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WHAT LITERATURE TEACHES US ABOUT EMOTION

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By Patrick Colm Hogan

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The Montréal Review, June 2011

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What Literature Teaches Us about Emotion by Patrick Colm Hogan (Cambridge University Press, 2011)  

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"Literature offers a veritable treasure trove of wisdom and insights about the nature and manifestations of human emotions, yet emotion researchers have been slow to explore this exciting domain. This book represents a groundbreaking attempt to bridge the gap between scientific research and complementary literary insights on emotions... The author takes us on an exhilirating journey of discovery of the subtleties, structure, and functions of emotions using an ingenious approach fusing art and science."

-- Joseph P. Forgas, University of New South Wales

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Li Ch'ing-Chao was one of the greatest poets of China. Writing nine hundred years ago, she reflected once on the coming of spring. Following both convention and an aesthetic interest most of us would share, she spoke of the plum blossoms, just opened into the warming air. But she immediately noticed that something was amiss. The petals were imperfect, crumpled, cracked in places-not destroyed, but not quite right. In the middle of great beauty, why did Li focus on these flaws? She explains, addressing her absent husband, "Twice in three years you missed the spring."

Months after his father died, Hamlet has not returned to his habitual exercise. He is sullen and difficult with his mother and stepfather, more like an adolescent than a thirty-year-old man. At the same time, he sends love tokens and amateur romantic verses to Ophelia.

In both these cases, emotion researchers would say that the poet is dealing with attachment. Attachment is, first of all, the bond that forms between small children and their caregivers. It is a crucial element in romantic love, and the terrible pain of grief is inseparable from attachment loss. Li's poem and Shakespeare's play-a play undoubtedly based in part on Shakespeare's own mourning for his dead son, Hamnet-are consistent with the careful research on attachment, romantic love, and grief undertaken in recent decades. The research suggests that Li and Shakespeare were keen observers.

But Li and Shakespeare also go well beyond the research. First, and most obviously, they integrate the experience of attachment, romantic love, and grief into complex, human situations. In other words, they locate these emotions in the sorts of lived worlds in which they actually occur. Li's sorrow over the absence of her husband is elaborated through a series of poems relating to her daily life, with its ordinary and extraordinary activities and events. This integration is important because it avoids the artificiality of surveys (Li is not one of a hundred people asked to fill out a questionnaire) or other typical research methods. Moreover, it points to further aspects of attachment and separation, aspects that may not be clear in the research.

There are several things to note about Li's observations on springtime. First, she clearly responds to the beauty of plum blossoms. But this does not give her the pleasure she would ordinarily experience. Why not? The suggestion of the poem is that a key part of attachment is the sharing of joy, including the pleasure of beauty. While some researchers have very recently come to recognize the importance of emotion sharing, much of that work has focused on negative emotions. Li takes us beyond that to the importance of sharing experiential delight and the close interconnection between this and attachment. Moreover, Li indicates that, when joy cannot be shared, it alters our attention to the source of joy itself. We become more aware of the flaws in the experience. Li sees the broken petals, focusing on them as a significant part of the scene, precisely because her husband is not there. This too is not unrelated to ideas from research in affective science. This is a case of "mood-congruent processing," our tendency to think sad thoughts when sad and happy thoughts when happy. But, here too, the literary work enriches the somewhat bare psychological principle, extending it to the very way we perceive the world.

Hamlet makes other points, but similarly enhances our understanding of attachment-this time in relation to grief, rather than the (grief-like) separation of romantic love. Hamlet's lack of exercise is in part a matter of the general lethargy that is part of sorrowful emotions. But there may also be a suggestion that Hamlet no longer has anyone with whom to share the manly accomplishments of competition. Here we perceive a further nuance in the relation between emotion sharing and attachment. It is not only joy, but pride that is contingent on the presence of an attachment figure. In this case, it is apt that the pride would be related to gender norms, since Hamlet's father was an accomplished soldier.

Hamlet's adolescent restiveness is perhaps more puzzling. But Shakespeare's representation of different aspects of Hamlet's character suggests the, so to speak, timelessness of attachment. Emotion researchers today emphasize the importance of "emotional memories." These are implicit memories that, when activated, lead us to re-experience the emotion from the earlier time. Emotional memories are crucial in grief. One of the things that Shakespeare aptly represents in Hamlet is that those emotional memories derive from all periods in a person's life. They are all jumbled up and contradictory. The ghost Hamlet sees is in part like his father when Hamlet was born and in part like his father at the time of his death, decades later. That incoherence is presumably a function of Hamlet's emotional response, the triggering of emotional memories. The same point holds for his conflicts with his Mother and the behavior that is often strange for his age.

To some extent, Hamlet's pursuit of Ophelia is part of this complex of activated emotional memories and their associated turmoil of feelings. But they are mostly something else. We grieve a lost attachment. But, faced with attachment loss, we may seek the comfort of new attachment also. Hamlet's approach to Ophelia becomes sexual and demeaning only after she has rejected him. Before that rejection, we have no reason to believe his affections are insincere. Rather, having lost his father (through death) and his mother (through remarriage), Hamlet presents us with an exemplary case of someone seeking a new, compensatory attachment relation. The importance of attachment substitutes is recognized by emotion researchers. But, here again, Shakespeare takes us beyond the research, showing us the ways in which grief may lead one to the sudden and painful longings that characterize adolescence. Moreover, Shakespeare shows the deep vulnerability of someone with such an attachment. Indeed, he suggests that a sexually predatory attitude (such as Hamlet's later behavior toward Ophelia) may not be a fundamental motivation in a case of this sort. Rather, it may be an angry response to an attachment wound (resulting from Ophelia's rejection)--particularly if that compounds an earlier attachment loss.

This book, published as part of a series treating the psychology of emotion, begins with an argument that literature is a great source of knowledge about emotion. Of course, one cannot simply rely on literary depictions of human feeling. However, in the context of converging research on emotion (from neuroscience, cognitive psychology, social psychology, and so on), the study of literature can integrate otherwise isolated findings, add further insights, and open up avenues of inquiry. Following this argument, the book goes on to outline a general account of emotion. The remaining chapters treat romantic love, grief, mirth, guilt, shame, jealousy, attachment, and compassion. These chapters set out to clarify the nature and operation of these socially and personally consequential emotions, often relating them to ethical issues as well. In the course of these chapters, the book considers seven of Shakespeare's plays in detail- Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, The Comedy of Errors, Othello, Macbeth, Measure for Measure, and The Tempest. It also takes up work from a range of other writers from different countries and historical periods-from ancient Greece through twelfth century China and fifteenth century Japan to modern Africa. As these cases indicate, literature provides us with an unparalleled source of potential knowledge about emotion. Emotion is too important to the quality of our lives for us to waste that resource.

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Patrick Colm Hogan is a professor in the Department of English, the Program in India Studies, the Program in Comparative Literature and Cultural Studies, and the Program in Cognitive Science at the University of Connecticut. He is the author of thirteen books, including The Mind and Its Stories: Narrative Universals and Human Emotion, hailed by Steven Pinker of Harvard University as "a landmark in modern intellectual life."

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