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A Gourmand’s Guide to the Passionate Life

Neel Burton, Heaven and Hell: The Psychology of the Emotions (Acheron Pr. 2015)

Neel Burton, a psychiatrist and writer from Oxford, England, has written twenty-nine mini-essays on thirty-two emotions and emotional states. His views derive from a professional knowledge of psychiatry, an impressive knowledge of Greek and Roman philosophy, and a strong understanding of Eastern religious and philosophical thought. Burton writes his Heaven and Hell not so much as a psychiatrist or as psychologist as an avuncular literary essayist. Burton is also, unexpectedly, a gourmand – he’s won a Gourmand’s Drink Award. There’s an element of the epicurean’s enthusiasm in this sympathetic but heady draught of boredom, loneliness, laziness, embarrassment and shame and guilt, pride, humiliation, humility, gratitude, envy, greed, lust, sadomasochism, desire, hope, nostalgia, ambition, anger, patience, depression, fear and anxiety, empathy, altruism, friendship, love, kissing, self-esteem, courage, ecstasy, wonder.

People these days, Burton believes, are ruled more by their emotions than ever before and he points his book “very simply to help redress this balance”. Perhaps it’s for this reason that Neel Burton casts his emotional net very widely and includes things that aren’t usually understood as emotions. Sadomasochism and kissing, for example, receive mini-essays. Burton is fascinated by the emotions these emotional actions inevitably evoke. Little wonder that he also has entries on humiliation, but on ecstasy and wonder as well. Anxiety and depression are both discussed. They are usually said to be moods rather than emotions. Burton’s introduction, however, provides a robust defence for his associating moods (not necessarily mood disorders) such as depression and anxiety with emotions. “Moods,” Neel Burton suggests, “can condense into emotions, and emotions evaporate into hanging moods … and moods … can be upheld to excuse our [emotional] behaviour: `Sorry I lashed out. I’ve been feeling a bit on edge lately.’ As with emotions, moods have no felt quality other than through the emotional experiences to which they predispose; and so, as with emotions, it is quite possible to be unconscious of a mood and have it pointed out to us.”

Heaven and Hell is a book that invites browsing at random, rather than a sequential

ocular imbibition. I began with “depression” precisely because it is not normally described as an emotion. I was interested to see how Burton would fit this mood into his emotional menu. He seems to believe that the diagnosis of depression is nowadays just too imprecise: “the concept of depression as a mental disorder has been charged with being little more than a socially constructed dustbin for all manner of human suffering.” That is very vividly and powerfully put. It is, then, the suffering that catches his attention rather than the conformity of the mood to, say, the DSM. Burton goes on to makes three points of depression in this mini-essay. First, he maintains that depression is over-diagnosed, second, that it is largely a cultural construct, and, third, that, as often as not, it is good for you. The first two points have often been made, the third less commonly: “the depressive position evolved as a signal that something is seriously wrong and needs working through and changing, or, at the very least, processing and understanding.”

Neel Burton believes that certain emotions are becoming more and less popular these days and that this isn’t always a good thing. He maintains, for example, that loneliness is “a particular problem of industrial societies”. Ecstasy (a valuable state in his opinion) is linked with “letting go”. Nowadays, he maintains, we are taught from a young age to control our ego. This is not good practice for our emotional life. “As a result, we have lost the art of letting go, and, indeed, no longer even recognize the possibility [of ecstasy], leading to a poverty or monotony of conscious experience.” Elsewhere he argues, “today more than ever patience is a forgotten virtue.” Even waiting is not tolerated: “waiting, even for a very short time, has become so unbearable to us that much of our economy is geared at eliminating `dead time’.” He also contends that some emotional experiences can display themselves as “culture-specific” (something he suggested of depression). In his discussion of fear and anxiety he implies that PTSD may be a “culture-bound syndrome”. I presume he is speaking of western culture. But there is also Koro, for example, an anxiety or fear seen in South-Asian men that “involves sudden and intense fear of the penis retracting into the body and causing death”.

The mini-essays are most interesting when Burton displays the skeptical but sympathetic perspectives highlighted with depression. I found Burton less bracing on the positive emotions. There is in his treatment of these just a touch of the revivalist. The discussion of courage offers a good example. For Burton courage is more of a moral virtue than it is a character trait. It is something that can be chosen or willed and I think he believes that it should be chosen or willed. Maybe, but animals display courage and we usually feel proud of them for doing so. In his Iliad (17.570) Homer speaks of the “courage of a fly”. There is no moral choice involved in the actions of this plucky little pest. From an evolutionary point of view, there is everything to be said for courage, even that of a fly. It will assist you effectively to pass on your genes and to protect your children.

I suspect that in short essays like these, to really make them work, you have to be both pungent of speech and unexpected in formulation. This is something that Neel Burton often does very well. “Ambition needs to be cultivated and refined, and yet has no teachers”, he observes. And it's frequently said, of the essay, that you can never lecture or talk down. With the emotions, on which subject nearly everyone thinks that they know best, perhaps the best route to achievement is elucidation and solace (so depression may be good for you; anger may have a positive side; anxiety, though terrible to experience, does have its uses). Instruction, of course, is always good, but if you are going to instruct you need to make it clear why you are entitled to do it. One qualification for such a claim could be that you are a psychiatrist. Now and then I wish that Neel Burton would give a little more to that authority and maybe a little less to Greek philosophy and to the Latin etymologies for English words. Friendship needs more than just Plato if you want to “redress this balance”. But Burton, notwithstanding his Platonizing and his etymologies, is never short of an interesting and sharp judgment.

In the very best of his mini-essays Neel Burton achieves a just balance between elucidation and, unexpectedly, solace. In “Embarrassment, shame, and guilt” he explains: “people with high self esteem are more prone to guilt than to shame, and more likely to take corrective or redemptive action.” In “Desire” he tells us: “We were born from desire, and cannot remember a time when we were without it”. That’s right.