- Justice is the first virtue of social institutions, as truth is of systems of thought. [John Rawls, A Theory of Justice (1971), Chapter I, “Justice as Fairness”, 1. The Role of Justice.]
Yesterday we celebrated the value of expanding our boundaries and extending our reach. This week, we will examine the impediments that many, perhaps all of us face in that undertaking. We perceive and evaluate the world through the tiny lens of our imperfect eyes and minds. Our thoughts enable us to evaluate the world but they also constrain us, because every thought is subject to error.
All our thoughts, feelings, actions, values, expectations, beliefs, convictions, attitudes habits, physical skills and limitations, and past life experiences, as well as the environments in which we live – all of these provide opportunities and simultaneously impose obstacles to our development. This week we will explore how each of these is both an obstacle and an opportunity. Today we focus on thoughts, emotions and actions.
Each of the items explored this week illustrates the principle of creative harmony. Thoughts, feelings and the rest can penetrate deep into our souls, bringing a creative strength with them; but if they are not in harmony with reality or with desired ends, creativity can turn to destruction, as love can turn to hate. As we will see in the section on love, the principle is the same. Love is a creative harmony with the loved one(s) but if the harmonic element disappears (as in jealousy) while the passion (creative element) remains, love can be transformed into hate. Similarly, powerful leaders have acted in the service of evil. So while we value assertiveness and strength, ethics, religion and spirituality have a content (the harmonic element), which we cannot afford to ignore.
Technical and Analytical Readings
- Thich Nhat Hanh, Taming the Tiger Within: Meditations on Transforming Difficult Emotions (Riverhead, 2004).
- Thich Nhat Hanh, Anger: Wisdom for Cooling the Flames (Riverhead, 2001).
- Leonard Mlodinow, Emotional: How Feelings Shape Our Thinking (Pantheon Books, 2022): “. . . a lively exposé of the growing consensus about the limited power of rationality and decision-making. They are never as free as we’ve made them out to be. They walk on the leash of ancient emotions.”
- Edna O’Brien, Country Girl: A Memoir (Little, Brown and Company, 2013): “O’Brien has had to be forgiven for being seductive both on and off the page; there is a price to be paid for being a beautiful woman who produces beautiful prose.”
- Martin Smartt Bell, Child of Light: A Biography of Robert Stone (Doubleday, 2020): “ . . . Who Captured American Energies in Intense, Foreboding Novels”
Documentary and Educational Films
This Emotional Life (PBS)
- Jackson Pollock, Pasiphäe (1943)
- Salvador Dali, The Font (1930)
- Edward Landseer, A Scene from "A Midsummer Night's Dream" (1848-51)
- William Blake, The Lovers Whirlwind (1824-27)
Film and Stage
This week's focus is on obstacles and opportunities in ethical development and personal growth, making the point that a thought, feeling, action, value, etc., both offers an opportunity and poses an obstacle. The films of Wong Kar-wai, at first glance martial arts films, make this point. As film critic Manohla Dargis wrote of “The Grandmaster”: the film is “more an exploration of opposing forces like loyalty and love, horizontal and vertical, and the geometry of bodies moving through space and time.”
The domains of Being - thought, emotion and action - expressed in film:
- The Wizard of Oz: in this classic fantasy talewith many themes, Dorothy’s three companions represent the three domains of Being.
- Belle de Jour, about the dynamictension of the emotions
- Le Boucher(The Butcher) – what does he want?
- Wuthering Heights: an adaptation of Emily Brontë’s novel about unchecked, narcissistic passion
- Call Me By Your Name, about how feelings can hurt so good and so bad
[For many years, Hugo’s Valjean was a slave to his own anger.] Anger may be both foolish and absurd; one can be irritated wrongfully; one is exasperated only when there is some show of right on one's side at bottom. Jean Valjean felt himself exasperated. And besides, human society had done him nothing but harm; he had never seen anything of it save that angry face which it calls Justice, and which it shows to those whom it strikes. Men had only touched him to bruise him. Every contact with them had been a blow. Never, since his infancy, since the days of his mother, of his sister, had he ever encountered a friendly word and a kindly glance. From suffering to suffering, he had gradually arrived at the conviction that life is a war; and that in this war he was the conquered. He had no other weapon than his hate. He resolved to whet it in the galleys and to bear it away with him when he departed. [Victor Hugo, Les Misérables (1862), Volume I – Fantine; Book Second – The Fall, Chapter VII, The Interior of Despair.]
[A few paragraphs later, Hugo ruminates on this sad state of Valjean’s Being.] Was this state of his soul, which we have attempted to analyze, as perfectly clear to Jean Valjean as we have tried to render it for those who read us? Did Jean Valjean distinctly perceive, after their formation, and had he seen distinctly during the process of their formation, all the elements of which his moral misery was composed? Had this rough and unlettered man gathered a perfectly clear perception of the succession of ideas through which he had, by degrees, mounted and descended to the lugubrious aspects which had, for so many years, formed the inner horizon of his spirit? Was he conscious of all that passed within him, and of all that was working there? That is something which we do not presume to state; it is something which we do not even believe. There was too much ignorance in Jean Valjean, even after his misfortune, to prevent much vagueness from still lingering there. At times he did not rightly know himself what he felt. Jean Valjean was in the shadows; he suffered in the shadows; he hated in the shadows; one might have said that he hated in advance of himself. He dwelt habitually in this shadow, feeling his way like a blind man and a dreamer. Only, at intervals, there suddenly came to him, from without and from within, an access of wrath, a surcharge of suffering, a livid and rapid flash which illuminated his whole soul, and caused to appear abruptly all around him, in front, behind, amid the gleams of a frightful light, the hideous precipices and the sombre perspective of his destiny. [Ibid.]
[At the end of the chapter, Hugo summarizes:] To sum up, in conclusion, that which can be summed up and translated into positive results in all that we have just pointed out, we will confine ourselves to the statement that, in the course of nineteen years, Jean Valjean, the inoffensive tree-pruner of Faverolles, the formidable convict of Toulon, had become capable, thanks to the manner in which the galleys had moulded him, of two sorts of evil action: firstly, of evil action which was rapid, unpremeditated, dashing, entirely instinctive, in the nature of reprisals for the evil which he had undergone; secondly, of evil action which was serious, grave, consciously argued out and premeditated, with the false ideas which such a misfortune can furnish. His deliberate deeds passed through three successive phases, which natures of a certain stamp can alone traverse,--reasoning, will, perseverance. He had for moving causes his habitual wrath, bitterness of soul, a profound sense of indignities suffered, the reaction even against the good, the innocent, and the just, if there are any such. The point of departure, like the point of arrival, for all his thoughts, was hatred of human law; that hatred which, if it be not arrested in its development by some providential incident, becomes, within a given time, the hatred of society, then the hatred of the human race, then the hatred of creation, and which manifests itself by a vague, incessant, and brutal desire to do harm to some living being, no matter whom. It will be perceived that it was not without reason that Jean Valjean's passport described him as _a very dangerous man_. From year to year this soul had dried away slowly, but with fatal sureness. When the heart is dry, the eye is dry. On his departure from the galleys it had been nineteen years since he had shed a tear. [Ibid.]
Fictional works focusing on emotion:
- J. Courtney Sullivan, Maine (Alfred A. Knopf, 2011): a novel that “delves into the secrets and simmering emotions of one dysfunctional family over the course of a single summer month”.
- Ocean Vuong, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous: A Novel (Penguin Press, 2019): “Vuong is masterly at creating indelible, impressionistic images.” “The book is brilliant in the way it pays attention not to what our thoughts make us feel, but to what our feelings make us think.”
- Philip Caputo, Hunter’s Moon: A Novel in Stories (Henry Holt & Co., 2019): “Few writers have better captured the emotional lives of men, their desperate yearning to improve them and their utter lack of tools or capacity to accomplish the task.”
- Jandy Nelson, I’ll Give You the Sun: A Novel (Dial Books, 2014): “This heartfelt, breathlessly told novel takes teenagers’ emotional lives seriously without being either sappy or gloomy.”
Music: Composers, artists, and major works
Three operas on the double-edged sword called desire:
- Massenet, Manon: on a young woman’s search for pleasure (here are links to performances conducted by Barenboim, Lopez-Cobos and Rudel)
- Puccini, Manon Lescaut, telling the same story as in Massenet’s “Manon” (here are links to performances conducted by Questa, Chailly and Gardiner)
- Tchaikovsky, (The Queen of Spades): on romantic attraction as consuming obsession (here are links to performances conducted by Simonov, Rozhdestvensky and Ozawa)
- Hindemith: The Four Temperaments (scored for piano and strings) (1940)
- Holmboe, Four Symphonic Metamorphoses (1943): “The metamorphic element is based on a process of development which transforms the musical material into something different without it losing its identity. Metamorphic music is . . . characterized by a unity which, inter alia, expresses the fact that conflicts . . . are always buit of the same material and that contrasts can very well be complementary . . .” [Knud Ketting]
- Holmboe: Sinfonia in Memoriam, M185, "Symfonisk Metamorfose", Op. 65 (1955)
- Holmboe: Epitaph, M 189, Op. 68 (1956)
- Holmboe: Monolith, M 207, Op. 76 (1960)
- Holmboe: Epilog, M 213, Op. 80 (1962)
- Alfvén, Symphony No. 4, “From the Outermost Skerries” (Från havsbandet), Op. 39 (1919): “My symphony tells the tale of two young souls. The action takes place in the skerries, where sea rages among the rocks on gloomy, stormy nights, by moonlight and in sunshine . . . the moods of nature are . . . symbols for the human heart.” [Hugo Alfvén]
- Henze, Suite from the Opera "Die Bassariden", Adagio, Fuge und Manadentanz: a musical illustration of the conflict between reason and emotion
- Henze, Symphony No. 8 (1993)
- Flagello, Symphony No. 2, "Symphony of the Winds" (1970): a rocky ride through many emotions
- Claude Vivier’s four musical essays on Marco Polo’s brutish life: Prologue un Marco Polo; Bouchara; Zipangu; Lonely Child
- Rimsky-Korsakov, Snegouroutchka: (The Snow Maiden) (1881): The snow maiden enters the human world, where she encounters passion.
- Argento, I Hate and I Love (1981)
- Purcell, 12 Sonatas of Three Parts (1683)
- Wilms, Symphony No. 4 in C Minor, Op. 23
- David Lang, “Love Fail”, about falling in love in an instant
- Händel, Un’Alma innamorata, HWV 173
- Gravina, 3 Pieces
- Satie, Vexations
- John Cage, Sixteen Dances (1951): pieces about emotions and thoughts such as anger, tranquility and the wondrous
- Miles Davis, “Aura” (feeling)
- “Emotional Peruvian Andean Music”
- Tinkukama, “Instrumental Music from the Heart of the Andes”
- Alvin Schwaar, Bäna Oester and Noé Franklé, “Travelin’ Light”
- Steve Markoff & Patricia Lazzara, “Romances in Blue” (poignancy and sadness in romantic love)
- Lili Haydn and William Goldstein, “Evocations”
Speaking of contraries, see how the brook / In that white wave runs counter to itself . . . . / It is this backward motion toward the source, / Against the stream, that most we see ourselves in, / The tribute of the current to the source, / It is from this in nature we are from, / It is most us.
[from Robert Frost, “West-Running Brook”]
- Maya Angelou, “The Detached”
Music: songs and other short pieces
- Blaise Siwula, Nicolas Letman-Burtinovic & Jon Panikkar, “Thoughts”