Emotions in the past and present

Emotional shorts (podcast) by the Centre for the History of the Emotions; reviewed by Alina Ivan.

Emotional shorts is a collection of podcasts developed by experts at the Centre for the History of Emotions at the Queen Mary University. Blending the humanities with science and history, each podcast candidly explores ways in which humans have engaged with emotions such as anger, love, anxiety, the gut feeling, disgust, compassion, grief and ecstasy throughout time. They are seasoned with charm and in-depth knowledge, which makes them inviting and deeply absorbing.

Professor Thomas Dixon analyses the feeling of anger through the powerful words of the Greek philosopher Seneca. With a solemn tone which vividly encapsulates the atmosphere of the times, the podcast brings to life the famous phrase ‘The greatest remedy for anger is postponement’. We are encouraged to bear our brief inconveniences with kindness and ‘cherish the qualities that make us human’ in an effort to defeat this ‘polymorphous evil’, as Seneca brutally envisages one’s angers.   

Moving on, we delve into the often misunderstood feeling of ecstasy or ‘standing outside’ ourselves with Dr Jules Evans. Ecstasy, he tells us, describes moments when ‘you go beyond your ordinary sense of self and feel deeply connected to something greater than yourself’, be it God, the nation, or other people. It can be euphoric or rather terrifying, yet it may enrich our inner lives. He asks us, with urgency, what happened to the experiences of ecstasy in today’s society – where can be go beyond ourselves in a healthy, balanced way? His inspiring storytelling surely leaves some valuable threads to unravel.  

Another podcast episode focuses on disgust, an often overlooked emotion. If we payed £10 for a second hand cardigan that once belonged to Hitler, we’d be perhaps both surprised and conflicted to find out that this may counterintuitively tie in with our political views. ‘The less likely you are to wear Hitler’s cardigan, the more likely you are to have a distrust of people who behave as if they are outside your group – be that national, sexual, political, ideological’, Dr Richard Firth tells us. Clearly, this gives us much to think about. So does the rest of the series which, at times, can leave us perplexed and endeared.

Whilst to a large degree being universal and inherited, the way in which we experience and express emotions has been shaped by time and cultural norms. The Emotional Shorts series creates a space between the past and the present – a space that allows us to bring knowledge from the past into our everyday lives. Knowing about the understanding of different emotions throughout history can be a useful anchor point for interpreting our own emotions and, perhaps, an incentive to redefine them as we deem suitable. This may ultimately refocus our attention on how to nurture them in a healthy way and bring us closer to making the most of ‘living with feeling’.

Emotional shorts is part of the Living with Feeling project funded by the Welcome Trust and is part of the BBC Free Thinking Festival. You can access the podcasts here.

Reviewed by Alina Ivan, King’s College London

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