. 


The connection between reading and healing has a history far deeper, and far darker, than modern “bibliotherapeutics” would lead us to believe. While you don’t have to look far to find accounts of ‘consoling fictions” offering mental and physical health, looking a little further into the past reveals something quite different. For the medieval period, reading had a strong medicinal potential that was believed to treat the very soul of the reader through the powerful emotions it could evoke. This was part of a wider medical model going back to classical times: the Galenic framework of the “res non-naturales”, or non-natural things, stated that the regulation of the emotions was key to maintaining humoral balance and so health. In particular, activities that could evoke moderate joy – or gaudium – were seen as beneficial in the regimental care of the self. Reading bawdy verses about lusty monks (for example) could provoke a salutary laugh – which was sometimes called hilaritas. And yet, while reading for pleasure and joy was recommended, the vast majority of texts in the Middle Ages were anything but joyful. Though Chaucer can provoke a laugh, we have to remember that the medieval “best-sellers” were those pious texts dealing with Christ’s suffering, torture, and death. The emotional tones and hues of such texts are vastly more complex, manifold, and difficult than simple joy. Moreover, they circulate in manuscripts that often extol their medical potential. For instance, the enormous Vernon manuscript (c.1390s) states from its opening that reading it provides “soul-hele” – soul health. It’s full of texts which, through their sophistication and beauty, set out to evoke sorrow, fear, compassion, and a host of other emotional states that are worlds apart from joy. This begs an important question of such reading material: how can emotions, widely understood to be dangerous, operate therapeutically?

It’s a question I wanted to answer in my first book, available to buy now. What I discovered is that the medieval monastic culture that produces such potent religious texts was not medically ignorant. From its earliest stages, and most clearly after the Benedictine reform, monastic culture had a keen interest in maintaining the health of the monks. Moreover, many medical texts – from medical compendia to vernacular herbals – were associated with, produced by, or at least held in, monastic libraries. To assert that dangerous emotions generated through reading are medicinal is not a mistake born of ignorance. It is instead a deliberate recommendation that comes from a complex understanding of the state of the soul, the nature of sin, and the potential use of the soul’s affective powers. Emotions can be medicines precisely because they can also be diseases. As key thinkers from the period – such as John of la Rochelle – note, emotions are not positive or negative in and of themselves. It all depends on the object of the emotions, and the level of their intensity. It’s a bit of a hackneyed commonplace to assert that the medieval period saw sin and sickness as the same thing – but it is an accurate one. Sin, the soul’s chief sickness, is essentially an emotional problem. As Walter Hilton, an influential medieval English spiritual writer, notes, sin is

not ellis but a fals mysrulid love of a man to himsilf. Oute of this love, as Seynt Austen seith, spryngeth alle manere of synne deedli and venial

 

nothing else but a false, ungoverned love of a man unto himself. Out of this love, as St Augustine says, springs all manner of sin deadly and venial.  

(Scale of Perfection, Bk 1, ll.1117-1118)

Love, when not properly directed or controlled, corrupts and festers. Here it is seen as the shared origin of all sin, and Hilton is recapitulating earlier monastic explorations into the precise nature of vices and virtues. Of course, such an emotional illness requires an equally emotional medicine:

Be contrition we arn made clene, be compassion we arn made redy and be trew longyng to God we arn made worthy. Thes arn iii menys, as I understond, wherby that al soulis come to hevyn . . . for be these medycines behovyth that every soule be helyd.

 

By contrition we are made clean, by compassion we are made ready, and by true longing to God we are made worthy. These are three means, as I understand, whereby all souls come to heaven…for they are medicines by which every soul is healed.

(Julian of Norwich, Revelations of Divine Love, p. 54)

With customary clarity, Julian of Norwich asserts that the best treatment is a medicine of extremes, not of moderation. Contrition, compassion and longing are some of the most central emotional states of religious life, but they are also some of its most intense. There is no sense of balance to the emotions here, only their increasing potency and force. There is, however, a sense of order. This treatment is programmatic, moving from one emotion to another, from one medicine to another. My book takes Julian’s comments here as a starting point, and over the course of its chapters it explores the medicinal emotions that can heal the soul of sin. Fear, penance, compassion, and longing are the core ones. But as I soon discovered, the texts themselves understand emotions as fluid and layered, with each text seeking to evoke multiple emotions within the souls of its readers. For instance, compassion is not an emotion, but rather an emotional aggregate or complex. So too that last medicine she mentions, longing, is in effect a blend of contrasting and powerful emotional states. It is so intense that it will be painful, will contain as much fear of God and sorrow for sin as it does compassion and ardent love for the divine. The focus of the book is always on the texts of the Vernon manuscript, and how they work to promote the health of the soul. To do this requires moving beyond contemporary notions of “affective scripts” to look at language in more detail. In my book, I explore medieval grammar theory to understand precisely how words evoke emotions. It is the interjection (a cry or exclamation) which was believed to signify per modum affectus (in the mode of affect), and many texts use interjections with skill and precision to evoke specific emotions. For instance, the rhythmical prose text A Talking of the Love of God, makes careful use of interjections to try and evoke that complex longing for God in the reader:

A derworþe lord what schal I nou dou. nou mai I liue no more for serwe and forsore, now my dere lemmon schal vnderfonge deþ. nou mai I Murne strongley, nou mai I wepe bitterli nou mai I syke sore & serwen euer more. A now me leden him forþ to mount of caluarie, to þe qualstouwe to don him þere o dawe. A my deore lemmon, he bereþ þe Roode tre on his bare scholdre for þe loue of me. his bodi is so tendre, his bones longe and lene, al stoupynde he goþ þat del hit is to seone. A Mi swete lemmon, þe duntes þat þei smyte þe, þe serwe þat þei don þe.

 

Ah! Dear worthy Lord what shall I now do? Now may I live no more for sorrow and grief, now my dear darling shall undergo death, now may I mourn strongly, now may I weep bitterly, now may I sigh sorely and lament ever more. Ah! Now (me/they) lead Him away to Mount Calvary, to the place of execution to kill Him. Ah! My dear love, He bears the cross on His bare shoulder for the love of me. His body is so tender, his bones long and lean, all stopping He goes so that a pity it is to see. Ah! My sweet darling, the blows that they smite thee with, the sorrow that they do to you.

(A Talking of the Love of God p. 48, ll. 23–33)

 

Unlike prior passages in the text, this one begins with the impassioned interjectional cry to Jesus – that “Ah”. This emotional cry sets a tone for the rest of the passage, carefully sustained through repetition and additional interjections. Initially, the urgency and force of the opening question ‘what schal I nou dou’, is sustained through subsequent clauses by the repetition of its immediate answer ‘nou mai I’. Through this repetition, each clause is connected back to that forceful opening in a manner that directly recalls its emotive energy. The reader is thus constantly brought back to that cry throughout the whole section, its force and potency endowing each clause and each detail with added emphasis. Additional interjections break up the passage into dominant sense units and mark progress in the narrative, but they all work in the same manner to express and evoke raw emotion. The result is that each stage in Christ’s crucifixion is marked not by detail but rather by the emotive reaction to it. The whole passage thus plays with ideas of action and reaction. Until this moment all events in Christ’s Passion have occurred in the distant past, but now the present tense is used exclusively: the past of Calvary merges with the moment of narration, and by extension the moment of reading. Such reading was understood as emotionally evocative – producing passions in precise ways to help move the soul closer to a state of health – of salus. It is a medicine of extremes, and of extreme words at that, but as the Vernon manuscript shows, and as my book seeks to prove, the best medicines are always the bitterest.