So, I’m supposed to be thinking about the talk I’m giving at a literary lunch next Tuesday at Rubyo’s restaurant in Newtown. Instead I’m completely consumed by the brain storms unleashed this week at the History of Heritage: Emotions in blood, stone & land collaboratory I went to in Hobart. Which is I guess what emotions do. (I was so overstimulated I didn’t get to sleep till after 5am on the last night.)
For a start, the form of the meeting was amazingly productive: a collaboratory, which is, as it suggests, a cross between collaboration and laboratory. It brought together a small number of practitioners (in heritage, art and museology) and scholars from archaeology, history, philosophy, music and literature in an intense two days of discussion. It involved about 25 people including organisers, there were 19 papers and two excursions (to Richmond and the Cascades Female Factory), which is partly what made for its intensity. And of course the subject matter provided the rest of the charge: emotions related to blood, stone and land.
I hadn’t planned to blog about it – especially given the 15 minute presentations were designed more to raise questions and search out connections than to present fully formed arguments – but I’ve decided to because I think it’s an excellent example of the power and role of the humanities in an era when they are so under threat. (And even more so following the Australian federal election which neatly preceded the collaboratory.)
I think what so affected me was realising the fact that while I’m drawn to literature (novels, poetry, drama) because of its emotional pull, I’d always assumed this rather than standing back to consider it.
My own academic work looks at the representation of land – as an active agent, Country – in the novels of Alexis Wright and Kim Scott, so ‘land’ was its most obvious link to the collaboratory. The particular novels I spoke about – Plains of Promise and Benang: From the heart – allude to land (‘plains’) and emotion (‘from the heart’) in their titles. And they are both centrally concerned with heritage, and with blood and bloodlines. But I had not yet considered them from the particular point of view of emotion, despite the fact that both writers had chosen to articulate their vision in fiction, not memoir or history, and so their formal choice was already about emotional engagement. And Benang is SO animated by anger, Plains of Promise more notable for an absence of emotion, for numbness, depression, madness. (Both novels are about the Stolen Generations.)
In a lovely moment of serendipity, when I was thinking about my paper PM Newton (in a brilliant piece for The Drum) mentioned Umberto Eco’s ‘Weeping for Anna Karenina‘, where he wrestles with the mystery of the emotional charge that fictional characters have over us. In it Eco quotes Alexandre Dumas pere, who on arriving in Marseilles in 1860 found the incarceration of his fictional hero Edmond Dantes (aka the Count of Monte Cristo) more memorialised than that of real historical people. And so commented in his memoirs:
‘It is the privilege of novelists to create characters who kill those of the historians. The reason is that historians evoke mere ghosts, while novelists create flesh-and-blood people.’
The papers at the collaboratory ranged from a discussion of the carvings on stones in medieval Orkney and a beautiful 15th century map designed (by John Hardyng) to show the ease of invading Scotland, which marked in the far north of Scotland the Castle of (Greek god) Pluto; to the transformation of Westminster Abbey from a church to a mausoleum and tourist site in early modern England and the use of music by Captain Alexander Maconochie to connect Norfolk Island convicts to their homeland and invoke nostalgia as a moral corrective; to the Gallipoli campaign in Australian consumer culture from 1915 to 1925 (its commercialisation was immediate) which was fascinating to consider from the point of view of the extraordinary revival of the ANZAC legend in the Australian public sphere from the 1980s (see historypunk for more on this).
The collaboratory was part of the Australian Research Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions, Europe 1100-1800. Because of course emotions have a history. They are not given. You only have to think of Shakespeare’s emotional terrain – the four humours – to realise how differently we think about the emotions today. And you only have to consider modern psychiatry, to know how centrally our conception of emotions governs our lives. A new book Coming of Age on Zoloft: How antidepressants cheered us up, let us down, and changed who we are is just one of thousands of examples of this.
One of my favourite emotional … metaphors? is the idea of demons, a medieval idea which leaks into our present thinking (see for example Sylvia Plath’s Letter to a Demon). And I find that Dr Juanita Ruys is making a study of The Secret Life of Demons as part of her work for the Centre of the History of the Emotions. Given the number of people (so many artists, poets, writers among them) who are wracked by ‘demons’, I think such studies are of vital importance.
As are our emotions themselves. One thing that struck me about this History of Emotions project is that the word ’emotion’ only came into currency in most European languages around 1500. This is a significant date for me. It marks the beginning of the rise of a new language in Europe – Hindu-Arabic mathematics – which set itself above the emotions, distinguished itself as an ‘objective’ conveyer of truth. It gave birth to the scientific revolution of the 16th century and the modern scientific world, where numbers have more credence than emotions.
This seems extraordinarily significant to me, at a moment when we human beings struggle to mobilise on a planetary scale to save our beleaguered earth, which is at the mercy of the logic of numbers and money, aka the rule of economic growth. Perhaps we do require new words for emotions never before experienced in order to make clear to us the extent of our planet’s peril, as environmental campaigner Anna Rose has argued. Solastalgia – coined by Australian philosopher Glenn Albrecht – is one such word. Solastalgia is the distress produced by environmental change, such as caused by mining or climate change. (The novels of Alexis Wright and Kim Scott are also about solastalgia, especially Wright’s new novel The Swan Book.)
On a lighter note, all this thinking about emotions – oxymoron? – is helping me to explain my undying fascination with the language of astrology, a thought prompted by reading about Eleanor Catton‘s Booker shortlisted novel The Luminaries. Catton structured the novel using astronomical charts (swoon). I absolutely love her take on astrology: ‘I like to think of the zodiac as having a lot in common with the Greek pantheon: less of a thing to be believed in, and more of a repository of cultural knowledge and history that is archetypal and mythic, and responsive to close study.’ And, I would add, a repository which provides one of the richest maps of human emotional life that I have ever encountered.