The Unseemliness of Incontinent Emotions

At the end of an interview recently, I was asked whether people should express their emotions. I replied that it rather depended on the emotions that they had and their mode of expression. There were some emotions that were best kept to oneself, and some ways of expressing them that were disgusting.

This is not a fashionable view, of course. Not only is failure to express an emotion regarded by many as treason to the self, but almost as medically dangerous, in that an unexpressed emotion will turn inwards and result in a kind of emotional septicaemia, eventually emerging as something far worse. As Blake put it, Sooner strangle an infant in its cradle than nurse unacted desires and the road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.

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It seems to me (though I may be mistaken) that, at least in Anglophone countries, there has been a tendency of late years for ever more extravagant public expressions of emotion, which is something that I do not welcome. It leads not to the palace of wisdom, but to crudity of apprehension, and to an unfortunate positive feedback loop: if you want to show how much you feel, you have to indulge in ever more extravagant such demonstrations.

This is evident in small things, for example in advertising, in which pleasure at the possession of, say, a new mobile telephone or soft drink to revive you after a hard night’s partying is signalled by wide open mouths uttering screams of joy, punching of the air, and so forth, as if anything less were undecipherable by the targeted public. When sportsmen win a match or game, they too indulge in more extravagant expressions than they used (admittedly, they will have earned much more money than their predecessors). A goal in a football match now evokes more extravagant expressions of emotion, both in the players and spectators, than did the end of the Second World War. And loss is likewise expressed extravagantly, with tears and faces of agony. As the slogan on the sides of Nigerian buses has it, Why die in silence?

This development favours the explicit over the implicit and the bogus over the genuine. Indeed, it reduces people’s capacity to distinguish between the two, or even to understand that there is a distinction between the real and the bogus. No one would now say, as did an old patient of mine upon whom fate had piled undeserved tragedy upon undeserved tragedy, that she would not cry in public because it might embarrass other people and her grief was her own: people would now accuse her of mere unfeelingness. Incidentally, she was working-class. 

The very notion of dignity and seemliness is destroyed by incontinent emotional expression. I haven’t tried the experiment, but I doubt that many people could or would now even attach a meaning to the word seemliness: but seemliness is to self-respect what incontinent expression is to self-esteem, and the difference between self-respect and self-esteem is of great importance. The first is demanding, effortful and social, the second is undemanding, egotistical and akin to an inalienable human right that survives any amount of bad behaviour.

Every happy family, said Tolstoy, is happy in the same way, but every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. In like fashion, expression of negative emotion such as hatred and resentment is much more protean in its manifestations than that of positive emotion. There are other advantages to negative emotions: insofar as they are far easier to stoke, can last much longer than positive emotions—joy is rarely more than fleeting—and are usually more intense, they are, in the long run, more rewarding, especially when, as in the present day, the locus of people’s moral concern is political rather than personal. It is surely almost self-evident that the strongest political emotions are negative: for example, the rich are hated much more than the poor are loved.

In such circumstances, expressions of hatred are often mistaken for expressions of love. Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down the life of another for some class of person whom he favours in the abstract. Thus vehemence of expression comes to be taken as strength of feeling, and the greater one’s vehemence, the greater one’s strength of feeling and therefore of one’s virtue—virtue now being a matter almost entirely of the opinions one holds. Extreme expression of hatred becomes a virtue. 

The change in emotional temper, at least in Britain, can be dated with some accuracy. It came with the eclipse of Terence Rattigan as the country’s most important and popular playwright by John Osborne and others. Of course, no such development was complete overnight, nor was the eclipse of Rattigan the cause rather than a symptom of that change. Coincidental or not, Look Back in Anger (the anger of the title being free-floating, about nothing much, as if strong emotion were a good in itself) was first staged in 1956, the year in which Britain’s demotion to the status of third-rate power was made brutally clear and unmistakable. It was the year in which Britons could no longer take pride, or psychological comfort, from being citizens of a powerful and important nation, whatever the quality of their personal lives.

At any rate, Rattigan was a master of the implicit and unexpressed, but soul-shattering, emotion. No doubt his position as a homosexual assisted him in this mastery, for he came to maturity at a time when homosexuality was neither legally not socially acceptable, at least in public, and had to be kept hidden. Secretiveness was therefore second nature to him.

For reasons somewhat arcane and complex to do with something else that I was then writing, I re-read his short play The Browning Version last week. I wondered whether it would, or could, mean anything to a generation brought up with the kind of pseudo-frankness or openness promoted by Facebook and Twitter. In the play, a dried-up schoolmaster called Crocker-Harris breaks down emotionally when a boy whom he has taught gives him a copy of Browning’s translation of the Agamemnon as a parting gift when he, Crocker-Harris, who long ago wrote an unpublished verse translation of the same play, is leaving the school because of illness. Crocker-Harris had until then supposed that he was disliked by his pupils (pupil is a word that has almost disappeared from our lexicon, such that even five-year-olds are now called students), having always done what he conceived as his duty rather than seek popularity, which he was in any case temperamentally and culturally ill-suited to doing. His unfaithful wife, whom he has unsurprisingly failed to satisfy and who has a streak of great cruelty, informs him that the pupil’s parting gift was not a sign of affection but a sly pursuit of personal advantage. Crocker-Harris is horribly wounded by this—we know that he will be wretched for the rest of his days—but he retains his icy self-control to the end.

Crocker-Harris betrays very little emotion throughout the play, and on the one occasion that he does so he thinks he has made a fool of himself by his naivety: there is thus safety in inexpressiveness. It is precisely because he does not express his emotions that we understand, at least if we have not been reared from an early age to practise self-dramatisation, that his emotions are of volcanic intensity, much more intense than those of the shallow public display to which we have become accustomed. Understatement is much more powerful than overstatement, for it requires or calls forth the active exercise of the imagination.

Needless to say, emotional self-control can go too far, as any virtue can. Even the Victorians understood this. When Stanley claimed to have said, “Dr Livingstone, I presume?” when he had hacked his way through Africa to find him on the shores of Lake Tanganyika, the Victorians collapsed with laughter. It is not as if there were thousands of Europeans living in Ujiji at the time, any one of whom might have been Dr Livingstone.

As with so many things, the proper public expression of emotion is a matter of judgment rather than of doctrine or predetermined principle. It is also a question of good taste. Crocker-Harris is certainly not a beacon to the world as to how to behave, but histrionics of the kind all too common today are not desirable either. If I had to choose between them (which of course I do not) I would choose emotional constipation rather than emotional diarrhoea. At least the former can give rise to powerful drama, whereas the latter gives rise to crude soap opera at best. Concealment is more interesting than revelation, and often ultimately more revealing into the bargain.      

Anthony Daniels recently edited the Everyman anthology The Best Medicine: Stories of Healing,
which was published in March, under his pen-name Theodore Dalrymple.

7 thoughts on “The Unseemliness of Incontinent Emotions

  • andrew2 says:

    This article speaks volumes to the issue of “active participation” in Catholic Mass. The new Mass requires displays of participation (singing, communal prayer, hand shaking) while the priest takes on an extra role as entertainer. The fact that Mass attendance has crumbled with these changes seems to be of little concern to the success of the changes. Non attendance is not part of the calculation in “active participation”, it seems.

    The old Mass simply assessed participation in terms of whether you where there or not.

    The problem with active participation is that it seems to require novelty and fashion. Things need to be changed up constantly to keep enthusiasm and emotion higher. It is likely because the emotion enduced dopamine hit will be produced in lesser quantities if things stay the same.

    Tradition and restraint seems to draw on something different. It is more likely to aim, not for superficial pleasure or happiness, but what C.S. Lewis describes as “joy”. To quote the man:
    “Joy is distinct not only from pleasure in general but even from aesthetic pleasure. It must have the stab, the pang, the inconsolable longing.”
    “All Joy reminds. It is never a possession, always a desire for something longer ago or further away or still “about to be.”

  • padraic says:

    Thanks Anthony for this article. I am pleased somebody else has noticed change in the public square how emotions are handled. The ABC is full of this stuff as is commercial TV. Just about every night on the TV News we are confronted with the “weeping woman” spectacle, and occasionally the “weeping man” as a “loved one” is hardly dead from some violent crime/accident and they feel compelled to display their grief on TV. I wonder if it is real or do they get paid? The ABC is always on about the need for more psychologists in schools as they claim the children these days can’t cope with normality. Once upon a time if you did a good deed you kept it to yourself, as it was considered to be no longer a good deed if you boasted about it. This new trend smacks of a new form of social control by the wokeists.

    On a more pedantic note about the following statement from the article, viz: “When Stanley claimed to have said, “Dr Livingstone, I presume?” when he had hacked his way through Africa to find him on the shores of Lake Tanganyika, the Victorians collapsed with laughter” – the reality is that Stanley didn’t need to hack his way through the jungle as that part of Africa was fairly well populated with the various villages and hamlets connected to each other through well worn foot tracks. Sure, jungle hacking did take occur in some remote places around the globe but it was not as common as generally thought. On a positive note, most of us as kids also had a good laugh, along with the Victorians, on the alleged comment – “Dr Livingstone, I presume?” when it was discussed in class.

  • Claude James says:

    Emotional unseemliness? Bad manners? Teenage acting out?
    Did you see the scummy performance put on by Grace Tame -2021 Australian of the Year- at this years’ Australian of the Year ceremony?
    Tame is now 27 yo, and is regarded as Truly Grown-Up and Wonderful by the ABC, the ALP, the Greens, feminists generally, and all the other teenage-arrested, ingrate/power-mongering, anti-civilizational, anti-Westernist entities who now dominate public life.

  • Geoff Sherrington says:

    “Seemliness” is not the only word known by the elderly to be going vamoose.
    Do we add decorum, manners, civility, consideration, stoicism, grace, elegance – for a few examples?
    Sadly, it is hard to find replacement words, so it looks like they are disappearing rather than morphing. Geoff S

  • Elizabeth Beare says:

    Decorum was something that schools used to inculcate in young women in my youth, and in boys the desire was for manliness and respectfulness. ‘Respect’ still gets a run these days but not in the same way, not as manners and politeness. Respect these days is a feature of ‘wokeness’, of cultural difference and ‘gender’ diversity. We have lost the ideal and practice of manners and civility as a foundation of discourse, subjecting these concepts to post-modern analysis. There were once, as Amor Towels’ lovely novel ‘The Rules of Civility’ takes care to recognise, sets of manners which it was wise to learn and implement with care; even if only to advance onself. We have lost that sense of manners to our detriment. As Geoff S notes, seemliness is now almost archaic, relegated to the study of Jane Austen.
    Of which there should be more: an Austen led recovery of things like judicious consideration and careful perspective taking.

  • Christine Swan says:

    Thank you
    “The first is demanding …. the second is undemanding”

    It’s all about the display
    I wonder what it will take to bring back seemliness.

  • Claude James says:

    What we are learning, if we wish to learn:
    Given vast liberties and easy-come material abundance, the great majority of human beings overeat, overdrink, over-drug, watch excessive amounts of TV, over-spectate -and complain, act-out, protest, blubber, and generally emote -when they think of the next thing they expect the government to hand them for free.

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