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Ian Birchall

The Navigation of Feeling


From Revolutionary History, Vol. 8 No. 3, 2003, pp.350–52.
Transcribed by Alun Morgan for Revolutionary History Website.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

William M. Reddy
The Navigation of Feeling
Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2001, pp. 380

WHEN I was young, I was firmly instructed: ‘Only little girls cry.’ Nowadays thuggish boy footballers are constantly in floods of tears because they have lost a bonus. It is the recognition that human emotions are not a timeless given, but change with the historical process, that is the starting-point for William Reddy’s book, subtitled A Framework for the History of Emotions.

Pursuing a vigorously interdisciplinary approach, Reddy draws on contemporary work in psychology and anthropology, as well as the post-structuralist philosophy of Foucault and Derrida, to aid an understanding of how emotions work in history. The psychological work is the least convincing; it is far from clear how pushing buttons in a laboratory experiment when emotionally charged words are flashed on a screen can contribute to an understanding of how emotions function in human history.

From his sometimes frenzied tour of relevant academic studies, Reddy comes to the conclusion that emotions are not biologically based but learned (thus undermining the widespread assumption that women are by nature emotionally different to men). At the same time, he rejects the thoroughgoing relativism which would claim that there is no way of preferring the emotional values of one civilisation to those of another. The cultural manifestations of emotion are highly complex – as Reddy notes, people watch horror movies because in some sense they ‘enjoy’ being frightened.

Reddy thus makes out a serious case for the need to study emotions in an historical framework. It is when he tries to apply his method to a concrete historical period, France between 1700 and 1850, that he falls flat on his face in the most ungainly manner.

Reddy begins by asserting that ‘from 1794 to the present, the history of the Enlightenment has been presented largely as a matter of science, rationality, social contract, and natural right’ (p. 142). He argues that the eighteenth century also saw a powerful current of what he calls ‘sentimentalism’, but that this ‘was erased from the history books, until recent research … began to rediscover it’ (p. 147).

Reddy is very hot on ‘recent research’ – so hot that he has apparently had little time to study primary sources, and seems blissfully unaware that much of what passes for ‘new’ research is simply warmed-over commonplaces from the past. When I did a very conservative undergraduate course in eighteenth-century French literature some 40 years back, I would have faced certain failure if I had not grasped the importance of sentimentalism – or sensibilité as we called it – in this period. Back in the 1870s, the conservative historian Taine was linking sensibilité to the crimes of the French Revolution, and Trahard’s four-volume Les Maîtres de la sensibilité française au XVIIIe siècle of 1932 constituted a major historical assessment of the phenomenon (this book, like so much else, is absent from Reddy’s bibliography).

In his haste to be comprehensive, Reddy cheerfully grasps at second-hand judgements. Thus he tells us ‘Robert Darnton, in 1985, proclaimed Rousseau’s La Nouvelle Héloïse to be “unreadable”’ (p. 161). Reddy, apparently, has been quite happy to accept this judgement; there is no evidence of any first-hand investigation of one of the texts most relevant to his thesis. (I have some sympathy here; Rousseau’s novel is very long and tedious, and I only got halfway myself.) In fact, there is nothing unusual about this phenomenon of a best-seller becoming unreadable. Historians of the twenty-first century doubtless find it hard to understand the impact of Look Back in Anger or Catcher in the Rye; you had to be there just at the right moment to see the point.

Things go from bad to worse as he moves on to the French Revolution. His central claim is that ‘sentimentalist’ ideas offer an explanation of the Terror, and he tries to graft this onto the work of Furet and other revisionist historians. Now it is undoubtedly true that emotion played a major rôle in the revolutionary process; to put it crudely, there’s no point running a ‘terror’ if nobody’s scared. And this rôle has been recognised by all the classic historians of the Revolution from Michelet onwards, as Reddy would find out if he troubled to read them.

But the point is to show how emotions related to the social conflicts of the period, rather than offer them as an alternative explanation. For Reddy emotions, culture and ideology become determining factors. Thus he writes: ‘increasing intolerance … had a sentimentalist basis insofar as it rested on a Manichean fear of the immorality of plotters’ (p. 186). He should recall the old joke: ‘Just because you’re paranoid, it doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you.’ After 1789, a long-established ruling group had been ousted from power which they believed, quite literally, to be their God-given right. They were prepared to use any means necessary to regain it. It is not necessary to follow the Popular Front historians in their veneration of the Terror; there are valid criticisms to be made of its methods, its targets and its rhetoric. But it was a response to very real conspiracies by the defenders of the old order; to forget that is to abandon any hope of making sense of the period.

But Reddy has little time for any attempt to articulate emotion with class. Ever happy to grasp at a second-hand judgement, he notes that ‘Richard Cobb long ago, and eloquently, complained of the lack of purchase of class concepts on the experience of the Terror’ (p. 198). Cobb, a former Stalinist fellow-traveller who jumped ship, produced important studies of the revolutionary armies, and was unlikely to have been as cavalier as Reddy in abandoning any use of the concept of class.

In fact, Reddy seems very ill at ease with the discussion of class. He believes that domestic servants were part of the ‘labouring poor’, when their whole social situation (and consequent rôle in the revolution) was worlds apart from, say, the dockers and market-porters among whom Babeuf won his support. He tells us that in the literary salons ‘differences of rank were set aside on entry’ (p. 150). While it may be true that lower aristocrats rubbed shoulders with debt-burdened writers, it is most unlikely that any poor peasants or water-carriers turned up to read out their sonnets. The ‘amoral aristocratic evildoer’, as depicted in Beaumarchais’ Marriage of Figaro, is dismissed as a ‘sentimentalist cliché … hardly consonant with the social reality of the time’ (p. 185). The popularity of Beaumarchais’ play, and the state ban on it, suggest that the figure was all too rooted in reality.

The treatment of the post-Revolutionary period is even thinner. Reddy retails some half-truths about Romanticism, obscuring rather than illuminating the question of its similarities to and differences from the sentimentalism of the previous century. He seems to assume that all Romantics believed in the concept of ‘art for art’s sake’, when many of its leading protagonists, notably Victor Hugo, vigorously repudiated it. There are in fact two important novels which trace the complex and subtle interplay between individual emotion and social change in the first half of the nineteenth century – Stendhal’s Scarlet and Black and Flaubert’s Sentimental Education. Neither rates a mention from Reddy.

Finally, Reddy – now obviously up against a deadline – gives a cursory analysis of some legal disputes from the 1820s, to show that his history is not merely literary. Here he shows that cases where individual motivation was at stake were conducted in more emotional terms than those which turned on technical points of law. Surprise, surprise!

In conclusion, Reddy argues that a society based on the profit motive allows greater freedom than one based on the ‘emotional discipline’ of the revolutionary period. Joining up with a long-established criticism of the Enlightenment, he argues that ‘belief in the natural origin of good feeling resulted in oversimplified and overoptimistic hopes for political reform’ (p. 326). On the other hand, ‘the advantage of the pessimistic outlook was that it lowered expectations’ (p. 328). In other words, you can’t change human nature, and if people have a low view of their own worth they won’t make large wage demands. This isn’t very striking for a book which makes such claims to originality.

Perhaps this is unfair. There is the germ of an important idea in this book. In the old days, an academic would have gone away, pored over the source material for years, and eventually come up with a sober and well-considered assessment. In the modern university with its factory-like drive to productivity, this is unimaginable. Professors are paid to write, not to read, and certainly not to think. Reddy is not a charlatan, merely a victim.

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Last updated: 21 May 2021