Emotions, DARWIN suggested, were facilitated by the act of expressing them. We don’t cry because we are upset, rather the act of crying informs us that we are upset. In our neuroscientific age, when we’re apt to regard a small firing in the brain as the first stage of all human processes, the proposal may seem bizarre, but it is not quite abandoned – a Japanese study from 2007 drizzled its subjects with artificial tears and found, as Darwin would have expected, that many experienced feelings of sadness.
Darwin’s most tenacious idea, however, was a cultural one. A correspondent in New Zealand had told him the story of a Maori chief who “cried like a child because the sailors spoilt his favourite cloak by powdering it with flour”. He had observed similar behaviour from the deck of the Beagle, notably that of a Fuegian man, recently bereaved, who “alternately cried with hysterical violence, and laughed heartily at anything which amused him”. Civilisation, he reasoned, had bred emotional temperance, and humans who lived beyond its borders were subject to fits of passion. “Savages weep copiously from very slight causes,” he concluded. “Englishmen rarely cry, except under the pressure of the acutest grief.”
Today, the remark sounds ludicrous. Darwin, though, did not write from a position of ignorance. He knew the pressure of the acutest grief. In 1851, his beloved daughter Annie sank from the world under the weight of tuberculosis. She was ten. (“We have lost the joy of the Household”, wrote her father, “and the solace of our old age.”) And those savages? The language now offends, but the assumption it carries – that the inhabitants of rich Western nations shed fewer tears than citizens of the developing world – held firm until the beginning of the present decade.
We sound different from our ancestors. We wear different clothes, observe different philosophies, follow different ideas. Could certain ways of feeling have vanished along with Mother Bailey’s Quieting Syrup and Capstan Filters, yielding to fresh moods and senses? A new generation of scholars working on the history of the emotions believes passionately that this is the case, and wants us to see our feelings not simply as what happens when a neurological circuit lights up in our brains, but as the products of bigger cultural and historical processes. Their first contention: the very idea of the emotions is a surprisingly young one.
“The concept arrived from France in the early 19th century as a way of thinking about the body as a thing of reflexes and twitches, tears and shivers and trembles, that supplanted an older, more theological way of thinking,” says Tiffany Watt Smith, once a director at the Royal Court Theatre, now a researcher at the Centre for the History of the Emotions at Queen Mary University of London. Before the discourse of the emotions took hold, she argues, people spoke of other phenomena – “passions”, “moral sentiments”, “accidents of the soul” – that were not always located within the human body. Ill winds blew no good upon the ancient Greeks, carrying flurries of unhappiness through the atmosphere. Fourth-century Christian hermits were plagued by acedia, a form of religious despair spread by demons that patrolled the desert between 11am and 4pm. Non-human organisms could also be afflicted by passions: in the Renaissance, palm trees became lovesick and horticulturists brokered arboreal marriages by entwining the leaves of proximate specimens.