I’m frequently struck by emotions’ refusal to sit tight within a neat parcel capable of being understood and processed. Instead, they spread, grow, and connect like some organic disease, fusing together and dismissing both boundaries and nomenclature.
Both Joan Didion and C.S. Lewis recognized—and were confused by—the deep relationship between fear and extreme sadness. A double-helix of mounting needs that press upon our brains and hearts and render us helpless.1
Anyone who has swum the muck of grief knows fear and sadness only begin to name the range of emotions encountered.
How beautifully complex that fear and sadness would entwine so ferociously.
Or that love—the height of generosity—would summon feelings of jealousy, selfishness. In 1819, poet John Keats wrote to his love, Fanny Brawne, about how, from his love to her, he had slipped into its darker vestibules.
My dearest girl,
This moment I have set myself to copy some verses out fair. I cannot proceed with any degree of content, I must write you a line or two and see if that will assist in dismissing you from my Mind for ever so short a time. Upon my Soul I can think of nothing else—The time is passed when I had power to advise and warn you again[s]t the unpromising morning of my Life—My love has made me selfish. I cannot exist without you—I am forgetful of everything but seeing you again.
Meanwhile, we also see a brilliant study of anger coupled with humor in the comedy, creativity and general being of John Cleese (owing to a childhood fearing he’d upset his high-strung and foul-tempered mother).
“I find anger…hilarious,” Cleese admits in his autobiography.2
I have at times suspected that what I seem to laugh at most are the things that frighten me. I find anger, like Basil Fawlty’s, hilarious—provided it is ineffectual, as real anger might be too disturbing. I’m terrified of violence, yet I shout with laughter at great slapstick comedy that threatens people’s physical safety (think of Harold Lloyd or Chaplin or Eddie Murphy crossing the freeway in Steve Martin’s Bowfinger).
My sense of humour has been described as cruel… yet I am almost obsessively appalled by torture. And I howl at absurdity and nonsense when my deepest physical fear is a sense of meaninglessness. Am I trying to diminish a fear by laughing at it, and thereby belittling it, reducing its threat?
This idea that we can harness our more destructive emotions into something energizing, enabling, is echoed in Marianne Moore’s early modern poetry. “A day of wrath shall be as one,” writes Moore in her poem “Fear Is Hope.”
‘No man may him hyde
From Deth holow eyed.’
For us two spirits this shall not suffice,
To whom you are a symbolic of a plan
Concealed within the heart of man.
Splendid with splendor hid you come, from your Arab abode,
An incandescence smothered in the hand of an astrologer who rode.
From Marianne Moore’s ‘Fear Is Hope’
On the other hand, too much of these enabling (one might say “positive” emotions) can turn against us and overwhelm. Emerson writes of a joy so vast, so deep, that it reduces him to a child who can barely contain joy’s potency.
Crossing a bare common, in snow puddles, at twilight, under a clouded sky, without having in my thoughts any occurrence of special good fortune, I have enjoyed a perfect exhilaration. I am glad to the brink of fear. In the woods too, a man casts off his years, as the snake his slough, and at what period soever of life, is always a child.
This feeling of wonderfully pure joy burned by sadness like a piece of paper held to a warm match—it is so familiar, don’t you think?
Is this what van Gogh meant when he so frequently mentioned St. Paul’s words “being sorrowful yet always joyful”? In the Letters van Gogh wrote to his beloved brother and in the sermons he delivered in England, he references St. Paul’s concept “sorrowful yet always rejoicing” as a comfort, laid over his shoulders when he is in need of warmth.
Probably because he felt similarly, and it gave voice to his feelings. And yet, it is against this disparity, this division, that van Gogh rails throughout his life.
Seek only light and freedom and do not immerse yourself too deeply in the worldly mire. […] One does not become simple and true overnight. But let us persevere, and above all have patience. He who believes, does not hasten.
He longs to be one or the other, not both. Joy and sorrow overwhelm.
When we are aware of our emotional conflict and complexity, we quickly become aware that we are powerless against it. Something that will not be tamed nor hold still—even when it comes from our own minds—is overwhelming and debilitating.
In Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem “Fears in Solitude,” creeping fear overcomes someone happy in nature like a lead mantle. With the relentless death in the French Revolution, many wondered violence befaced England?
Coleridge wrote the feelings into words:
A green and silent spot, amid the hills,
A small and silent dell! O’er stiller place
No singing sky-lark ever poised himself.
The hills are healthy, save that swelling slope,
My God! It is a melancholy thing
For such a man, who would full fain preserve
His soul in calmness, yet perforce must feel
For all his human brethren—Oh my God!
It weighs upon the heart, that he must think
What uproar and what strife may now be stirring
This way or that way o’er these silent hills—
Invasion, and the thunder and the shout.
A soul in calmness but a weight upon the heart. Our body, figuratively, torn into different emotional pieces.
Whether emotions are constructed, intuited, or formed naturally or through our experience is hot science, and I’m sure soon we’ll know more; the gap between neurology, biology, and psychology narrows.
But really, the close relationship between emotions and our inability to wrestle our emotions into one—which means unless we are great poets it can be extremely difficult to express—seems to be less a psychological issue than one of language.
Which is why I’m grappling with it here in joy and fear.
Welsh has a word, hiraeth, which means “intense happiness at a love that was, and sadness that it is gone.” Is that what Emerson felt? Certainly, Keats, who, by the time he penned that letter to Fanny, knew he was likely to die from the family illness.
The Portuguese has saudade, which means a sense of wistful melancholy experienced when reflecting on lost love. Is that what we feel when looking at nature, knowing it exists but is being ruined?
English needs more words for these combinations of emotions. Emotions that bind and refuse to separate. Emotions that wrap us in mantels until we lose our way. Sadness with fear and fear to hope. Love and selfishness. Anger and mirth. Joy and fear.
And, one of the most peculiar, from Shakespeare, humor and sadness:
[It] is a melancholy of mine own, compounded of many samples extracted from many objects; and indeed, the sundry contemplation of my travels, in which my often rumination wraps me in a most humorous sadness.
From As You Like It
Expression, to ourselves and others, is the beginning of understanding. Without better words, how can we express our emotional fragments and combinations? How can we express or understand ourselves?