Emotion and Reason at the MLA

Jennifer Clement
Blog post Author and CHE Associate Investigator Jennifer Clement

I was in Vancouver to attend the recent Modern Language Association convention earlier this month, where I was lucky enough to pick up a two-volume paperback copy of Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion in Vancouver. Turning to the first page I find this sentence:

“In particular, the miserable ruin into which the revolt of the first man has plunged us, compels us to turn our eyes upwards; not only that while hungry and famishing we may thence ask what we want, but being aroused by fear may learn humility.”

That’s a quintessentially Calvinist way of thinking. For Calvin, humans are indeed worthless and miserable, but through fear they can move closer to God and recognize their need for grace. Calvin gives us a very dynamic understanding of the passions, in fact, because his Christian is always moving between fear and love, misery and hope, pride and repentance. So although the word “emotion” doesn’t come into general use until the end of the seventeenth century, there’s a sense in which it’s important for understanding early modern Calvinism, which is very much about the movement – the motions – of passions or affections (the two words Calvin himself, and his contemporaries, would have used).

At the MLA itself, a couple of days later, I attended one of the best panels there, on Shakespeare and religion. The best paper in the panel was Brian Cummings’, tracing the persistence of secularist assumptions in early modern literary studies. But most relevant to my aims here, he noted that, in modern scholarship, there is often a tendency to avoid thinking of Calvinism as a passionate faith, or Calvin as a writer who engages the emotions. And yet, Cummings said with truth, you can’t read more than a few lines of Calvin without running into the passions.

I was particularly excited to hear Cumming’s views because the panel I proposed and chaired for MLA, on early seventeenth-century English sermons and emotions, was designed precisely to focus on the central role played by the passions or affections in English mainstream Protestantism, which is certainly Calvinist even if not as reformed as most Continental churches (Philip Benedict’s book on Calvinism is a good source for understanding this history). It’s interesting to think about the roles of emotion and reason in these sermons because they usually work together, rather than being opposed as is often assumed. There are exceptions, of course – from the more Arminian or Laudian end, Launcelot Andrewes writes intense, highly allusive and intellectual sermons that don’t exactly prioritize emotion, although they also don’t avoid it altogether. And at the more Puritan end, the influence of Ramist techniques of sermon-writing can result in very dry, incredibly chopped-up and subdivided sermons that look appallingly dull as laid out on the page, even before one starts to read them.

But speaking generally, what we might call the average, mainstream clergyman of the early seventeenth century is going to care most about moving his congregation rhetorically, to help them towards salvation. It’s a longstanding truism that, to persuade effectively, you must move your audience’s emotions, and early modern sermons are, above all, rhetorical documents. We three panelists drew attention to various aspects of rhetorical performance in early modern sermons, aspects that clearly invoke emotions in varying ways.

My co-panelist Daniel Derrin focused on the role of humor in this process, a dicey topic because as I’ve written above, most Protestants tend to focus on the soul’s need for fear, sadness, and repentance. Collapsing the distinction between the humorous and the not-serious, Daniel argued that, in fact, humor in sermons could be very useful and, indeed, crucial for serious attempts at rhetorical persuasion. Daniel instanced the mockery directed at the Pope in early modern sermons, as well as towards ineffectual and boring sermonizing. And he made the audience laugh, which is always good! My other co-panelist, Emily King, took a more affect-theory inflected approach, arguing that affect contagion – a concept taken from current work in neuroscience – can help us understand what John Donne achieves in his famous sermon “Death’s Duel.” The gruesome images of corruption Donne includes in this sermon, Emily suggested, are part of an attempt to make his congregation feel fear and anguish, and to demonstrate these emotions through their tears.

My own paper focused very tightly on a conventional term repeatedly used by most clergymen in the seventeenth century as an address to the congregation, “beloved,” and asked what that term could tell us about the preacher’s own role in relation to his congregation. I argued that, by studying the uses of this term and its variations – “my beloved”, “dearly beloved”, and the like – we can recognize how much love, in early modern sermons, is most usefully understood as a kind of institutional emotion, rather than a personal one; and also that these sermons depict feeling in general as something that can be shaped and directed, and not simply as a force to which humans are helplessly subject. Put differently, sermons often accentuate a sense of agency in relation to emotion.

All of these topics would bear much further discussion; sadly there’s not room for it all, but in due course all our papers will probably see print. My point here is that all of us were interested in thinking about rhetoric as a technique for drawing emotion and reason together, and thinking about the possibilities and problems inherent in that technique. The seventeenth century church, in sermons, brings emotion and reason together through the sermon, in a way that – in spite of obvious differences – seems to me analogous to academic events like the MLA, because the MLA convention itself is an emotional space, an emotional event, as much as it is an intellectual one. This was my third MLA, and the first one where I wasn’t interviewing for a job. Because of the physical layout of the convention centre, in fact, a lot of the job interviewing took place in areas where I wasn’t going, so I was less conscious of the tense anxiety that always accompanies that part of the convention.

Which is not to say it wasn’t there. My husband, who also has a PhD, and who worked for years on short term contracts – he now works as support staff at another university and does research in his own time – turned his ID tag round and wrote on the back, in caps, “ADJUNCT WHO QUIT.” This drew a lot of attention, as you might imagine, some of it quite guilt-ridden, some of it approvingly amused. They were emotional responses, in other words, although that isn’t to say they weren’t rational responses as well. It seems to me important to remember that occasions like MLA bring together intense intellectual effort and equally intense emotional reactions. These conventions and conferences are occasions when we can think about the emotions involved in our intellectual work and careers, and what the conjunction of emotion and reason means when yoked together in a time of increased professionalism and pressures to produce more, faster, with fewer (if any) resources.

By CHE Associate Investigator Jennifer Clement

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