disciplined squads of emotion

by pieces of moments

I love the work of Marcel Proust. In fact, I used to get lovingly teased by my friends who, in the midst of conversation, would turn to me and inquire of me: “What would Proust say?”

As a musician and a writer (and someone who dabbled heavily in visual arts from the time I was old enough to hold a pencil), I spend a lot of time (my whole life, basically) contemplating and sorting through memories and emotions. Those two elements create the fuel by which art is created, after all. Perhaps this is why I resonate so much with the statement (by the recently mentioned T.S. Eliot):

This is the use of memory:
For liberation—not less of love but expanding
Of love beyond desire, and so liberation
From the future as well as the past.

Proust, of course, is known for his massive multi-volume tome, À la recherche du temps perdu, usually translated into English alternately as In Search of Lost Time or Remembrance of Things Past. In the first book, Swann’s Way, the protagonist takes a sip of tea and is suddenly jolted out of his present world into a vague memory of the past he has yet to decipher:

Many years had elapsed during which nothing of Combray, save what was comprised in the theatre and the drama of my going to bed there, had any existence for me, when one day in winter, as I came home, my mother, seeing that I was cold, offered me some tea, a thing I did not ordinarily take. I declined at first, and then, for no particular reason, changed my mind. She sent out for one of those short, plump little cakes called ‘petites madeleines,’ which look as though they had been moulded in the fluted scallop of a pilgrim’s shell. And soon, mechanically, weary after a dull day with the prospect of a depressing morrow, I raised to my lips a spoonful of the tea in which I had soaked a morsel of the cake. No sooner had the warm liquid, and the crumbs with it, touched my palate, a shudder ran through my whole body, and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary changes that were taking place. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, but individual, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory–this new sensation having had on me the effect which love has of filling me with a precious essence; or rather this essence was not in me, it was myself. I had ceased now to feel mediocre, accidental, mortal. Whence could it have come to me, this all-powerful joy? I was conscious that it was connected with the taste of tea and cake, but that it infinitely transcended those savours, could not, indeed, be of the same nature as theirs. Whence did it come? What did it signify? How could I seize upon and define it?

I drink a second mouthful, in which I find nothing more than in the first, a third, which gives me rather less than the second. It is time to stop; the potion is losing its magic. It is plain that the object of my quest, the truth, lies not in the cup but in myself. The tea has called up in me, but does not itself understand, and can only repeat indefinitely with a gradual loss of strength, the same testimony; which I, too, cannot interpret, though I hope at least to be able to call upon the tea for it again and to find it there presently, intact and at my disposal, for my final enlightenment. I put down my cup and examine my own mind. It is for it to discover the truth. But how? What an abyss of uncertainty whenever the mind feels that some part of it has strayed beyond its own borders; when it, the seeker, is at once the dark region through which it must go seeking, where all its equipment will avail it nothing. Seek? More than that: create. It is face to face with something which does not so far exist, to which it alone can give reality and substance, which it alone can bring into the light of day.

Our memories never leave us. They may play hide and seek, but they do not abandon us. They are called up by the most strange and abstruse means. We often think of the adage, “those who do not know their history are doomed to repeat it” as pertaining only to historical world events, dictatorships, wars, laws passed, land possessed, etc. However, we each have a litany of personal history, a mixture of bad and good experiences. We, in our individual lives, as just as doomed to repeat history as the leader of a country if we lack understanding, not only of, but for, the past. And what is a country anyway but a collective of individuals in community on various levels? We can have the experience but miss the meaning. Memories always contain, or unleash, emotions. Emotions, if used correctly, can reveal deep truths to us about what we value.

I enjoy aspects of modern American living as much as the next person. Obviously I enjoy technology as I am using it right now to communicate with you. However, it seems that within our over-scheduled lives we have lost the ability to realize the importance of memory, to use it as a means toward our liberation from repeating wrongs done unto us, or wrongs we have afflicted on one another, as well as our means to knowing what gives us sorrow and what gives us deep joy, or every emotion in between. This translates to the larger picture of a state and country as well. We lack the time to invest in understanding ourselves, and thus are not able to fully understand others. We schedule ourselves out of our own lives. I certainly have been guilty of that, and not surprisingly, my emotional life and value system suffered.

This is why art is important. This is why every child should be given the tool of art, and why every adult should find room for it in their lives. Art knows not time. It cannot be rushed. It occupies a space outside of “to do” time in a meaningful way, allowing for processing memories and emotions, which thus can end up being a means to our liberation from the past as well as liberating our future from simply repeating cycles (in other words, we are able to construct new futures aligned with our values, rather than perpetuating bad, or just old, habits).

I’ve been working on a project for a while now, and am still very much in the midst of it all. I mentioned it briefly here some time ago at the tail end of an article. It has to do with emotions, art, and the general improvement of individual life, and therefore community life, via using the space art provides to explore emotions, which then lead us to understand and pinpoint what we really value in our lives.

It all started about seven years ago when I took a philosophy seminar on the Phenomenologist, Edith Stein. The principles of Phenomenology appeal very much to my worldview, and Stein’s theories on the differentiation between feelings and emotions, empathy, and the importance of those toward creating relationships our value systems and consequently to each other, made a world of sense to me, particularly in relation to my life as an artist. It still does, which is why I was delighted to have “accidentally” picked up the book Upheavals of Thought: The Intelligence of Emotions by University of Chicago law professor, Martha Nussbaum.

The work of Nussbaum was introduced to me during a panel lecture this fall regarding the criticism and evaluation of art. Originally I was looking for an entirely different book by Nussbaum (Love’s Knowledge) that had been mentioned by one of the panelists, however, my local library only had Upheavals of Thought: The Intelligence of Emotions. Fortunate. Very fortunate. As it turned out, Nussbaum basically picked up where Stein left off and elaborated. I’m still working my way through, and as I continue my work on emotions and values in relation to the medium of art, you’ll see related posts here.

What I can tell you right now is that I do heartily believe in emotions as extremely powerful evaluative tools. Emotions often get a bad rap. They are often blamed for hasty decisions, words spoken but wishfully retracted, racing heartbeats, or raised voices. Certainly, they can cause great and far reaching damage if they are unchecked and undisciplined, but that could be said of anything if abused. They are upheavals, which is why the title of Nussbaum’s book is so appropriate. However, most people never realize the positive power of those same emotions to reveal to them what is really important to them – their values (also, there is a difference between feelings and emotions, which I will get to eventually, but in short, feelings are generally more fleeting and are not attached to values, while emotions are always attached to a value). If one can learn how to cultivate her/his emotional life (which I think can be accomplished at least in part through participation on any level in the arts), discipline (Nussbaum argues for a “neo-Stoic” approach to emotions, thus balancing the chaos of emotions with control) and nurture it, one of the most potent tools toward Understanding (with a capital ‘U’) will emerge, and that tool can then be used to construct a life perfectly aligned with what the individual claims to value. Therefore actions will match up with words, and that life will speak loudly.

As a side note I have been thinking a lot more about community lately, and this study of the importance of being attuned to our emotions (and also to the emotions of others) resonates with how to build stronger relationships, and thus stronger communities. If something does not personally matter, or have value, to us we do not feel any kind of emotion toward it at all – it’s like hotel furniture. It exists, end of story. Therefore, if something stirs emotion in us (whether we allow ourselves to feel it, or suppress it out of fear) it not only indicates value, but proves that we are not autonomous. We are not rocks and islands. We need other people because they play roles in our lives helping us to become better men and women. Otherwise people end up living hotel-like lives where nothing really belongs to them, nothing impacts them. To suspend emotion is to suspend attaching value and to not have value is to shun life. Don’t we want to live in homes with heirlooms, or pieces made by friends? For an example, wouldn’t our actions toward the homeless in our communities change if we valued them as fellow human beings rather than distancing them as being “other”? If our actions (fueled by values) changed, how would our communities change? I think about this because every day on my way to and from work I see the same homeless man. He’s not mentally unstable, just down on his luck. I decided to stop walking past him and begin engaging with him, asking him his name, assigning him personhood. Now, in a unique sense, we’re neighbors. Good neighbors make strong communities.

As you can see by the length of this article, there is a lot to think about in the exploration of this topic. I hope, though, to learn something deeper about my experience of life through this, and come up with a strong argument for why I personally believe the arts are vital to our communities.

To wrap it up, here is something of what Nussbaum has to say, in her own words:

A lot is at stake in the decision to view emotions in this way, as intelligent responses to the perception of value. If emotions are suffused with intelligence and discernment, and if they contain in themselves an awareness of value or importance, they cannot, for example, easily be sidelined in accounts of ethical judgment, as so often they have been in the history of philosophy. Instead of viewing morality as a system of principles to be grasped by the detached intellect, and emotions as motivations that either support of subvert our choice to act according to principle, we will have to consider emotions as part and parcel of the system of ethical reasoning. We cannot plausibly omit them, once we acknowledge that emotions include in their content judgments that can be true or false, and good or bad guides to ethical choice. We will have to grapple with the messy material of grief and love, anger and fear, and the role these tumultuous experiences play play in thought about the good and the just. {pages 1-2, Upheavals of Thought: The Intelligence of Emotions}