Skip to main content

The Conquest of Emotion

ISSUE:  Spring 1932

When the Webster dictionary first recorded that emotion is a form of consciousness that gives its feeling tone to other forms of consciousness, much that is now known about this peculiarly animal attribute was unknown. Freud had not formulated and several million converts had not practised a philosophy, or theory, or regimen, what you will, so fascinating in its departure from other philosophies, theories, and regimens that it almost made them forget the swiftly moving historical currents about them. Outside the islands of their lyrical self-expansion spun the post-war world, first infinitely relieved by the cessation of hostilities, then more than a little cynical over the peace terms, then apprehensive as the economy of one country after another smashed in “Reconstruction Days,” and now torpidly quiescent while the disillusioned multitudes are herded into opposing Fascist and Communist camps, and democracy, that slow growth of the human genius on which, and on which alone, we had thought until recently, a secure civilization can be built, is everywhere flouted and disparaged.

To find a similar beatific indifference to their collective fate on the part of a considerable number of the most intelligent individuals of a given time, one must return to the origin of the monastic movement, must observe Benedict drawing up his rules of obedience, poverty, and chastity at a moment when civilization was assailed on all hands, and its last weak citadels crumbling. His monks praised God and scourged and fasted and otherwise ill-treated themselves until beatific visions were vouchsafed to them, while the remnants of the Roman Empire fell to pieces and multitudes starved. The Freudians learnedly discuss the libido and experiment in new sensations while governments are overturned and humanity is uprooted.

The likeness of these two most unlike groups does not end here. Both sought beatitude by the conquest of emotion. They differ only in their means. The monk’s notion of ecstasy was reunion with the universal spirit which he called God. This reunion would come, he thought, if he succeeded in completely subduing all his own personal emotions. He would achieve ecstasy by renunciation.

The Freudian looks askance on the romanticism of a word like ecstasy, but he understands very well the power that comes from emotion, and he understands even better the disorganization that comes from it. How can we get the power without the disorganization, he asks, and formulates a most interesting guide to equable existence.

Strangely enough, this is precisely what the early monks were after. Although their phraseology was different, although they went about their task in quite a different way, what they were after was to preserve for man the enormous power that comes from emotion, while preserving him from its disorganizing effects. They sought to accomplish this by banishing all personal sensuous emotions and putting in their place a religious one.

Now just what is this thing on which two such unlike and universally important systems are founded, and just why do they do it so much honor? Webster’s definition will probably still serve our purposes as well as any. Emotion is a curious outlaw attribute that scuttles in and out among our more easily classifiable forms of consciousness, our thoughts and our perceptions, like a bad boy at a Sunday School picnic who pulls a little girl’s hair here, knocks over an old woman’s camp stool there, snatches the football away from a gang of boys over under the trees. It galvanizes astonishingly everything it touches, just as the bad boy’s capers galvanize his victims. It has greater power over mind and body than any Svengali ever created by a fantastic imagination. Popular legend vies with grave scientific experiment in preserving its miracles. Every village can match my story of an old woman who for years had been too weak from heart trouble to walk unaided, or to spend more than a few moments a day out of bed. One day she saw a child knocked down by a passing automobile. She rushed out onto her porch, a wide one with steps on the opposite side from that on which she found herself. She leaped over the railing, ran to the child and carried him into the house. Nor was she the worse for this athletic prowess the next day, though she reverted to her invalidism. Most beginning students of abnormal psychology have shivered over the French experiment with a condemned criminal who, having been told that he was about to be executed, was blindfolded and led into another room. Presently he felt some sharp instrument drawn across his wrist, and listened to what he thought was his own blood dropping into a bucket beside him until he died, though the drops were water and his wrist was uninjured.

We remember words spoken to us during a moment of emotional excitement twenty years ago, better than we remember those spoken to us yesterday. Under the spur of emotion we can dare and accomplish feats that our saner moments tell us are impossible. Dragged down by gloomy emotions we find it impossible to perform the simplest movements. A sufficiently melancholy man finds the rudimentary acts of talking and walking and eating too difficult for him. So powerful is emotion, in fact, and so completely is man often swayed by it, that there are times when we all believe that emotion is the master and man only a puppet, as Dr. Pfister is now learnedly and pessimistically explaining. Emotion can exalt man far beyond his stature; but it also continually destroys him. It is both the fairy godmother and the ugly witch. When it assumes the guise of the latter, it strikes at the very core of his being, causes him to disintegrate, to decay, to become impotent. How then, man has asked ever since we have a record of his strivings, can he master this thing whose slave he so often becomes.


It was one of the great sources of strength of Christian thinking that it offered a solution. “What is necessary?” St. Thomas a Kempis asked. “That having left all, he leave himself, and go wholly out of himself, and retain nothing of self-love. . . . I have often said unto thee, and now again I say the same, Forsake thyself, resign thyself and thou shalt enjoy much inward peace. . . . Then shall all vain imaginations, evil perturbations, and superfluous cares fly away; then shall immoderate fear leave thee, and immoderate love shall die.”

For at least twenty centuries man has believed that the indulgence of emotion threatens his self-mastery and dis-tracts him from a due contemplation of infinity, and that therefore emotions should be conquered. For twenty centuries he has believed that he could conquer them by repressing them. He has even believed, and rightly, that he could attain ecstasy by renouncing all personal desires; but not without much taking thought and much concentration, while the affairs of the world passed almost unheeded about him. The monk’s vocation has always been thought to require special qualities, and men in general, even under the most rigorous Christian regimes, have been permitted some indulgence of emotion, Nevertheless, for twenty centuries the ideal of the Christian world has been self-mastery, attained by the suppression of all emotions that undermine or threaten it.

But now Dr. Freud holds the pulse of emotion and utters a wholly new diagnosis. Whatever else you may do with an emotion, he says, you mustn’t repress it. What you should do with it varies according to the situation. Perhaps you should express it directly, as it wants to be expressed; perhaps you should sublimate it. But if you repress it, then you will find yourself hagridden by it. Moreover, he says, the emotions man has most often been taught by his religious advisers to repress are those connected with the gratification of the sexual instinct. These are so vital a part of the human mechanism that their repression often leads to the premature breaking down of the whole machine. And it is from these very emotions that man is asked to repress that he draws his greatest strength. In forcing him to repress them you are cutting the hair of Samson, you are dangling Antaeus above the earth from which alone he draws his strength, you are robbing Achilles of his power. No, don’t repress emotions. The monk in his cell was tormented with erotic visions which hair-shirt and scourge only made the brighter, Express your emotions and get rid of them.

No doctrine could sound less like Christian asceticism than this, and yet as we sit at the feet of our favorite Freudians, we discover that they seem to distrust emotion quite as heartily as ever did any Christian anchorite. That they have rendered a great service, the most cursory attention to their work shows. By focusing attention on an important function formerly tabooed in polite converse, they have been able to discover and correct many maladjustments, and so greatly to increase health and happiness. But immoderate love dismays them even more than it did St. Thomas a Kem-pis. Be realistic, they say to the immoderate lover. Stop weaving legends. These emotions are given you for a specific physical object. Express them and get rid of them. The ascetics advocated getting emotion under foot by repressing it. They advocate getting rid of it altogether by expressing it.

If our object is to get rid of emotion, I think that there is very little doubt that the Freudian method is infinitely more efficacious. We are perpetually haunted by the thing we crave and haven’t, and we soon weary of, or accept as a matter of course the thing we have too much of. Even the most inordinate appetite can’t eat continually without satiety. The Freudians are more successful in conquering emotion than the ascetics. But do we want to conquer it? If it is as powerful as I have just described it, do we want to be denuded of it? And isn’t it possibly the emotions attendant on the expression of the sexual desire that so extraordinarily vitalize man, giving him his greatest strength, rather than the mere act itself? Certainly a great many people who repeat that act as regularly as they do their breakfast, fail to give any objective evidence of having drawn great new reserves of energy from it.


Freud’s elaborate and fascinating structure, so fascinating that for a number of years it has been able to draw man’s eyes away from the abyss on whose edge he stands, seems to be built on two main theories. The excessive repression of emotion does infinite damage to the delicate human mechanism, it says. The gratification, or the sublimation, of the sexual instinct is not only essential to health, it energizes man and frees latent capacities that might otherwise never find expression, it adds. These two beliefs are not theoretically contradictory, but their actual practise often discovers conflict. The emotions with which Freud is chiefly concerned are those connected with sexual desire and sexual gratification. The gratification of the sexual instinct is normally preceded by the emotion of desire. This emotion has an obstinate way of getting itself attached to some specific person or type of person. Frequently that specific person is not available. She may be some other man’s wife, she may not reciprocate the emotion, she may be separated by space or untoward circumstances. “Never the time and the place and the loved one all together,” Browning sang, and a thousand music halls echoed him, And yet the sexual instinct is obstinate about this tragic lack of coincidence. How obstinately specific it is in all types and classes, we have only to read the criminal news of the papers to discover. With a world full of women, that man accused of murder, whose picture all the girls in the subway trains are so eagerly admiring, had to have one specific woman even though he had to kill her husband and ruin himself to get her. Obstinately the possessor of the emotion refuses any sexual gratification unconnected with this unavailable woman. Or if he takes it, it is in passing, and with no sense of having his desires appeased. Only one woman will appease him when his emotions are greatly aroused. Perhaps any woman will do when it is a matter purely of appetite, but appetite is a consciousness of specific hunger that may or may not be attended by emotion. When it is so attended, the man usually obstinately associates his emotions with a specific woman, who may or may not be available.

If she isn’t available, he becomes the victim of a sex repression. And if, as such a victim, he goes to a Freudian practitioner, he will probably be told that his state of mind toward the unavailable woman is sheer romanticism. Romantic love, the practitioner will explain, has wrought enormous damage through the centuries, and you are one of its victims. But in the light of modern knowledge, there is no longer any excuse for being one of its victims. Romantic love is an unsubstantial wraith that has risen out of the desire for sexual expression as the Arabian Nights’ genie rose out of the bottle. But unlike the genie, we have only to look it squarely in the face to destroy it. The important thing, the valuable thing, is sexual expression. In comparison with it the romantic feelings you cherish for this particular woman are so much vapor and moonshine, left-overs from a day when the human race deceived itself about almost everything.

I am not saying that all Freudian practitioners will give this answer, or that even if they do their language will resemble mine. But in effect this is the answer habitually given; and in effect it represents the attitude toward romantic love at present widely current in the world. It is looked on variously as the greatest villain in history; as a species of self-deception indulged in by those whose pathological fears inhibit them from securing the sexual expression that they secretly hanker after; as a defense mechanism set up by those who are too unattractive, or too squeamish, or too unenterprising to find a sexual mate. And in fact it can be, and is, frequently enough, all these things. But because the emotions aroused by sexual desire can gather themselves together into a chimera of self-deception and self-defense, it does not follow that they are invalid, or other than extremely important. And it must be remembered that whatever else romantic love may be, it is fundamentally sexual desire sharpened and intensified by emotion.

If our supposed sufferer from sex repression due to the unavailability of the woman he loves, discharges his obligations to the second of the main Freudian theories by wooing some woman who arouses no special emotion in him, he quite as certainly transgresses the first by repressing the emotions the first woman aroused in him. His general well-being may be improved by this transference, but he has indubitably repressed emotions, not any old emotions, but the most profound, the most painful, the happiest, the most vitalizing emotions he has ever known. He may have known them before and he may know them again, and each time they may have derived from a different specific person, but while he is feeling them they are the most profound and vitalizing emotions he has ever felt. Between attacks of the malady of love, the sufferer almost completely forgets what a shattering experience it is. He almost completely forgets that it is possible to be so excruciatingly alive.

If he listens well to Dr. Freud’s doctrines he will avoid this torture and its accompanying bliss. He will give physiological names to its causes, look it knowingly in the face, and be fortified against it. But by the extent to which he escapes its ravages he will be less alive. He will be measurably less alive, though probably much more healthy and pleasant to associate with, than the ascetic. First, because Dr. Freud’s specific for the conquest of emotion is much better than the ascetic’s, since emotions more often than not grow by repression, and second, because the ascetic sought and sometimes gained ecstasy, and ecstasy is emotion carried to its highest possible degree.


“Of course I don’t love my husband,” a successful disciple who had had the benefit of analysis by one of the most famous of American practitioners, explained patiently to me. “Do I love you, Jack?”

“Thank God, no.” Jack rose chivalrously to the occasion. “There’s none of that damn foolishness about this place; but there’s lots of comfort. There’s lots of comfort because there isn’t any damn foolishness.”

Certainly we lead a more comfortable life without strong emotions, and there will be many to urge that years of comfort are worth the occasional exhilaration of loving and being loved. In fact, so largely has this view prevailed that few sophisticated people would venture to question it today. Yet the human animal is not so perfectly adapted to continuous comfort as we often like to think. Comfort too long enjoyed, for some satanic reason not yet isolated in laboratories, engenders boredom in us, and boredom can be accompanied by emotions almost as violently painful as those of love, and without love’s compensations. Communities afflicted with boredom have been known to enjoy lynchings that rival the tortures of the Inquisition. Nations afflicted by boredom can be herded into just about any band-wagon that’s headed for a change. They can even be persuaded to fight wars whose object they haven’t an inkling of. The individual afflicted by boredom very often dies, for no particular reason. He shrivels, he withers, he dodders along. The dry rot engendered by boredom is even more loathsome and dangerous than the serpent’s brood of repression.

And perhaps comfort isn’t the end of life. I don’t seem to remember it among the various ends more or less widely promulgated at one time or another. Certainly the Stoics wouldn’t accept it, nor would the Epicureans narrow their concept of happiness down to comfort. The puritans talked of duty. Modern Christians talk of a rather vaguely defined thing called “the good life.” And the founder of Christianity stated specifically that he came in order that man should have life and have it more abundantly. His early followers were not afraid of immoderate love, and they carried immoderate fears in their bosoms as the Spartan boy carried his fox, nor did they attempt to cast them out. The tortured struggles of their imaginations with them are still to be seen depicted on the walls of all the great churches of the world; and we must look to the same walls for the greatest visions of beatitude.

It was not by chance or ignorance that the same racial imagination that conceived a supreme God, conceived also an almost equally supreme devil. It has been a modern fallacy to call the invention of God an act of genius, and to look forgivingly on the invention of Beelzebub as a survival of savage superstitions. I am afraid it is another modern fallacy to think we can preserve for ourselves the vitalizing effects of emotion, and be spared its ravages.

As soon as it stops hurting, it ceases to be love, Proust observes in his great study of emotion, and although this is perhaps not wholly true, it grazes close enough to truth to startle us out of any complacent attitude toward the god whom the Greeks conceived as shooting barbed arrows into the defenseless breasts of his victims. But you are talking about love, the Freudian interrupts me here, and love is a romantic fallacy. The important thing is the expression of the sexual instinct. But I am not talking about any romantic fallacy. I am talking about emotion and its vitalizing effect on men and women. One of the most powerful of all the emotions, and the one that especially engages the modern mind, is that connected with the gratification of the sexual instinct. This has been called love for so many years that I quite unblushingly keep the name. Unaccompanied by it, the sexual act is a pitifully dull shorn thing.


If the emotions of love could be summoned at will or dispersed at will, possibly the most important decision each individual would ever be called upon to make would be how much he could afford to be ravaged for the good of his soul. The Freudian emphasis upon analysis of our emotions and its deliberate search for comfortable expression of them has rather misled most of us into thinking that we must exercise conscious choice in the matter. And a man deliberately choosing to be hagridden by emotion seems to us rather a sorry sight.

But the emotions of love can neither be summoned nor dispersed by act of will. At certain times, usually unexpected, in certain circumstances, often most untoward, they suddenly swarm about us. Probably the most conscious direction we can give the matter is the determining of our attitude toward these emotions when they come. Like the ascetic, we can shut all the avenues of our being to them; and achieve new ecstasy in our contemplation of God. Like the Freudian we can say that these emotions are sheer romanticism, and, if they are connected with an object between whom and us difficulties intervene, we can turn our backs on them. Or, like simple people and poets, we can let them do what they will with us.

One might say that most men must be more thrifty with their energies than poets. But, surprisingly, emotions that have been allowed to have their way with us, cool down after a while. And after they cool down the individual assailed by them goes through a period of peace that is as unlike the rather boring comfort secured by the individual who has refused them, as the clear blue sky after storm is unlike the muggy skies that preceded it.

In the natural course of events, after such a bout with emotion, the individual will continue in peace for some years, fewer with some individuals and longer with others. But there are those who, remembering their transports, will set about artificially acquiring others of the sort. They will reach a state of being as overstrained and neurotic as that of the mystic who strains continually after God. But if instead they let nature take its course with them, and live in peace until again, quite unexpectedly, and possibly quite unto-wardly, they find themselves assailed by emotion, most of them will find that the attacks leave them plenty of time to regain equilibrium, and that for the most part they ride on an even keel.

This seems to me the only civilized method of dealing with emotion: to accept it when it comes, but to refrain from stimulating it artificially. It is the attitude civilized man has in time learned to adopt toward food. He eats what he needs, and no more, or only a little more. The great orgies of the past, when companies of men sat at table all day and all night, while all the animals that went into the ark were duly slaughtered and placed before them, those Homeric orgies are past. Of course only men who can eat when they wish are able to preserve this civilized attitude toward food. Starving or half-starved men will not be able to keep from snatching and grabbing and gorging. And men who have long and unnaturally repressed emotion may not be able to restrain themselves from emotional gorging. This brings us to Freud again, whose regimen for comfortable living was expressly designed to prevent perverse emotional cataclysms.

My sole quarrel with this most useful system is that in striving to prevent perverse emotional cataclysms, too many of his followers have lost sight of the fact that all emotion is somewhat cataclysmic, and that the emotions aroused by sexual desire can only be herded sheeplike into a designated pen if they are in fact sheeplike, and that if they are in fact sheeplike, they lose their energizing effect on man. It is all very well to prefer a sheep to a panther; but nothing is gained by trying to fool ourselves into thinking the sheep is in fact a panther.


To a greater or less degree all young people find themselves possessed of vast quantities of emotional energy, whose use they frequently don’t at first comprehend. Often their only clue to its uses is a feeling they all possess, again in greater and less degree, that they were intended for great deeds. It would be very interesting to discover, if possible, whether this feeling is innate, or whether it is implanted in the individual from without, by the race’s eager longing for a hero. Whatever its origin, it exists. This great flood of energy causes acute restlessness, uneasiness, malaise, until it manages somehow or other to get itself released. Although peoples have differed greatly as to its most desirable uses, they have in the past all agreed that it was intended for use; and the hero, whether as poet, or philosopher, or statesman, or soldier or scientist, has seemed to them the greatest of men. One of the most serious reproaches that could be brought against a man in the past, has been that he wasted his energies with women when great deeds were brewing. Women, and by women they meant simply the demands of sex, had their place; but not when battles were to be won, or immortal philosophies formulated.

As a result of the wide popularization of the Freudian theory, an exactly opposite view now obtains among sophisticated people, and, filtering through their books and plays and movies and pictures and music, has overspread the world. That great flood of emotional energy that so tortures and harasses us, so the new theory runs, is only waiting for a very simple physical expression. If it gets this expression adequately and frequently, that boy with eyes on a far horizon will no longer dream of rivalling Lindbergh, that girl who is helping organize relief for starving families this winter will give over dreaming of a new form of society which will eliminate bread-lines. According to this theory the hero becomes a man who failed to find normal sex expression, and so meddled with matters that weren’t his business. The public-spirited man becomes a “world-saver,” than which the modern sophisticate has no greater term of reproach. If he and his wife were happy together, he wouldn’t worry because first offenders were herded together with hardened criminals in filthy prisons. If he could be persuaded to take a mistress, he’d soon give over trying to conquer tuberculosis. Homer described such a beatific state of affairs long since in Circe’s sty. Wagner had his hero led astray by the seductions of the Venusberg. It remained for the twentieth century to lump Homer and Wagner among the puritans.

This whole matter of the hero is very complicated, of course. I doubt if the notion that he was only a poor creature whom unkind nature had denied a mate would have made much headway, if the world in general hadn’t been weary of heroes. Heroes had prepared and precipitated and carried on the World War. Heroes throughout history had ridden to glory over the dead bodies of their followers. Heroes rub Aladdin’s lamp, and multitudes sweat and starve to bring them the delicacies of the world. Heroes smite their breasts and proclaim, “I am the State,” while their ragged, starving subjects die like rats in corners. The world was so sick of the hero as tyrant and autocrat that it was more than ready to help Freud tumble him off his pedestal. Yet the hero as tyrant and autocrat was never more, of course, than a pretender to the title, not of the true blood; and it is more than a little unfortunate that the hero as poet and philosopher and statesman and scientist should be lumped in a common disgrace with heroes of clay at a time when the mold of man’s world is being broken and made anew.

There is a type of socialized emotion that is very different from the use of emotion by the hero. The hero puts to use that great flood of energy which every young person possesses to a greater or less degree, so effectively that his accomplishments become a social heritage, even when they may have seemed at first to be wholly personal in origin and intent. The poet, for example, may be wholly concerned with expressing a personal emotion, but if he expresses it completely, or poignantly, or beautifully, his poem enriches the race. But when men are told that it is fitting and right to die for their country, they are asked to socialize their emotions, to renounce all personal emotions, and to put in their place the emotion of love for their country, just as the Christian ascetic renounced all personal emotions and put in their place love of God.

In the past the general run of men have been asked to make this renunciation only on special occasions that were usually national emergencies. Today Soviet Russia asks its people to make such a renunciation permanently, and to seek a state of being in which emotion will no longer be aroused by personal catastrophes like love and death and personal joy and sorrow, but will be confined instead to the success or failure of mass movement. They are asking their people to make precisely the same renunciation that Benedict asked of his monks, and to make it not once, as the citizen makes it when he goes to war for his country, but every day, as the monks made it. Instead of Benedict’s God, in whom they do not believe, they present an object of devotion which they call the Salvation of Russia.

In doing this they are leaving out of account the most powerful motive force in the world, personal emotion. That force may be turned in many different directions. It may exhaust itself wholly in personal relationships, as with those strangely self-centered and passionate people D. H. Lawrence writes about. In people of larger energies and less earth-bound imaginations, it may overflow the banks of personal life and make a statesman, or scientist or poet, or a devoted revolutionary. But its springs are in the personal life. When the idealistic Soviet government urges its artists to forget those springs, it has set its feet on an arid path.

Yet their path is less arid than that of the Freudians who successfully rid themselves of all emotion. Like the Christian ascetics, the Russians have retained one emotion, although they call it love of the machinery of salvation instead of love of God, and that one emotion can stir them at times to ecstasy, and so renew their lives. The very fact that all other emotions have been renounced for it will lend it special poignancy, and we shall see again in chosen vessels all the amazing fortitudes and all the weaknesses of fanaticism. Of course only a few monks became great saints and succeeded in banishing all personal emotions. There was only one Savonarola to make a bonfire of the most precious treasures of Renaissance Italy. Likewise only a few communists will succeed in completely purging themselves of personal emotions; and the backsliding of the greater number will make for personal sanity and health, if not for political success.

A way of life, however, is not to be judged by its backsliders, but by its saints. Few today would argue in favor of an asceticism that expressed itself in the terms of Benedict and Savonarola. Yet many are already arguing in favor of the new mass asceticism, so like the old Christian asceticism in every respect but that of the name of its God.

It will seem strange only to a superficial attention that through the ages man has tried to conquer one of the greatest gifts with which he is endowed, and that each new world movement offers a new altar on which to sacrifice it. For man is eternally torn between his desire for life and his desire for that peace which is death.


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

Recommended Reading