‘Their Emotions Get Carried Away Beyond Them’: An Essay and Two Responses

Illustration by Benjamin Urkowitz.

In The Lifted Brow #23, we published Ellena Savage’s column on subjectivity in the essay, ‘Their Emotions Get Carried Away Beyond Them’. Shortly afterwards, Sean M Whelan’s spoken word response, ‘How Much Do Your Words Weigh?’, appeared in The Lifted Brow: Digital. Now, we are republishing these two pieces along with Maggie Alden’s ‘Click, Read, React’, a meditation on the nature of reading online.

‘Their Emotions Get Carried Away Beyond Them’, by Ellena Savage

Archangel or whore

[she] don’t mind

All the roles

Are lent to [her]

—Laure (Colette Pieignot), [ed. Ellena Savage]

essayer: French, to attempt, to exercise, to test, to experiment.

Michele de Montaigne cannot keep his subject still. “It goes along befuddled and staggering, with a natural drunkenness.” He takes it on this condition, he writes, just as it is at the moment he gives his attention to it. He does not portray being: he portrays passing.

The progenitor of the essay, de Montaigne, wrote his seminal three collections of essays, eventually numbering a thousand pages, across twenty years. During these two decades, he made corrections, additions, and additional contradictions, as his daily experiences altered his outlook on things. He never retracted the originally published text, just attached addendums here and there to mark his ever-evolving perspective. While de Montaigne’s compendiums of personal wisdom were widely circulated in late-Renaissance France, and are now canon for scholars and practitioners of the essay, the texts were more or less ignored by the Anglospheric academies and their philosophers during Montaigne’s life, and long afterward.

What if the truth is constant only in its inconsistency, captured as it is in peoples’ botched memories and emotionally-conditioned senses?

The reason for this is the subjectivity of experience the author catalogues; if an essay can contradict itself within the space of a few pages, how can it stand up against the rigours of falsifiable, standardised knowledge? And yet, Montaigne writes that he “may contradict [him]self now and then; but truth, as Domades said, [he] does not contradict.” Truth: Old English, faithfulness, constancy. And what if the truth is constant only in its inconsistency, captured as it is in peoples’ botched memories and emotionally-conditioned senses? “Constancy itself is nothing more than a languid rocking to and fro,” he writes.

Whims and feelings do not constitute a scholarly methodology. But the inclusion of first-person pronouns, and accepting the ways that lived experience shapes authorial perspectives does not negate the possibility of arriving at rigorous methodologies through the introduction of the first person pronoun. Removing grammatical allusions to an author does not remove an author. Helene Cixous writes that she “and the world are never separate.” The subject, she writes, “is the wealth in common and, by definition, the self is a non-closed mix of self/s and others”.

James C Raymond notes that one of his colleagues at his university has on his desk a framed letter from his six year-old daughter that reads: “Shakespeare is dull and boring, Daddy.” The six year-old does not introduce her person, nor modify the text with the intrusion of authorship. Raymond concludes that “the absence of the first person suggests, not an absent author, but an author of formidable presence.”

In written discourse, the first person is present whether or not that fact is acknowledged. The strength of an essay’s prose always centres on the conviction of its author. And this matter of conviction, and the absence of first person pronouns in academic contexts, can be analysed from a feminist perspective.

Jane Tomkins poses a radical charge against the academic profession she works within: she indicts it with silencing emotional lives. In doing so, Tomkins galvanises a gendered language of difference, and one which names the established forms of knowledge prized by academic institutions. She writes that “[y]ou have to pretend that epistemology, or whatever you’re writing about, has nothing to do with your life, that it’s more exalted, more important, because it (supposedly) transcends the merely personal.”

Writing in 1987, Tomkins wasn’t the first scholar to point out the academic industry’s predilection, no, essential thirst, for knowledge to be sourced from ‘privileged’, at least dominant epistemological positions. Not least within the fields of creative writing and literature, which Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar assert are “both overtly and covertly patriarchal”. This condition brings to mind Jean Baudrillard’s essay ‘Simulacra and Simulation’ where, in identifying the impossibility for a modernist scholarly framework to uncover truths that transcend the functional and simulated, he asserts that for ethnology “to live, its object must die; by dying, the object takes its revenge for being ‘discovered’ and with its death defies the science that wants to grasp it”. The marginalised object cannot be incorporated into a phallogocentric discourse. And this failure to account for the object of knowledge is, for the object, a defiance.

The female subject is impossible to diagnose. She is neither girl nor boy, cunt nor cock.

The female subject is impossible to diagnose. She is neither girl nor boy, cunt nor cock; she is an amorphous body of cultural memory struck from the moment Lilith abandoned Adam and Eve was born of Man’s prime rib. Female subjectivity in literature cannot be understood as the simple rendering of female characters in fiction, nor the work of feminist criticism in the academy. It is the condition of femininity, interrogated in the form of literature. This incorporates, but does not mandate the first-person narrator.

For example, de Montaigne is clearly not a woman, and the mysteries of subjectivity are not restricted to the feminine domain. But the Essais exist in a feminine realm whose authority is measured by its embodied presence. Their resistance to academic hierarchies of knowledge drive their enduring power. Susan Gubar writes in The Blank Page that within traditional modes of art, women are understood as “a secondary object lacking autonomy, endowed with often contradictory meaning but denied intentionality.” From an imposed removal from subjectivity, the women, or rather the feminine, retrieves her intentionality through the assertion of self. Cixous famously writes that “women must write her self.” In the introduction to The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir explains the authorial differences between masculine and feminine: “[Man] thinks of his body as a direct and normal connection with the world, which he believes he apprehends objectively, whereas he regards the body of woman as a hindrance, a prison, weighed down by everything peculiar to it.”

Thus, a woman’s subjectivity, its “languid rocking to and fro,” cannot account for authorial knowledge, but is regarded as peripheral observation: internal, subjective, particular. Michel de Montaigne’s musings, which were for so long ignored by the academe’s troves of knowledge, constitute a feminine expression in this analysis: one that finds its centre in itself.

This self is not narcissistic, and if it is, well then narcissism is not an evil.

Cixous writes that men have committed the greatest crime against women, of turning women’s immense strength against other women. “They have made for women an antinarcissism!” she writes, “narcissism which loves itself only to be loved for what women haven’t got! They have constructed the infamous logic of antilove.” To retrieve that love, that self, the whole integrity and humanity and richness of the subject, women must write herself, men him self, them theirselves.

‘How Much Do Your Words Weigh?’, a short poem by Sean M Whelan

‘How Much Do Your Words Weigh?’ was originally published in The Lifted Brow: Digital, Volume 10 Issue 1, alongside four other poetic responses by Sean M Whelan.

‘Click, Read, React’, by Maggie Alden

I have stumbled on Ellena Savage’s “Their Emotions Get Carried Away Beyond Them” in a line in New York City—a long line, in fact, offering more than 10 minutes to scroll through more than a few stories on a four-inch iPhone screen.

Savage’s piece is a particular one. “Their Emotions” is a piece of feminist criticism, in the language of feminist criticism, and it announces itself as such. Comprehension depends on reading the work on its own terms, recognizing that the phrase “can be analyzed from a feminist perspective” is a flag. It depends, too, on reading within a particular set of rules of diction: a “feminine realm” is marked by revolution; the so-called “objective” narrative is understood to be such only from the masculine perspective in a hegemonic, patriarchal framework; “subjectivity” is defined as an announcement of selfhood marked by the narrative’s own consciousness of its authority (or lack thereof).

Savage uses a language that fits into a dialogue and an intellectual history that draws on sources ranging from Gubar to Cixous to Simone de Beauvoir. Words have a specific resonance here, and the piece, if read “correctly” (or at the very least, carefully), ensures that the reader remains within the circumscribed space and diction of a specific branch of feminist criticism. In other words, “Their Emotions” is a piece that’s aware of itself, that calls on a specific mode of language and writing for comprehension in a specific sense; it is in code. The onus is upon the reader: pre-educate before reading, the essay says. The author, if you will, has authority.

But words are personal, too: they’re the language that the reader, too, authorizes and uses, and the reader’s reaction—especially the social reader’s reaction—exists in the space beyond the text.

What of the social reader? She glosses for her network, poised to project her own words into text, tweet, email, post.

What of the social reader? She reads with an eye to sharing. She glosses for her network, poised to project her own words into text, tweet, email, post. The social reader is not passive. Instead, she reads and projects, reauthorizing the work into a space without context

And so: click, read, react. I read Savage: “The Essais exist in a feminine realm whose authority is measured by its embodied presence.” And I react: “The idea of subjectivity being the ‘feminine realm’ sounds like something Nathaniel P would say.” I read and decontextualize; I tweet and react. The single sentence exists and is ripe for reappropriation, and the fear of that diction overtakes the lucid argument Savage has set forth.

Sven Birkerts, writing recently in the Los Angeles Review of Books, describes reading online as “a keyword-driven process” wherein “the reader … has to exert near-constant mental counter-pressure—drive with his foot on the brakes, as it were — if he is to read words on the screen in the way that he once, when younger and more assiduous, read words in books”. His argument relies upon the online reader operating in a space marked by hyperlinks, constant distraction, looking outside the text. And that’s certainly part of the issue at hand, part of the experience of reading without context: I read on-screen, in a medium that allows for quick hyperlink, that even demands what N. Katherine Hayles calls “small habitual actions such as clicking and navigating that increase the cognitive load”. Even with efforts to control, re-immerse, or re-privatize screen reading—Matter, Snow Fall, even our own 29th Street Publishing—the urge to react outside of context is partly a function of the medium—it’s poor reading, or reading with distraction, not immersion, into a text.

And, without immersion, I scroll, I highlight, my finger literally on the button. I am in line, and I am outside the text. I know, logically, that Savage is making an academic point, that her language is chosen for clarity, and that her thesis deserves more than a gut reaction. I recognize her signposts, her guide as to the way forward. But I disregard the rules Savage gently proposes, and with each swipe of the screen, I drag the text into my present. This is reading without empathy, a stubborn refusal to accept another’s perspective as baseline. I consider her argument on her grounds only as a defense; I cover the bases so I can return to my own reaction.

But I’m not alone. When Nicholas Carr asks, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?”, we can answer with at least a conditional yes: we’re poorer readers on-screen than we are on paper. But, the reader wistfully imagines, there may be something else here, a chance at another kind of reading. The social reader reads for phrase, with an urge to distill the piece into aphorism and to pass on the nugget of a phrase that will signal to others, “this is something you should read,” or “this is something to know,” or at the very least, “please know that I am reading this.” It’s partly a kind of narcissism—an urge to find a phrase to project as a reflection of one’s own readerly habits. But the social reader, one hopes, reads with a double consciousness, feels her way through the text with a microscope for the elegant turn of phrase at the same time that she gropes each sentence as potential aphorism. Deep reading, even reading for argument is lost, and aesthetic pleasure remains.

And so we click, read, react—or perhaps better rendered click, react, read, as reaction to word overtakes thesis. Essay becomes cut-up text; the social reader, Burroughs. Reappropriation? Reaction? Desecration? Even the embodied text can be lost.

Ellena Savage edits Middlebrow and writes the books column contained therein. She also edits politics for SPOOK Magazine, writes a column about cultural politics for Eureka Street, and has had essays and criticism published in Overland, Right Now, Arena, Australian Book Review, and elsewhere.

Sean M Whelan is a poet and spoken word performer.

Maggie Alden is a social media coördinator at The New Yorker and a copy editor for BKLYNR.