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variations on the pathetic fallacy


Although we were going upriver to Blois, that day, we had a couple of hours to kill, so we decided to take the train downriver to Saumur and poke around. We got out at the station and headed up the hill to the bridge, which is mighty long. Its left flank crosses one branch of the Loire river, then it runs through an island, then it crosses the right bank of the river.

Saumur is a physically capacious town, with an infrastructure, as a newspaper article in the Petit Temps, December 9, 1893, noted, that could easily support 100,000 people – but like the clothes of  a person who has some wasting disease, the infrastructure is much too large for its current size. What happened to Saumur was that Louis XIV revoked the Edict of Nantes, which had the effect of outlawj g or severely restricting Protestantism. Since half of Saumur at that time was Protestant,  most of the population left. It was the worst thing ever to happen to Saumur. Even the owners of the story-book castle above the town were affected. Since then, the most celebrated fact about Saumur is that the model for Balzac’s Pere Grandet might have lived there. It is slim pickings when a town’s reputation is basically an outtake from the Comedie humaine, but that’s Saumur.

As you cross the left flank bridge, you will notice – you will be forced to notice – that the vast bridge, which is supposed to span one of France’s largest rivers, now spans a mere river bed, overgrown with scrawny vegetation and hosting a few mosquito breeding pools of water. As you cross the right flank bridge, the Loire, which flows beneath it, is visibly shallow, and the banks of the river have most significantly encroached upon the trickle that still claims the name of a river.

France is hot this summer. And France is dry this summer, with a dryness that emerges, in the papers, under various bureaucratic formula as a “crisis”.

« The Loire is perhaps a long tranquil river… but for the moment, it is drying out. The préfecture of Maine-et-Loire has been taking, each week since the commencement of July, new measure ordering water restrictions. Each one is more drastic than the last. »

The Loire is suffering.


When I write “the Loire is suffering”, I am conscious that, according to English literature classes, I am committing the “pathetic fallacy.” That term was coined by John Ruskin in his book, Modern Painters (1856). Ruskin goes about coining his phrase by attacking, firstly, the use of the terms “subjective” and “objective”, suspicious immigrants from German philosophy, and then returning to good plain English:

“… we may go on at our ease to examine the point in question,—namely, the difference between the ordinary, proper, and true appearances of things to us; and the extraordinary, or false appearances, when we are under the influence of emotion, or contemplative fancy;[54] false appearances, I say, as being entirely unconnected with any real power or character in the object, and only imputed to it by us.



For instance—


"The spendthrift crocus, bursting through the mould

Naked and shivering, with his cup of gold." [55]

This is very beautiful and yet very untrue. The crocus is not a spendthrift, but a hardy plant; its yellow is not gold, but saffron. How is it that we enjoy so much the having it put into our heads that it is anything else than a plain crocus?”

Ruskin’s other example of this false perception – what he does not call projection, but which I, having read Freud, will- has to do with water. The example is from Tennyson’s Alton Locke:

“It will appear also, on consideration of the matter, that this fallacy is of two principal kinds. Either, as in this case of the crocus, it is the fallacy of wilful fancy, which involves no real expectation that it will be believed; or else it is a fallacy caused by an excited state of the feelings, making us, for the time, more or less irrational. Of the cheating of the fancy we shall have to speak presently; but, in this chapter, I want to examine the nature of the other error, that which the mind admits, when affected strongly by emotion. Thus, for instance, in Alton Locke,—


"They rowed her in across the rolling foam—

The cruel, crawling foam."

The foam is not cruel, neither does it crawl. The state of mind which attributes to it these characters of a living creature is one in which the reason is unhinged by grief. All violent feelings have the same effect. They produce in us a falseness in all our impressions of external things, which I would generally characterize as the "Pathetic fallacy."”

Ruskin is a sage, which means that his thought, stretched through some forty volumes of the collected works, is a matter of a sort of gestalt rather than a set of logically derived conclusions. Like other Victorian sages, such as Huxley, one feels that underneath the common sense that dismisses German philosophy and gets right down to true and false appearances, there is a distinct strain of Protestant iconoclasm. In Ruskin’s case, this co-exists uneasily with his ideological elevation of the medieval period as the touchstone for the best social order: an organic order, far different from industrial capitalism. In his autobiography, Ruskin calls himself a “red Tory” – the red part being the aforesaid disgust with capitalism, and the Tory part being his indissoluble Walter Scott-ism. His rejection of an art and language of false appearance, summed up as the pathetic fallacy, is all about the common sense tradition of English philosophy. But his problem comes from annexing common sense to his theory of the heightened and heightening  truths of art. Ruskin solves his conundrum by another division, between first rate art in which the passion that drives the projection is genuine, and second rate art, in which the projection is driven mechanically, by a lower need – the need to be, in this or that instance, artsy.


My belief that the Loire is suffering, I’d contend, is not an instance of either good or bad pathetic fallacy – but a contention against the century in which passion and feeling have been reduced to events – phenomena or epiphenomena – which require a neural substrate.

The discourse on emotion, in the West, is characterized by the strong break, at the end of the early modern period, between a theory of temperament based on “spirits” of some kind in the human body – and in the bodies of certain animals – and the theory of emotion based, eventually, on motions in the neural network. “Emotion” itself, as a word to cover the gamut of the passions, is a nineteenth century invention. Like the temperament theory, it encodes the idea that the internal life is defined by motion itself.

This, however, drives us up to a gap in our explanations. How does neural motion make an emotion? Is the Loire unable to suffer because its motions are not of a certain arrangement and material type? Or is this all a user illusion?