Richard Firth-Godbehere has such a long and curious last name that we spend a while explaining: his ancestors were Viking priests from the Scottish part. But that is not what brings you to this page and to the Hay de Segovia festival, but the book Homo emoticon (Salamandra), in which he travels through the history of humanity through emotions. This author born in Sheffield in 1976 is one of the greatest specialists on the subject.
Ask. Have you counted the emotions? How many are there?
Response. I don’t, but others have. And the most common list is six: joy, sadness, disgust, fear, anger and surprise. There are other lists of 12, 14, 30 and it is not universal. Every culture has its own version.
P. I thought there were hundreds.
R. There are as many emotions as there are people and what their language allows. There are languages that describe emotions that do not exist in other languages or are not translated in the same way. Fear is similar in all languages, but other things are not. For example: in Welsh there is a word that refers to a dream from the past that is still present, a mixture of nostalgia, sadness and joy at the same time that there is not in English. Each language has its set of emotions.
P. Are emotions playing an excessive role in politics?
R. Yes, they have a very big role in society in general at the moment. 20 or 30 years ago, when something happened, the question was: What happened? Today the first question is: How do you feel? Emotions have taken a great weight and politicians have understood it, they know that releasing something fragmentary that makes you feel an emotion will achieve much more than trying to explain things to you. We saw it in the UK with Brexit, when supporters extolled what it meant to be British while pro-Europeans used data and most said: we don’t care about data, we feel this. And we lost because of emotions.
P. Should we repress emotions to make decisions?
R. I think so. We do well when we stick to what we call our “emotional regimen,” which is how we’re supposed to behave in our society. A stewardess, for example, knows that she must be polite even if a traveler is rude. Her emotional regimen forces her to be kind and repress rudeness. This happens at all levels, particularly in politics. And to be a good politician you have to channel your emotions, contain them. Unless you’re Donald Trump, of course (laughs).
A stewardess, for example, knows that she must be friendly even if a traveler is rude: it is her emotional regimen
P. You maintain that emotion is a modern concept. A box that contains our feelings.
R. It’s a box, a frame, and there’s a lot of debate about what exactly is an emotion. The classic question is: Why is hunger not an emotion and disgust is, for example? We have simply decided to do so from a time when we have separated thoughts from feelings. That was the great goal of philosophers, of people like Kant.
P. And what is hunger, then?
R. It is a feeling, not an emotion.
P. And the feeling is not an emotion?
R. Not necessarily, it’s more physical than emotion, at least in English. Hunger, cold, heat are bodily feelings, physical sensations, not emotions. Why? Because we have decided so.
P. How do emotions change in the Tik Tok era?
R. We are developing very fast ways to create emotions with media like Tik Tok, with 10-second videos that will make you laugh and want to imitate it to make others laugh too. It is an art, a new art to engage emotions through simple and rapid repetitions that you make your own. Social networks are changing things: anonymity gives people more freedom to say what they feel and at the same time there are more and more people defending containment.
P. How do you study emotions?
R. There are many ways. Neuroscientists put you in a machine and analyze your brain’s reactions in real time, which is not perfect because you’re in an artificial environment, in a tube with a lot of noise. Psychologists do it the old-fashioned way. They can create two groups and test them with a nice person and another who is not and check the different emotional result generated by the different context, although the physical sensations have been the same. Historians of emotion like me look at texts from the past, from scientists and philosophers. For example, Plato talks a lot about emotions. And today we have data analytics and computers that can analyze millions of words from social media or ancient texts and create tables. You find things like the word “abomination” was very common in ancient times and was linked to religious concepts. It was a religious emotion. There are many ways to study emotions.
P. And why did you take to studying them?
R. I started with my wife. She has emetophobia, a phobia of vomiting that is severe. At that time I was studying History and I tried to understand the disgust, aversion and fear of elements of that phobia closely linked to the history of witchcraft. That rehearsal went well and I said to myself: Here’s something. And I began to take a serious interest in emotions.
We are developing very fast ways to create emotions with media like Tik Tok, with 10-second videos that will make you laugh and want to imitate it to make others laugh too
P. You have studied emotions for the Greeks, Africans, Ottomans or us, for example. What are the biggest differences?
R. There is always one main emotion in every society. Right now, probably in the West it is shame, whoever transgresses moral norms is ashamed and we try to avoid it at all times. For the Greeks it was virtue, it was about controlling desire and doing the right thing serving your family and your country virtuously. Happiness and joy were based on that virtue. Christianity was influenced by the idea of avoiding sin and being forgiven, trying to be a better person. For the Ottomans it was a combination of fear of Allah, a kind of not letting down a father, that kind of fear. In the African culture that I talk about in my book, in one particular episode, it was anger at what was being taken away from them.
P. Do you also study emotional disorders? Exist?
R. There are several, yes. Depression and anxiety, which are no longer taboo. Before it was melancholy, which was interpreted as a fragility, you could break like a glass. A feeling of being detached from something you don’t want to be detached from was also considered. Very common in monks when they felt disconnected from God. There are many emotional disorders throughout history and depression will also change again, it will become something else.
P. And psychopathy?
R. Psychopathy is interesting because it is about the inability to empathize with the emotions of others. Psychopaths distinguish and feel their own, but not those of others. Most psychopaths lead a happy and healthy life and do no harm to anyone, they tend to work in investment banks, in the government or as lawyers, it sounds funny but it’s true. And they at least understand that they can learn to behave in a certain way, which helps them live a happy and productive life without ending up in jail. There are a lot of psychopaths out there, but most of them do no harm. Upside down. They can be very useful if it is of interest to you.
P. How do you understand the lack of empathy of the colonizers, for example, when conquering other peoples?
R. It happens if you dehumanize a group, turn it into something inferior, repulsive, in need of cleaning. Every time there have been invasions or genocides it has been like this. The Nazis did it with Jews or Gypsies, considering them as rats to dehumanize them. You also find it in texts from the British colonies that show Africans as little more than monkeys, so they could treat him as an object, not as a human.
We need interpersonal communication, touching each other, shaking hands, hugs, belonging is important for us as a species. And we don’t always have the opportunity.
P. He defends that we need emotional refuges, for example that stewardess that I mentioned at the beginning. We’ve got them?
R. The most common is the bar after a bad day at work, that’s how it’s been for centuries: bars, cafes, where you can be honest, real, have a little haven where you can shed true emotions, drink, dance. Now it can be the Internet. On Twitter you can say what you want, the conversations that take place there now are like the new bars, the new emotional refuge. Yes. Internet is.
P. And don’t you think the internet fuels loneliness?
R. At a certain point, yes. Obviously, we need interpersonal communication, touching each other, shaking hands, hugs, belonging is important for us as a species. And we don’t always have the opportunity.
P. Where does your last name come from?
R. According to a friend who is an expert on Vikings, it is an old Viking name for Scottish Viking priests and their beer. Apparently my ancestors were priests of the god of beer, which I think is cool. He sounds appropriate.
All the culture that goes with you awaits you here.
The literary news analyzed by our best critics in our weekly newsletter
Subscribe to continue reading
read without limits