Heated Emotions

The state of Victoria, where I live and work, is presently in the grip of a heat wave.  The temperature has been above forty degrees for much of the week and there is no relief on the horizon until the weekend.  As householders seek relief by running fans and air conditioners, power outages are frequent across Melbourne at this time of year.  The nights are sticky and unpleasant.  It is difficult to sleep, which in turn makes it difficult to focus and to remain patient.

For much of the week newspapers and public advisory units have provided advice on how excessive heat can impact upon our emotional states.  The American National Academy of Science has recently published an article on how our bodies provide ‘heat maps’, demonstrating how bodily temperatures fluctuate according to emotional states.  External heat can also interfere with emotions, with experts like Professor Tony McMichael of ANU’s College of Medicine, Biology and Environment warning,

It [heat] does effect mood, people get more angry on the roads, in the cars. They get frustrated in the work place because it’s harder to concentrate. There are always risks of making bad choices in the workplace, incurring physical injuries and of course these situations, sometimes just lead to conflict. We’ve seen plenty of that unfortunately with young people late at night. And if we’ve got very, very hot nights tempers can be provoked and fights can break out. (source: http://www.sbs.com.au/news/article/2014/01/15/heatwave-conditions-prompt-health-warning)

Hot weather can make people irritable, then, and in some cases those feelings can escalate with tragic results.  Media outlets report an increase in domestic violence cases during prolonged spells of hot weather, as people’s anger and frustration is projected onto those closest to them.

Climatic extremes can, though, also lead to other emotional responses.    While I think often of the early settlers on these hot days (largely because of my work on bushfires and nineteenth-century migrants. See https://historiesofemotion.com/2013/01/17/burning-questions/), I was surprised to be drawn back to my other research, on Charles Dickens, by an article which appeared this morning, addressing the severe effects of the heat on Melbourne’s homeless population (http://www.theage.com.au/environment/weather/melbournes-homeless-moved-on-from-sheltering-in-cool-public-spaces-20140115-30v5w.html).   The piece, by Aisha Dow, is an important one in that it draws attention to the lack of shelter for those who live on the streets, pointing to their vulnerability on excessively hot days.  Dow writes of the homeless as being ‘moved on’ from public spaces, and in doing so she evokes Dickens’s depiction of Jo the Crossing Sweeper in his novel Bleak House (1852-3).

Unlike the street dwellers of Dow’s article, Jo seeks shelter from the biting cold of Victorian London.*  He is a product of a particularly angry and emotional phase in Dickens’s career, during which the novelist became increasingly despondent at the state of industrialized Britain and the social divisions he saw across the nation.  Unlike the sentimentalized figures of his early novels, Oliver Twist and Little Nell, Jo the Crossing Sweeper is notably real.  He is ignorant, he is rough, he smells and he is described by one character as ‘more difficult to dispose of than an un-owned dog’.  In presenting him in this way, Dickens does not seek to strip Jo of his dignity, but rather to horrify his readers by offering them an insight into the life of one of those regarded as part of the ‘surplus population’.

'The Crossing Sweeper' by William Powell Frith, 1858; oil on canvas. The Museum of London.
‘The Crossing Sweeper’ by William Powell Frith, 1858; oil on canvas. The Museum of London.

As those who have read the novel will recall, Jo eventually dies after being ‘moved on’ once too often.  His passing is reported in one of the most chilling moments in Dickens’s oeuvre when the novel’s omniscient narrator addresses its readership directly:

Dead, your Majesty. Dead, my lords and gentlemen. Dead, Right Reverends and Wrong Reverends of every order. Dead, men and women, born with Heavenly compassion in your hearts. And dying thus around us every day.

Here, Dickens uses his narrator to speak to anyone with power who might be reading his work, implicating them in Jo’s death and alerting them to the broader social problems around them.  In invoking the ‘heavenly compassion’ in their hearts, Dickens also signals a shortfall that is often associated with emotion: its fleetingness.  Readers of Dickens’s fiction had, for years, been responding with great emotion to figures like Tiny Tim of A Christmas Carol or the orphaned Smike in Nicholas Nickleby, yet the well-documented tears that they wept for these characters seldom resulted in any form of action to aid their real-life counterparts.

Source: http://img4.hostingpics.net/pics/900174streetkids.jpg
Source: http://img4.hostingpics.net/pics/900174streetkids.jpg

Moving forward to the early twenty-first century, we might do well to question what has changed.  While Dickens may have been despondent in the 1850s, he would have been so much more depressed had he foreseen that we would be reporting on the same issues, echoing his words, more than one hundred and fifty years after the publication of his magnum opus.  How many readers of this morning’s article will have been moved to act, rather than simply moved to tears?  And how do we channel a transient emotional response to turn it into something more meaningful?  Heat might make us angry, but the fury or irritation we feel at our short-term physical discomfort could be directed into action.   Our emotions might thus work to aid those who are on the frontline when it comes to environmental hostilities.

*The Shaping the Modern program is developing a research strength in emotions and the environment and we will be posting some of our findings in this field over the coming months.

**I have written elsewhere, with my colleague Tom Bristow, about Bleak House as an early climate change novel.  (Link: http://theconversation.com/ecocriticism-environment-emotions-and-education-13989)

Posted by Grace Moore

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