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


Oh that you were [here], my Susie, we need not talk at all, our eyes would whisper for us, and your hand fast in mine, we would not ask for language.

—Emily Dickinson, Letter to Susan Gilbert, June 11, 1852

Is there anything left to say about love? Reams of poetry and songs, libraries’ worth of philosophy, are dedicated to trying to express it, to understand and define it. The very volume of words tells us not only how much there is to say on the subject, but also how little can be said with any certainty. This elusive emotion is so important that it grabs all the attention, and so slippery that no single attempt successfully pins it down. Even at the end of a life lived happily together, it’s hard to say what precisely love is. We know it’s there—it must be, how else can we still put each other first, survive the quarrels and the missed connections? Something keeps us together, but what, and how, and why?… The words wriggle away just as we are trying to form them and what’s left is a defeated shrug and a smile. “It’s just, you know…” We may wax lyrical about love, but we are often struck dumb by it too.

Love’s speechlessness begins when love itself does. One of the oldest examples of love’s inarticulacy is a fragment of verse left by the poet Sappho, who lived around the sixth century BCE on the Greek island of Lesbos. Through the burble of conversation and singing, she glimpses her beloved across the room, talking—and she falls into a kind of paralysis:

My lost voice stutters,

Refuses to come back

Because my tongue is shattered.

This shattered tongue is not a throwaway metaphor, but part of a whole sequence of physiological responses that Sappho describes. A fire rages through her internal organs, sending smoke into her brain so that “all that I see is hazy / My ears all thunder / Sweat comes quickly, and a shiver / Vibrates my frame.” Overcome with the intensity of her love, she says, “I am not far off dying.”

“We ought to move on from this hackneyed expression,” wrote the novelist Stendhal of the feeling of being lost in amazement or reduced to silence on setting eyes on our beloved for the first time. But, he admitted “it does happen.” In the early medical tradition, not only were symptoms like Sappho’s real, they were also part of a much bigger medical problem of lovesickness. It was the Arab physicians of the tenth and eleventh centuries who first formalized the concept of lovesickness as part of unrequited or as-yet-unconsummated love and a manifestation of the illness melancholia (see: MELANCHOLY). Ibn-Sina (his name is often Latinized as Avicenna) called the passion al-’ishq, or illishi, and described it as a kind of yearning for a perfect union with the beloved—both spiritual and sexual (see also: VIRAHA). Though it was a noble desire, over time its intensity could cause melancholic vapors to rise into the brain, bringing mental confusion and making the lover forgetful and withdrawn. When he or she did talk, the words tumbled out, inchoate and senseless.

The idea of speechlessness continued to haunt the European lovers, particularly those of the courtly love tradition emerging in the century that followed, perhaps one of the biggest outpourings of love in Western culture, and one to which many of our own conventions of love can be traced. The Occitan troubadours—and their female equivalents, the trobairitz—of the eleventh and twelfth centuries sang of their yearning for unobtainable lovers. Sometimes it was through the wordlessness of a breath that their love could find its best expression. Sighs were part of the language of the yearning lover. So too were yawns, a testament not to BOREDOM, or even CONTEMPT, as they would be today, but to long devotion, as one troubadour described in the late twelfth century:

Day-long I stretch, all times, like a bird preening,

And yawn for her.

These silences are still part of the way we love. You can hear them in the tacit forgivenesses, in the squeeze of a hand, or a shared look across a room. You can hear them in the word “love” itself. We know this word carries immense meaning. We accept it as an objective mark of another’s feelings, even an incantation that seems to shift our relationships up a step (or knocks them back). “I love you,” says Alec in Brief Encounter. “Please don’t,” replies Laura, knowing things can never be the same again. Yet, for all its gravitational pull, it so often fails to signify completely, needing to be qualified or explained. “I love you but I’m not in love with you”; “I love you, but not in that way.” Can “love” really be so capacious and purposeful all at the same time? And can it really be the same emotion behind the tickling and flirtations as well as the cozy comforts of setting up a shared life? Is the feeling we experience toward a loyal friend over the years truly the same as the quiet hum between partners of five decades or more or the emotion felt for Gods or parents or pets? It feels as though we have lost some words along the way—

And have left only this one syllable—vague, open to misinterpretation. So we shrug our shoulders.

It’s just, you know… love.

See also: DESIRE.