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Conflicting Emotions and the Indivisible Heart

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  30 January 2009


Christabel Bielenberg must be one of the few people to have sought out an appointment with the Gestapo. An Englishwoman married to a senior German civil servant, she was determined somehow to free her husband, who was being held in the aftermath of the 1944 assassination attempt against Hitler. As she related it on Desert Island Discs, her success in facing down the forbidding official who eventually received her owed to the sight of a uniformed female officer leaning over one of the reception desks and repeatedly slapping a rather gracious old man across the face. ‘All of a sudden my fear vanished and I was filled with pure rage.’ For it was in that condition that she entered the interviewing room. Reflecting on this decades later, she opined majesterially, ‘I don't think it possible to have two intense and opposite emotions simultaneously.’

Research Article
Copyright © The Royal Institute of Philosophy 1996

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1 This is not, of course, just a matter of internal properties, to be discussed shortly, but also of the setting to which the emotion relates, either the mental setting (the background of desires and beliefs) or social. The importance of the latter is brought out by Robert, Kraut in ‘Feelings in Context’, The Journal of Philosophy 83, No. 11 (11 1986). But the identity of an emotion will nonetheless always depend in part on the internal propertieś (such as its hedonic tone) that it shows in whatever the relevant context may be.Google Scholar

2 For the limits to the specification of emotions in terms of their cognitive grounds, see Leighton, S., ‘Emotion and Feeling’, Review of Metaphysics 38, No. 2 (12, 1984)Google Scholar and Stocker, M., ‘Psychic Feelings’, The Australasian Journal of Philosophy 61, No. 1 (03 1983).CrossRefGoogle Scholar

3 As Mele, A. R. puts it, ‘perceived proximity can affect one's attentional condition.’Google Scholar For a fuller treatment of this issue, see his Irrationality (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987), 8492.Google Scholar

4 See ‘A Case of Mixed Feelings: Ambivalence and the Logic of Emotion’ in Explaining Emotions, Amelie, Rorty (ed.) (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1980), 223251.Google Scholar

5 It will be noted that both views, this and Greenspan's, separate emotion from judgments, even valuational judgments, but in opposite ways.

6 See especially Bernard, Williams, ‘Ethical Consistency’, Problems of the Self (Cambridge University Press, 1973), 172173Google Scholar and ‘Conflicts of Values’, Moral Luck (Cambridge University Press, 1981), 74.Google Scholar

7 Aeschylus, , Agamemnon, 205–215.Google Scholar

8 William, Styron, Sophie's Choice (London: Pan Books, 1992), 642.Google Scholar

9 Agamemnon, 218–224.Google Scholar

10 The point is surely that, as Williams puts it, ‘It is, probably, hard to apply the sacrificial knife to one's daughter while ringing one's hands, and if we do not think that Agememnon just made a mistake about what he had to do on that bad day at Aulis, it is better that, rather than telling him what he should have felt, we should be prepared to learn what was involved in getting through it.’ Bernard, Williams, Shame and Necessity (University of California Press, 1993), 135.Google Scholar

11 This is not to say that every emotion that may arise in the aesthetic context is an incomplete version of its type but only that this can happen and often does. For an argument that pity, for instance, suffers from no deficit when aroused by fictional characters, see Alex, Neill, ‘Fiction and the Emotions’, Arguing about Art, Neill, A. and Ridley, A. (eds) (McGraw Hill, Inc., 1995).Google Scholar

12 In what Ronald de Sousa calls its ‘paradigm scenario.’ See his The Rationality of Emotion (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1990), 181184.Google Scholar

13 Many philosophers have puzzled over how ‘pleasure’ can be taken in tragic art. One view of this seems to deny ambivalent feelings to the spectators: ‘… whence the pleasure? It is, I suggest, a meta-response, arising from our awareness of, and in response to, the fact that we do have unpleasant direct responses to unpleasant events as they occur in the performing and literary arts. We find ourselves to be the kind of people who respond negatively to villainy, treachery, and injustice.’ In this particular way, ‘the pleasures of tragedy are derived from feelings of sympathy with other human beings.’ (Susan, Feagin, ‘The Pleasures of Tragedy’, in Neill, A. and Ridley, A.,Google Scholaribid.., 209 & 211, respectively.) This makes our attraction to tragic spectacle a second-order reaction by the spectator to his or her own first-order distress at the events. Thus the first-order reactions are not mixed. Now, with whom is the person who relishes the spectacle of Hagen and his grim deeds sympathising? Not with Hagen, I think; and obviously not with his victims. By no means all of what draws us to tragedy is rooted in sympathy. Nor is all of it reassuring to (or about) ourselves. For in tragic art, the macabre (e.g., as delivered by Lady Macbeth) may also fascinate. And where we do sympathize, this need not be in reaction against villany and it needn't be pity: Don Giovanni is a villain, but there is a magnificance about him in the end that allows him, so to speak, to triumph over his just deserts. The satisfaction I have from beholding a sinister event on stage is not satisfaction at my duly finding hateful something which is evil. And when sympathy for pain and loss is at the forefront? The spectacle of Cassandra (again in the Agamemnon) is not riveting to me because I find it poignant, it is rivetingly poignant. My satisfaction lies, somehow, in the portrayal of the events. Cassandra's plight is the most unbearably sad I can think of, yet I bear reading of it only two well—certainly, it isn't unbearable to me in the way it is represented as being to her. The satisfaction belongs to the primary reaction rather than a reflective response to it. It is true that what moves me is not the event presented (e.g., a brutal assassination), for that does not even occur, but the presentation of such an event. The presentation of something hateful needn't be hateful even to one who would find an event of the sort presented sheerly hateful. The presentation may indeed arouse stirrings or intimations of the distress that real events of the kind would strike in me, and I might well take reflective satisfaction in these reassuring sensitivities. However, what I find absorbing, not just alarming, on stage (but in life, just alarming) is what I see there. Our responses here are mixed (and emphatically not moral).Google Scholar

14 ‘To say that there is in imagination an internal version of the audience is intended to do justice to the fact that, when we imagine someone doing something or other, there is a state or condition which we are in at the end of imagining this and which we are in as a result of what we have imagined.’ Richard, Wollheim, ‘Identification and Imagination’, Freud, Richard, Wollheim (ed.) (Anchor Books: 1974), 183184.Google Scholar

15 Only if the self is its own participating audience can it remain clear that its imaginings are just that, imaginings; overlooking its role as audience is its way of overlooking this.

16 Gustav, Flaubert, Madame Bovary (New York: Random House, 1991), ch. IX, 66.Google Scholar

17 In discussing what it can be to enter into or live an emotion or thought, Michael Stocker claims that in playful simulation of an emotion we may be carried away by it and really have it, especially where in role playing we imagine the role to be real. Michael, Stocker, ‘Emotional Thoughts’, American Philosophical Quarterly 24, No. 1 (01 1987), 65.Google Scholar Support for my counter-claim, that such emotions are anomalous, deficient and not really ‘entered into’ is suggested by the following passage: ‘When the British Ambassador presented this [the British position] in a personal letter from Chamberlain, Hitler worked himself into a rage, then, when Henderson had gone, burst out laughing: “Chamberlain won't survive that conversation!” ’— Alan, Bullock, Hitler and Stalin (London: HarperCollins, 1991), 689.Google Scholar

18 For a case of rival desires that seem to emanate from a dissonant emotional state, consider Zerlina's response to Don Giovanni's approaches (Mozart, , Don Giovanni, Act I, scene 3): ‘Vorrei e non vorrei’ (‘I want to and I don't want to’). What do her divided inclinations betoken? An obvious possibility is that she is attracted by the prospect of Don Giovanni's embraces but fearful of repercussions, i.e., different emotions with different targets. But suppose her unease results from finding Don Giovanni intimidating, mysterious and powerful, as well as charming and that this edge of fear is part of what attracts her. What alarms also attracts, so that the temptation cannot be disentangled from the fear. (She might even fear him in part for his power so to attract her.)—A single, bipolar emotional state if ever there was one, and perhaps not so very freakish. Yet it is possible to see attenuated engagement at work even here. For at this pre-seduction juncture, Zerlina's fear remains nascent and inchoate, an uncertainty in the face of something larger than life which she hasn't the measure of and cannot control. At any rate, the grounds for full-fledged fear are not yet apparent, viz. the effervescence and impersonality of Don Giovanni's interest and his ruthlessness. It may be doubted whether that would continue to allure her. So as things stand, her fear can still retain something of the picturesque. The fear that can allure is the fear that has yet to mature. I am grateful to Anthony Palmer for bringing this example to my attention.Google Scholar