QOTD (2012-11-17)

This blog is going through a phase as commonplace book for collecting all the different ways that people try to write about what love is. Here is Thomas Dixon, author of a great book called The Invention of Altruism and director of the Centre for the History of the Emotions at Queen Mary, London, talking about some themes that came out of a recent conference at his Centre:

In all of this, two themes that are close to my own heart emerged: the need to pay close attention to the language and categories of historical actors (which was emphasised by Laura Doan and others); and the importance of understanding theological and devotional terms and genres when trying to comprehend the lives of Victorian and post-Victorian subjects. Angharad Eyre’s analysis of the place of love, emotion, and tears in the literatures of evangelical conversion, and Sue Morgan’s account of Maud Royden’s 1921 book Sex and Common Sense, her campaigns against ‘anti-somatic theology’, and her own unusual love life, both illustrated the complex but reinforcing relationships between theological and secular forms of love.

In thinking about the meaning of ‘love’, and how love has been made and remade in the past, the historian needs to keep all these complexities in mind. And my parting thought from the conference this week, as an historian of emotions, was that ‘love’ is not best thought of as an emotion at all. Perhaps Saint Augustine’s approach is better: to think of ‘love’ as an almost unknowable, underlying substance, out of which particular passions, feelings, emotions and experiences might arise….

Love is made in many ways, all of them at some level linguistic. The historian needs to listen carefully to the languages and dialects of the heart, through which love is called forth, expressed, made, and reinterpreted. Writing in her autobiography towards the end of her life, in her late seventies, Constance Maynard wrote that she supposed that psychoanalysts would say of her feelings that they revealed as ‘thwarted sex instinct’. Maynard rejected this language, preferring to write of the ‘hunger’ she had felt, which needed satisfying. That was clearly a spiritual need – a hungering and thirsting after righteousness – as much as a psychological one. To the end she feared that her great fault had been to prefer human to heavenly love.

This idea of listening as the guiding methodology of the history of the emotions is something I’m very interested in right now. In an essay I wrote for my supervisor this week, I discussed a move in the history of emotions away from structuralist frameworks shaped by anthropology or a version of psychoanalysis that envisions civilisation as the Oedipal family, and towards more multivalent analysis in which—or so I think—psychoanalysis endures not in translating regression and repression onto the social level, but in envisioning the relationship between historian and sources as an analytic one, in which listening both to the spoken and the unspoken and being alive to the possibilities of the transference are central. Joan Scott has an article in the last but one issue of History and Theory, called ‘The Incommensurability of Psychoanalysis and History’, in which she writes along these lines, citing theorists like Michel de Certeau and historians like Lyndal Roper who are particularly skilled at using psychoanalysis to ‘recognize one’s complicated connection to… others’. It’s this I want to keep in mind today as I go back to the archives and my work on Arthur Sidgwick’s diaries, but also as I negotiate relations among people living as well as long-dead.

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