August 6, 2001
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"The very essence of literature is the war between emotion and intellect, between life and death. When literature becomes too intellectual -- when it begins to ignore the passions, the motions - it becomes sterile, silly, and actually without substance," wrote Isaac Bashevis Singer in 1978 in The New York Times Magazine.
One could argue it both ways - that life is a mirror of literature, or that literature is an extension of life - but either way the writer's observation applies just as much, if not more, to the essence of life. Any given human being's soul, if you like, the thing that makes us human beings and not gorillas or horses or the elusive sasquatch, consists of equal part of that being's heart and his mind. Heart without mind is suicidal, and doomed to extinction. Mind without heart is mechanical and cold and often murderous. Psychotics suffer from the former; psychopaths from the latter.
Sane human beings carry a balance of mind and heart into their daily existence. It is the mind that helps them think through a purely instinctive lash-out reaction which, if given free rein, would make society unliveable. It is the heart that prevents such thoughts from getting in the way of having such a reaction to unconscionable things.
This balance between the visceral and the rational is a fragile one, and proponents who lean more towards one side or another find means to dismiss their rival with varying degrees of disgust, contempt, and disdain. There are any number of words thrown by one camp at the other, designed to make the flinger look superior and "right" and the one they are flung at demeaned, and belittled. I went so far as to look up some definitions.
The dictionary defines "emotional" primarily as something "of or relating to an emotion," which is fair enough, but then further definitions are offered - prone to emotion, appealing to or arousing emotion, markedly aroused or agitated in feeling or sensibilities (as in, "she gets emotional at weddings").
Number one is the only strictly literal definition of the word; the others all take the word "emotion" and apply it in a belittling or pejorative way. Saying of someone that they "get emotional at weddings" implies that they make a spectacle of themselves - weeping, sniffling, given to long flowery speeches. There are those who will use that word when they are actually implying borderline hysteria, and it is all too frequently a purely feminine adjective, used on women who don't know any better than to bawl at nothing and who are probably pre-menstrual. "There, there, honey, don't get so emotional about it." There is something deeply acid and patronising about that word in this context, despite its innocent roots.
Its opposite might be taken to be "intellectual," purely of the mind and not passions. Merriam Webster has this to say about that word:
intellectual: adjective - 1 a: of or relating to the intellect or its use - 1 b: developed or chiefly guided by the intellect rather than by emotion or experience : RATIONAL
There it is again, that dismissive tone. "Chiefly guided by intellect <sniff, sniff> rather than by emotion or experience." As if emotion is a stalker preying on one's mind intent on dismembering it, instead of acting as a cushion on stainless steel ideas which are all crisp corners and sharp edges.
But there are several ramifications to that definition, and I chased them down.
"Chiefly guided by intellect rather than emotion or experience." Why would the influence of experience be dismissed? The dictionary definitions of the word "experience" include a direct observation of or participation in events as a basis of knwledge; the fact or state of having gained knowledge or having been affected through direct observation or participation; or a practical knowledge or skill derived from direct participation or observation in events or activities.
All this tends to one definition - an increase in knowledge based on direct observation or participation. So an "intellectual" way of looking at things appears to exclude knowledge based on direct participation or observation. Why would this be thought laudable? Why would dusty second-hand knowledge gained from books that others had written (others who, by this definition, did indulge in direct observation or participation) be better than actual experience one gained oneself? Why, in fact, is such second-hand experience not dismissed as someone else's "experience" and therefore discounted as an intellectual source? How far can one carry this deconstruction before intellectualism becomes merely an empty shell of itself? Participants in events are of two kinds - those that win a battle of some sort, and those that lose that battle. Official records and histories, those most often consulted by those pursuing a purely intellectual level of knowledge, are written, without fail, by the winners, and slanted in the way that the winners wished to see the conflict slanted. Opposing viewpoints reach intellectuals' bookshelves rarely, if at all, for the simple reason that a published account of an opposing viewpoint (if it is lucky to have a physical existence at all) is all too often suppressed, shredded, consigned into oblivion by means of denigration or simple refusal to acknowledge their very presence in the winners' world. How, then, is this one-sided exploration to be exalted above direct personal observation and participation?
A synonym for "intellectual" is given as "rational," so I went and looked that up too.
This, from Merriam Webster: the word "rational" is defined as "Having reason or understanding; relating to, based on, or agreeable to reason : REASONABLE <a rational explanation> <rational behavior>." So by extrapolation "emotion" is defined as "un-reason," or "non-reason," But not for nothing is the word "ration" the very root of that ugly word "rationalize." This is what Merriam Webster has to say on that: "To attribute (one's actions) to rational and creditable motives without analysis of true and especially unconscious motives <rationalized his dislike of his brother>; to provide plausible but untrue reasons for conduct.>
In other words, to "emotionalise" a reaction.
When I was a little girl I had an instant negative reaction to several people who entered my life through the agency of those adults who had the care of me. They might have been relatives, my parents' friends or colleagues, people my relatives married. In every case my instant "emotional" reaction proved itself accurate through subsequent events; my instinct for people remains strong today. I react with heart first, mind later. This is not a bad thing - it's almost a form of self defense, guarding me from harm from people who might subsequently be inclined to offer it to me. I do not "rationalise" this instinct in any shape or form, I merely trust it. Implicitly. Direct personal participation and observation. Experience. By very definition a non-intellectual ability. My trusting this purely emotional instinct does not make me a lesser species of human than the people who sit in the halls of power and dissect nations with dispassionate intellectual scalpels based on second-hand information from history books written or re-written by victors in a quarrel or a war. In fact, I maintain, it makes me a greater one.
A Yugoslav-born journalist, Ljubica Gojgic, writes of her people thusly:
Experts find that respondents older than 55...react very emotionally at any mention of Europe or of any leading Western nations. In their responses there is a noted absence of rational thinking; on the contrary, their responses are coloured by strong emotions and opinions arrived at in a moment of passion.Why is this implied to be a bad thing? Why would a refusal to see a relationship in terms of "mutual interests" alone be construed as "immature" - why is an emotional response necessarily bad? Why equate rationality with what the West does in forming its own relationships, and with that elusive something that needs to be taught to the poor and immature Serbian nation in order for it to be admitted into the august circle of civilised beings?
Do ethics and morality play any part in an intellectual outlook on the world? While both "emotional" people and hard-core "intellectuals" can take refuge in cynicism, the difference is that the former do so after some sort of visceral hurt - that personal "experience," direct involvement or observation - made them adjust their opinion or viewpoint to a more negative position, and the latter, the intellectuals of the world, simply dismiss with supercillious sneers anything that interferes with their worldview and retreat into cynicism when anyone attempts to point out a wrong turning they may have taken while studiously avoiding that personal involvement. In his 1906 essay "What Is Man?" Mark Twain says, "The fact that man knows right from wrong proves his intellectual superiority to other creatures; but the fact that he can do wrong proves his moral inferiority to any creature that cannot."
Mine is an emotional argument. I know I can do wrong. I know that others of my kind can do wrong. The only time I retreat into cyncism is when I see people reacting in perfectly natural ways being dismissed as immature, emotional, untermensch kind of beings; when one of their own, an articulate journalist with the gift of communication and the responsibility of putting across an image of her people which outsiders will consider authentic given her background and her roots, allows her people's "intellectuals" to psychoanalyse and dismiss the soul of a nation, already flayed to a shadow, as worthy only of a re-education.
There is a place for intellectual pursuit - in the classroom, in the library, in the laboratory. But human beings are not rats in a maze. If they have reason to react with emotion, that is a valid reaction; I do not mean to endorse Viking berserkers caught up in battle-madness, or child martyrs blowing themselves up together with their car bombs in some Middle Eastern war of mutual carnage. But if someone insists that his implacable hatred of you is based purely on intellectual conceits, are you not allowed to reciprocate with an instinct that recognises that aversion and returns it?...
Ask your mind its opinion.
But trust your heart. Trust your heart.
This is an emotional argument.
1. The rest of this article can be found at http://www.medijaklub.cg.yu/zanimljivi/zanimljivi12-99/08-6.htm (in Serbo-croat) (back)
Alma Hromic, the author with R. A. Deckert of Letters from the Fire, was born in Novi Sad, Yugoslavia. However she has lived outside her native country for much of her life: Zambia, Swaziland, South Africa, the UK and New Zealand. Trained as a microbiologist, she spent some years running a scientific journal, and later worked as an editor for an international educational publisher. Her own publishing record includes her autobiography, Houses in Africa, The Dolphin's Daughter and Other Stories, a bestselling book of three fables published by Longman UK in 1995, as well as numerous pieces of short fiction and non-fiction. Her next novel, the first volume of a fantasy series, Changer of Days: The Oracle, is due out in September 2001 with Harper Collins. Recently, Hromic won the much coveted BBC online short story competition. Her story, The Painting, was broadcast in the UK in the last week of January 2001.
Please, DO NOT steal, scavenge or repost this work without the expressed written authorization of Swans, which will seek permission from the author. This material is copyrighted, © Alma A. Hromic 2001. All rights reserved. No part of this material may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the publisher.
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Alma Hromic's Commentaries on Swans
Letter From My Father (June 2001)
They Change Their Sky (May 2001)
Year Two, P.K. (March 2001)
Letter to my Unborn Child (February 2001)
On the Anniversary (September 2000)
Subject: Into Myth (September 2000)
Sadness in Novi Sad, Serbia (April 2000)