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 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), <>

[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 <>

[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).

Review: The Heartland, by Nathan Filer

When we were 16, one of my best friends had a psychotic episode. He was sectioned, and diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. He’s never had a job, has been in and out of psychiatric facilities, and I think I’m the only friend who has kept in touch with him.

When I go to see him, he’s not always very well. In the last few years, he often repeats the same handful of sentences over and over, how the NHS is a criminal enterprise, how pseudo-psychiatrists are feeding him bad drugs, how he’s actually a spiritual healer.

Sometimes the drugs, or his experiences, are just too strong for him, and he stares silently into space.

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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.


Monday 22nd July 2019 Workshop, OR

Tuesday 13th August 2019 Workshop


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


  • 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:


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.

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