Is it a good thing for a novel to stimulate our emotions? Montaigne, Brecht and others thought not.
The devil is in the detail. Talking about moments when excruciating gallstone pains made him believe he was soon to die, Montaigne remarks: “When I looked upon death as the end of my life, universally, then I looked upon it with indifference. Wholesale, I could master it: Retail, it savaged me; the tears of a manservant, the distributing of my wardrobe, the known touch of a hand, a routine word of comfort discomforted me and made me weep.”
It is the details that attach us to life and arouse our emotions. “A hound, a horse, a book, a wineglass and whatnot,” Montaigne observes, all “had their role in my loss.” Reasoning and accumulated wisdom, he goes on, may give us some insight into human grief, but it is the small things, picked up by ears and eyes — “organs which can be stirred by inessentials only” — that will really have an impact. So we might be aware of, but not greatly moved by, the plight of Syrian refugees until the photograph of a dead child face down in the sand triggers our emotions and has us bursting into tears.
Having made these observations, Montaigne embarks on what might best be described as a creative writing lesson in reverse. Literature, he points out, is adept at exploiting this aspect of our psychology; it focuses on evocative inessentials to stimulate our emotional response. Generally unmoved by the human condition, we nevertheless “disturb our souls with fictional laments.” It hardly even matters that they are invented: “The plaints of Dido and Ariadne in Virgil and Catullus arouse the feelings of the very people who do not believe in them.”
And he asks a question that no one asks these days: “Is it right for the arts to serve our natural weakness and to let them profit from our inborn animal-stupidity?” Aside from its astute selection of moving detail, art is constantly in the business of manipulating our emotions, as if this were an end in itself. This, after all, was Plato’s objection to the arts and every kind of artistic effect — that it was manipulative and potentially mendacious. Or simply a waste: “How often,” Montaigne asks, “do we encumber our spirits with yellow bile or sadness by means of such shadows?”
If we apply these ideas to narrative fiction as it is today, what do we find? First, the idea that a book, or film for that matter, stimulates extreme emotions is constantly deployed as a promotional tool. Terrifying, hair-raising, profoundly upsetting, painfully tender, heartbreaking, devastating, shocking, are all standard fare in dust-jacket blurbs and newspaper reviews; it is as if the reader were an ectoplasm in need of powerful injections of adrenaline. Anything that disturbs us, arouses us, unsettles us, is unconditionally positive. “You will be on the edge of your seat.” “Your heart will be thumping.” “Your pulse will be racing.” Aristotle’s response to Plato, that arousing emotion could be positive so long as the emotion was clarified, cathartically contained and understood, is rarely invoked. At best there is the implication that arousing emotions fosters sympathy, perhaps even empathy, with fictional characters and that such sympathy then breaks down our prejudices and hence is socially useful. So readers will frequently be invited to contemplate the sufferings of threatened minorities or discriminated-against ethnic groups, or the predicament of those who are young, helpless and preferably attractive. But this is an alibi and we all know it; what matters is stimulating emotion to sell books.
Similarly, creative writing courses, as far as I am able to judge, are obsessed with technique — how to arrive at that powerful detail, how to give it prominence, how to grab the reader, not why we want to grab the reader or to what end. Traditional literature courses used to reflect on the way detail was used inside a novel’s overall vision. The present zeitgeist invites us only to contemplate how the trigger can be pulled, not where the bullet is going, because the purpose of creative writing courses — especially when the fees are high — is to teach the would-be writer how to produce a publishable narrative, not a “good,” let alone a “responsible” narrative.
Montaigne is hardly alone in criticizing an overeasy excitement of the sentiments. In recent times, Bertolt Brecht objected to the stimulation of emotional identification with fictional characters, and Muriel Spark argued strongly against arousing compassion in novels; it allowed readers, she complained, to “feel that their moral responsibilities are sufficiently fulfilled by the emotions they have been induced to feel.” She advocated satire and ridicule instead as more effective tools of social criticism.
Samuel Beckett entirely rejected the idea of narrative as a vehicle for arousing emotion. Again and again he blocks any sympathy for his characters, drawing attention to their fictional status, making their suffering grotesque and comic rather than endearing. Yet even he understands how naturally narrative moves in this direction, admitting that in the final analysis even the struggle to avoid arousing emotions will confer a kind of pathos on the author.
But does it actually matter? Why not let novels stimulate emotions all they will and readers buy into them as intensely as they wish? The hell with it. What on earth could be wrong with that?
Montaigne’s comments on the evocative power of detail are not isolated. He lived in an age of division and dogmatism; the religious wars between Catholics and Huguenots lasted almost 40 years and caused countless deaths. In 1572 the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre alone saw thousands of Huguenots killed by their Catholic enemies. Montaigne’s position was always that we must be extremely careful about our emotions, in particular our tendency to get emotional about ideas. He didn’t advise neutrality, but simply that “we should not nail ourselves so strongly to our humors and complexions.” To foster emotions deliberately and habitually was dangerous, because once a strong emotion had kicked in it was very difficult to find a way back. Certainly, had he been alive today, he would have seen a continuity not just between violent fiction and real violence, war films and war, but also more generally between a culture that has turned the stimulation of emotion into a major industry and a society torn apart by heated conflicts of all kinds.
No civilization has ever produced as much narrative as our own, and with so little collective control. Thousands upon thousands of stories and novels are published worldwide every month. Not to mention TV series and films. There is intense competition: competition to get published, competition to win prizes, competition to reach a national audience, competition to reach an international audience. Of course there are various cards to play in that competition: wit, creativity, ideology, comedy, savviness; but the factor most frequently stressed, the one no one can do without, is emotional impact. When was the last time you heard a novel praised because it invited the reader to a higher level of intellectual engagement with complex issues? Or because it retreated from spicy detail to offer a balanced view of life overall? Or because its characters managed to handle potentially dangerous conflicts without arriving at a destructive showdown? Often as we read it seems that all the energy and creativity of the writer has been channeled into conjuring up those piquant, lurid or simply shocking details that will unleash the reader’s emotions.
How can we suppose that this state of affairs, this constant rush for the most disturbing, the most poignant, the most emphatic, the most terrifying, has no effect on the way we respond to the dramas of our lives? As I write this morning, three months after Brexit, two months after the Republican Convention nominated Donald Trump, following a summer that has seen scores of deaths from terrorism and with Aleppo still under relentless bombing, all I hear around me is violent, overheated, highly emotional rhetoric, ferocious discrediting of all adversaries, poignant details of the lives of unlucky victims, horror for the future and, beneath it all, a complacent excitement about our own capacity for feeling life intensely.
Tim Parks’s most recent book is “The Novel: A Survival Skill.”