Friday, September 30, 2016

The Book of Human Emotions by Tiffany Watt Smith

Emotions are funny things…some flit through us at the speed of light, barely registering on our face or consciousness, while others linger, hovering over us, coloring our perceptions of each new day. Descartes thought here were six basic emotions: wonder, love, hatred, desire, joy, and sadness, but most of us can name several more of which we have intimate knowledge.

There are emotions that we experience only once or twice in a lifetime and yet someone somewhere has probably identified and named that particular feeling. It is reassuring and something joyous, I think, to discover that some strong emotion is shared. Tiffany Watt Smith does not attempt a comprehensive catalog, but she makes the excellent point that we need more words for our feelings rather than trying to narrow the breadth and width of human experience into discrete and limited categories. It is a marvelous, revelatory read.

Watt Smith worked in theatre before beginning an academic career. Somehow that seems entirely appropriate to emotion-spotting. An actor with a range of experiences may need some prompting on how they should feel about a certain scene, and the words help to give them context. Or perhaps actors are teaching us as audience an emotion we instinctively recognize but have never been able to put into words.

The book is filled with a sense of good humor. Even in definitions of those feelings we would be happy to do without, like disappointment and despair, Watt Smith does not leave us feeling bereft. She always puts in a little upswing at the end which shows us the way out, or makes us smile in relief and pleasure that we are not in that space now.

I particularly liked her discussion of compassion in which she recognizes that
”For Tibetan Buddhists, the wish to free a person from suffering is ideally experienced in equanimity, with a quiet confidence. For many of us, however, compassion is considerably more anxious territory…requiring a person to discover very vulnerable parts of themselves…Only the wisest can bend themselves to another’s pain without being rendered numb and helpless themselves: the “compassion fatigue” we hear about in the caring professions today.”
Her discussion of contempt puts me in mind of Donald Trump, as do many things these days. Contempt is a performative emotion in that it turns a spectator into a participant, inviting a conversation. One can watch a spectacle, but once one acts or speaks in contempt, one is provoking a response.

Disgust is a prime candidate for a “universal” emotion as it is instantaneous and involuntary, though Watt Smith points out that often “something out of place” is often the culprit to feelings of involuntary disgust: a hair in one’s soup, soup on one’s beard or clothing, or simply a disagreeable smell where we don’t expect to find it.

There is a word which has no equivalent in English, though I have seen the emotion described in a novel by a woman of Bangladeshi descent, called maya-lage. Watt Smith calls it fago in this book, which is a type of love and pity felt for those in need, mixed with sadness, sorrow, and compassion. It is the feeling one gets contemplating the fate of those who experience an earthquake, or other natural disaster.

I can’t recommend this book more highly for all of us, but especially for those in the creative professions. It is filled with irresistible descriptions of feelings we may have experienced but for which we had no words, and may inspire attempts to capture those emotions as they cross the mind-body divide. The author goes around the world seeking words that express a human state. It is completely absorbing. One doesn’t have to read the entries in order—one is encouraged to skip around.

You will not want to miss emotions for which definitions appear in a country we just visit—that a nationality has created a word for a sensation may mean it is a characteristic feeling in a certain culture, like han, a feeling of sadness and hope at the same time…a yearning for things to be different (Korea), or torschlusspanik, a German word for the agitated, fretful feeling that time is running out, or “gate-closing panic.” I am quite sure the Chinese must have similar expression somewhere, knowing what I do about their culture. I must also mention the extraordinary capture of characteristic feeling in the term greng jai, “the feeling of being reluctant to accept another’s offer of help because of the bother it would cause them.” Greng jai is a Thai phrase.

Buy this one. Watt Smith is a delightful companion, and many of the words you will want to find again. Below, Tiffany Watt Smith gives a short TED-like talk on her work.

Tiffany Watt Smith @ 5x15 from 5x15 on Vimeo.

You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores

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