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


In Gilbert and George’s Here (1987), the two artists depict themselves against a photomontage of Ridley Road Market in Hackney, London. Debris litters the ground. A car is parked awkwardly as if skidded to a halt. This was at that time an area of aching poverty, abandoned and uncared for following wave after wave of race riots and clashes with police.

The artists stand upright with blank, almost startled expressions on their faces. It’s not an appeal or gesture of indignation (“Do Something!”). Instead, it’s a kind of helpless shrug: “What can we do?”

Dismay is a feeling of horror and paralysis. Like WONDER or BEWILDERMENT, it flattens us; like SHOCK, it might make us cover our eyes. The word originally derives from the Latin exmagare (to have one’s abilities or courage snatched away), but came into English via the Old French desmaier. It’s from this root that dismay picked up its strange association with fainting: while the English word descended from desmaier came to describe a feeling, in other European languages desmaier morphed into words for falling unconscious—in Spanish desmayo is a swoon, in Portuguese desmaio is a fainting fit.

In Dickens’s novels, ludicrous men and oversensitive women faint in dismay. In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, however, when the medieval romance poems were written, heroes routinely keeled over under the influence of their powerful passions. Lancelot faints on seeing a comb laced with Guinevere’s hair. Boeve falls unconscious on discovering Josiane is dead. Their faints do not emasculate, but instead reveal the depth of their passions, and were easily explained by the medical beliefs of their day.

Medieval medicine held that in times of extreme emotion the heart became crushed and constricted, damming up the vital spirits that were thought to animate the body. Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde, written in the 1380s, describes what happened next. It’s the first night the lovers have spent together, and Troilus, his jealousy getting the better of him, accuses Criseyde of infidelity. She is distraught at the accusation. He, in turn, feels dismay at the distress he’s caused. He falls to his knees, hangs down his head and is speechless: “What myghte he seyn? He felte he nas but deed” (“What could he say? He felt that he was dead”). The feeling is so profound that “sorwe so his herte shette” (“sorrow gripped his heart”). From there, his spirits become jammed, all his emotions “fled was out of towne,” and even tears will not come. Finally, consciousness departs: “and doun he fel al sodeynly a-swowne.”

Today, fainting from powerful emotions is still occasionally reported in medical journals (love and horror can make a person faint, though the more archaic-sounding “dismay” is less often cited as a cause). Those who suffer from Stendhal or “Florence” syndrome, for instance, can become dizzy and faint at weddings or in hospital, but are particularly known for being overcome in the presence of very beautiful or impressive amounts of art. The syndrome is named after the nineteenth-century French author Stendhal, who, on visiting Florence, was rendered so helpless by the intricate beauty of every street corner that he “walked with the fear of falling.” Sometimes the only response to any kind of overwhelming emotion is to fall down and stay there.

See also: REMORSE; LOVE.