The strange death of emotional authenticity

We learn how to experience and express emotions and every society in every age has its own style of doing so.

Emotional styles are easier to recognize in the distant past. There is even pleasure to be derived from it. Jane Austen’s characterization of the culture of sensibility among the lower reaches of the English landed gentry in Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, Emma, Mansfield Park still pulls in readers and viewers. 

The drama, of course, lies in detecting real feelings beneath a veil of sentiment. In real life, for women especially, much depended on being able to distinguish between truth and lies, realities from appearances.

For a counterpoint to Jane Austen, consider Dangerous Liaisons, a 1988 movie staring Glenn Close and John Malkovich. It is based on Les Liaisons dangereuses a novel by Pierre Choderlos de Lacios, first published in 1782, i.e., during the last years of the Ancien Régime.

Via a series of exchanged letters, it tells the story of the two rivals and ex-lovers, the Vicomte de Valmont and the Marquise de Merteuil. They seduce and humiliate others and then glory in their manipulative skills. Their favourite victims are the virtuous and innocent.

In the movie, Glenn Close, as Merteuil, spells it out. She paid attention to ‘whatever it was that people were trying to hide’. She became ‘a virtuoso of deceit’:

The movie, like the novel, runs the gamut of emotions, from jealousy and revenge to guilt and grief. Both of the main protagonists come to a sticky end. Valmont dies following a duel, but not before revealing the letters which destroy the reputation of Merteuil. She retreats to the countryside where she contracts smallpox and loses sight in one eye. It is a morality tale about the depravity of the Ancien Régime. And the moral is?

Pride and Prejudice and Dangerous Liaisons have one thing in common: For those who cannot distinguish between appearances and reality all liaisons are potentially dangerous.

And today? What is the emotional style of ‘modern’ society? How will it be depicted by writers and artists of the future?

This is an age of simulation. Whatever can be simulated is. This includes emotions. This includes emotional authenticity. We feign the emotions we sell at work (emotional labour) and we consume the simulated emotions we buy (emotional branding).

It is no longer a matter of being able to distinguish between faces and masks, reality and appearance, for simulation dissolves these very distinctions. In Western, capitalist societies, simulation is the new reality—and it’s not much of one.

The characters of Jane Austen and those in Dangerous Liaisons were acting, dissembling, pretending. Now face, now mask. They thrived or perished on their skill in deceiving and detecting deception in others.

But simulating is not pretending, it is not acting. It is something else entirely.

‘To dissimulate is to pretend not to have what one has. To simulate is to feign to have what one doesn’t have. One implies a presence, the other an absence’ (Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation, p. 3).

To simulate an illness, for example, can produce some of its symptoms. Hamlet simulates madness. ‘If he’s this good at acting crazy, it’s because he is’ (Baudrillard, ibid. p. 4). In the same way, to simulate emotions can produce some of their symptoms. But that doesn’t make them real or authentic. Where feelings used to be there is just an inner emptiness.

Emotional authenticity is dead. We no longer deceive and are deceived. This simulated society deceives us all. To paraphrase Trotsky on the dialectic: ‘You may not be interested in simulation, but simulation is interested in you.’

Bonfires of sentiments

The emotions that drive revolutions are usually consumed in the act, obliterating all trace of their existence. Consider the ‘cult of sensibility’ or ‘sentimentalism’ and the French Revolution.

‘Sensibility’ was a way of understanding and expressing emotions prevalent among the elite in Europe, during the late 17th and 18th centuries, especially in France. Sentiments or sensibility are best understood in the light of Reddy’s ’emotives’. How do I know what I feel for you until I hear what I say to you? It was a way of accessing inner feelings or sensations, believed to be innate, natural things, beyond conscious understanding. Sentiments are moral sensations, natural feelings. It was like tapping in to a well of virtue.

We see traces of sentimentalism in private (especially, love) letters of the day. Indeed, is this not the entire point of all love letters? The more intense the sentiment in the letter, the better the chance its recipient will conclude that it is natural and good and respond in kind. As letters are exchanged, emotives intertwine in an upward spiral of intensity.

We find traces of sentimentalism in novels too. The best selling English novel of the 18th century was Samuel Richardson’s Pamela, or, Virtue Rewarded. To continue its full title: ‘In a series of Familiar Letters from a Beautiful Young Damsel, to her Parents’. ‘Letters’, that is, containing sentimental emotives. The Marquis de Sade’s wickedly perceptive Justine (or the Misfortune of Virtue) and Juliette (or Enlightenment and Morality) can be read as parodies of Richardson’s trade in ‘goodness’. Sade’s threat to ‘public morality’ is just one reason he spent the best years of his life in prison on the order of Louis XV, where, of course, he continued to write.

It is this same sentimentalism that Jane Austen chronicled in Sense and Sensibility (1811). (In today’s terms, we might call it Reason and Emotion.) One’s social success depended on one’s skill in knowing a person’s real sentiments from false displays. But one example:

But Marianne abhorred all concealment where no real disgrace could attend unreserve ; and to aim at the restraint of sentiments which were not in themselves illaudable, appeared to her not merely an unnecessary effort, but a disgraceful subjection of reason to common- place and mistaken notions. 

In France, more so than in England, sentimentalism was a potent force in political thinking. Dressed up as ‘virtue’, it was the emotional energy of the breakdown of the Old Regime and the first years of the Revolution. As Reddy explains, this period began with gestures of benevolence and ended in terror. Breaking down in tears under the intensity of one’s virtue was common. Mere friendships could bring on a fainting spell. The nearer the end came, the more intense the effusion of feelings, the better to impress with their sincerity. Those who failed died.

Pity and benevolence towards the downtrodden, gratitude for what one had and love for who knows what, were much in favour. August 4, 1789, the night the new National Assembly voted to dismantle the system of privileges that constituted the Old Regime, was a bonfire of sentiments. The rioting peasants (the ‘Great Fear’) concentrated their attention.  

The procedure followed during the session was to favor reform proposals that came from a delegate who enjoyed the very privileges he proposed to abolish. Nobles offered to give up their tax exemptions, clergy their tithes, provincial delegates the privileges of their provinces, and so on. The night’s work was widely described as a kind of sentimental cascade of reforms. (Reddy)

It was, as they say, a ‘patriotic delirium’.

Sentimentalism was consumed during the Revolution itself and confined to the private, feminine sphere of the household (to which President Hollande now retreats). Henceforth, the Revolution was known as a product of Reason (a largely male preserve) and we like to think that reason, through public deliberation, debate and voting, continues to rule us all.

And yet ’emotives’ suggests that every society has its own style of experiencing emotions. We know about ‘sentimentalism’, but what of our own way of experiencing emotions?


William M. Reddy. The Navigation of Feeling: A Framework for the History of Emotions, 2001.

Featured image: a firefighter and a fire, one of many in Paris, during the riots of November, 2005.

Glory is like a greasy pole

‘Glory is like a greasy pole … One after another, hopeful people clamber up, only to slither down in a disgusting mess, until one day all the grease has come off on other people’s clothes and some smug, undeserving contestant shins all the way to the top and takes all the credit’.

This seems fair.

It comes from page 116 of Graham Robb’s biography of Balzac, who, like most writers, was well-acquainted with the greasy pole, especially its lower end.

Robb attributes this insight to an anonymous biographer of Horace de Saint-Aubin. Since this was one of Balzac’s pseudonyms, I suspect that the anonymous biographer is Balzac himself.

Books contain fewer words about feelings

Other than fear, words about emotions have steadily decreased in books throughout the last century, say researchers. – Books contain fewer words about feelings. This is a summary of The Expression of Emotions in 20th Century Books.

These researchers searched fiction books published in English during the 20th century for Anger, Disgust, Fear, Joy, Sadness, and Surprise, and—surprise—discovered that with the exception of Fear, the frequency of their appearance declined.

They also discovered that American English and British (English?) English diverged beginning in the 1960s, with American English novels being more ’emotional’ than their English counterparts.

The research was apparently inspired by earlier research which measured the mood of a country by measuring the emotions present in tweets.

Note the similarity in the title with Darwin’s The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1872). Darwin was interested in facial and bodily expression. This paper is interested in the expression of emotions via words.

There is one obvious difficulty with this enterprise: an emotion can be present in a text without its name appearing. So I’m not sure what this tells us. But, what am I saying: the emotion exists only in the reader, it this which the words elicit. And this emotion leaves no trace whatsoever.

But it does raise the question, While we can measure the emotional state of a person by looking at and listening to them, how do we know the emotional state of a town, city or country?

Great moments in literature: The lost manuscript of ‘Moby Duck’

Melville's pencil sketch of the giant duck.

Melville’s pencil sketch of the giant duck.

Everyone is familiar with the story of Moby Dick; the monomaniacal Ahab in pursuit of the white whale. But the origins of this story are a closely guarded secret, for reasons I am about to divulge.

While serving on board the whaler Julia during 1842, Melville was one of a party dispatched to collect fresh water while visiting the Nā Pali coast, of Kauaʻi.

While progressing by row-boat up a small stream, the party was attacked, and, if truth be told, Melville almost killed, by a demonic duck of huge proportions and no colour.

Similar to the Canadian beaver, which stops growing in size only with death, this, now, thankfully, extinct breed of duck grew monstrous in size and nature on the vegetation that grew in waters that flowed out of the volcanic rich interior and natural selection had found no reason to limit either.

Demonic—and deadly. The severed edges that line the beaks of ordinary ducks pose no danger to humans, but in a duck standing as high as a man it’s quite another matter. This is to say nothing of it pecking you in the eye.

It seems to have been related to the fossil remains noted in this 2008 news story: Big bird: Experts unveil skull of giant duck with teeth and the wingspan of a family car

By today’s standards these were pretty bizarre animals, but perhaps the strangest thing about them is that they had sharp, tooth-like projections along the cutting edges of the beak.

‘Strange’ indeed.

Melville returned to the United States a changed, chastened man. Melancholic by nature, he had taken to the sea to find some peace. Now he took to his writing table for the same reason, as if by writing he could exorcise the internal scars caused by this infernal, damned duck.

It is well known that Melville was influenced by his neighbour and friend Nathaniel Hawthorne, but Melville’s friendship with Edgar Allen Poe, was a closely guarded secret (for he was a harsh critic of Hawthorne).

It was Poe who read the manuscript and suggested the title, ‘Moby Duck’. Moby, from the Latin for ‘exceptionally large’. Duck, because a duck it was.

But it was not to be. Harper & Brothers of New York, like all publishers, had an eye on the market and concluded that the market for a book about a giant acquatic bird was a dead duck, as it were. They insisted on it being rewritten for the whaling market, which was just taking off.

Darwin had a similar problem with The Origin of Species (1859). His publisher read the first chapter, on selection under domestication, and pressed Darwin to rewrite it for the pigeon fancier market in England (then, as now, huge).

Darwin resisted, but Melville succumbed. He set off on a fact-finding tour of whaling towns (including my own) and rewrote the tale. Duck to Dick.

With exaggerated respect—‘As a token of my Admiration for his Genius’—Melville dedicated the improbably named Moby Dick (1851) to Hawthorne.

The manuscript for Moby Duck stayed with Poe and perished when he died under mysterious circumstances in 1849.

All this I know because when Melville visited my home town of Hull, to do some research in its Maritime Museum (which is mentioned in the book), he confided in a relative of mine, Joshua Marsden, a whaler himself, in the Dog and Duck across the road.

And all this I now pass on to you.

Hull Maritime Museum

Hull Maritime Museum

Currents and tides and what we must do

From Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life, 1989

THAT ISLAND on Haro Strait haunts me. The few people there, unconnected to the mainland—lacking ferryboat, electrical cables, and telephone cables—lived lonesome and half mad out in the wind and current like petrels. They had stuck their necks out. In summer they slept in open sleep shacks on the beach. The island lay on the northern edge of the forty-eight states, and on the western edge of the forty-eight states, and was fantastically difficult of access. Once you had gone so far, you might as well test the limits, like an artist playing the edges, and all but sleep in the waves. With my husband, I moved there every summer; we spent a winter there, too. Our cabin on the beach faced west, toward some distant Canadian islands, and Japan.

The waters there were cold and deep; fierce tides ripped in and out twice a day. The San Juan Islands aggravated tidal currents—they made narrow channels through which enormous volumes of water streamed fast. If an ordinary tide flowed up the beach and caught an oar or a life vest, it swept it northward on the island faster than you could chase it walking alongside; you had to run. The incoming tide ran north; the outgoing tide drained south.

Paul Glenn was a painter, a strong-armed, soft-faced, big blond man in his fifties; every summer he lived down the beach. He was a friend of the family. One summer morning I visited him, and asked about his painting. We sat at his kitchen table. His recent easel painting, and his study of abstract expressionist Mark Tobey’s canvases, and his new interest in certain Asian subjects, his understanding of texture in two dimensions, and possibly the mistiness of the Pacific Northwest and its fabulous, busy skies—something, I do not know what, had gotten him experimenting with dipping papers into vats of water on which pools of colored oil floated. He had such papers drying on the kitchen counters. Some of them looked like a book’s marbled endpapers, or fine wallpaper— merely decorative. Some others were complex and subtle surfaces, suggestive and powerful. Paul Glenn was learning which techniques of dripping the colors on the water, and which techniques of drawing the paper up through the colors, yielded the interesting results. He had been working at it for six months. How he was going to use the papers was another matter, and the crucial one: he could cut them into collage material, he could fold them into sculpture, he could paint over them and into them. He was following the work wherever it led.

The next summer, we returned to the island. Paul Glenn had spent the winter there. I visited him in his house on the beach in late June. He was tan of face already, and perfectly sane—witty and forceful, if a bit soft of voice.

I asked Paul how his work was going.

“You couldn’t have known Ferrar Burn,” he said. We were sitting at the round table by the kitchen window. There were white shells on the windowsill, and black beach stones. “He died twenty years ago. He was a joyful man, and a calm and determined one. He brought his family out here—June Burn, who wrote books and newspaper columns, and two little boys, you know North and Bob—out here to this island, where there’s nothing but what you can find on the beach or grow.”

Evidently Paul did not want to talk about how his work was going. Fair enough.

“Ferrar was striking: he had that same pale, thin skin his sons have, and their black eyes and hair. He and June built that cedar shack up on Fishery Point. It was her study. Their house was near the woods—nice timbers.”

Paul knew I knew all this, except what Ferrar looked like. Paul’s hair had grown long; he kept moving pale strands of it behind his ears. I was fresh from the mainland, a little too bright and quick. He laughed openly at what he could easily see was my impatience; we had been tolerant friends for a few years.

“One evening,” he went on, “Ferrar saw a log floating out in the channel. It looked yellow, like Alaska cedar; he hoped it was Alaska cedar. He rowed out to get it.”

Everyone on the island scavenged the valuable logs, for building. If the logs did not wash up on the beach, it took a motorboat to get them in; they were heavy in the water.

“It was high tide, slack. Ferrar saw the log, launched his little skiff at Fishery Point, and rowed out in the channel. Sure enough, it was that beautiful Alaska cedar, that pale yellow wood—just a short log, about eight feet, or he never would have tried it without a motor. I guess he thought he could row it in while the tide was still slack.

“He tied onto the log”—such logs often have a big iron staple hammered into one end— “and started rowing back home with it. He had about twenty feet of line on it. He started rowing home, and the tide caught him”

From Paul’s window, I could look north up the beach and see Fishery Point. One of Ferrar’s sons still used that old rowboat—a little eight-foot pram, now painted yellow and blue. Paul’s blue eyes caught mine again.

“The tide started going out, and it caught that log and dragged it south. Ferrar kept rowing back north toward his house. The tide pulled him south down the strait here”— Paul indicated the long sweep of salt water in front of his house—“from one end to the other. Ferrar kept rowing toward Fishery Point. He might as well have tied onto a whale. He was rowing to the north and moving fast to the south. He traveled stern first. He wanted to be going home, so toward home he kept pulling. When the sun set, at about nine o’clock, he’d swept south the length of this beach, rowing north all the way. When the moon rose a few hours later—he told us—he saw he’d swept south past the island altogether and out into the channel between here and Stuart Island. He had been rowing through those dark hours. He continued to row away from Stuart Island and continued to see it get closer.

“Then he felt the tide go slack, and then he felt it coming in again. The current had reversed.

“Ferrar kept rowing in the half moonlight. The tide poured in from the south. He kept rowing north for home—only now the log was with him. He and his log were both floating on the current, and the current was bearing them up and carrying them like platters. It started getting light at about three o’clock, and he rowed back past this island’s southern tip. The sun came up, and he rowed all the length of this beach. The tide brought him back on home. His wife, June, saw him coming; she’d been curious about him all night.”

“Paul had a wide, loose smile. He shifted in his chair. He raised his coffee cup, as if to say, Cheers.”

“He pulled up on his own beach. They got the log rolled beyond the tideline. I saw him a few days later. Everybody knew he’d been carried out almost to Stuart Island, trying to bring in a log. Everybody knew he just kept rowing in the same direction. I asked him about it. He said he had a little backache. I didn’t see the palms of his hands.”

“Paul looked into his empty coffee cup, pleased, and then looked through the window, still smiling. I started to carry my coffee cup to the sink, but he motioned me down. He wasn’t finished.”

“”So that’s how my work is going,” he said.”


“”You asked how my work is going,” he said. “That’s how it’s going. The current’s got me. Feels like I’m about in the middle of the channel now. I just keep at it. I just keep hoping the tide will turn and bring me in.”