Thursday, December 31, 2015

The Book of Human Emotions by Tiffany Watt Smith

The massive Eggborough coal fired power station recently announced its closure. On being asked how they felt, the miners chorused, "devastated." A West Sussex family were "devastated" just before Christmas to realise that they would have to leave the country and return to city living in London. The death of Pavel Srnicek, former Newcastle United goalkeeper, left the manager "absolutely devastated". The one and only David Beckham found himself equally "devastated" by the Paris atrocities. The adjective "devastated" has become a media cliche, which many grasp at as if it is the ultimate tragic emotion that can be felt. Unfortunately, for the many, "devastated" isn't an emotion and if the grieving were asked to enlarge on their devastation, they probably would have little to offer as an explanation.

The experience of personal devastation is best described by John Donne in Holy Sonnet XIV. Well aware that devastation means "to be made empty" and refers to warfare and the sacking of homes, Donne describes himself as "an usurpt towne". He longs for God to "enthrall" him, enslave him in effect, and finally "ravish" him, with ravishment carrying a double sense entwined: rapture, rape, intercourse and defilement. As a result of this devastation, in having his male body assaulted like a town, Donne believes that his feminine soul will be made chaste once more.

The contrast between Donne's metaphysical sense of being "devastated" and the modern usage of the word shows how clumsily we approach emotions (as a culture). Though there was a period some years ago during in which "emotional intelligence" became a buzz phrase, the education of emotions has waned. The deterioration has accompanied the dying of the Arts in education. Emotional training or an awareness of "felt form" has no place in the new Govian, Conservative curriculum with its emphasis on facts and bits of knowledge. Teachers now teach students the recognition of similes and how to write a simile rather than how to emotionally respond to a poet's usage of a simile or use a simile to convey a personal, emotional response in their own writing.

Tiffany Watt Smith's The Book of Human Emotions (2015) is a wonderful antidote to the current devastation of education. Written in association with The Wellcome Trust for (mental) health, the book is a collection of short, well-researched, wise and funny essays on emotions and how they relate in real life. The book is compiled in alphabetical order, Abhiman to Zal, from wounded dignity to melancholy. The book benefits from incisive thoughts and clear illustrations...and ranges across emotions from diverse cultures. In her essay on Resentment, Watt Smith captures its depths and dangers, seeing how this emotion underlies the terrorism of organisations such as ISIS; and how the correct response is to pin it down as a low-status bitter response, to deny its fake heroism (exactly how the terrorist recruits: by up-grading spiteful emotions into glorious ideals). The book is also characterised by a witty understanding of language and emotions rooted in words-- Disgruntlement is derived from the grunting of pigs! 

In reading this book, the reader not only discovers a new emotional language, but experiences emotions too. There is Joy in reading Watt Smith's thoughts on Fagu...compassionate care...and Sadness in Awumbuk, the heavy fog left when someone dear departs from a place. For the Baining people of Papua New Guinea, departure is a time for filling bowls with fresh water to absorb the heavy air that is left behind (in the mind and physical world). The Book of Human Emotions is a humane and wise book, one that is emotionally satisfying to read. It is best read an essay per day, at a time allocated for quite thought, or flicked through so as the many surprises gather.

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