Thesis Musings: Let's talk passions

The use of passions. Written in French by J.F. Senault. And put into English by Henry Earl of Monmouth. An. Dom. 1649.

The use of passions. Written in French by J.F. Senault. And put into English by Henry Earl of Monmouth. An. Dom. 1649.

I've written about my experiences with anxiety and doctoral work previously, and if you wander about this website long enough you can find the topic of my thesis, but I've never shared anything explicitly related to my academic interests. I do this on purpose - in academia your ideas are your livelihood and so we have to be careful how much we share online in order to avoid giving away the store (so to speak). This work will be published, in its entirety either just as a thesis or a monograph and parts will hopefully be published in academic journals as well, so making sure your ideas are new and wholly original is very important. Obviously intellectual discussion - online, in casual meetings, or at conferences - is a necessary part of forging connections in your work, but there's also a certain amount of possessiveness in academia. If I regurgitate all of my doctoral work on this blog, anyone could come along and build upon those ideas (or even steal them) making my work old news before it even reaches print. All of this is to say that while I won't be talking about my work directly, I do plan to share some particularly interesting bits and pieces along the way. This blog is a place to talk about books and I'm lucky enough to make reading books (of a very specific kind) my career so some of my 'real life' reading is bound to inspire a few blog posts. Such as this one!

So...what the heck are the Passions?

Today I've been reading some of George Puttenham's The Art of English Poesie (1588) as well as an essay collection called Shakespearean Sensations and thinking about early modern passions*. Unfortunately, in a short rambling blog posts there's not really time enough to give a full description of the passions (if you're interested in reading an introductory overview, the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy has a good article on the topic). In brief: during the early modern period it was believed that emotions, called passions or affect, were controlled by bodily substances called humours, and that the passions were a constitutive part of selfhood. In fact many believed that the correct, i.e. strict, governing of the Passions was essential for living a good, or godly, life. Maybe this sounds vaguely interesting on its own, or maybe you think it's just plain weird. But when it comes to considering early modern English literature keeping the Passions in mind can make for some really fascinating readings, especially as the Passions were often in the forefront of the minds of the poets/writers themselves.

John Hall, translating Cassius Longinus in his 1652 book Of the Height of Eloquence, noted that poets 'must not only know very perfectly the agitations of his own mind, but be seen and conversant in those of others' (Sig. B3v). Writing and reading can never be separated from emotions. I think this cuts straight to the heart of the question of what makes literature so important. Good writing make you feel something, it stirs up the Passions to use early modern parlance. 

Puttenham even goes a step further and draws a connection between the literary and the divine, describing poets as 'creating gods': 'A poet is as much to say a Maker...Such as (by way of resemblance and reverently) we may so of God, who without any travail to his divine imagination made all the world of nought' (The Art of English Poesie1.1.94, 93). The feelings aroused by great poetry, and I would extent this to all literature, are in Puttenham's formulation, akin to the core substance of this world. The Passions in Puttenham and Shakespeare's time were thought to be central of selfhood (and thus to the soul) and so if the work of literature is to arouse and elevate the Passions, writers were not just working with words on the page but also with the fate of their readers' souls. 

The word 'passion' comes from the Latin word 'patior', which means to suffer. And so to take these thoughts one step further - the experience of elevated Passions, to have your soul stirred by emotion, is always a kind of suffering; it rattles the equilibrium, knocks you off kilter or out of a state of neutrality, just by making you feel something. In the early modern period, as still holds true now, this kind of suffering could be destructive or formative, and it is the advancement of selfhood (or for many, the progress of the soul) that is at stake. 

I think about the Passions quite a lot in my research, but I also find it fascinating to think about the relationship between emotions and literature beyond the pages of early modern texts. I always find it funny whenever someone describes themselves as emotional because to be a human being is to have emotions. Having a lot of feelings is not a distinguishing facet of your personality. And I think the same is true when talking about literature - all stories and poems are emotional.

Ok enough rambling. Not everyone is as obsessed with early modern things as I am. 


Six faces expressing the Passions

Six faces expressing the Passions


*As this is a blog post I don't really know what type of referencing is appropriate, so I'll just offer a blanket citation - most of these thoughts come either directly or indirectly from Shakespearean Sensations and are not wholly my own. Quotes from primary sources will be noted with the original page numbers, though I first came across many in Shakes. Sens. If you are looking for a great book on this topic and to see how these theories of affect are put to use in readings of early modern literature (mainly the work of Shakespeare), you should definitely read this book.