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?

Fisher does not insist (though he certainly implies) that whatever lasts longest is most to be valued, but he does suppose a rather risky affiliation between the passions and what he calls literature. First, a formal relation: he thinks that the sudden, intense and episodic nature of passion is like that of literary expression, which proceeds by punctuated narrative evolution rather than the piling up of one grain of sand on another. Both literature and the passions represent themselves in and as brief moments of time, as exemplary events. Then he finds a common content: much great literature is about the passions, and encourages us to imagine in ourselves the raging Lear, the jealous Achilles. So, to understand literature we must understand the passions. He does not pursue this claim to the point of specifying literature as an anti-modern genre, or a device allowing modern readers whose lives are apathetic to recover in the imagination a quality of intensity unavailable elsewhere. But he reveals an apparent faith in the purity and transparency of passion when he claims, for instance, that ‘the Gothic novel is in fact a form generated by the experience of fear.’ Much current speculation about the Gothic would suggest that it is anything but that: that we cannot gain access to a primary, ahistorical condition called ‘fear’ which is separable from, for instance, anti-Catholic propaganda, gender politics, or a controlled indulgence in fantasies of a premodern (vehement) life whose self-conscious status is indicated in the complex framing devices of musty manuscripts and unreliable narrators, and whose popularity may signal nothing so much as the grateful acceptance of the same modernity which provides the leisure and affluence we need in order to buy and consume books. One cannot, then, isolate a core experience to which everything else is just a supplement or contingent element.

Take the great Achilles. Fisher is interested in Achilles’ anger at being robbed of Briseis by Agamemnon, and his grief at the death of Patroclus along with the redirected anger that follows it. Anger and grief are two of his vehement passions, which take exemplary form in the Iliad, and as such are among the states that are said most successfully to resist being refigured by time and history. A similar assumption was behind the thinking of some of the so-called ‘ancients’ among Homer’s 18th-century readers and translators. While the scholars – such as the much maligned Richard Bentley – who took the position of the ‘moderns’ thought it necessary to absorb the scholarly and editorial record, and to steep themselves in Greek history and culture in order to get anywhere near understanding the poetry, others, like Pope, claimed that what was essential could be happily and insouciantly translated because it resided in a common human nature. But what was the anger of Achilles? What did it mean to be described as ‘angry’ in a world where pollution, inherited curses, generally predetermined fate and the direct and unpredictable interference of the gods, both in their own persons and through the imposed infatuation of ate, all muddied a notion of human responsibility? What was Achilles angry at, in a range of offences that included (at least) sexual jealousy, injured public reputation, an outraged sense of reciprocity and the material loss of a well-earned prize? The passion of anger may seem pure enough, and as such translatable, but that may be because so many of the other components of Homer’s world-view have fallen away. Agamemnon and Achilles both later attribute their quarrel to the manipulations of the gods. Are we to take these claims as face-saving excuses, or (with E.R. Dodds) as serious beliefs? How can we tell? To respond to the portrayal of a passion by identifying with it as casual modern readers do proves only the modern belief in that passion, not its historical existence in the Homeric world in the same form. And if Dodds is right, and the experience of overwhelming passion could be understood as the invasion of the psyche by the power of a god, then the notion of vehemence itself must be rewritten in a way that makes it correspond much less conveniently to our modern understanding.

To the extent that he wants to restore these lost qualities of vehement passion, Fisher looks like a modern: he accepts and regrets their disappearance or diminution. But he is an ancient to the degree that he seems to want to restore the same passions, which still exist in the same form, waiting only to be revalidated. Mostly, he floats the historical question, suggesting but never extensively arguing a core account of human nature. And indeed, the rhetoric of restoration cannot really be sustained. All too often it smacks of the longing for childhood. What world is it in which the ‘monarchical self’ holds sway, in which ‘spiritedness’ overrules apathy, in which we are prone to overpowering punctual fear, in which considerations of reciprocity never arise or arise only with great reluctance, and in which the sense of time is largely confined to an all-engrossing present? That is the world of childhood as adults tend to see it. Wonder and elation give way to patience and submission; immediacy gives way to deferred or displaced gratification. A bummer.

Hence, perhaps, the absence of desire from Fisher’s pantheon of the passions. Adults conceive childhood as the state that doesn’t know desire. Descartes’s six primary passions were wonder, love, hatred, desire, joy and sadness. Wonder is the most radical passion, since it is involved in all the others, but desire is the most violent. (Fear, oddly, does not figure for Descartes as a simple passion, though it is primary for Fisher.) Desire was one of the four primary passions as understood by the Stoics. Fisher’s group contains wonder, anger, fear, shame and grief. One could start another debate here between ancients and moderns, an examination of the sorts of distinction that Descartes proposes between apparently contiguous or overlapping passions (love and desire, joy and wonder, desire and joy), in the hope of producing an understanding of the strangeness of the world of 1649 in relation to a projected core human nature. Would the alleys of Amsterdam and Paris have seemed as strange to us as the plains of Troy? Perhaps, since all of Fisher’s passions are described as ‘states of arousal’, desire is somehow embedded throughout? Perhaps its absence or unspoken status has to do with the almost unignorable fact that in contemporary life desire is a contested or complex passion, not at all simple, and not at all beyond the figurings of place and time. One person’s desire is another’s lust, still another’s love or joy. (Achilles evinces very little of what a modern reader would recognise as desire; he seems mostly in search of arm candy.) But desire is at the heart of a huge number of texts we call literary, especially in the 18th and 19th centuries; it is one of the classically ‘thorough’ passions, totally possessive when present; as such it stands athwart the prudential economy of bourgeois time, lifting us out of the calculated sequence of effort and reward, planning and profit. Its social and legal consequences, for instance in adultery and divorce, remain radically disruptive even though many of us think we have accepted or anticipated them. Desire seems to have about it a good deal that Fisher would call vehement. Grown men still make like doting mallards, perfect examples of how passion turns the private into the public. Is it simply too anarchic, too contested, too inflammatory to figure in his list? Is there perhaps no need to recover desire, since we have never managed to tame it and so never lost touch with it?

This leads us to the heart of the matter: have the passions really dropped out of the reckoning to the degree Fisher suggests? Or is this true only of some passions, rather than the passionate life itself? If one takes the view that the modern subject is not a simple entity but a schizoid site for the articulation of all sorts of imperatives, one can’t be happy with an explanation presuming the victory of any one state or group of states over others. It makes as much and as little sense to speak of the historical hegemony of a rational-utilitarian subject as it does to propose mankind as a libido machine driven by irrational instincts. There may be no limit to the attributions that the subject will bear, bear up under, or be borne down by. We still haven’t normalised a vocabulary with which to describe a subjectivity that is all over the place most of the time, and can’t finally be described in either the language of culture and history or that of biology. The current Western ideology, in other words, prescribes that no self can speak with certainty the limits of its own identity or the sources of its expressions. Nor, therefore, of its passions, in either their origins or their attributes. Thus we mostly disapprove of apathy, of being without passion, in one context, while approving it in another, when manifested as disinterest or self-control. The decision is contextual, not essential.

If we have lost the ‘full, momentary unity of the self’ that Lucretius, and Fisher in his wake, propose as the result of the thoroughness of extreme passion, how can thoroughness, unity and intensity be brought back except in the form of monstrosity or exceptionalism? All children are vehement; in adult life it tends to be free of consequences only for those at the top of the social pile – kings, aristocrats, rock stars (‘We piss anywhere, man,’ as the monarchical Mick Jagger once said). The world of the Iliad is not just one of vehement passions but one of death – continual, and described in horrible detail. This is why Norbert Elias saw the pacification and demilitarisation of the aristocracy as one of the fundamental motives for the civilising process that produced the modern middle class. And why Walter Benjamin, in his still challenging essay on ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technical Reproducibility’, saw distraction and low-intensity, habit-driven behaviour (Ablenkung and Zerstreuung) as an antidote to the charismatic intensity of totalitarian politics.

This need not be seen as a loss of authenticity. A good deal of attention has been paid to the way in which passion (though not stardom, which is sui generis and without entailed qualities) can be faked. What you see, in other words, may not be what there is. Many late 18th-century novels represent the power of sentiment, which can have all the attributes of a vehement passion. It is thorough, totally in the moment, and breaks down the barrier between the interior and the public self. As such, it could be (and was) supposed to be contagious, the basis of a core human nature, perhaps the foundation for benevolent citizenship. But many of these novels also raise questions about the integrity of sentiment. As soon as it becomes attached to social advancement or approbation, it risks becoming a strategy – an interest instead of a passion. So it is with all passions. How do you tell what is real and what is assumed? The great actor is a fake, the passions he embodies are not his, but they move us. Fear, wonder, anger, grief can all be faked. Does this undermine Fisher’s case for the power of the passions in achieving a ‘disclosure to others’, a ‘revealed, instantaneous understanding’? The quality of our response to the vehement Lear does not depend on our thinking that the person on the stage is himself Lear. Or does it? Is this the suspension of disbelief that allows us to imagine ourselves in his place, in a situation we imagine to be real? Is this why we are moved?

These are complex questions which have generated a long tradition of speculation, from Plato to Rousseau and beyond. Much of the credibility of passion depends on context. The theatre is a space set aside for heightened response, and this response is often without consequence; this is why Rousseau thought that art might insulate us from compassion, rather than teach us to feel for others. If I witness the grief of someone I believe to have lost a parent or child, I am likely to be sympathetically moved. If I witness the same physiological events occasioned by the withering of a favourite geranium, I am less likely to be moved, though I might be sympathetic. If I then have to respond to a politician I distrust expressing grief over the loss of a colleague, I may find it very hard to respond even sympathetically. So the response to passion is a matter of trust and of context. Something is instantly disclosed, perhaps, but what it might be is a matter of interpretation. Modern readers find it harder to sympathise with Achilles’ grief-anger at his loss of face than with his loss of Briseis, and tend to interpret his ‘passion’ accordingly as that of a broken heart. They do not in their own world trust the integrity of mere reputation, and so the quality of the passion for it becomes suspect. (In the figure of Iago, indeed, obsession with reputation becomes a moral failure.)

Fisher is most persuasive read not as a historian of the passions but as an ethical philosopher. If we take for granted that his efforts at identifying a core human nature are only a way of bidding for attention, his arguments become more significant. When he says that ‘it is wrong to assume that only cautious and prudential choice based on deliberation can enable ethical life,’ and when he turns to Aristotle as a contrast to the modern view and not as a precursor of some essential passion that we can still assume ourselves to experience, I find him more convincing. Ethical understanding and legal convention do indeed privilege the deliberative will and the premeditated act. He has some elegant and consequential insights into the temporality of justice, its conflation of immediate retributive response with prevention, and its built-in response to ‘fading anger’, so that the judgment of a crime comes only long after it has been committed.

What is not so clear is how we are to adjust the ethical-legal system to respond to his case that we have lost something by resisting the claims of ‘impassioned anger’, that there are ‘costs and losses’ to the victory over vehemence that the civilising process has accomplished. Fisher is not obviously about to recommend an extension of the category of crimes of passion and a consequent expansion of the invocation of diminished responsibility (as we call it), but that might be a conclusion towards which some of his readers could reasonably move. Others might move the other way, arguing that if vehement passion is indeed a norm, it should not be exempted from the more extreme punitive conventions that govern premeditation. If passion is foundational, it can no longer be excused as exceptional. Fisher wisely does not pursue these questions, leaving them to others who might find in his account a new vocabulary for thinking about the whole apparatus of justice in its relation to ethics. Passions are the expression of the ‘militant will’, which encounters the limits placed on it by way of the expression of passion itself. Aristotle had a place for positive anger as the core of just behaviour which our ‘ethical stress on forgiveness’ has eroded. The god of these fathers is an angry god. But to seek to encode such insights in a defensible system of justice is a massive task, not least because of the threat posed by the vigilante syndrome, which posits retributive anger as normative and therefore just (Clint Eastwood’s films examine, some would say glamorise, this gesture). Moreover, the law already recognises these distinctions: it will be ‘kinder’ to me if I kill the killer of my child than if I murder a stranger.

Some of Fisher’s best chapters are devoted to fear, grief and death. Grief is a direct experience of the ‘diminution of the world’ and of the limitation of the will. Dying is the ultimately singular and thorough experience. It is in these realms that Fisher finds the prospect of a community based on ‘shared fear’ and the appreciation of the predicament of the other. Punctual fear, in response to an instant, thorough threat to one’s life, has been diminished in the modern world: Hume theorised uncertainty, or longer-term fear, as normative, and since then we have devised the electric light to spare us the terrors of a near absolute darkness. But suddenness has remained a component of fear, notwithstanding the ‘economic model’ that ensues from seeing fear as based in conditions rather than events. Suddenness has similarly continued to characterise wonder, about which Fisher has written elsewhere, and which has also lost some of its lustre in our disenchanted world. One might say, following the argument of Ulrich Beck’s Risk Society (1992), that conditions have themselves come to include events, in a sort of catastrophe model where the persistence of conditions is prone to produce cataclysm, and the local is no longer containable as simply local (remember Chernobyl). No one is safe. So there may be some force to Fisher’s case for the potential of shared fear (along with mutual and reciprocal fear) to produce ‘community’. For those of us who enjoy the privilege of long-term fear (the fate of our investments, the slow progress of our disease), being reminded of the punctual fear that is still normal for so much of the rest of the world can only be salutary.

Whether this fear can or will become more important than fairness as a source of ethical consensus, as Fisher thinks it could, must remain an empirical question, should we have the time to pursue it. So it is with most of the other questions he raises about the prospect of a civil society or social consensus that reckons more creatively with the vehement passions. Fisher is on safe ground with literature, which can be sustained comfortably enough as the last best place for the rehearsal of the monarchical spirit without doing any harm; whether it does any good is another matter. With the legal system and the ethical consensus that legitimates it, the discussion will be tougher.