The Book of Human Emotions: From Ambiguphobia to Umpty - 154 Words from Around the World for How We Feel - Tiffany Watt Smith 2016


A young man sits on a carpenter’s bench, blood pooling on the floor beneath him. Overcome with emotion after kicking his mother, he has cut off his own leg. In the painting by the Venetian artist Antonio Vivarini, dated to the 1450s, now hanging in the Metropolitan Museum in New York, Saint Peter kneels over the severed leg attempting to heal it, while two women—perhaps one is the boy’s mother—wring their hands anxiously in the background.

The realization that we have hurt another person is one of the most painful we can experience. Remorse arrives when the initial flare of ANGER calms, when the reality of what we’ve said or done clumps in the throat. Unlike the whirring and suffocation of REGRET, remorse is urgent and wild. Full of TERROR, flecked with LOVE, it’s a desire to preserve our bond with the person we’ve hurt. It is in childhood, according to the psychoanalyst Melanie Klein, that remorse takes on its most desperate shape, when we fear we’ve hurt our parents—who in our childhood fantasies seem more easily wounded than most, and more capable of cruel retribution. Remorse, then, is most clearly defined as an urgent desire to do something. To make amends, to attempt to heal the one we’ve harmed. Because, unlike SHAME, which is a horror of something we are, remorse involves something done, and urges us to correct it. In this sense, remorse is both extremely painful and full of striving and HOPEFULNESS too.

Remorse may be an old-fashioned word, but in fact it has rarely been more under the spotlight. We live in what has been dubbed an “Age of Apology.” From politicians such as Tony Blair and Kevin Rudd making formal apologies for atrocities committed by their predecessors, to South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the idea of a public apology is rooted in the notion that a display of remorse has an effect on the victims, helping them heal. We seem so committed to the belief that remorse soothes suffering that we clamor for contrition when a scandal breaks and feel some satisfaction to see a politician resign or a celebrity dab away a tear on a talk-show sofa.

Yet, in each of these cases, apologies also seem inadequate. It’s probably the “performative” aspect of remorse that makes this emotion so vulnerable to questions about its sincerity. An apology, to use the philosopher J. L. Austin’s theory, both expresses something and changes something. As children we are instructed to “say sorry like you mean it,” and so learn that a theater of remorse can stand in for the real thing. Did Tony Blair really feel remorse for the actions of a nineteenth-century Conservative government, or was his apology just a clever move in the Irish Peace Process chess game (and does it even make sense to feel remorse for a crime you personally didn’t commit or weren’t responsible for)? Did the dangling carrot of immunity from prosecution in the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission encourage contrition expressed where none was felt (and if not, why was a process required for perpetrators to come forward)? We want sincerely felt remorse: “He showed no remorse” is the chilling summation of the criminal led to the cells, his incapacity to feel, or even feel the need to show, remorse evidence of an inhuman mind at work. But what if remorse isn’t really an emotion at all?

The question of whether remorse was a passion or an intellectual position—or both—was much debated between the thirteenth and fifteenth centuries in Europe. The medieval culture of remorse was intensely passionate, a tear-strewn display of sorrow and abjection. The devout were exhorted to weep before Christ’s dying body, to scourge their flesh and join in with the misericordia cries of plague and famine processions to show God the depth of their contrition (see also: PITY). Passionate remorse was also an important part of medieval legal process. On November 7, 1497, Christopher and Isabella Wryght were brought up before the judge at Durham after their child died in a fire, charged with child neglect—as serious a crime then as it is now. Court records reveal the pair “confessatum cum dolore non modico ymmo clarmore & lacrimis effucionem” (“confessed with no moderate sorrow, but on the contrary with outcries and a flood of tears”). Their extreme anguish was regarded by the judge as evidence of a sincere desire to repent, and moved him to mercy. Instead of imprisonment, the pair were sentenced to penance: dressed only in their shifts, bareheaded, barefoot, and carrying a halfpenny candle, they processed around the church of Alverton on four consecutive Sundays, being whipped throughout.

Yet in this highly emotional popular culture of remorse, there were those in the scholarly elite who thought it best considered not a passion, but an intellectual attitude. Medieval theologians such as Albert the Great and his student Thomas Aquinas argued that true remorse (contritio) was a special spiritual virtue, a voluntary desire to make amends and a willingness to go through a painful process of penitence in order to cleanse the guilt. They were also impatient with the idea that wearing hair shirts or being whipped was an important part of remorse. For them, it wasn’t wailing or crying that showed true contrition, but a reasoned attitude that led a person to make amends. Crucially, it was only in a quiet state of mind that the penitent could calculate the correct level of penitence required to neutralize the sin. For this reason, powerful emotions, such as those displayed by the young man in Vivarini’s painting, had no place in true remorse. Just as today we might end up digging a hole or making others feel worse with desperate attempts to make amends, medieval theologians feared excessive remorse would lead to disproportionate acts, causing more grief, rather than less.

For medieval scholars, then, remorse was a subtle calculation, done not in the heat of the moment but in a quiet and restrained way. In which case, perhaps the next time we examine the glistening eyes of a celebrity or politician our question should not be whether remorse is being truly felt, but whether it is being genuinely thought.

See also: GUILT.