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


In the depths of the church of Santa Maria della Vittoria in Rome stands Bernini’s sculpture The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa. It depicts a vision seen by a sixteenth-century nun. An angel in the form of a beautiful human man visits her, and thrusts his golden spear into her breast. “The pain was so great that I screamed aloud,” wrote Teresa in her autobiography. “But simultaneously felt such infinite sweetness that I wished the pain to last eternally. It was the sweetest caressing of the soul by God.” It’s hard to look at Bernini’s sculpture without succumbing to impure thoughts. When visitors put their coins in the illumination box, Bernini’s famously orgasmic Teresa comes to life. She gasps and arches her back, her toes curl and she melts into the marble base, as if falling into a pillow of frilly mushrooms, or the rumpled sheets of a bed.

Ecstasy paralyzes us with a quivering pleasure. It blooms in the throat, reducing sentences to strangulated cries. From the Greek ekstasis (standing outside oneself), ecstasy involves a strange paradox: those moments when we become most connected to our body through dancing, singing, or sex are also ones when we go beyond it, experiencing a rush of boundlessness. Ecstasy feels as if the world has billowed open. As if we have, momentarily, been set free.

Such experiences have been at the heart of spiritual life for millennia. The nuns of medieval Europe scourged their flesh and fasted, in order to be rewarded with visions of falling stars and exploding cities. Long before them, the Shamans of Siberia and central Asia spun and danced till their bodies fell convulsing to the ground, and animals or ancestors appeared to lead them into spirit worlds. As the thirteenth-century Persian poet Rumi described, “When you’ve the air of dervishood inside / You’ll float above the world and there abide.” Today it’s the image of sweating, hugging clubbers swept up in the fluttery whoosh of an MDMA rush that the word most readily brings to mind. That, or the giddy abandon of sex.

In European medical circles, the disenchantment of ecstasy began around the middle of the nineteenth century. Neurologists, busy organizing our mental lives along physiological lines, recategorized ecstatic states from rare and sought-after emotions to the by-products of nervous diseases. The most notorious modern ecstatics were female inmates of the Salpêtrière asylum in Paris. Diagnosed with hysteria, a pre-twentieth-century category of mental illness, these women suffered from symptoms including visions and voices, seizures and contracted limbs. Europe’s elite physicians traveled to Paris in order to study them, and they helped make the career of Jean-Martin Charcot when he exhibited them as star turns in his theatrical Tuesday Lectures. These women with their flamboyant poses—their attitudes passionnelles—are known to us today through an album of faded asylum photographs. One is entitled “Extase 1878.” Apparently at the onset of a hysterical attack (though since early photography required the patient to pose for long periods, the patient would have restaged her attitude under Charcot’s direction), she kneels on the bed in her ward, among rumpled sheets, her eyes rolled upward, a beatific smile across her face. Later, Charcot would compare her to Bernini’s sculpture of Saint Teresa, a secular caricature, born of madness, of a once prized spiritual experience.

Today’s neurologists speak of kalopsia, a feeling that everything is intensely beautiful and radiant, and say it is caused by lesions in the right parietal cortex of the brain. Or of “autoscopic phenomena” with their doppelgänger or “out of body” effects during which one’s own body is seen in outside space, as if in a mirror—thought today to be caused by damage either to the parieto-occipital cortex or temporoparietal junction. Or even of the aura of migraines, with their shooting stars and visual disturbances. Much that used to be part of the rapturous ecstasy of lovers and mystics is now reduced to defunct brain wiring. In The Idiot, written in 1869 on the cusp of this transition, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, who himself suffered from epilepsy, described the harmony and joy, the vivid sounds and colors, and the intense feeling of being alive that marked the onset of one of his character Prince Myshkin’s fits. “What does it matter if it is a disease?” asks Myshkin. For if, “in the last conscious moments before the fit, he had time to say to himself, consciously and clearly, ’Yes, I could give my whole life for this moment,’ then this moment by itself was, of course, worth the whole of life.”