Tag Archives: emotion

On an August afternoon in the Blue Ridge Mountains the late afternoon rain grays out the trees and streaks my vision with vertical lines. In the distance I can hear a low rumble, but this is no storm, but a gentle, constant rain. When I lived in the desert many years ago, this was called a “she-rain.” 

It has been muggy, with air so thick you can feel it smear on your skin, but the rain clears it out and leaves a fresh smell of green in my nostrils. I step out the front door to soak in the feel of it all. 

I look out, up and down the street and see the trees shiver as the drops tag the leaves and comes over me a distinct and particular emotion. I don’t want this feeling to stop, but rather I wish to drink it in and let it swirl through my body. It is not an easy emotion to describe; words are not sufficient. But it is a sense that the world is larger than I am and runs on a pattern and scale that I am only an observer of. There is comfort in that. 

Weather carries emotion. We don’t always remember that perhaps because sometimes the emotion is frustration or disappointment, as when you can’t go our in a snowstorm, or fear when it looks like a tornado might be brewing. But the moving air is an agent and cause, the sky and its clouds a ripe metaphor for our interior lives. 

Weather is a ground upon which our lives are painted, always there under the surface. A sunny day can make us happier — unless you live in the desert when after two months of continuous sun, you get rather antsy and wish for even just a little reprieve. 

I remember once visiting Washington D.C., covering an exhibit at the National Gallery for the newspaper. I was put up in a hotel near Georgetown and in the afternoon a rainshower blew up. I could see it from my room window. I went out the revolving door and a doorman offered me an umbrella. I refused, looking straight up at the sky and letting the drops pelt my face. He looked at me like I was nutty. 

“Don’t worry,” I said. “I live in Arizona. I haven’t seen rain for three months. I love this. I love getting wet.” 

I remember when I was a schoolkid and it would snow in the New Jersey winter. The snow would be as deep as my belly and I went out into it and dug a cave in the accumulation and pulled away snow from around my hole, making an ersatz igloo. The snow was ecstatic, and not merely the snow, but my breath clouding the air in front of me, the numbness in my fingers and the cracking in my nose. 

When I was living at the beach in Virginia, I once drove down to the water during a nor’easter, with the wind blowing at 40 or 50 miles per hour. The car faced directly into the wind and it bounced violently so that I thought I would go airborne. I couldn’t help but think of an aircraft carrier heading into the wind so the planes could take off with a short run. 

Which reminds me of going airborne in a tent. We were camping in Shamrock, Texas, when an evening thunderstorm hit. A tornado had passed through the previous day and we were worried about another. As the rain came down in multiple Niagaras, the wind tore through and, first the tent began to float on the flood, and then began to rise around us. We had to abandon ship and head to the campground office for safety. As I got out, the tent pulled loose from its stakes and I grabbed it by the frame and it flew over my head like a kite. I held on, thinking I might begin flying myself, but managed to pull it down and flatten it and drag the rags with me to the building, where we — and all the other campers — waited out the storm. 

But back to today’s rain, gentle and quiet, a hiss on the road and paradiddle on the leaves. It is the middle of a pandemic and we have been sequestered in the house for months. To stand on the stoop and feel the rain and enjoy the welling of emotion is a treat. 

It reminds me again that the feeling of emotion is what makes us human. We may be rational beings (at least that’s the argument — I’m not so sure that isn’t wishful thinking), but it is emotion that reminds us we are alive. A computer can think, but I have no evidence that it can stand on a doorstep and enjoy, absolutely enjoy, the rain. And enjoy it to the extent that it warrants the name of joy. 

I am 72 years old, and I face the absolute certainty that whatever life I have remaining will be a mere fraction of what I have already lived. The end is within sight, be it even 20 years off. And I feel my existence on this planet more sharply than ever. I am here; I am alive; I take in my breath and let it out again, and with each inhalation comes the smell of the rain-filled air. 

There is much suffering in the world, and I have had a small share of it, but when I look at the pale green of the maple tree in the front yard, contrast lowered with the obscuring rainfall, I recognize that even with the pain and misery, there is still beauty — an afflatus that fills my frame and almost brings tears, tears of awareness. Of being alive. Of feeling my fingers and toes wiggle. 

Let it rain.   

“The older I get, the more the complexities of life narrow down to simpler components,” said Stuart. “The interactions become more complex, but the basics seem fewer.”

“Yes,” I prodded.

“I’ve been thinking about emotions, or more precisely, about how emotions are manifested by our bodies in terms of muscle reactions, hormonal dumps, brain chemistry — emotions as a physical reaction to external or internal stimuli.”

“Sounds clinical.”

“Well, I’m no scientist and I can’t claim any justification for this, but I’ve spent nearly 70 years examining my self — my inner self — and trying to understand just how I’ve reacted to the many events in my life, both the good and the bad.”

Stuart and I have both been around for a long time, been through many things, some of them together. Marriages, divorces, trips, jobs, houses, friends, pets, births, and more recently, deaths. 

“And I’ve come to believe that there are really only six emotions.”

“Surely, there are an infinite number of emotions,” I said. “At least an uncounted number. ‘I am large, I contain multitudes.’ ”

“Yes, it sometimes seems that way, but I think it is more like the taste  buds on your tongue. Only a few, but the combinations of them allow us to identify a huge range of flavors.

“The six emotions I have winnowed it all down to are: sadness, anger, fear, contentment, joy, and finally, desire — erotic desire. Each of these manifests itself in a distinct part of the body, or combination of corporeal locations.”

“I know where desire is felt.”

“Well, yes, but I don’t mean this as a joke. Let’s take them one by one and examine them.

“I start with sadness, because that’s the one most proximate, at least for you.”

“You’ve got that right.”

“Sadness — and I mean sadness, I don’t mean depression, which is a lack of affect and therefore, the opposite of emotion — sadness wells up in the eyes, in the higher portions of the chest, in a pursing of lips graduating into a pulling apart of the corners of the mouth and stretching of the neck ligaments. 

“Each of these emotions is a range, not a single thing. Sadness can run from a kind of wistfulness into a full blown gnashing of teeth and rending of garments.”

“Been there.” 

“Fear hits the pit of the stomach and the back of the neck; it widens the eyes and tightens the throat. Anger tenses the whole face and focuses the eyes, tightening their orbits; it also stiffens the back of the throat and may also clench the fists. 

“Contentment is a warm feeling throughout the body, a relaxation of tightnesses. It is what we most often call happiness. And it is very different from joy, which is an inhalation, or alternately, a holding of breath, along with a swelling of chest and perhaps a throwing back of arms. You almost escape your skin. 

“And desire — and I mean specifically sexual desire, not just the inclination to acquire what one doesn’t have — desire swells the loins.”

“And what about love? Isn’t that one of the big emotions?”

“In my way of thinking about it, love is a cause of emotions, not an emotion itself.

“Think about it. When you are young, at first flush, love is a combination of joy and desire; as you age, it may become contentment and desire, then, perhaps contentment alone. Certainly it can also cause anger in one, or fear, and ultimately, love can be expressed through sadness. You know about that all too directly. These are all the pipes attached to the keys of the organs, from flute to diapason.”

“And hate?”

“Likewise, it triggers a range of notes: anger and fear mostly.”

I can never tell just how seriously to take Stuart. His enthusiasms are certainly genuine, but they are not often long lived. He gets on a topic, drives it to its logical or illogical end and than, like an infant tempted by some new shiny object, moves on to something else. Still, there is often something to be learned by looking at the world from an angle outside even the periphery. 

“I imagine some sort of sliders on a sound studio mixing panel, pull up the fear and anger, deaden the joy and contentment. Fingers constantly pushing the controls up and down.

“Again, my disclaimer: I am no scientist, this is all just self-examination, but science does seem to have correlated certain hormones and neurotransmitters with emotional reactions. Fear and adrenaline, contentment and serotonin. Endorphins and joy. Cocktails mixing them make for some astonishing complexity. We all know it’s possible to love and hate at the same time. Shaken, not stirred.”

“You have me remembering a girlfriend I had many years ago, in Seattle,” I said. “I was crazy in love at the time, but her reaction was that ‘Love is just pheromones.’ Rather knocked me down a bit.” 

“I remember her,” Stuart said. “Nothing blonder than her hair but the sun.”

“Yes, that’s her.”

“Well, it started me thinking. We almost always pit emotion against  rational thought, as if they were opposites. Bones and Spock. What if thought was the same as emotion — a physical and chemical reaction that the body washes over us? Are there peptides and purines that channel or produce reason? Is it all ‘just pheromones?’ We privilege reason over emotion in our culture, but let’s face it, reason does not always provide better outcomes than emotion. Remember Halberstam’s book with the ironic title?”

The Best and the Brightest.”

“Yes. Logic, I’ve always said, is a provincialism of our culture. I blame Plato.”

“You usually do.”

“Or maybe Zeno. His paradox only works in language, not in reality. The tortoise will always be passed by Achilles in just a couple of bounds. Yet, the logic proves that Achilles cannot possibly ever catch up. I have doubted reason ever since I thought that one through. 

“So, I’m imagining a gushing brain chemistry that makes us divide each question into ones and zeros, yes or no, black or white, salt or pepper, chocolate or vanilla. Is there a bestiary of thought as there seems to be one of emotion?  You love Beethoven’s late quartets, right?”

“Who wouldn’t?”

“And what have you always said about the ‘Heiliger Dankgesang’ or the cavatina? ‘At its highest levels,’ you said, ‘thought and emotion cannot be told apart.’ Isn’t that right?”

“To quote a First Century prophet from the Levant: ‘You have said it.’ ”

“So, I’m trying to work out another mixing board, one for thought. Or, is it the same mixing board, but turned sideways? Does thinking create facial expressions or muscle contractions the way emotions do? When I’m lost in thought, I can feel me face go all flabby as I’m lost in thought — or sometimes the reverse, I screw up my lips and nose as I work through a knotty problem.

“At the very least, I’m convinced that the body and the mind are not separate entities, but rather a single thing looked at from different ends. We get all flummoxed when we divide ourselves up between thinking and feeling, between body and soul, between heaven and earth, between realism and idealism. I imagine it all as Medieval humors, only with modern, scientific names like urocortin and oxytocin. They didn’t have microscopes and magnetic resonance machines, but those Medieval people were not simple-minded idiots. Their brains were just as good as ours. It’s just their research facilities were underfunded. And they didn’t have as many giants on whose shoulders to stand.”

“So, she was right? It’s all just pheromones?”

“Perhaps. Remember, I’m no scientist, and even if it is all just pheromones, it doesn’t feel as if it is.”

“Well, I think it’s dinner time and I’m feeling hungry. Let’s go see what we can cook up. I’ve got a new pasta recipe that I think Genevieve will like.”

There are two pieces of music that never fail to set off the waterworks in me.

I’m sure we all have some signature tune that turns us into maudlin fools crying into our beer.

Lots of music can have that effect, when you’re in the right mood. Mozart is full of such tunes. No one ever wrote about the forgiveness of human foibles like Mozart. It isn’t only in his “forgiveness arias,” but the same tone of music turns up in piano concertos and wind sextets. He had some tap into divine understanding.

When I’m in the right mood, Mozart wells up in my throat. But heck, if I’m really depressed, Stars and Stripes Forever can set me off.

But I’m talking about something that doesn’t require the right mood to work.

Anyone playing Shenandoah, for instance. I don’t care what the arrangement. You can play it on a chorus of kazoos and trombones. You can play it calypso style on steel drums — the moment I’m transported “across the wide Missouri,” I’m reduced to a blubbering mass.

Clearly, I’m responding to some sort of deep seated nostalgia, some trauma of childhood or failed romance. But strike up the tune and I’m like some drunk in a bar yelling “Play Melancholy Baby.”

Actually, I know what it is with Shenandoah: I know the Shenandoah River and the great valley it troughs through in northern Virginia, heading north to join the Potomac at Harper’s Ferry.

It is an especially beautiful river, and only more so on a cool autumn morning when a low fog hangs over the water and the sycamore trees along its banks seem to grow out of white nothing.

The Shenandoah Valley separates the Blue Ridge in the east from the great ridges of iron- and coal-laden mountains to the west. The river rises in twin forks, one on either side of Massanutten Mountain, which rises like a long, low bread loaf in the middle of the valley.

I used to live in the Blue Ridge; I have just moved back. It was the most beautiful place I ever knew. I missed it.

And when the song says, “I long to see your smiling valley,” I knew just what it meant. “Tis seven long years since I last saw thee,” the song continues. It was 25 years since my wife and I lived in the Appalachians.

We lived in Arizona, which has a beauty all its own, but is different from the Blue Ridge. And when the song reaches its climax, “across the wide Missouri,” I knew that I was on the wrong side of the Missouri, too, in a kind of self-imposed Babylonian captivity.

“By the waters of the Rio Salado, there we sat down, yea, we wept.”

The song speaks to me — as it does to so many other people — of that lost Eden we know we can never regain.

And so, I blubber.

But that second tune that sets me off is something different.

It is Christoph Willibald Gluck’s Dance of the Blessed Spirits.

Gluck was a Czech-born composer of the 18th century who rebelled against the ornate and conventional opera of the time. His opera, Orfeo ed Euridice, tells a simple myth in simple music. Almost too simple.

Two set pieces from that opera still are widely known. The Dance of the Furies was used behind the chase scene in almost every Hopalong Cassidy movie ever made. In those “B” Westerns, budgets didn’t allow new music, so they played old classics behind the action. The music was loud and furious.

But Dance of the Blessed Spirits was something else: quiet, almost  static, and with the grace only utter simplicity can convey.

Two flutes play the song-like melody over the accompaniment of strings. Chords change slowly and never stray from simple diatonic harmonies.

And when the tune’s first phrase reaches conclusion, it stretches out in a feminine ending, a slow suspension off the beat. Nothing is insistent in the music, but rather, like the Grecian maiden on Keats’ urn, it seems suspended in time, permanently in a state of grace.

I melt when I hear it.

But its power comes from the same kind of emotion that drives Shenandoah: a sense of loss and a sense that somewhere there is an Eden where spirits are blessed.

Yet the tunes are very different, too. My reaction to Shenandoah is personal, very personal. Its power — for me — comes from my biography. I don’t expect everyone will react the same way.

The Gluck, though, has a more ritualized, formal power. It comes from its stylization.

For Gluck was aiming not for biography, but for the universal.

Art’s emotional wallop often comes not from its literal portrayal of raw feelings, but from the Apollonian distancing and formalization of those feelings. By understatement, it draws up a skeleton that we flesh out with our own experience.

The so-called Romantic artist often fails to exactly the extent he overplays his hand. Such an artist wants us to feel his feelings.

The Classic speaks not of his personal emotion, but of human emotion. Hence, they are our emotions.

In other words, when I hear Shenandoah, I feel the turns my life has taken; when I hear the Gluck I weep for the inescapable lot of humankind. The one traps me in my ego, the other frees me from it.

This is the power one feels in Homer, in Joyce, in Flaubert. It is the reason Haydn is still played along with the more personal Berlioz.

And it is the power at the end of Beethoven’s immense Diabelli Variations, those 32 monumental changes on the “cobbler’s patch” waltz sent to Beethoven by music publisher Anton Diabelli, who asked the great composer for a variation he might publish.

Through those variations, Beethoven dives deep into some of the most personal music he ever wrote, with adagios of desolation and pathos, culminating in a clattering, raging fugue that is as hard to listen to as to play.

But he winds up in Arcadia, just like Gluck: His final overwhelming variation is a dignified minuet, which takes all the terror and anger, all the humor and misery of the previous 31 variations and sublimates all that personal angst into an Olympian, stylized dance.

It is this ritualization of the overwhelming emotions that make those emotions important: The personal is mere autobiography. The ritual dispenses grace: the freedom from ego.

It is why our most important thoughts and feelings are turned into meter and rhyme, why our bodies move to the numbers of choreography, why the novel is the “bright book of life.”

And why art matters.