Wednesday, June 23, 2010

The History of Emotions

From group member Tom:
A few more thoughts on why the characters’ inner thoughts might leave you cold. I wonder if your reaction is related to historically-specific notions of feeling and emotion. I’ve been thinking about this on and off, since so much of the book deals with romantic and platonic love, the responses of soldiers to fear, and (especially with Old Prince Bolkonsky) eruptions of anger. Emotional expression is historical, of course, like any other sorts of expression, and unsurprisingly there is a historiography of the subject.

I found a few points from a 2002 article by Barbara Rosenwein that could perhaps situate the discussion. She describes Lucien Febvre’s call for a history of emotions in 1941 and the response to that call in the 1980s, led by Peter and Carol Stearns’ establishment of “emotionology.” They built on literature from the 1970s, including “the sociologist Arlie Hochschild, for example, [who] was arguing that society could and did control emotions and their expression, thatthere were ‘feeling rules,’ or ‘emotion rules’ that told people, in essence, how to feel and how to express those utterly socially mandated feelings. Hochschild argued that airline stewardesses learned at training schools not only to smile but to feel pleasant when travelers yelled at them. She called this the ‘managed heart.’” (By the way, Rosenwein doesn’t say it, but neuroscientists have argued since the 1990s at least that smiling does make you feel happier.)

According to the Stearns, it was between 1800 and 1920 that emotions began to be reined in, controlled so as to conform to evolving socialnorms. Norbert Elias (one of the Stearns’ influences) argues that this process had deep roots, dating to the 12th century, when powerful lords established courts and began to set norms of behavior, especially toward important ladies. “Only at the absolutist court of the modern state, however,” Rosenwein glosses, “did this new behavior and emotional style become obligatory and generalized.” The absolutist court, “dominated the many complex institutions of society. To participate in this all-inclusive structure, people were forced to ‘attune their conduct [including emotional expression] to that of others.’” The elaborate social etiquette of the ladies- and gentlemen-in-waiting gives us a hint about the ways emotion was to be managed in the orbit around Alexander. We can also think about young Rostov’s reaction to him and, later on, the Moscow nobility’s response to his call for a troop levy.

Rosenwein criticizes the “grand narrative” of emotions, which she summarizes thus: “the history of the West is the history of increasing emotional restraint.” As she observes, a huge historical literature examines the increasing emotional restraint of the 19th century. Countless novels (including those written at the time) and films have solidified profound repression as part of our perception of the
Victorian Age. I don’t feel equipped to judge whether War and Peace more accurately reflects the emotional norms of the 1860s, when Tolstoy was writing it, or of the period from 1805-1812. That’s an interesting question, I think.

Rosenwein sees some historians edging away from the grand narrative. There are those following some psychological literature and cast emotions as cognitive responses by subjects to evaluations of how circumstances will affect them. And there are those, like William Reddy (with whom I took a fantastic seminar, but not on emotions), who
investigate emotions through the vocabulary used to describe them, “for only as people articulate their feelings can they ‘know’ what they feel and, reflecting on their newfound knowledge, feel yet more.” (Reddy’s approach fits squarely within the historical methodology following on the so-called “linguistic turn” from the 1980s onward.)

Rosenwein herself proposes the study of “emotional communities,” which are characterized by a shared “systems of feeling: what these communities (and the individuals within them) define and assess as valuable or harmful to them; the evaluations that they make about others' emotions; the nature of the affective bonds between people that they recognize; and the modes of emotional expression that they
expect, encourage, tolerate, and deplore.” This is a pretty wide-open theory, since you can always pull a new “emotional community” out of your pocket if some source doesn’t square with the emotional norms you are outlining for a particular time or context. But we could also imagine the emotional community of Petersburg society as opposed to the emotional community of Bald Hills, say, or another country estate
with serfs and a local merchant class, etc. And in Volume III there’s a nice contrast drawn between the prevailing opinions, expression, and even emotions in the circles headed respectively by Helene and Anna Pavlovna.

Barbara H. Rosenwein, “Worrying About Emotions in History,” American
Historical Review 107, no. 3 (2002).


  1. Tom: Fascinating post.

    This part in particular caught my attention:

    I don’t feel equipped to judge whether War and Peace more accurately reflects the emotional norms of the 1860s, when Tolstoy was writing it, or of the period from 1805-1812. That’s an interesting question, I think.

    Your comment brought to my mind a work on the subject of translation I recently read: AFTER BABEL, by George Steiner -- and particularly the sections where Steiner discusses the archaic tone adopted by translators when translating "classics":

    The tonality is not Plato's Greek so much as it is the 'Biblical-baroque' of the nineteenth century as produced from the time of Coleridge's gloss on The Rime of THe Ancient Mariner to the prose of Hardy.... The archaic reflex extends far beyond the presumed solemnity and apartness of the classics. The bulk of literary, historical, philosophical translation, even where it concerns fiction, political writings, or plays intended for production, shows symptoms of retreat from current speech. When we score a translation as being lifeless, as being cast in 'translationese', what we are usually condemning is the patina. In terms of the hermeneutic model there are two principal reasons for archaicism. the first is implicit in the dynamics and techniques of understanding. In seeking to penetrate the sense and logic of form of the original, the translator proceeds archaeologically or aetiologically. He attempts to work back to the rudiments and first causes of invention in his author....

    But there is a second, tactical motive. The translator labours to secure a natural habitat for the alien presence which he has imported into his own tongue and cultural setting. By archaizing his style he produces a deja-vu. The foreign text is felt to be not so much an import from abroad ... as it is an element out of one's native past. It had been there 'all along' awaiting reprise. It is really a part of one's tradition temporarily mislaid. Master translations domesticate the foreign original by exchanging an obtrusive geographical-linguistic distance for a much subtler, internalized distance in time.

    AFTER BABEL (346-47).

    Now, I don't find that the P&V translation we are reading suffers from the lifelessness of being cast in "translationese." To the contrary, the P&V translation seems particularly vivid and full of life.

    However, there are interesting issues, as pointed out in your question, of first, Tolstoy's attempt to capture, in the 1860's, the language and mannerisms of the first decade of that century (think for example of trying to write a novel about pre-WWI America, etc.) and, second, P&V's attempts to render Tolstoy's attempt at historically accurate language (if that was in fact his project), into English. Having no Russian, my guess is that P&V erred on the side of creating an English translation that was lively and readable, perhaps at the extent of some historically-specific speech, mannerisms, etc. (Again, I'm not even sure the original Russian was written in a historically accurate vernacular, etc.)

    I'm guessing that some of the older translations out there may rely a bit more on the archaic tone deployed when translating a classic, in a miasma of rigid formality and purported timelessness.

    But a consideration of the levels of translation and distance involved does give one pause: What are we reading? How far are we from WAR & PEACE as Tolstoy intended it? Are we simply reading a very skillfully rendered parallel text?

    These questions, of course, get us into well tread ground and old, unending debates about the possibilities and impossibilities of translation, the violence of translation, and its peculiar capabilities and faults. (Which I do enjoy, and which are exhaustively explored in Steiner's book.)

  2. Very interesting exchange...

    I think it says a lot that when the Modern Library compiled its Top 100 Novels of the 20th Century, it limited its selection process to novels originally written in English. Thus, many great novels by foreigners in this last, great, cataclysmic century were denied their share of boosterism. Of course, this decision suggests what we knew all along, that translators are not writers in the literary sense but are rather very good linguists. Like films, translations are adaptations and we must suspect that something is often lost in the change. To be honest, it is rare that I am enamored by a translation's prose. It is the pleasure in the story (as well as curiosity of the writer's life and work) that brings me over in the first place.

    I think reading translations can become a problem when you are somewhat familiar with a culture. Living in Japan and reading some of Haruki Murakami's translations, I am often put off by the tough guy Americanism used in the characters' speech. Most regular Japanese just don't talk like that. It seems to me an example when a translator might be better off respecting the heritage of his discipline-- a more distant, collective voice... Or maybe I just don't have a taste for Murakami. Should a translator attempt a bold approach, whether his effort succeeds or fails in the end will probably come down to general readers' aesthetics.

  3. I've started but never finished Steiner. That second paragraph you quote, Ron, makes clear that temporal and linguistic distance are in some ways analogous. Or the processes of understanding the past and translating texts from other languages are in some way parallel. Steiner's passage recalls the title of a David Lowenthal book: The Past is a Foreign Country.

    I agree, Sean, that it is ultimately the reader's tastes that determine a translation's success. But it's hard to distinguish that reaction from the reaction to the text itself.

    I'm still irritated by the Briggs translation of W&P. That damn cockney-speak. I wish he hadn't made that decision.

  4. Tom: Re your comment that "temporal and linguistic distance are in some ways analogous. Or the processes of understanding the past and translating texts from other languages are in some way parallel."

    This is perhaps Steiner's most fundamental point throughout his book. Interestingly (for some, maybe), this theory of translation has been picked up by constitutional law scholars like Larry Lessig, who have adapted a version of Steiner's account of translation across differing contexts of time for theories of how the Constitution should/is be interpreted at differing points in history. See, e.g, here.

  5. Clearly I should actually finish Steiner.

    A quick anecdote about translation:
    Our daughters have played a few times with the 6-year old daughter of missionaries here in Recife, which put me in a conversation with her father the other day. I mentioned that I'd read a few lines of the Bible over the shoulder of someone on the bus and it (I think Paul's first letter to the Corinthians) struck me as sounding different in Portuguese. I admitted my basic ignorance of the tone of this or most any other biblical passage in any language, but I said that I'd also felt that Mass sounds different in Portuguese. Again, that's not very specific as an observation, but the point was this guy's reaction. He was very uncomfortable with the idea that the "message" would be different from one language to another. Of course, I hadn't thought about the implication of my casual observation. The word of God, for him, was the word of God. He said he'd studied Hebrew and Greek and that they were extremely direct languages, hard to misinterpret. Hence, the original Word is unsullied and translations have been done painstakingly and successfully (with some lamentable exceptions).

    I didn't press the point.

  6. Tom: Your comment brings up, of course, the very strict protocol surrounding copying of the Torah -- to ensure that impurities or errors were not allowed to defile the text. See, e.g., here. Islam, borrowing from Judaism's distrust of translation, also insists that the Koran be read in the original Arabic. (A copy of the Koran, carved in stone, is supposed to be kept in heaven.) Islam's insistence on Muslims learning to read Arabic so they can properly appreciate the Koran is particularly interesting given the poetic nature of much of the Koran: it's always seemed to me a bit like a Comp-Lit Department insisting that its students learn Italian to properly appreciate Dante, etc.

    Christianity in its various forms (in more recent history, post-Latin) generally appears to be more comfortable with translation than Judaism and Islam: there's probably an interesting thesis to develop there regarding attitudes toward translation, the urge (and ability) to proselytize, etc.

  7. Potential thesis: Christian doctrine, at its most basic level, is somewhat more susceptible to translation than, say, Islam, which depends to some degree on the persuasive power of the specific language of the Koran. The story of Christ is one that can be told in various languages, and the basic structure of the story gets across, regardless of the the loss of language-specific connotations, implications, and subtleties. Christ's story is the key thing (I think) that missionaries could fall back on: a story of a baby, who becomes a man, is persecuted, dies for us, etc. Islam doesn't have quite the same centralized story. (Though Islam had other appeals, such as equality between individuals, a concept that appealed to, e.g., those locked into the caste system in parts of the Indian subcontinent.)

  8. This was one crucial thread of debate at the Second Vatican Council. It is an issue on which Christianity has perhaps been more flexible, as you say, but it has also been a persistent question.

  9. Very interesting discussion. For anyone interested in the problems of translation/the philosophy of language and translation, I recommend reading the work of Douglas Hofstadter. He's best known for "Godel Escher Bach" but his book which really "digs deep" on translation is "La Ton beau de Marot."