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


Their aim was to irritate the audience out of complacency. To scandalize them, to make them agitated and annoyed. “On the Pleasures of Being Booed” was the name of one of their manifestos. Another suggested sprinkling itching powder on the seats in the auditorium, till all the spectators were red with scratching. The Futurists, a group of anarchic artists based in Italy in the first decades of the twentieth century, wanted to set themselves among their audiences like a bag of fleas, to agitate them until something—anything—happened.

Irritation is a state of friction. Being rubbed the wrong way can be a cutaneous or emotional experience, but neither language nor experience distinguishes between the two. The rash that chafes against a shirt collar might create feelings of agitation and claustrophobia. The irritation that starts with frustrated and blocked desires leaves one uncomfortable in one’s own skin and unable to bear the touch of another. When we are irritated, any kind of contact or intimacy seems too much, too bristling. Even the solicitous glance of a loved one may make us recoil.

Irritation might seem a rather minor feeling. It’s common enough, of course, and to be caught under its fingernails is very unpleasant, but it lacks the gravitas of INDIGNATION or the glory of RAGE. The Futurists, however, did not see it as inconsequential. Far from it. Their work revived a much older sense, in which irritation was purposeful and important.

In the sixteenth century, to irritate simply meant to stir or incite to action. Courage might be irritated. Love, too. So might body parts. In 1753 the German physiologist Albrecht von Haller discovered that when he placed a candle on the hind leg of a decapitated frog, the leg twitched and moved away from the flame. Haller concluded that the power of instinctive movement lay in the “irritable muscles” themselves, rather than in some incorporeal “soul.” His theory was disproved ten years later when Robert Whytt provided the first evidence of the simple spinal reflex, one of the key points around which the nineteenth century’s secular account of emotional life was framed.

At around this same time the word “irritation” began to be used to describe a vexed feeling, usually brought on by someone else’s contemptuous irritated as the mark of weakness, attributing it to those they thought were congenitally oversensitive: alcoholics, the insane, artists and dandies. During the American Civil War irritability was further characterized as an emotion of excess and distortions, when doctors described a new condition they called “irritable heart.” Its symptoms included palpitations, chest pains, fatigue and shortness of breath: all very similar to heart disease, but without physiological cause. The “irritable heart” suffered by soldiers was explained as a psychosomatic illness, neurasthenia—roughly equivalent to modern-day “stress.” In medical literature, then, the easily irritated were those most susceptible to the fantasies of the fearful mind: those who had lost control.

Today this link between irritation and irrationality is alive and well. According to the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (or DSM), being quickly roused to annoyance is a symptom of anxiety, sleep deprivation, and depression. It’s there when we feel frayed around the edges, thin-skinned, stressed, or hungover. Fractious because a loved one is trying to help us, exasperated by the photocopier refusing to cooperate—conventional wisdom teaches us not to take our own and other people’s irritations too seriously, in case by scratching we aggravate them further.

The Futurists thought irritation neither irrational nor meaningless. They saw it as an experiment in vulnerability, a gateway experience that made their audiences susceptible to more powerful emotions—like remorse, shame and anger. For them, getting irritated was a lofty endeavor. For the rest of us, a slammed door or a sharp remark will be as good as it gets.

See also: PIQUE, a fit of.