Popular Science Monthly/Volume 4/January 1874/The Emotional Language of the Future

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search


MR. SPENCER recently called the attention, in a very interesting passage of his "Psychology," to those secondary signs of a feeling which are to be found in abortive attempts to conceal it. "A state of mauvaise honte" he well says, "otherwise tolerably well concealed, is indicated by an obvious difficulty in finding fit positions for the hands." A great mental agitation, though prevented from breaking out into violent expression, is pretty certain to betray itself in the awkward, shuffling movements which are made to curb and suppress it. Such indirect signs of emotion Mr. Spencer calls its secondary natural language.

The fact that many of our emotions now betray themselves only through the incompleteness of the effort of will to disguise them is not a little curious, and offers several lines of interesting inquiry. It at once suggests how very little play for emotional expression the conditions of modern society appear to allow. For it seems tolerably certain that the voluntary hiding of feeling is a late attainment in human development, and is forced on us simply by the needs of advancing civilization. Savages, for the most part, know little of concealing their passions, and this makes them so good a psychological study. Children, too, who may be supposed to represent the earlier acquirements of the race, are proverbially unfettered in the expression of their sentiments. In like manner, in the various ranks of our civilized society, we see that, while a cultivated lady appears to all distant onlookers to have a mind dispassionate and undisturbed by agitating feelings, a west-country maid reveals her curiosity and wonder, her alternations of joy and misery, with scarcely a trace of compunction. If we go low enough down the social scale we find the freest utterance of feelings, and it is only when, in retracing our steps, we arrive at a certain stage of culture that we discover signs of an active emotional restraint. Where this self-control is defective we have Mr. Spencer's secondary emotional signs. Higher up, among a few specially cultivated persons, the acquisition of this power of concealment appears to be complete, and we have a type of mind capable of a prolonged external serenity unruffled by a gust of passionate impulse. The survey of these facts at once prompts the question whether the expression of our feelings by smile, vocal changes, and so on, is destined to disappear with a further advance of social organization. To attempt to answer such a question directly and briefly would perhaps betray too much confidence. We may, however, seek to define the various paths of inquiry to be pursued before a final answer can be arrived at, and to hint at the probabilities of the problem under its various aspects.

First of all, then, with respect to the distinctly unsocial feelings, the answer seems to be tolerably clear. It being generally allowed by biologists that the looks and gestures accompanying anger, jealousy, and pride, are simply survivals of hostile actions, the nascent renewal of an attitude preliminary to attack, it is natural that they should appear only in transitions of society from a barbaric to a civilized condition. When the age of destructive conflict, individual and racial, shall have become the curious research of antiquaries, it may be presumed that any bodily movements known to have grown out of these struggles will cease from sheer desuetude. Indeed, one may perhaps, without too optimist a bias, refer to the fact that all the stronger manifestations of anger and malice have already become unfamiliar in real life, so that when we see their imitations on the stage they are apt to appear ridiculously forced. The better part of modern society has put such a ban on the ugly signs of rage that our only means of discovering traces of this passion in a man is some incompletely suppressed emotional movement, or some too violent effort to command the muscles of expression. After many more generations shall have practised the difficult art of noiselessly crushing out with the foot an incipient wrath, it will be hard if such offenses to the eye as frowning brow and scornful mouth do not entirely disappear.

But the progress of social refinement probably affects other expressions than those of the distinctly hostile sentiments. It tends to confine within ever narrower limits all manifestations of unpleasant feeling. Since it is a grateful thing to witness pleasurable feeling, and painful to see the expression of suffering in another, a polite form of society does all it can to encourage the one and to suppress the other. A man is for the most part supposed to be able to obtain all needed sympathy, in his troubles, from his family and his intimate friends. Before the rest of the world he is expected to hide his grief and maintain a cheerful aspect. It is one of the delicate forms of sensibility, produced by a high culture, to be fearful of obtruding one's feelings on unconcerned onlookers. This growing perception of the vulgar aspects of uncontrolled emotional display appears to have much to do with the partial concealments of feeling of which Mr. Spencer speaks. But comparatively few persons are completely able to hide a sharp and sudden vexation, however public the occasion of experiencing it. An annoying piece of intelligence, affecting, it may be, one's matrimonial chances or equally dear ambitions, will very likely call up a momentary expression of dismay even in presence of a fashionable company. We wonder to how many persons it is still a necessity, under the smart of a sudden disappointment, to flee as soon as possible from all spectators, and relieve the pressure of emotion by a few energetic expletives, if not a spare shower of tears? We do not know how many ages it may require to discipline our species in a perfect concealment of painful feeling; but, at present, it looks as though we were passing through the hardest stages of this schooling.

One other influence which probably contributes to make emotion more and more private and invisible is the partial revival of the Stoical doctrine that all sentiment is a moral weakness. This idea appears to hold most sway in our own country, and especially among those classes who are most concerned to maintain a not too obvious gentility. A common supposition among young aspirants to social rank seems to be, that lofty breeding is best seen in a uniformly passionless and vacuous arrangement of the facial muscles. To appear interested in any object in his environment strikes the pseudo-aristocrat as a pitiable infirmity of vulgar minds. The ways in which this curious self-imposed check acts are at times very funny. We remember hearing Macready give a series of readings to a fashionably-dressed assembly, in a small provincial town, and we were much struck by the almost heroic efforts which many of the company made to conceal the emotion so powerfully aroused by the tragedian's art. Possibly English people are less impressible by scenic display and music than Continental nations. Whether this be so or not, it is very curious to contrast the perfectly apathetic aspect of an assembly at Covent Garden with the lively demonstrations of an audience at a Paris opera, or the deep, earnest absorption of the worshipers of Wagner at Berlin or Munich. This notion that it is the final attainment of civilization to appear impartially indifferent to every thing about one, and constantly to preserve the semblance of an equanimity which knows nothing of the agitation of pleasure or pain, may be expected to give the last touch of refinement to emotional expression.

If these were all the facts bearing on the future of our emotional life, we might well inquire what effect the habitual suppression of emotional expression is likely to have on the quality of the emotions themselves. It is probably clear to everybody that our feelings are very much affected by the range of free expression accorded them. At least the violent intensity of a passion is destroyed by successful control of all the muscles, and, even if a slow, smouldering fire of hate or jealousy may coexist with a comparatively quiet exterior, the emotional force is in this case robbed of its glory. It would thus appear that, with social progress, as men are thrown more and more in each other's society, their feelings will undergo a very considerable transformation; some types of emotion disappearing, it may be, altogether, the rest being so mollified as to be scarcely recognizable as the venerable forms of human love, terror, and joy. But, oddly enough, we find another set of influences, due to the very same social conditions as the first, which tends to counteract these, fostering and deepening feeling, and encouraging its manifestations. Mr. Spencer thinks that the habit of expressing pleasure and pain arose as animals became gregarious. This condition exposed the members of the same flock to common experiences of danger, etc.; and in this way, from uttering the sounds of terror under like circumstances and at the same times, they would come to interpret them when given forth by their companions. At the same time the gregarious mode of life clearly made animals able to assist one another in a large variety of ways. Now, on this supposition, which seems extremely plausible, the habit of expressing feeling is an attainment of social life, and, so far from disappearing with the advance of this life, it should, one would think, go on developing. In point of fact, we see in a number of ways how social progress serves to enlarge the area of sympathetic feeling. As a man becomes more of a citizen, he is probably more and more desirous to be in unison of feeling and intention with his fellow-citizens, at least with that section of them whom he most respects. The sympathy he looks for presupposes, it is clear, some expression of his own feelings, and a responsive expression on the part of his neighbors. In this way, then, there are two tendencies of social culture curiously conflicting in their results. By virtue of the one a man seeks to repress feeling and not to obtrude it unnecessarily on his fellow-citizens. By force of the other he is ever craving with more and more vigor for a lively interchange of sentiments with others. What resultant, it may be asked, do these opposite forces produce?

Without trying to determine the precise direction of this compound effect, it may be just suggested that a kind of compromise between the opposing forces is frequently effected by means of language. By this medium we may convey most minutely and accurately the fact of a feeling and define its nature, without bringing it forward as a vivid and naked reality. It is highly disagreeable to see a look of disgust in another's face, but we do not quite so strongly object to a man's telling us the cause of such a feeling and leaving us to imagine by inference the nature of the emotion itself. Language, while defining the precise variety of sentiment, contains also, in its ever-varying modulation of voice, its changes of pitch, intensity, and timbre, a large apparatus of proper emotional expression. Moreover, it seems fully allowable to accompany speech with a variety of other emotional signs which are looked on as silly and weak if presented independently. We rather expect conversation to be brightened by the many subtile changes of the facial muscles and the refined and subdued gestures peculiar to our nation. If a person habitually wears a half giggle, we are probably struck by the imbecility of this meaningless display. So too when a man meets us in the street looking evidently soured and retaliative, we rather wish he would reserve these unamiable exhibitions for his sympathetic friends. We have, in a word, grown intellectual much faster than we have become emotional, and we cannot suffer feeling to exhibit itself without some explanation of its nature and causes being offered at the same time. If a man will unbosom to us his sorrow or his joy fully and intelligibly, we profess ourselves willing, provided he is not too wearisome and exacting, to lend him a patient ear and to endeavor to enter into his peculiar experiences; but, without this explanatory recital, the evidences of feeling are apt to appear unmeaning, if not actually offensive.

We may just point to another influence which still further complicates this question of emotional expression—namely, the growing demands made by social refinement on the expression of kindly interest in other people's concerns. While a man is judged to be inconsiderate if he is frequently intruding his personal feelings in social intercourse, rigid politeness requires us for the most part to lend an appreciative ear to the tale of woe, however dull it may happen to prove. This law calls into existence a very curious group of half-artificial expressions. The degree to which polite persons have nowadays to assume feeling may well alarm any one who cares much for the honesty of social intercourse. We all know probably the drawing-room smile of some of our lady friends. It is something quite unique, never appearing in other places and at other times, but presenting itself at the right moment with all the certainty of an astronomical phenomenon. So too we know persons whose voices undergo a most curious change when called on to converse with a stranger, especially one of the opposite sex. No doubt some slight part of the display may be set down to an unavoidable excitement, but the main features of it would seem to be deliberately assumed. In this way it appears that, owing to the requirements of modern society, our volitions are called upon now to check feeling, now to force it into play. The studied graces of smile, dilating eye, and mellifluous voice, make up a perfectly new order of quasi expressions, which might perhaps in a highly-artificial state of society gradually supplant many of the older and familiar forms of emotional utterance. Whether the agencies which tend to sustain genuine emotional expression will prove to have more vitality than those which go to suppress it, and how far, supposing spontaneous utterances of emotion to grow out of date, artificial imitations of them will continue in fashion, are points which we do not attempt to determine. Enough has been said, perhaps, to show how curiously complex are the conditions of the problem.—Saturday Review.