The Meaning Of “Strong Emotions”

In A Farewell to Arms, Hemingway has a character say of the Italians that they were “All fire and smoke and nothing inside”. I have my own reasons for keeping out of Italy, reasons that do not rely on any generalisation about the emotional make-up of the people, and I have never been close to any Italians, but Hemingway’s libel nevertheless holds its own interest for me. Namely, I have long harboured a resentful scepticism of any veneration of “the emotions”. In particular I detest the invocation of “strong” emotions to justify anything. This is because I do not think anyone truly knows what they actually mean by this.

Now, if fMRI were to show us greater electrical activity in the brain when someone claims to feel something “strongly”, that would be one thing. If levels of neurochemicals can be shown to change, the same applies. As far as I know, however, there is no such empirical tracking of emotions by intensity; or if there is, the instrumentation is unlikely to be something we can carry around with us and that we can all use. That is a pity, because sometimes I want to tell someone claiming to have strong emotions, “No, you don’t”.

Why would anyone lie about this? Why, because for a very long time and in many cultures, these mysterious things called emotions serve as justification. Whatever they pretend, in practice Western ethics usually come down to, “You can’t do these things, unless you really want to”. Then think of this “wanting” as an emotion rather than as anything else and it is a done deal. Strong emotion is trumps in all games.

I am not usually a Skinnerian, but if anything could make me embrace behaviourism, it would be this. I feel impelled to point out that what people call their strong emotions (and nobody ever seems to admit having weak ones), are not observable. What we can observe is behaviour; and specifically, what people are prepared to do to whom in order to get what they want. To “walk over corpses”, as the Norwegian language pungently puts it. Well, then: can we, looking from outside, tell the difference between someone impelled to walk over those corpses by an internal electrical or neurochemical process, and someone impelled to walk over the same corpses by something else? No, we cannot.

What might that something else be? Obviously, lack of restraint, but that only pushes the question further out. Lack of allegiance to an objective ethical code would do it, as would a shortage of empathy. The former usually takes the shape of an excessive sense of entitlement, the narcissist cry of “But it doesn’t apply to ME!” Is a sense of entitlement an emotion? In the latter case, we would have the paradox that, in some circumstances, it might be the lack of what is normally called an emotion that might lead to the plea of doing something wrong through being overcome by emotion.

If on the other hand, by emotion we mean not an emotion but an unbalanced will, without recognition of countervailing imperatives, then my question is “So who needs it?” We have all seen small children respond to frustration with temper tantrums. The wise parent does not yield on the grounds that the infant has “strong” emotions.

(Fiddle date-stamp to January 19, 2011)

Posted on December 3, 2020 at 15:33 by Hugo Grinebiter · Permalink
In: MONKEY BUSINESS, What Is This Thing Called Love?

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