Life as Emotion: Three Models
If I am convinced of one truth about narrative art, it is that plot is its least important element. This does not mean that so-called “plotless” works are superior to more conventional narratives, or that plot doesn’t matter. The point is rather that two works of art that are identical in plot may nonetheless vary almost entirely in quality, because the plot matters not in itself but in the way it serves as a platform for those innumerable small details that really determine the success or failure of works of art. Of course, the reality is that plot cannot be so neatly separated out from the rest of the work—the “plot” of a work is really just an abstraction. Enforcing an extreme separation between plot and the other elements yields a picture in which the plot seems to spin frictionlessly in the void, failing to meaningfully engage with the other elements of the work of art. So we must avoid this pitfall.
I think a parallel train of thought may be applied to our lives and our actions. What I want to say is that the “plot” of our lives, the actions we take, is somewhat immaterial next to the moods and emotions within which we act. Two lives with similar “plots” may nonetheless greatly differ in how admirable they truly are. A parallel worry arises, however: in this case, emotions can seem to spin frictionlessly, failing to engage with action in any significant way. This occurs when the mental is split too thoroughly from the bodily, when our mental life is taken to be a sort of efficient cause of our actions, where it is then possible to totally sever this link, until our actions and our moods bear no relation. (I am indebted to Stanley Cavell’s essays “Music Discomposed” and “A Matter of Meaning It” from his Must We Mean What We Say? for clarifying my thinking on this point.)
But of course our moods and our actions are only dissociated at a broad level of description—just as is the case for the mood and plot of a work of art. In actual fact, mood shows itself through the myriad of small details that differentiate actions/plots that are indistinguishable when described in purely general terms. In that respect it is simply a mistake to treat two plots as the same, or the actions of two distinct people, however similar they might be. The real conclusion of the foregoing, then, is really that, generally speaking, it is the small, subtle details that matter, in life and in art, more than the abstract descriptions that simplify matters and obscure these details.
With that in mind, I want to present three distinct models of life as an emotion or a mood, and explore somewhat their consequences. The first comes from the first half of Kierkegaard’s Either/Or, the second from Beckett’s Molloy, and the third from Emerson’s journals. First, Kierkegaard:
My life achievement amounts to nothing at all, a mood, a single color. My achievement resembles the painting by that artist who was supposed to paint the Israelites’ crossing of the Red Sea and to that end painted the entire wall red and explained that the Israelites had walked across and that the Egyptians were drowned. (Either/Or, 28)
The image here is one of life as a single mood, lacking in detail and variation. The passage is from the journal of the aesthete whose papers comprise the first half of Either/Or, and needs to be considered in that context. In fact, the aesthete’s moods vary wildly from moment to moment, yet he says that his life achievement amounts to “a mood, a single color.” I think the key to unlocking this puzzle is the reference to the painter. The painter, in simply painting a red canvas, has more than anything else evaded his task. The event he was commissioned to paint was rich and dramatic, yet his painting is dull and monochrome. Internally, his wild fluctuations lack any sort of consistency, and in such a way that, externally, all he can manage is one thing, with no variation. The inner turbulence makes for outer monotony. One reason for this, I think, is that for the aesthete, the inner and outer really are quite decoupled, in just the unhealthy way I described above.
Next, Samuel Beckett. The quote comes from the first half of his novel Molloy, in which the dying Molloy rambles about his life, reliving it as he retells it. Molloy is dying, decomposing, and he presents a wretched physical appearance. As he writes, he occasionally reflects on his writing, and the passage I want to explore is one such reflection:
But it is only since I have ceased to live that I think of these things and the other things. It is in the tranquility of decomposition that I remember the long confused emotion which was my life, and that I judge it, as it is said that God will judge me, and with no less impertinence. To decompose is to live took, I know, I know, don’t torment me, but one sometimes forgets. And of that life too I shall tell you perhaps one day, the day I know that when I thought I knew I was merely existing and that passion without forms or stations will have devoured me down to the rotting flesh itself and that when I know that I know nothing, am only crying out as I have always cried out, more or less piercingly, more or less openly. (Molloy, 21)
Again we have a model of life as a single emotion, in this case, a “long confused” one. (I believe we are supposed to read this as “long, confused” rather than “long-confused.”) Here it is not so much a single color as it is a picture whose subject you can’t make out, whose boundaries are blurry, whose content is opaque. The long confused emotion is a picture of the Greek ideal of self-knowledge thwarted, and perhaps the suggestion is even that it is impossible. In any case, this internal confusion does become external: shortly after the quoted passage, Molloy writes, “A confused shadow was cast. It was I and my bicycle.” The confusion of his emotion extends even to the shadow he casts.
Finally, Emerson. Emerson wrote the journal in question when he was around twenty-four years old. (I don’t have an exact date, but the previous dated entry was six days before his twenty-fourth birthday.) Emerson muses:
Robinson Crusoe when in any perplexity was wont to retire to a part of his cave which he called his thinking corner. Devout men have found a stated spot so favorable to a habit of religious feeling that they have worn the solid rock of the oratory with their knees. I have found my ideas very refractory to the usual bye laws of Association. In the graveyard my muscles were twitched by some ludicrous recollections and I am apt to be solemn at a ball. But whilst places are alike to me I make great distinction between states of mind. My days are made up of the irregular succession of a very few different tones of feeling. These are my feasts & fasts. Each has his harbinger, some subtle sign by which I know when to prepare for its coming. Among these some are favorites, and some are to me as the Eumenides. But one of them is the sweet asylum where my greatest happiness is laid up, which I keep in sight whenever disasters befall me & in which it is like the life of angels to live. (Selected Journals 1820-1842, 147)
Kierkegaard’s aesthete has a theoretical understanding of his mood(s), but no real control over them: they fluctuate wildly, and all they amount to is, in the end, a single color. Beckett’s Molloy, on the other hand, seems to lack even that degree of self-knowledge. He can only recognize his life as a “long confused emotion”—he cannot make it out any better than that. Emerson, by contrast, while somewhat at the mercy of his moods, has at least figured out how to manage them when they come, and so it is a life of feasts and fasts. And while only the feasts are “like the life of angels to live,” no doubt the fasts are spiritually rigorous and make the feasts possible. Unlike the aesthete, then, Emerson has found some friction, and so, to borrow Nietzsche’s delightful phrase (from The Gay Science), he may paint his happiness on the wall.
If readers know any other passages on this theme, by all means let me know in the comments.