A Quantum of Reason
‘“The path of my departure was free”, and there was none to lament my annihilation. My person was hideous and my stature gigantic. What did this mean? Whence did I come? What was my destination? These questions continually recurred, but I was unable to solve them’.
Thus spake Dr Frankenstein’s creature, in Mary Shelley’s, (1797–1851), great Gothic novel ‘Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus’. Unlike its various cinematic portrayals, the creature of the novel is intelligent, self-aware, articulate, and predisposed towards quoting poetry. ‘The path of my departure was free’ paraphrases a line from ‘On Mutability’, by Percy Bysshe Shelley, (1792–1822),:
We are as clouds that veil the midnight moon;
How restlessly they speed and gleam and quiver,
Streaking the darkness radiantly! yet soon
Night closes round, and they are lost for ever:-
Or like forgotten lyres whose dissonant strings
Give various response to each varying blast,
To whose frail frame no second motion brings
One mood or modulation like the last.
We rest — a dream has power to poison sleep;
We rise — one wandering thought pollutes the day;
We feel, conceive or reason, laugh or weep,
Embrace fond woe, or cast our cares away:-
It is the same! — For, be it joy or sorrow,
The path of its departure still is free;
Man’s yesterday may ne’er be like his morrow;
Nought may endure but Mutability.
The word ‘mutability’ here harmonizes with ‘free’; for mutability is the channel through which we gain release from any experienced passion; with no singular mood or way of feeling are we ever permanently ensnared; it will pass, ‘be it joy or sorrow’. We are disposed to ‘embrace fond woe, or cast our cares away’; the suggestion being that such cares are subject to our own self-governance; to be submitted to, or to be spurned, whatever we may choose. And yet, at the same time, the poet describes an enfeebled and inactive subject over whom a mere dream can exert a deflationary influence; a subject that can rise, only to be undone in the exertion by just ‘one wandering thought’. The poem commences elegiacally, lamenting a human frailty that is played upon by arbitrary forces like an Aeolian harp is played upon by the wind; we are ‘dissonant lyres’ destined for oblivion like every prior generation. And yet, as the dead are forgotten the living forget themselves, oblivious to the control they have over their own thoughts and feelings, begetting a spontaneous and barely heeded music, living a tormented existence in which one errant thought can depress their mood.
‘What’s it going to be then, eh?’, as Alex asks at the beginning of Anthony Burgess’s, (1917–1993), novel on the theme of free will, ‘A Clockwork Orange’. Are we active agents who ‘feel, conceive or reason’ and ‘cast our cares away’, or are we passive subjects, helpless before the states and feelings that come upon us, unbeckoned? The poem appears to be inconsistent on this matter. But then, Shelley is being rather ingenious here, for the poem is extolling mutability as the only persisting value; and this it adeptly exhibits through it’s own flexibility of attitude. ‘I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul’, declared William Ernest Henley, (1849–1903). But such a conception of oneself is no more of an immutable, persistent and unconditioned viewpoint, interminably granted, than the feeling that we are helpless pawns of an inexorable fate; ‘the indifferent children of the earth. On Fortune’s cap we are not the very button’; floundering ‘in the secret parts of Fortune’; as is befitting, given that ‘she is a strumpet’. (‘Hamlet’, Act 2, Scene 2). And from the power-struggle that the poem itself engages in there emerges this emancipating consequence; that the certitude that things will change corresponds to a psychological liberation.
But ‘On Mutability’ raises a philosophical issue that needs to be addressed. Are the emotions voluntary? Are we responsible not only for what we do but for what we feel, or how we feel, besides? An adequate theory of the emotions may even help Frankenstein’s creature, with regard to the mystery of its own (patently emotional) being. Max Scheler, (1874–1928), had analysed emotions such as love and hate, and the manner by which they define our personal relationships with others; but Martin Heidegger, (1889–1976), goes further. Emotions are the medium through which we are tuned to the world, (though perhaps here we have an instance of how a particular language can exert its influence on how, or what, we think; in German, ‘Stimmung’, meaning ‘mood’, and ‘bestimmen’, meaning ‘tuning’). Heidegger concerns himself with the emotional moods that have a determinate part to play in the realisation of our being; or in our becoming ontological, as it is sometimes put; which is to say, those feelings that generate a self-reflection on what it is that has, or has not, for us a genuine significance, and what it is that is, or is not, indispensible in our lives.
For instance, we may initiate a mood of anxiety, (unwittingly or not, that is the question I have just raised and not yet addressed), through a sensibility directed towards our own imminent demise; fear and dread, apprehension and terror, we may think of such feelings as types of negative desire; danger, or an imagined threat, we sense is lurking nearby, and we feel comparatively helpless; or protective, though protective of what precisely, other than the persistence of our own person? Perhaps it is merely our self-image that is under threat; do we lack courage? Or it is another person close to us that is imperilled; and so on, and thus we are provoked towards self-reflection, self-understanding, authenticity, (whatever meaning we care to give to that latter term, though I do not propose to go into it here). If there is any sense to the question, ‘what is the meaning of life?’, the answer would seem to lie in our emotional lives, the manner by which we engage with the world. And the situations, or imagined situations, that engender such moods of fear may be experienced vicariously, through the genre of horror, in which they are intensified and adorned with monsters, unidentified threats, paranoid fabrications; often with a very notable inventiveness. Of the horror genre I am something of a devotee, not for reasons of psycho- or sociopathology, or the satisfaction of perverse pleasures, or the gratification of debased instincts, but because I am a philosopher; and by sitting through the ‘Saw’ movies, with their presentations of diabolical torture, I am allowed to engage, with an intense degree of self-reflection, with the vital issues of philosophy; whether or not life has any meaning, and if it does, then what is it? For feelings of fear, or disgust, horror, or fright, and all other moods, permit us to discover things about the world, and to discover things about ourselves; and they can spur us on towards far-reaching amendments to our whole way of being.
Stephen King, (1947 — ), would apparently concur, (though this concurrence is only apparent, as I argue below), having declared that ‘the creator of horror fiction is above all else an agent of the norm’, and that:
‘Monstrosity fascinates us because it appeals to the conservative Republican in a three-piece suit who resides within all of us. We love and need the concept of monstrosity because it is a reaffirmation of the order we all crave as human beings… and let me further suggest that it is not the physical or mental aberration in itself which horrifies us, but rather the lack of order which these situations seem to imply’.
Frankenstein’s creature is an ontologically transgressive presence, an anomaly and an abnormality that has to be extirpated in order for normality to be reinstated, and reaffirmed; its story symbolizes a cultural resistance against threats towards culturally sanctioned normality, or towards an orthodox worldview; its abnormality is positioned centremost to serve as an extraordinary contrast to a cultural order that will eventually be conclusively justified. Noël Carroll, (1947 — ), describes monsters as ‘violations of standing cultural categories’, and, ‘moreover’, he writes, ‘the world view at stake here is not only epistemic, but is linked or invested with value. What is outside a culture’s cognitive map is not simply inconceivable but unnatural in a value-laden as well as an ontological sense’.
I would contend, however, that Frankenstein’s creature itself very much calls into question such an interpretation; this creature that enjoys, if I may employ such a term in this context, an enriched emotional life; that is engaged in an complex relationship with its world; and that can ask: ‘What did this mean? Whence did I come? What was my destination?’. We can ask such questions of ourselves; and the creature at least has the advantage over us in that it has come face to face with, and can thus interrogate, its maker. And as for how it attunes itself to the world, had it read philosophy as well as poetry it might well ask of itself, the question that I raised earlier; is it responsible for how it feels as well as for what it does? Friedrich Nietzsche, (1844–1900), said that ‘the will to overcome an emotion is ultimately only the will of another emotion or of several others’; which is to say, the will, or the experience of willing, is in reality an outcome of diverse unconscious moods or drives. ‘One wandering thought pollutes the day’, wrote Shelley, a thought that is itself echoed in Nietzsche’s assertion that ‘a thought comes when ‘it’ wants, not when ‘I’ want’; as he explains:
‘As for the superstitions of the logicians, I shall never tire of underlining a concise little fact which these superstitious people are loathe to admit — namely, that a thought comes when ‘it’ wants, not when ‘I’ want; so that it is a falsification of the facts to say: the subject ‘I’ is the condition of the predicate ‘think’. It thinks: but that this ‘it’ is precisely that famous old ‘I’ is, to put it mildly, only an assumption, an assertion, above all not an ‘immediate certainty’. For even with this ‘it thinks’ one has already gone too far: this ‘it’ already contains an interpretation of the event and does not belong to the event itself. The reference here is in accordance with grammar: ‘thinking is an activity, to every activity pertains one who acts, consequently — ‘. It was more or less in accordance with the same scheme that the older atomism sought, in addition to the ‘force’ which acts, that little lump of matter in which it resides, out of which it acts, the atom; more rigorous minds at last learned to get along without this ‘residuum of earth’, and perhaps we and the logicians as well will one day accustom ourselves to getting along without that little ‘it’ (which is what the honest old ‘I’ has evaporated into)’.
That is to say, the ‘I’ that thinks and wills, the ‘I’ of René Descartes’, (1596–1650), ‘I think, therefore I am’, is an illusion generated by grammar. And for Nietzsche the thesis that we are responsible for how we feel as well as for what we do is quite simply incoherent. He takes particular exception, as is to be expected, to Christian teachings to the contrary, that is to say, for the Christian how we feel is very much in our own hands: ‘Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new’, (2 Corinthians 5:17); ‘Knowing this, that our old man is crucified with him, that the body of sin might be destroyed, that henceforth we should not serve sin’, (Romans 6:6); ‘Casting down imaginations, and every high thing that exalteth itself against the knowledge of God, and bringing into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ’, (2 Corinthians 10:5); ‘There hath no temptation taken you but such as is common to man: but God is faithful, who will not suffer you to be tempted above that ye are able; but will with the temptation also make a way to escape, that ye may be able to bear it’, (1 Corinthians 10:13).
Christian instruction is condemned by Nietzsche for perpetuating an error that he attributes to the ascription of effects to imaginary causes: ’Cause and effect — Before the effect one believes in different causes than one does afterward’. An occurrence of an event is accompanied by ideas that the agent then ascribes to the cause of the original event; a confusion that stems from a fundamental human mental disposition to be rid of the disquiet that is caused by the unknown. ‘To trace something unknown back to something known’, Nietzsche asserts, ‘is alleviating, soothing, gratifying and gives moreover a feeling of power’; which is to say, ideas that are grounded exclusively upon that which is emotionally engaging are more agreeable to us than those that may well indeed be factually correct, but such is our antipathy towards the unknown; and customary modes of recall, together with the concomitant putative causal explanations, then evolve over time as the agent measures current experiences against prior events; favouring the consolatory familiar, spurning the unfamiliar, for the latter is incapable of assuaging our apprehension and dread concerning the unknown; and the culmination of all this is a system of thinking, Christianity for example, that finally precludes alternative explanatory causes; and the actual causes of events are henceforth perpetually undiscoverable.
There is perhaps a grain of plausibility here, considering the examples that Nietzsche adduces in support of his thesis; trust in God, for instance, supposedly explains the pleasant general feelings that ensue from such a trust; whereas, on the contrary, says Nietzsche: ‘one trusts in God because the feeling of plenitude and strength makes one calm’. But Nietzsche is perhaps misled by his aversion to Christianity into dismissing an insight into the fact that we are indeed at times responsible for how we feel as well as for what we do. Robert Solomon, (1942–2007), has argued so, from the very fact that an emotion, a feeling, is something that we do; it is a judgment, or a set of judgments; they reflect a fundamental understanding about who or what we are and about our place in the world; the values and ideals by which we live, and by which we experience that living, are projected into the world through our emotions and feelings; as is evident from the dependency that our emotions have upon whatever beliefs or opinions we may hold.
‘Mine has been a tale of horrors’, said Dr. Frankenstein, whose beloved Elizabeth has been killed by his creation. ‘I have reached their acme … I awakened to reason, at the same time awakened to revenge. As the memory of passed misfortunes pressed upon me, I began to reflect on their cause — the monster whom I had created … I was possessed with maddening rage when I thought of him, and desired and ardently prayed that I might have him within my grasp to wreak a great and signal revenge on his cursed head’. But suppose Dr. Frankenstein had read philosophy; imagine that he had read Nietzsche, (disregarding the anachronism), and he discovers therein that the notion of free will is simply a fabrication of theologians, refined by them, and for the purpose of situating mankind in a position of dependency upon them, to validate that most basic of human impulses, let us judge and punish: ‘Everywhere accountability is sought, it is usually the instinct of punishing and judging which seeks it. One has deprived becoming of its innocence if being in this or that state is traced back to will, to intentions, to accountable acts: the doctrine of will has been invented essentially for the purpose of punishment, that is of finding guilty’. If Dr. Frankenstein then changes his beliefs accordingly, although such a change need not cause a change in his feelings of rage, it certainly entails it; ‘when the origin of the actions is in him’, said Aristotle, (384 BC — 322 BC), ‘it is also up to him to do them or not to do them’; and if Dr. Frankenstein were to come to believe that the origins of its actions lay not in the creature itself, his rage towards it would thereby abate; and his desire for revenge he would appraise as unreasonable.
Rage, it can thus be seen, incorporates a moral judgment; it is an entreaty for ethical standards, that are not grounded in personal evaluations alone, to be upheld. Dr. Frankenstein’s emotion of anger is an evaluative judgment about how things ought to be, with regard to his situation, himself, and other people, in this instance in particular about how the creature ought to be. This is very much a turnabout with regard to how emotions are usually characterized; which is to say, it is supposed that emotions are consequent upon judgments; at times perhaps there may be a deferred reaction that awaits the import of the judgment to register; they are certainly not thought of as judgments in themselves. Indeed, for a behaviourist like Gilbert Ryle, (1900–1976), an emotion is no more than a reactive disposition to behave in a certain way when confronted with some stimulus, be it agreeable or bothersome. And how can we then know that we are in a particular emotional state? ‘[The] bored man finds out he is bored’, Ryle suggests, ‘if he does find this out, by finding that among other things he glumly says to others and to himself ‘I am bored’ and ‘how bored I feel’’. And similarly Dr. Frankenstein would find out that he is angry, because he discovers himself to be bewailing his lot, gnashing his teeth, pulling his hair out, or whatever kind of behaviour he cares to indulge in while in a state of rage.
But surely no circumstance, or no apprehension of a circumstance, could ever on its own suffice for an emotion that always incorporates a personal evaluation of the significance of that circumstance. Different people do have greatly differing emotional reactions, if we may speak of ‘reactions’ here, to the same circumstances; this may be attributable to differences in how they have been conditioned, as the behaviourist would have us believe, but this would account only for the genealogy of such differences and not for how they are constituted; that can be accounted for once we no longer think of emotions as passive reactions, but instead think of them as interpretations; not as responses to what happens, but as evaluations of what happens; not as responses to evaluative judgments, but as evaluative judgments in themselves; disclosing to us in the process what it is that is important, or meaningful, to us. And it is no great revelation that our emotional lives mostly involve other people; the misgivings or the sureties that we have about our relationships; what others think of us as well as what we think of ourselves; and what we think of them.
Nietzsche had fallen into the very error that he had identified, the confusion of cause and effect; an emotion is accompanied by a feeling; a feeling that is, of course, and involuntarily we might say, produced by a physiological state; but it is not the physiological state that produces the emotion, the emotion produces the physiological state, the feeling, which is not in itself the emotion, for the emotion itself is a judgment, something that we do, not something that happens to us, And once the notion of the passivity of the emotions, suggested by the very word ‘passion’, is rejected, once we realize that we make ourselves angry, that we do not fall in love but assume love after much evaluating, once we accept responsibility for our emotions, as we accept responsibility for other things that we do, we are then in control of them, and in control of ourselves.
A very gratifying conclusion. We are not so much Aeolian harps, ‘forgotten lyres whose dissonant strings / Give various response to each varying blast’, but rather, ‘be it joy or sorrow / The path of its departure still is free’; and perhaps we may not be so much masters of our fates, but we are certainly captains of our souls. Emotions do not always have their quantum of solace; but, ‘… as if every passion didn’t contain its quantum of reason’, as Nietzsche, somewhat airily, reflected.