Moving Parts

For a paper I was giving about Defoe and emotion, I began thinking  about the roots of the word ‘emotion’. So I was genuinely intrigued when I re-read a passage in Robinson Crusoe which seemed to draw a very mechanistic picture of ‘emotion’. It’s the moment when, after witnessing a shipwreck with all hands lost, Robinson Crusoe reflects on his ‘strange longing ‘ for a ‘fellow creature’.

There are some secret moving Springs in the Affections, which when they are set a going by some Object in View, or be it some Object, tho’ not in View, yet render’d present to the Mind by the Power of Imagination, that Motion carries out the Soul by its Impetuosity to such violent eager Embracings of the Object, that the Absence of it is insupportable.

Such were these earnest Wishings, That but one Man had been sav’d! O that it had been but One! I believe I repeated the Words O that it had been but One! A thousand Times; and the Desires were so mov’d by it, that when I spoke the Words, my Hands would clinch together, and my Fingers press the Palms of my Hands, that if I had had any soft Thing in my Hand, it wou’d have crusht it involuntarily; and my Teeth in my Head wou’d strike together, and set against one another so strong, that for some time I cou’d not part them again.

Let the Naturalists explain these Things, and the Reason and Manner of them; all I can say to them, is, to describe the Fact, which was even surprizing to me when I found it, though I knew not from what it should proceed; it was doubtless the effect of ardent Wishes, and of strong Ideas form’d in my Mind, realizing the Comfort, which the Conversation of one of my Fellow-Christians would have been to me.[1]

I’ll come back to this passage later, but you’ll have noticed Defoe doesn’t use the word ’emotion’ but there is plenty of ‘motion’. In this short paper I want to briefly emphasise this language of physical movement.

When we say that we are ‘moved’, we fail to recognise a link which is now largely forgotten. For Defoe (and his contemporaries) emotion as physical movement was part of the language used to imagine the workings of the mind, body and soul. The etymology root of ‘emotion’ is ‘motion’ and the OED documents the (now obsolete) inter-changeability of motion and emotion:

2. A moving, stirring, agitation, perturbation (in physical sense). Obs.

4. a. fig. Any agitation or disturbance of mind, feeling, passion; any vehement or excited mental state.

A good example of how ‘emotion’ encompasses and crosses between physical and figurative senses can be found in John Locke, Some Thoughts Concerning Education (1693/ 1705) when he describes the advantages of cold baths during summer for a boy, except ‘when Exercise has at all warm’d him, or left any Emotion in his Blood or Pulse.’ Here, Locke evokes a mechanistic image of the body. Later, when he describes how to best to wean a child off ‘vain terrors’, using the example of a boy’s fear of a frog, he advises that the parent accustom him to it until he can ‘see it leap without Emotion’.[2] Clearly, Locke saw little confusion arising from this use: it implies an overlap between somatic and mental processes.

Certainly the old theory of the humours and ‘animal spirits’ allowed for this cross-over between emotion and motion. In Defoe’s Mere Nature Delineated, Defoe’s satirical debate on Peter the ‘wild’ boy of Germany, Defoe discusses Peter’s understanding as it relates to hearing: ‘like a Horse, or any Fellow Brute, his Ear could convey no Notions to his Understanding, of the Things he heard, … When a Battalion of Soldiers, exercising in the Park, fired their Volleys, the Horses, the Dogs, the Deer, all discovered an Emotion, but he none at all’. Defoe is describing a physical or physiological [somatic] reaction.[3] But it becomes clear that Defoe’s use of the term ‘Emotion’ as it relates to human animals should be intertwined with an imaginative sensibility, a sensibility that Peter lacks, for he is equally indifferent to all noises: ‘the spiriting chearful Trumpet rouzes him no more than the croaking of Frogs … or the Houling [sic] of a Dog foreboding Death’. However, the word gains an addition layer of meaning when Defoe concludes ‘Thus, without the least Emotion of his Spirit, suppose he received  all these differing Applications of Nature; so, in a Word, I do not find but his Ears are of very little Use to him’.[4]

What we see here is an attempt to represent the operations of the mind using a language that conjures images of physical movement. It certainly leads to the question about the seat of human spirit and plugs straight into the debate between the relationship between the body and the soul. ‘Spirit’  bridges both somatic and mental senses in the way that the Galenic conception of ‘animal spirits’ did: ‘superfine fluids which shuttled between the mind and the vitals, conveying messages and motion’ in Roy Porter’s succinct definition.[5] Moreover, for Defoe, Peter’s motionless ‘Spirit’ also indicates a lack of a soul (the point of this tract). This is doubly resonant since for Defoe the human soul and spirit conversed with the immaterial spirits of the Angelic world: ‘Now by what Agency must it be that we have Direction’, he asks ‘if some intelligent Being … had not caused the Emotion which alarms the Soul?’[6]

So far, this exemplifies Geoffrey Sill’s general argument about Defoe in The Cure of the Passions and the Origins of the English Novel – a substantial part of which was devoted to a discussion of Defoe’s works in relation to Christian and Galenic-humoural strands of thinking and Defoe’s perception of the relation between the passions, the soul and the body (although he does not examine Mere Nature Delineated).  Sill conceptualised Defoe’s world-view in physiological terms. But to what extent is Defoe indebted to the ‘new science’ of the body? Sill mobilises late 17thC physicians Thomas Sydenham and Giorgio Baglivi to argue that their diagnoses of hypochondria pointed to an emotional rather than a somatic cause, and so to support his claim for Defoe’s interest in the documenting the progress of human passions as the primary cause or origin.[7] But causes and symptoms were still hopelessly confused in the theories of nervous illness (and more than Sill has given credit for). Sir Richard Blackmore, in Treatise of the Spleen (1725), says that both body and mind are both cause and symptom of hypochondria. But in describing the commotion and ferment in a body’s defective nerves and juices, concludes that ‘this immoderate Emotion, Disturbance and Dissipation of Spirits will account for all Hypochondriacal Complaints, they will no less explain the Symptoms belonging to the Exercise of the intellectual Faculties.’ The interdependent and internal action of mind and body is clear here; but a later use of the word ‘emotion’ in relation to hysteria describes external motion:

These Persons are likewise by violent Convulsions, caused by the disorderly and unruly Motions of the Spirits, frequently afflicted with great Pains though all the Muscular Parts of the Body, involuntary Catchings up of the Limbs, and a sudden striking or stretching them out, ungovernable Agitations of the Arms,  tossing of the Head, and sometimes a stiff and rigid Posture of the Body, in which they continue a while inflexible; and at other times they strive and struggle with extraordinary Emotion.[8]

It’s at this point I want to return to my passage from Robinson Crusoe, and to point out the parallel between Blackmore’s description of hysteria and Crusoe’s state of mind (with my emphases):

There are some secret moving Springs in the Affections, which when they are set a going by some Object in View, or be it some Object, tho’ not in View, yet render’d present to the Mind by the Power of Imagination, that Motion carries out the Soul by its Impetuosity to such violent eager Embracings of the Object, that the Absence of it is insupportable.

Such were these earnest Wishings, That but one Man had been sav’d! O that it had been but One! I believe I repeated the Words O that it had been but One! A thousand Times; and the Desires were so mov’d by it, that when I spoke the Words, my Hands would clinch together, and my Fingers press the Palms of my Hands, that if I had had any soft Thing in my Hand, it wou’d have crusht it involuntarily; and my Teeth in my Head wou’d strike together, and set against one another so strong, that for some time I cou’d not part them again.

Let the Naturalists explain these Things, and the Reason and Manner of them; all I can say to them, is, to describe the Fact, which was even surprizing to me when I found it, though I knew not from what it should proceed; it was doubtless the effect of ardent Wishes, and of strong Ideas form’d in my Mind, realizing the Comfort, which the Conversation of one of my Fellow-Christians would have been to me.

The use of ‘Motion’ is intriguing. What precisely is it describing? The ‘that’ or ‘the’ refers the ‘Motion’ in this sentence to the ‘Springs in the Affection’ that have been ‘set a going’ by the ‘Imagination’. Clearly this use confuses physical, physiological and psychological connotations. While Defoe has Crusoe give up on a philosophical or medical explanation (‘let the Naturalists explain’), the parallel drawn between the workings of a clock or watch and the human mind is a strikingly mechanistic or materialist explanation for Defoe.

Intriguingly, the passage is altered in an abridged edition of 1719 (again, my emphases):

There are some secret Springs in the Affections which, when they are set a going by something in View, or not in View, yet render’d immediate to the Mind by the Force of Imagination, the Motion hurries out the Soul by its Impetuosity to such violent eager Embracings of the Object, that the Loss of it is insupportable.

And thus were these eager Desires, That but one Man had been sav’d! O that it had been but One! I believe I repeated the Words, O that it had been but One! a thousand Times; and my Affections were so mov’d by it, that when I exprest the Words, my Hands would clinch together with a violent Emotion, and the Teeth in my Head strike together, and so strongly that I could not part them again easily.

Nor can I account for the Mystery of these Things; let the Naturalists explain them if they are able.[9]

The editor’s process of abridgment only partially accounts for the insertion of ‘Emotion’. It partly stands in as a short-hand to describe the emphasis in the original on the violent and involuntary movement of Crusoe’s hands. What is intriguing syntactically is that hands can have an emotion at all. Clearly the connotation  of emotion here includes physical motion (its etymological origin), but what else does the word connote? The insertion of the word ‘emotion’ draws upon the word’s other meanings that makes Crusoe’s violently perturbed state of mind more explicit than in the original.

Thinking about the images of physical movement in relation to emotion or the passions can be useful for Defoe studies, not because I want to undermine Defoe’s profound sense of the immaterial world, but rather because it gives us a deeper and more complex view of how and in what discourses Defoe envisioned the workings of the human mind.


[1] First edition. London: printed for W. Taylor at the Ship in Pater-Noster-Row, 1719, pp.222-23 (ESTC T072268, in the BL)

[2] John Locke, Some Thoughts Concerning Education, ed. by James L. Axtell (CUP, 1968) [from 1705 edition], pp. 12, 204. Thomas Dyche’s Dictionary (1732) under ‘Emotion’ has this definition: ‘a violent struggle of the Mind, a stirring or endeavour to go forth’. For ‘Motion’ one of the definitions is this: ‘Impulse or strong Inclination excited in the Mind’.

[3] See also Locke, Essay on Human Understanding, Book, II, Ch. I, § 23.

[4] Daniel Defoe, Mere Nature Delineated (London, 1726), pp.34, 35. See also The Family Instructor in Two Parts (1718) vol. 2, p.164.

[5] Roy Porter, Flesh in the Age of Reason (London: Allen Lane, 2003), p.47.

[6] He adds, ‘thus there is a Converse of Spirits … between our Spirits embodied and cased up in Flesh, and the Spirits unembodied’. Daniel Defoe, An Essay on the History and Reality of Apparitions, ed. G.A Starr; in Satire, Fantasy and Writings on the Supernatural, eds, Furbank and Owens (Pickering and Chatto, 2005), 8: 45.

[7] Sill, Cure of the Passions, p.75.

[8] Sir Richard Blackmore, Treatise of the Spleen, pp.34-35, 137.

[9] Subtitled ‘now faithfully abridg’d’. London: printed for T. Cox at the Amsterdam Coffee-House near the Royal Exchange, 1719,  p.166 (ESTC T072298, in the BL).

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