What kept Hector and Andromache warm in windy Troy?

David Simpson

  • The Vehement Passions by Philip Fisher
    Princeton, 268 pp, £18.95, May 2002, ISBN 0 691 06996 4

In the opening sentences of his last published work, The Passions of the Soul (1649), Descartes signalled his own modernity with a withering dismissal of the ancients, whose defects he found ‘nowhere more apparent than in their writings on the passions’, writings so ‘meagre and for the most part so implausible’ that he could only write as if ‘I were considering a topic that no one had dealt with before me’. His own psychology, which depended on a fluid mechanics whereby the ‘continual heat in our hearts’ is distributed through the body by the pineal gland (the de facto location of the soul), no longer looks so modern. But the declared redundancy of the classics would continue to mark much of the scientific project throughout the long modernity which may or may not have now come to an end, wrecked or perhaps just beached on the shores of the Postmodern.

Philip Fisher’s new book, however, makes a daring case for the continued relevance of pre-Christian ideas about the passions. His argument is that we underestimate the positive potential of the ‘vehement passions’, long understood only as forces that must be suppressed or redirected if we are to develop healthy minds in a benevolent world. Apologists for a progressive modernity have recast the passions as moods, feelings and emotions, non-disruptive aspects of personality whose importance can be recognised without upsetting the model of the self as a system of checks and balances. A mood may be dominant, but it passes; one feeling gives way to another. The passions, on the other hand, are ‘thorough’, sudden and monarchical; they possess us completely, lift us out of the realm of choice and prudent decision-making (one of the core components of bourgeois culture), transport us to a place where there is no weighing and measuring of issues of fairness and reciprocity, and open up the ‘confessional or reticent self’ to public inspection. Privacy disappears as the surface of the body registers whichever vehement passion is being experienced. Transparency is restored: what we see is what there is, without pernicious seeming. The heroes of Fisher’s inquiry are Homer and Shakespeare, with Aristotle as philosophical spokesman. The repressive forces are the Stoics and the modern middle class, indeed modern life itself in its preference for displacement, therapy, compromise and the suppression or calculated restraint of self in the face of the claims of others. The ‘low-level, everyday Stoicism’ of modern life undervalues ‘singular experiences’.

Why would anyone want to make this case now, and what is to be learned from being reminded that in our self-monitoring, diversified culture the diminution of passions into moods has been the payback for a generally high level of peace and security, along the lines laid out so forcefully and influentially in Norbert Elias’s The Civilising Process? To his credit, Fisher does not end his book with a bang, and the frequent elegance and non-judgmental quality of his observations should lead the open-minded (and, dare I say, disinterested) reader to all sorts of fruitful thoughts about why we have the world we have, and how or whether we might imagine it differently. Because we are not asked to sign up to a campaign for simple vehemence, we can afford to think about the implications of its displacement without worrying that we might be assisting the author in reintroducing charismatically violent behaviour as a solution to the anomie and apathy of modern life.

But Fisher’s disinclination to take any such melodramatic route makes his affiliations, and the consequences of accepting them, harder to follow or predict. Behind his case there’s a hint that we can find in the primary passions a quality of life that is not governed by historical change, or at least a ‘sustained core account of human nature in spite of the constructions of culture, power and historical moment’. The same point is restated as a weaker claim a few pages later: that the passions are the states ‘least shaped by the waves of culture and the passage of time’. But he is clearly taken by the ‘persistence and self-identity’ of the vehement passions, and by their potential for freeing us from the ‘theory-laden material’ whereby we have domesticated them. Others before him have puzzled over the apparent fact that we can respond to a classical or medieval love lyric as a love lyric without being able to identify its allegorical or theological meanings or allusions, as if love does not alter when it alteration finds, but is instead a bright and fixed star whose light falls on our rumpled bedsheets in just the way it did on the more precious fabrics that kept Hector and Andromache warm in windy Troy. Sebastiano Timpanaro’s On Materialism raised these issues in the 1970s, and concluded that natural man is not eternal man: some things just change very slowly or even imperceptibly. Evolutionary psychologists make a similar case with reference to our long experience as hunter-gatherers in the Pleistocene, but commonly attach it to a polemic against cultural determination as too short-lived to make any serious difference to our behaviour. Just how long is the longue durée, and is there anything we can speak of as outside or beyond it?

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