Apr 2, 2016

Notes on reading Upheavals of Thought

Book pile: Upheavals of Thought by Martha Nussbaum and Troubling a Star by Madeleine L'Engle
I had four whole days off over the Easter period this year, and they proved wonderfully restorative: I mostly spent them at home, catching up on little things I’d been putting off for some time (like, say, returning to this blog), and of course reading for hours every afternoon. The long stretches of time I had available were ideal for sinking my teeth into Martha Nussbaum’s Upheavals of Thought: The Intelligence of Emotions. I haven’t quite finished it yet, but I managed to read a good five hundred pages, which I suspect would have taken me weeks had I been at work.

Upheavals of Thought is a seven-hundred pages long philosophical account of how emotions don’t stand in opposition to reason; instead, they’re deeply entangled with cognition and illuminate our personal and political lives in ways that are both useful and all too human. This book was a serendipitous find: I came across it at my library, read a few paragraphs, and immediately suspected it was going to be important to me. I might have put it aside, though, if not for the fact that I knew I was about to have an unusual amount of time to myself. As much as I enjoy non-fiction, I do find that fiction is generally easier to sink into after a long day at work. When I read non-fiction, it tends to go more slowly; that’s not a problem in itself, except that sometimes I get frustrated if I’m reading a long book and start to feel like I’ not getting anywhere. This is an error of judgement, of course — I do genuinely believe all that stuff I say every year about not taking reading stats too seriously, and so on and so forth — but like most of us I’m not always very good at heeding myself.

Anyway, all this to say that I was very close to putting Upheavals of Thought back on the shelf. I’m immensely grateful that I didn’t; as with all the things that become deeply important to me, I can no longer quite imagine my life without it. When I say this book is important, I don’t mean it in a dry or strictly intellectual sort of way, which is of course part of the point Nussbaum is making. The things that have intellectual salience for us are often things we care passionately about, and which get to the core of who we are.

Nussbaum writes about emotions, particularly love, compassion and grief; about interpersonal relationships; about politics, public life and democratic engagement; about what different works of art have to say about the human questions surrounding these topics; and, most of all, about learning to withstand need, as well as about the perils of responding to it with shame. Upheavals of Thought brings together a lot of what has preoccupied me over the past two years or so. These ideas sound simple, and maybe even trite in my somewhat clumsy wording, but the clarity of articulation I feel capable of now is something that took me years of continued effort to reach. Upheavals of Thought is a work that addresses the myth that we can ever be wholly self-sufficient, and argues that it’s important that we learn to be comfortable with interdependence. This has implications both for interpersonal relationships and for politics, and it was wonderful to come across a thoughtful and detailed argument that makes this connection explicit. If we accept the insurmountable fact of human need in ourselves and in others, we can hopefully lead lives that are based on reciprocity, compassion, and full respect for the individuality and will of those we love or live in community with. Nussbaum has a more recent book, Political Emotions: Why Love Matters for Justice, which further develops these ideas — I’m really looking forward to getting my hands on it.

I suspect I’ll be writing about this book again in the future, but for now I wanted to highlight the chapter on agency and victimhood, because again it helped me clarify a lot of what I’ve been feeling and thinking in the past few years. Nussbaum mostly writes about this from a public policy perspective — she argues that accepting that people can be the victims of circumstances beyond their control isn’t at odds with respecting their individuality or agency. She also points out that those who argue otherwise don’t necessarily apply this logic consistently: for example, the people who say that affirmative action programs disrespect the agency of those who benefit from them never seem to suggest that, say, tax breaks for the very wealthy disrespect their ability to thrive without government assistance. You can simultaneously respect the fact that people are actors who can and do have an impact on the world and recognise that this very same world is not a level playing field for everyone.

On a more personal level, I was interested in this chapter because of my discomfort with replacing the word “victim” with “survivor” in every circumstance. Needless to say, I’m only speaking for myself — it’s very important to me not to dictate to others how to make sense of their lives or describe their experiences. But when I think of my own experiences with abuse, I gravitate to the word “victim” more than to any other term. The fact that it’s a word that eschews blame is important to me, especially in a world where people, most of all girls and women, are still continuously blamed for the bad things that befall them. In addition to that, accepting a lack of control has been, for me, far more healing than it has been disempowering. Lastly, I find that “victim” captures the long-term ramifications of traumatic experiences better than any other term. The process of surviving such experiences is a lifelong one: I don’t feel done, and I probably never will, but this doesn’t mean my whole life revolves around these things. It’s continuous and complicated and very much always there, but not always at the forefront of my attention.

How, then, do I conciliate feeling powerless in a very real sense before certain events with not feeling disempowered in every arena of my life? To me it all comes down to the fact that agency isn’t at odds with interdependence. I’m vulnerable to the world and deeply affected by things outside my control, but by the same token I can act upon the world in a real and meaningful sense. A sense of agency is essential for me to have the sort of political and personal hope I need to feel okay on a day to day basis; just what I mean by this is perhaps best captured by a scene from Madeleine L’Engle’s wonderful novel Troubling a Star. Vicky Austin, the protagonist, watches her new friend Siri play a song on her harp to a group of penguins in Antarctica:
Siri spread her parka on the rough beach and sat on it, then took her harp, which had been slung over her shoulder with a wide canvas strap, out of its canvas carrier. She began to sweep her fingers over the strings. Then she hummed a little, softly, then finally began to sing. I’d half slept through the words when she sang in our hotel room in San Sebasti├ín, but now I was paying attention.

All things by immortal power,
Near or far,
Hiddenly
To each other linked are,
That thou canst not stir a flower
Without troubling of a star.


Her fingers on the string reprised the melody. Then she sang the last two lines again.

That thou canst not stir a flower
Without troubling of a star.


As I was drawn closer to Siri and her harp, so were the penguins, and three of them waddled right up to her.

“Hush,” Benjy warned as a couple of people began gushing about how cute the penguins were. It wasn’t cute. It was wonderful. It was so wonderful that I felt a lift in my heart, a brightening as I responded to the beauty of the song, the penguins, the sky, the gentle air. I wanted the moment to go on forever, and even though I knew it couldn’t, while I was in it, it was forever.
I’m sure it’s not the same out of context, but I found this scene deeply affecting. My understanding of the feeling L’Engle evokes is secular, unlike hers, but that doesn’t make me feel any less close to it. It’s been incredibly important to me to recognise and embrace this feeling that we’re all connected, and that our actions, large or small, resonate in the world and affect others — for good and ill.

7 comments:

  1. Yes yes re Martha Nussbaum! I haven't read this one, but I read a lot of her articles. The bit about how emotions don’t stand in opposition to reason is always so interesting, not only from an epistemological standpoint but in terms of how they are usually *ranked* - well, maybe that's epistemological after all. And I love that she exposes the hypocrisy of the class distinction made in determination of agency - so true! Obviously I must read this! :--)

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    1. Yes you must! It had been a long time since reading someone entirely new to me gave me this fluttery feeling of "where have you been my whole life?!" Sadly this is the only one of her works we have at my library, but I think I'm going to cave and get Political Emotions in the near future.

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  2. I read The Fragility of Goodness twenty years ago, but haven't read anything by Nussbaum since. Maybe it's time.

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    1. I looked that up and thought it would be really interesting to read a book that looks at Greek tragedy from a perspective of human vulnerability to chance and not just tragic flaws. Then I remembered a conversation I was having with Jenny about Hamilton being critical of the American dream, and I thought of Hamilton's tragic structure in connection to that, and now I'm a) really excited and b) dying to read that book :P

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  3. I relate to what you say about nonfiction taking more time to read and thus making one feel one is not getting much reading done. Also to how those readings often stay with me and continue to have meaning as I go through life. I have been trying (not entirely successfully) to just slow down and do what I am doing while I do it. And of course I am so down with interconnectivity. Is that a word? Spell check doesn't think so. Ha Ha.

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    1. It's definitely a word! And yes, this was a good reminder that I should slow down and do things I'll find worth doing, rather than just get bogged down by senseless self-imposed restrictions.

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  4. You can simultaneously respect the fact that people are actors who can and do have an impact on the world and recognise that this very same world is not a level playing field for everyone.

    ABSOLUTELY.

    This sounds like something I should read, although I don't think I'm there emotionally yet to do so.

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Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.