Thursday, February 05, 2009

"They're trying to tell me how to feel"

At first I thought she was just being dumb, but upon reflection, I think it's a cultural phenomenon. I was listening to Taylor Swift yesterday, to her new song "Love Story." It's basically a shameless rip-off of Romeo and Juliet, re-set loosely in contemporary times with a happy ending, and it's pretty cute. But there's this one line that ruins it. "Romeo, save me/ They're trying to tell me how to feel!"

There's also a scene in Sayers' Gaudy Night where Harriet and one of the professors are discussing proper feeling and knowing one's true calling. It doesn't matter so much what you feel, they conclude, "as long as you don't try to persuade yourself into proper feeling." Harriet concurs, noting that "trying to persuade herself into proper feeling" regarding her former lover is what got her into trouble. "You will only know what is of overmastering importance when you have been overmastered by it."

Why is it such a massive crime to try and tell people what's right to feel in a certain situation? Especially if it really will make their lives easier? And in some situations, if there really is a right versus a wrong feeling?

So I propounded this puzzle to my true love about six this morning. We blame the Enlightenment, which knew all about reason but didn't have the foggiest idea what to do with emotion. The Romantics rebelled by making emotion their god and their drug. I think that's where Aeolian harps and the wind and the soul all get mixed up together. (I like that mental image--it makes me think of a pretty woods, with harp-strings going sproing! and flying in all directions.) I further think Postmodernism quietly usurped that line of thought--the Aeolian harp emotion bit, I mean. I suppose, if you're defining your own reality, your emotions are about your only guide and therefore it really is a tyranny for someone to dictate those emotions.

I would go about this entirely differently: in the beginning was God, and He set up reality for us. I keep thinking of phrases like, "Rejoice, O Israel!" and "Husbands, love your wives." Yes, love is a verb and all that, but if it's not a commanded emotion too, I don't want it. Emotion is no longer so important, so bloated, so all-encompassing, and so emotions too can be brought into their proper service.

I also think of Lewis' Abolition of Man and his discussion of Men Without Chests. They have Stomachs--meaning appetites of one sort and another--and they have Heads--meaning reason of one sort and another. It's the Chest, the seat of the emotion, that never gets trained. And when things get a trifle sticky, it's not the Head that says "I am about to get shot and therefore I will stay right here"--it's the Chest that says "Yeah I know I'm about to get shot, but there's this flag, you see," and stays.

I don't want to go overboard and say "Yes! People should dictate emotions to one another all the time!" But I do think that if there's a common reality, there's the possibility for right and wrong feelings in relationship to it. So. Taylor Swift wasn't just being dumb, but I do think she was incorrect. Opinions?

Sunday, February 01, 2009

Word of the day

Today's word of the day is "swulten," as in, "God bade us that we not eat, nor we that tree be touching, lest we swulten."

(Aelfric's c. 1005 AD Old English version went, "God bebead us thaet we ne aeten, ne we thaet treow ne hrepoden thy laes the we swulten."--and I updated the eths and thorns to mere th's. I daresay my translation is dreadful.)

It appears from this site that it comes from "sweltan, swealt, swulton, swolten," meaning "die." My Merriam-Webster's dictionary lists the Middle English "sweltan" as the root of "swelter," which would be "to die, be overcome by heat," from the Old English "sweltan," "to die." It also seems to be related to the Old English "sweatan, sweat," meaning "sweat." So it appears when they will surely swulten, they will die of heat.

I'm not sure why Aelfric chose the verb for "die" with warm connotations. It's certainly appropriate, hell-fire being what it is, but I question whether Eve would have been quite so on top of things at that stage of history. My source indicates Aelfric was working from the Vulgate, which uses "moriamur," and "mori" doesn't have particular connotations of heat. Was Aelfric just being creative and forward-hinting? Another possibility is that "sweltan" did not necessarily mean "die of heat" when he used it, but it picked up those connotations later, much like "starvan" didn't specifically mean "die of hunger" until it had been used in connection with too many sieges.

Isn't "swulten" a great word? Jonathan claims he's going to start using it instead of "pwned." I will now put away my Guide to Old English, Traupman's Latin dictionary, Vulgate, Merriam-Webster's, and Bobrick's Wide as the Waters, which started all this, and go to church.