Sunday, November 13, 2011

History of Emotions

Roman de Fauvel
Opera just blows my mind.  It's been years since I've gone, yet there I was on Friday night for an IU Jacobs School of Music performance of Puccini's La Bohème.  Wagner's gesamkunstwerk always helps, with the sensory assault of costumes and sets and trying to not think too much about plot but instead about everything else.  But it's the emotions that get me - the incongruity and intensity of the emotions.  One minute there's Christmas Eve revelry and the next Marcello is writhing in agony before Musetta's pretty prancing (and the most famous tune of the opera); one minute there's song and laughter about pretend champagne and the next Mimi is dying (dead!).  And we're right there with each emotion. You're laughing one minute, and choking back a sob the next. Granted, this was an IU Jacobs School of Music audience (thousands of people who live and breathe music absolutely), but still, it was pretty incredible.  What is it about the swell of music that can do that to you?  You know the emotions are caricatures (thus the Fauvel image here - it's a parade, a charade), but the laughter is real, the tears are hot. 

Yvain and Laudine
One of the chief complaints students have about medieval art is how little emotion it displays. How expressionless it is. Stony-faced knights and damsels - how are students to believe Yvain and Laudine are feeling passion? The complaint can sometimes extend to literature as well. "What's their motivation?" I'll often hear.  Lancelot is Lancelot, he loves Guinevere, that's it - there's no motivation, just being.  Yvain loves Laudine and goes instantly mad when she spurns him, that's it.  Laudine hates him (ok, he killed her husband - good motivation), but then she loves him (ok, Lunette's pragmatic argument that her fountain needs a protector - good motivation).  It's the back and forth (she hates him, she loves him, she hates him, then at the very end, she loves him) that puzzle us.  Frederick Cheyette and Howard Chickering take this on in one of the best examples of the relatively new study of the history emotion.  They're trying to understand the strangely abrupt ending of the story in which, despite his betrayals and inconsistencies, Yvain is taken back by Laudine and there is "happiness" and "peace," when really it's clear that Laudine is having her hand forced, and that Yvain stumbles back into her life not really the wiser (this is "Love, Anger, and Peace: social practice and poetic play in the ending of Yvain," Speculum 80:1 (January, 2005): 75-117).  They ask us to consider the emotions associated with peace and social reconciliation as defining this "happiness" - an emotion differently subjected, I would say: an emotion that we today associate with the individual ("I'm so happy!"), here associated more with the state of the community ("A happy realm").  That's the way over-simplified version of a much more complex argument.  But it confuses things productively to then consider the incredible shift that the image provokes in its final image, in its response to the scenario of reconciliation of happiness: it depicts Yvain and Laudine in bed, under the covers.  That sure looks like a personal reconciliation, but I also completely buy the argument that the reconciliation is social and communal.  Metonymic sex?  If the lord and lady are doing it, all is well in the realm?  I can only wonder.

Smiling Angel of Reims
So I'll end with what may be the most direct emotion in medieval art, the smiling angel of Reims.  Surely this is an easy one to read: this is the Angel of the Annunciation, downright gleeful with his secret but displayed knowledge of everything from (depending on how far you want to follow the theology) divine presence to virgin birth to the redemption of humanity.  This angel could be happy about a lot of things, actually.  He could be happy about something else entirely - his return to the celestial realm, the kings and queens and tourists walking beneath his gaze, his nicely his wing feathers sit.  The thing is, emotions displayed (whether in opera, painting, literature, or sculpture) elude easy deciphering.  And yet, they are so fundamental to our understanding of emotions - they resonate, these displays these representations, as transcendentally true - as the shining examples of the reaches of human emotion.  Thus why we herald them, and come to know them, and somehow, feel with them.

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