Saturday, August 04, 2007

emotion among the moderns: note to self

I'm warnin ya/
Style waits for no bitch – Kimberly Jones

Last night I was coming out of Whole Foods, stocked with beer and fish, and ran into a reader and friend of this site, and his wife. We all shot the shop shit for a while as a nice Austin day dwindled into nighttime tv all over the hillsides and through every home and street of the burbs. And this reader warned me against featuring posts with the redoubtable Wundt, since you could stick a warning on such posts – terminal boredom ahead.

But I defended myself and did my rap about the abuse of happiness essay that is growing in my head. And I figure I should get that rap down, cause, as Lil Kim says, I don’t want a flaw in my flow.

The rap goes something like this. Before the early modern period, the aspirational structure for most people had to do not with acquiring goods or changing positions, but with growing older. That structure for the feudal world developed complex roles, or what I’d call myths, appropriate to that aging process. Accordingly, the social sense of the passions was tied to the possibilities presented by this age specific, gender specific, position specific world. But in the early modern period, that aspirational structure began to come apart as the feudal system began to come apart. That you could aspire to rise or to change your position created an aspirational drift, so to speak. It was no longer the case that one or one’s family would remain in a natural position – and after the terrible famines that struck in the middle of the eighteenth century, it even became the case that people on the bottom (save for the Irish) in the developed countries would probably not starve. As the old structures became unstuck, one sees two synchronic effects: on the one hand, the old notions about the passions give way to a new way of thinking about feelings. The importance I’m giving to volupte in the seventeenth century is that it operated as an entering wedge to de-structure the ways in which the passions were socially experienced – which means socially controlled, socially interpreted, socially ordered. At the same time, the roles or mythical figures of aging were shaken up. One of the oddly unstudied effects of the creation of a manufacturing and marketing system – a production system that underlies our economies today, and underlay all developed economies, communist or capitalist, in the twentieth century – is that the older forms of age segmentation, that is, the making sense of youth, of the middle of life, of old age, according to an agreed set of tropes, roles and stories began to dissolve. This dissolution speeded up after 1870 – that is, with the beginning of the consumer culture phase of capitalism.

So, what I am doing is trying to describe dimensions of a multi-dimensional event – in particular, the symbiosis between two things: the making of happiness into a keystone emotion, a norm, and the making of youth into a keystone age segment, into a secular virtue along almost the entire length of the lifespan. Very odd things.

Looking at how the vocabulary of negative and positive emotions emerged from psychology to pursue an astonishing career in folk psychology is simply one entrance to this Castle.

Friday, August 03, 2007

From Bain to Fechner: parade of the nineteenth century dustbunny psychologists

Having done some more research on the fascinating topic of origin of the concept of the negative and positive feelings in psychology, LI has decided that our previous post on Wundt was way too hasty, too abbreviated, too brutal in the way we are handling the evidence, too bracketed from the question that we really want to answer here, which is not so much a question of who invented these terms as the question, why did they catch on? What happened, in the latter part of the nineteenth century, that people began to talk about their feelings in this way? How was this talk diffused? How did it so quickly gain a footing outside the field of psychology; a field, at that time, dominated by philosophers and lacking the institutional embedding in corporations and universities that it now has? LI has gotten ambitious: we want to turn this topic into a whole, publishable essay. And we’d appreciated attacks, hinged or unhinged, on these things. Commenters, on your marks!

To give a sense of the parameters of the question set I’m pursuing, let’s quote, once more, that remark of Carroll Izard’s:

“Scientists as well as laymen agree that there are both positive and negative emotions. While this very broad classification of emotions is generally correct and useful, the concepts of positiveness and negativeness as applied to the emotions require some qualification…”

This remark would not have made any sense in 1850, but it can now be claimed as the most banal and uncontroversial state of the case. That, in a nutshell, is what I am after here.

To get our bearings, let’s go first to what the state of the case was in the 1850s. There’s an essay on Alexander Bain by John Stuart Mill, published in the Edinburgh review in 1859, that nicely summarizes the ‘return’ of scientific psychology to Britain, after the energy of the Scottish school was exhausted and the Comtean positivists seemed to dominate the field in Europe. After praising Bain’s luminous explanation of the nervous system and expounding his defense of associationism against the apriori school – which would, in today’s terms, be the defense of empiricism against Chomsky’s rationalism – Mill remarks on the disappointing results that derive from applying associationism to the emotions. But Bain, in Mill’s view, is at least a good natural historian of the emotions:

“He has, however, written the natural history of the emotions with great felicity, in a manner at once scientific and popular; insomuch that this part of his work presents attractions even to the unscientific reader. Mr. Bain’s classification of the emotions is different from, and more comprehensive than, any other which we have met with. He begins with “the feelings connected with the free vent of emotion in general, and with the opposite case of restrained or obstructed outburst;”[*] the feelings, in short, of liberty or restraint in the utterance of emotion; which he regards as themselves emotions, and entitled, on account of their superior generality, to be placed at the head of the catalogue. He next proceeds to one of the simplest as well as most universal of our emotions—Wonder. The third on his list is Terror. The fourth is “the extensive group of feelings implied under the title of the Tender Affections.”[†] The consideration of these feelings is by most writers blended with that of Sympathy; which is carefully distinguished from them by our author, and treated separately, not as an emotion, but as the capacity of taking on the emotions, or mental states generally, of others. A character may possess tenderness without being at all sympathetic, as is the case with many selfish sentimentalists; and the converse, though not equally common, is equally in human nature. From these he passes to a group which he designates by the title, Emotions of Self: including Self-esteem, or Self-complacency, in its various forms of Conceit, Pride, Vanity, &c., which he regards as cases of the emotions of tenderness directed towards self, and has largely illustrated this view of them. The sixth class is the emotions connected with Power. The seventh is the Irascible Emotions. The eighth is a group not hitherto brought forward into sufficient prominence, the emotions connected with Action. “Besides the pleasures and pains of Exercise, and the gratification of succeeding in an end, with the opposite mortification of missing what is laboured for, there is in the attitude of pursuit, a peculiar state of mind, so far agreeable in itself, that factitious occupations are instituted to bring it into play. When I use the term plot-interest, the character of the situation alluded to will be suggested with tolerable distinctness.”[*] This grouping together of the emotions of hunting, of games, of intrigue of all sorts, and of novel-reading, with those of an active career in life, seems to us equally original and philosophical. The ninth class consists of the emotions caused by the operations of the Intellect. The tenth is the group of feelings connected with the Beautiful. Eleventh and last, comes the Moral Sense.”

These categories have certainly lost their sway with us, There is something almost camp about the emotions attendant upon hunting and novel reading, as though the British Raj were an event in the natural history of human emotion. But the most important thing is that there are no dimensions here upon which to locate the feelings. Nowhere is there any mention of positive and negative emotions, or their distribution along a continuum. Rather, we have a sort of gathering of emotions rather like the flavors in a recipe book.

Already, though, in Germany the terms of the science of feeling were changing. Heidelberger, in his biography of that very strange man, Gustav Fechner, points out that Fechner was strongly impressed by Ampere’s division of electrical current into ‘mathematical entitities”. In Fechner’s “Preliminaries to the science of Aesthetics (Vorschule der Aesthetik), Fechner imposes a similar structure on “Lust” and “Unlust”:

“Now there are many concepts and connected expressions which are related to things and relationships according to the measure of the current or immediate yield of pleasure or pain they produce, as, after the pleasure side, the pleasant, sweet, appropriate, dear, stimulating, nice, pretty, beautiful, etc., to which correspond an equivalent number of pains. We conceive both as aesthetic categories and distinguish them as positive and negative. “

Similarly, there are positive and negative practical categories, or those that yield pleasure or pain as the result of the consequences of things and relationships – giving us terms like useful or advantageous.

Fechner was an important figure in the intellectual life of the later 19th century. James Clerk Maxwell actually wrote an essay using the Fechner coinage, Psychophysik; Wundt, of course, also adopted the term.

Yet the correspondence of negative and positive quantities to pain and pleasure and the expressions connected to them did not entirely develop from Fechner’s rather simple idea. Which of course is something I will take up in another post.

PS Ah, I have spotted a mention of positive and negative qualities attached to feeling before 1850, in one of Kant’s pre-critical essays: “an attempt to introduce negative quantities into Worldly Wisdom "[Weltweisheit, an odd word for philosophy] of 1763. In the second section, he goes from considering the mathematical representation of the attraction and repulsion of bodies to Seelenlehre, considering whether ‘pain [Unlust] is purely a lack of pleasure, or whether it is a cause of the robbery of the latter, thaqt is in itself something positive not purely the contradictory opposite of pleasure, to which it is opposed in our interpretation of the real [Realverstande], and thus whether pain could be called a negative pleasure?” Kant considers cases, including the taking of a medicine that ‘tastes like pure water” but that gives a pleasant feeling to the imbiber over the expected state of health. ‘in the taste he doesn’t feel any pleasure, but the lack of it is not a pain.” Then Kant instances the story of the Spartan woman who is brought her son on his shield – the son having suffered a glorious death. “Name the degree of pleasure arising from the first cause alone 4a, and the pain a simple negation of it = 0, thus we have, taking them both together, the value of the satisfaction at 4a+0 = 4a, and thus the pleasure was not at all diminished by the report of the death, which is false.”

This does prefigure the pain/pleasure calculus of Bentham. Yet this instance lacks a sense of the continuum and direction of feelings. This is an echo of that theological premise that evil is, ultimately, the power of nothing.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

libertarians, rally round! our freedoms are being threatened

LI was reading the Elle article in the NYT for professional reasons – you never know when you can use information about a magazine’s masthead changes – when we were pulled up short – or perhaps the word is socked in the jaw – by the following graf:

The September issue includes a new column by Nina Garcia, the fashion director whose manicured claws appear on “Project Runway,” and some intriguing articles, notably Megan Deem’s critical report on, a Web site that connects women with men who would like to sponsor their breast implants.”

And people say that American men are uncharitable!

This put a whole new light on the current battle, by the administration, to stifle the expansion of health care benefits to kids before it threatens to make them healthy. I think a congressman from LI’s great state put it best:

“Representative Pete Sessions, Republican of Texas, said the bill embodied the Democrats’ “vision for the future: socialized medicine and Washington-run health care.”

“The bill uses children as pawns in a cynical attempt to make millions of Americans completely reliant on government for their health care needs,” Mr. Sessions said.”

Can you believe those socialists? Children, innocent children, who desperately want the mumps, measles, tuberculosis, rickets, broken bones and other minor and major injuries to either carry them off or be healed solely by the magic of the marketplace are now being forced into totalitarian healthiness by the Dems. And then, right there in an article on Elle, we see that the demographic which, by all accounts, gives the Republicans its base of support – men – bestirring themselves from the bottom of their souls to contribute to a charitable cause – breast implants – without expanding the government. The libertarian in me joins with the humanitarian in dancing around an inner tree of liberty at the very thought.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

extinction beyond the zero - in the realm of the frozen erection

Three such chief directions may be distinguished; we will call them the direction of pleasurable and unpleasurable feelings, that of arousing and subduing (exciting and depressing) feelings, and finally that of feelings of strain and relaxation. Any concrete feeling may belong to all of these directions or only two or even only one of them. The last mentioned possibility is all that makes it possible to distinguish the different directions. The combination of different affective directions which ordinarily takes place, and ... influences which are due to the overlapping of feelings arising from various causes, all go to explain why we are perhaps never in a state entirely free from feeling, although the general nature of the feelings demands an indifference-zone. – Wundt, Outlines of Psychology.

In truth, the problem treated by them [the ‘psycho-physicists] is a special aspect of the problem, not its totality; they are inquiring whether, in the ‘transformation’ of pleasure into pain, and vice versa, there is, in the passage from one contrary to the other, a point of neutrality or indifference. Wundt graphically represents the phenomena by a curve: the portion of this curve above the line of the abscissa has a positive value, and corresponds to the development of pleasure; the portion below corresponds to the development of pain, and has a negative value…” Ribot, The Psychology of the Emotions.

In the beginning, the emotions were neither positive nor negative. So where did the classification come from, how did it spread, and how has it become so popular? Why are we supposed to think that there is a straight continuum not only between pleasure and pain, but between ‘positive emotions’ – happiness, serenity, love – and ‘negative emotions’ – anger, boredom, unhappiness? Couldn’t we just as easily evoke a continuum between anger and boredom? Which one would then be the positive one? Which the negative? And what does continuum mean?

When Wundt graphed a ‘feeling space’ in order to develop his three dimensional model of emotions in the 1890s, he was operating under the same influence that affected Jevons, which was to the field theory of Maxwell and Faraday. Philip Mirowski’s series of books on this topic, as well as Silja Graupe’s Basho of Economics, exhibit in a critical light the price to be paid for adapting economic theory to parameters analogous to those used to discuss energy – with utility being the analogue to energy, or being a ‘field of vector potentials.” Similarly, Wundt was concerned with the ‘direction’ of feeling – not its qualitative, or phenomenological side. In 1879, Wundt founded a psychological laboratory at the University of Leipzig in order to study and measure feeling. There had already been some use of scientific instruments to evoke and register feeling. The mad Dr. Guillaume Benjamin Amand Duchenne had used electric shock, applied to certain muscles of the face and neck, to provoke fearful grimaces in subjects. He had a certain Adrien Tournachon photograph these descendents of the medieval gargoyles. But the correlation between an expression and a mood – a way of making the mood come to the surface of the body, so to speak – was not what Wundt’s laboratory was about, in particular. Also, Wundt didn’t have a peculiar theory of the divine teleology of the facial muscles. What Wundt did have, by the 1890s, was a three dimensional model of feeling that, in contemporary psychology, has been reduced to two dimensions – valence and intensity.

You will notice that valence is an odd word, a word from chemistry. Psychology has a beggar's habit of borrowing scientific jargon to dress up commonplace notions, much as French writers used to insert a ‘du” or “de” in their name, to imply nobility.

However, Wundt’s work was not exactly on everybody’s lips. The story of how negative and positive emotions got their valance is the story of how psychology blended into the fabric of modern industrial society – whether capitalist or communist. There is some truth to the way this issue is handled in standard books on emotions, as for instance in Carroll Izard’s Human Emotions (Izard is a very influential psychologist):

“Scientists as well as laymen agree that there are both positive and negative emotions. While this very broad classification of emotions is generally correct and useful, the concepts of positiveness and negativeness as applied to the emotions require some qualification…”

Indeed. To bring out this history – which is to tell the story of how happiness became the triumphant, the keystone feeling – is to feel, deep inside the multiplex of modernity, the throb of several superimposed currents, tides, the locked routines of control and command, the layout of office spaces, the psychology of incentives, advertising, and weaponry, the never before achieved trick of getting populations to shell out good money to build the tools for their own extinction, a silent extinction beyond the zero indeed, all the while becoming happier and happier.

“Now ordinarily, according to tradition in these matters, the little sucker would have de-conditioned. Jamf would have, in Pavlovian terms, “extinguished” the hardon reflex he’d built up, before he let the baby go. Most likely he did. But as Ivan Petrovich himself said, not only must we speak of partial or of complete extinction of a conditioned reflex, but we must also realize that extinction can proceed beyond the point of reducing a reflex to zero. We cannot therefore judge the degree of extinction only by the magnitude of the reflex or its absence, since there can still be a silent extinction beyond the zero. Italics are Mr. Pointsman’s. – Gravity’s Rainbow

And that requires looking at the career of Kurt Lewin, among others. Which we will look at in our next post on this subject.

PS: Alan and I continue to debate happiness issues at his post here

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

From murdoch to valences

Though perhaps I shouldn’t write it, I’m rather happy about Murdoch’s purchase of the WSJ. In recent years, the ideological hardline, which used to be confined to the editorial page, spread to the cultural page – basically meaning that the children of Heritage Foundation wanks, the Ledeen Jr. generation, were writing the reviews. And LI was not. If Fox is any indication, Murdoch knows when to narrowcast – the news and editorials strictly for the dittohead crowd – and when to broadcast – the Simpsons, The American Batchelor (now with more tits and ass!) and other assorted goodies. So hooray! Time to query those guys. I wonder if my bud Eric has survived the past four years purge…

Okay, in the latest slo mo episode of Happiness Triumphant, the Aristotle years, Alan has replied to me and me to Alan on his site. As I was looking up stuff in psychology textbooks, it hit me that the canonical use of ‘valence’ terms – the use of positive to denote some emotions, and negative to denote others – must have a history that LI could track. You don’t read about ‘negative’ emotions and ‘positive’ emotions in the 18th century, or before. And for most of the 19th century, emotional talk might be about noble and ignoble emotions, or it might use the old Galenic vocabulary of temperaments (which, with major modifications, LI wants to get back to), but it doesn’t conform to the valence talk that is now the psychological norm. Of course, I could imagine a psychologist saying that valence talk is about scales of intensity, blah blah blah, and is translated into vulgar negative and positive talk by self help books – but that isn’t true. This is a typical passage from the Handbook of Emotions (Lewis, Haviland Jones):

“Results revealed that the imagery of negative emotions (fear, anger and sadness) was associated with higher EMG activity over the brow muscle regions than was the imagery of the positive emotions (happiness) (178)”

And since -except if you are a Hegelian – negative cancels out positive, the co-existence of a negative and positive emotional complex would seem to be ruled out, not to speak of the attractiveness of negative emotions. Even though occasionally a psychologist will come out of the cellar, when the dogs are quietly salivating, for a cigarette break and find that, uh, we live in a world in which people pay money to go to movies to be afraid – and they do extreme sporty things too – and they join armies and shit. At this moment, psychologists summon the vocabulary to make the obvious into a delightful bundle of confusing terms.

‘Second, valence is by no means a straightforward characteristic of emotisons. Fedman Barrett, for example, in a recent study found that

“First, the desirability of a mood and the hedonic quality [valence] of a mood are related, but not identical entities. Secondly, the desirability of a mood is also related to the level of arousal the mood denotes. Thirdly, desirability components are related to the self-report ratings of mood, but the ratings also reflect the hedonic tone and level of arousal describing the internal state of the respondents…”

Another way of stating this finding might be as follows: Just as there is a goal-relevant type of emotional intensity, there would appear to be a goal-relevant type of emotional valence, what Feldman Barrett calls ‘desirability” as opposed to “hedonic tone”. Fear, for example, may be inherently unpleasant in some sense, bring about, in many cases, various intensities of ‘aversive arousal (Lang 1995). But it is also apparent that, in some instances, fear is sought out and enjoyed. Bungee jumpers, spectators of a horror or suspense film, and roller coaster riders routinely experience pleasure in the fear induced by the chosen activity.”

In this way, like Columbus discovering the New World, William Reddy, the author of those immortal words (in The Navigation of Feeling), discovers the meaning of the word “rush”. I hope you showed his discovery to his teenage kids. They would be so proud! Will miracles never cease?

So LI has taken a gander at the roots of this cumbersome conceptual framework and found – gosh! – that about the time classical economics was re-formulating itself around a physics model that emphasized equilibrium among molecules, psychologists were also absorbing the models of energetics. More in a later post.

Monday, July 30, 2007


They all die.

LI has described in an earlier post how watching a series on PBS that showed Ingmar Bergman’s films up until 1965 had an alchemical effect on us, charged us with a sense of how exotic, exciting and essential it is to struggle with life and death, a truth that was buried as deeply as possible beneath the grass and the fill and the junk and the clay atop which our little Atlanta suburb was built. But bury a truth as deep as you want to, it will creep up and get into your living room, your milk, your cubicle, your computer, your war, your taxes, your children and the one thing that can never ever happen in the world, your death.
In 1989, Bergman staged Mishima’s play, Madame de Sade. In one of the scenes, some lines by one of Gunnar Ekelof’s poems, Etudes, was framed on the wall. Here is the 3rd section.

Each person is a world, peopled
by blind creatures in dim revolt
against the I, the king, who rules them.
In each soul thousands of souls are imprisoned,
in each world thousands of worlds are hidden
and these blind and lower worlds
are real and living, though not full-born,
as truly as I am real. And we kings
and barons of the thousand potential creatures within us
are citizens ourselves, imprisoned
in some larger creature, whose ego and nature
we understand a little as our master
his master. From their death and their love
our own feelings have received a coloring.

As when a great liner passes by
far out below the horizon where the sea lies
so still at dusk. And we know nothing of it
until a swell reaches us on the shore,
first one, then one more, and then many
washing and breaking until it all goes back
as before. Yet it is all changed.
So we shadows are seized by a strange unrest
when something tells us that people have left,
that some of the possible creatures have gotten free.

Translation by Robert Bly.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

book list

My friend Lorin, who edits over at FSG, pressed an ms into my hot hands a couple of years ago. It was Sam Lipsyte’s Home Land. Unfortunately, the number of ms. that are pressed into my hot little hands, plus the galleys that come in every week, are such that I have fallen into the bad habit of rarely publicizing anything. Also, I don’t really want LimitedInc to be too closely connected to my fading career in cultural journalism, since that would be too… well, boring for LI readers. Recently, Winn found Lipsyte’s novel hilarious and wrote a post on it that made me think. Especially this sentence:

"I know it's just more of that neurotic confessional crap which is all that is left of the American novel, but it's done from a funnier angle than Augusten Burroughs brutalizing the memory of everyone he ever knew for cash.”

Actually, I don’t think that is all that is left of the American novel. From my seat, the nineties were a really good decade for the American novel, while the naughties have been more disappointing. So I thought I’d list novels – not just American ones, and including translations – that you might want to check out since, say, 2003.

As I’ve already promoted, to the best of my ability, Roberto Bolano’s The Savage Detectives, let’s take that as a given. But for those with a taste for great nineteenth century novels should check out The Maias by Eça de Quierós (New Directions) which came out this month in a truly wonderful translation by Margareta Jull Costa, who has doggedly been trying to insert Quieros into our consciousness. For some reason, even good novel readers neglect the Iberian novels, even though Quieros, Clarin and Galdos should really be as known as Balzac Flaubert and Zola. Among other things, I love the way Quieros is kinaesthetically alive to the drift, the fatal drift, of the governing class he portrays in The Maias. Life is charming, even though, visibly, life is getting worse. And a certain fatal torpor stays every hand.

I liked Delillo’s Falling Man much more than the reviewers. Delillo has become a cause for certain reviewers, like James Wood in the New Republic, who dislike his influence. They hate his cynicism, as they see it, and they find the famous style – oh, how certain reviewers hate style in a novel – disgusting. There’s a naturalistic default in the review world, which I, actually, find disgusting. However, it is impossible, I think, to read the final chapter, which puts you first on the plane coming into the towers and then throws you into the confusion on the staircases, without being, well, winnowed, worked over. Yeah, the Falling man performance artist motif should have been shot – Delillo is best at spotting how weird normality is, and he goes astray when trying to spot how weird weird is – but it is the best novel on 9/11 so far, by far. Another very good debut novel which is structured around 9/11 is Sons and Other Flammable Objects by Porochista Khakpour , which is coming out in September. It is the story of a California-Iranian family, and Khakpour doesn’t know how to make it move after a certain point, but she’s gotten down certain things about the Persian diaspora, especially in the first half, which are excellent. The best thing in this novel is the portrayal of the mother, Lala. I know that woman – or such was my feeling while reading the novel. It is coming out in September.

Other novelists that have come out in the 00s that LI would recommend:
Adam Langer. Crossing California was, I thought, an amazing debut. Set among various highschoolers in Chicago during the time of the Great Hostage Crisis (a pretty unpromising setting), it had a theatrical, antic cast – the high school novel as masque.

Ellen Ullman’s The Bug. Best novel so far about the software engineering. Hey, there isn’t a lot of competition! Still, there you go.

Most beautifully written English (and American) novel of the decade so far is Line of Beauty by Alan Holinghurst. A novel about gay sex in the Thatcher days. And about class. And about what happened to the U.K. The recent festuche on the intertubes about confidence and experience should have referenced this novel. Holinghurst is the guy who wrote the Swimming Pool Library. Now, it is my experience that straight men are somehow afraid to read gay lit. But don’t be afraid, guys – sure, you’ll get the odd woody at the sex parts, but more from the fucking writing than the fucking. There are a few writers today – Banville, for instance – who could score the death of a fly into an apotheosis of all things mortal and beautiful. Holinghurst is one of them.

They gave a national book award to William Vollman’s Europa Central, and I was glad they did. But the novel before that, Argall (2003), Vollman told me in an interview I did with him, was his worst selling novel. It is, well, difficult. It is another telling of the Jamestown story – much different from Matthew Sharp’s Jamestown (I recommend Sharp’s book to all and sundry). But if you have the patience for the cod Elizabethan, it is a lovely thing, and full of Vollman’s obsessed take on violence and sex and sex and violence. Of course, I even liked his Tenderloin novel, but I have a high tolerance for water sports scenes.

Let’s finish this off with the obligatory reference to the rediscovery of Irene Nemirovsky (Suite Francaise) and the two novels of Gao Xingjian – One Man’s Bible and Soul Mountain. So, though far from exhaustive, there is a lot of fiction, recent fiction, out there And it isn’t all narcissistic journal entries snarkified into a narrative emphasizing, once again, that we lead and must forever lead thin, thin lives. Because I, too, hate that shit.

a little miss and the greatest orator: happiness again

In the Rhetoric, Aristotle takes a stab at illustrating happiness, and then defines it using the method one uses to describe organisms – he sorts through its various constituent parts. This being long before functional accounts of organisms, there isn’t any attempt to show the necessary connection of these parts or how their coordination brings about happiness. On the other hand, though in some ways a rather wild analysis, much of what Aristotle says has been adopted by economists to talk about well being. Happiness, regarded from the outside, then, and reduced to its most typical circumstances, looks something like to Aristotle:

It may be said that every individual man and all men in common aim at a certain end which determines what they choose and what they avoid. This end, to sum it up briefly, is happiness and its constituents. Let us, then, by way of illustration only, ascertain what is in general the nature of happiness, and what are the elements of its constituent parts. For all advice to do things or not to do them is concerned with happiness and with the things that make for or against it; whatever creates or increases happiness or some part of happiness, we ought to do; whatever destroys or hampers happiness, or gives rise to its opposite, we ought not to do.

We may define happiness as prosperity combined with virtue; or as independence of life; or as the secure enjoyment of the maximum of pleasure; or as a good condition of property and body, together with the power of guarding one's property and body and making use of them. That happiness is one or more of these things, pretty well everybody agrees.
From this definition of happiness it follows that its constituent parts are: -- good birth, plenty of friends, good friends, wealth, good children, plenty of children, a happy old age, also such bodily excellences as health, beauty, strength, large stature, athletic powers, together with fame, honour, good luck, and virtue. A man cannot fail to be completely independent if he possesses these internal and these external goods; for besides these there are no others to have. (Goods of the soul and of the body are internal. Good birth, friends, money, and honour are external.) Further, we think that he should possess resources and luck, in order to make his life really secure.”

Further in the Rhetoric, Aristotle elaborates – for instance, that wealth would consist of having plenty of coin and slaves. This concantenation has served as a useful guide to the limits of conceptual talk about happiness, but not a very good guide to its cause, or as an explanation, really, of the feeling of happiness and the use of happiness to describe these states. In other words, why should we call any of this happiness?

Hume elaborated a critique of Aristotle’s hierarchical notion of happiness and its attachment to certain conventional circumstances, in his essay, the Skeptic, that may well have been what Tolstoy was thinking of when he famously wrote, in Anna Karenin, that all happy families are alike. Hume’s skeptic claims:

“The inference upon the whole is, that it is not from the value or worth of the object, which any person pursues, that we can determine his enjoyment, but merely from the passion with which he pursues it, and the success which he meets with in his pursuit. Objects have absolutely no worth or value in themselves. They derive their worth merely from the passion. If that be strong, and steady, and successful, the person is happy. It cannot reasonably be doubted, but a little miss, dressed in a new gown for a dancing-school ball, receives as compleat enjoyment as the greatest orator, who triumphs in the spendor of his eloquence, while he governs the passions and resolutions of a numerous assembly.”

Hume’s comparison of the little miss and the orator is alive in the debate today about the relationship between wealth and happiness – which is a debate that is not very loud, and is pursued idly, but that does have to do with the very reason we feel we have to keep the treadmill of production going. Although distantly – long ago the governing class decided that the happiness or unhappiness produced by economic growth would have no relevance to the question of economic growth.

Now that we've all read Nietzsche, we may be disposed to give Aristotle points. We might see this view of happiness, which excludes any interior state and depends wholly on exterior circumstances, as consistent with that great, Homeric culture we all get a little nostalgic for, now and then. Hume's skeptic, in this view, is an example of the leveling that comes with the discovery of interiority. After all, one of the things about Aristotle's list is that it is very frankly about a triumphant aristocracy that could well be overwhelmed by slave revolt or exterior enemy, and would then be unhappy. There's no happiness in defeat. Except it turned out that there was - which may be why the Hellenic period, a period when the Greeks were defeated, was the golden age of the Stoics and Epicureans, both of whom held to notions of happiness that weren't tied so explicitly to the warrior ethos.

However, what interests me is that even with Aristotle, these circumstances are labeled with an affective word: happiness. For the Hebrews, for, say Job, those circumstances would be blessed - not happy. And for those Homeric Greeks - wouldn't they have talked of fortune? Of being fortunate?

Already, here, something is going on.


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